Sia Figiel’s where we once belonged is the first novel by a Western Samoan woman to be published in the United States. In elegant prose, Figiel, 33, describes female Samoan culture through the voice of an adolescent girl. Countering a rumor that the book was written in direct response to Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa , Figiel says, “I write to give voice to those who are otherwise lost or forgotten completely in Pacific literature and even Samoan literature: young girls and women. I wanted those voices to tell their own stories rather than always being explained from the outside.”
Before it reached New York’s Kaya Press, where we once belonged traveled widely. Figiel, who is also a performance poet and painter, has held writing residencies in Berlin, Hawaii, Fiji, and Barcelona. When it came time to find a publisher, she didn’t have to look long. “Word just got out on the coconut wire,” she says. “People were waiting for a female voice to come out of the Pacific in novel length.”
Pasifika Press in Auckland, New Zealand, snapped up the book in 1996, and it won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 1997. Then London’s Hamish Hamilton and Penguin Books in Australia published it in 1998. Last year, Hanya Yanagihara, a board member at Kaya, discovered a copy while she was visiting Hawaii.
Kaya Press seeks to promote Asian Pacific diasporic literature. Founded in 1994 by Soo Kyung Kim, a Korean writer, poet, and publisher, this nonprofit has two employees and a staff of volunteers who publish two to six books a year. Managing editor Julie Koo thinks Samoan words woven into where we once belonged may have intimidated mainstream presses. Kaya Press included a glossary for American readers, which Figiel admits she had some trouble accepting: “It’s important for Samoans and other Pacific Islanders to see their language included in an otherwise very English context where their own language is not respected. It’s all about language politics of empowerment.”