I first encountered Twilight when my then fourteen-year-old sister became obsessed with it. Every Facebook status she posted was about the new film that was coming out or how excited she was to read the next book series. One of my friends, who has a PhD in Women’s Studies and History and will beginning her first tenure track job in the fall, told me that she personally enjoyed the books but warned me that they had some troubling gender politics. As people have pointed out in review after review of Twilight, Bella is a weak character whose identity is bound up entirely in her relationship with Edward. She is constantly bleeding, twisted from accidents that prove that she isn’t able to take care of herself and would simply die if Edward didn’t protect her. I tried to read the books but couldn’t get past Book Two where Bella dismisses a boy who loves her and would have provided her with stability and continues to pine after Edward. Book Four is even worse: When Bella and Edward consummate their marriage, Edward is unable to contain his strength and leaves Bella covered in bruises. My sister’s response: He shouldn’t have felt bad because it wasn’t his fault.
About a week ago, I decided to look for books written by Mormon Polynesian authors. I came across Lani Wendt Young’s Telesa, a young adult novel that has been called the Polynesian version of Twilight. Although reviewers of the book used that phrase as a form of praise, I was initially worried about that what meant – possessive sex scenes overladen with domestic violence? Women who are unable to care for themselves in the most basic way? Wooden prose? Luckily, Young’s book is far better than that. It focuses on a mixed raced girl living in Washington, D.C., who decides to travel to Samoa to learn about her mother who passed away when she was an infant after her white father dies from a tumor. Although the main character Leila felt ostracized in her boarding school because she was “too much” of everything – “too tall. Too broad. Untamable dirt brown that was too bushy, and only redeemed itself slightly by having gold highlights in the sun. Too wild, Brooke shields eyebrows to match” – she discovers that in Samoa many of the things that she hated about herself are considered benefits. Girls are expected to be as skinny as they are in American beauty standards. Everyone is mixed, and she attracts the attention of Daniel, one of the hottest guys in school.
In spite of the amiability of her classmates, however, Leila still has a difficult time fitting in. She was taunted in Washington, D.C., and called the daughter of an “island whore.” She seethes with rage and snaps at anyone who she suspects is teasing her. She also suffers from nightmares in which her long dead mother calls to her and finds her body inexplicably hot at night. She is forced to flee to a pool of water in the Samoan jungle to find any relief from the heat that constantly courses through her body. Eventually, Leila discovers that she has the power to control fire and the earth but unlike Bella, she is exultant in her strength. “I was living, breathing molten fire—contained no more in a pitifully weak body of flesh and blood. Skin was replaced by flowing red and gold, like lava. I felt my cheeks, my hair. I breathed and the fire pulsed bright. I twirled on tiptoe and my flames danced with me. I flicked my fingers – and a tiny fireball flew out, landing, fizzling harmless in the evening air. A rush of pure joy ripped through me as I gloried in full realization of my fiery power. I was virtually indestructible. No-one and nothing could hurt me now. It was the most exhilarating feeling I had ever experienced.” Although Leila has to learn how to control her power so that it is a creative rather than destructive force, Young’s tone when it comes to Leila’s strength and power is celebratory.
In many ways, Telesa is a darker book than Twilight. Mothers abandon their children and don’t always come back. The main character is capable of cruelty as well as love. Infants are smothered to death when they are born of the wrong gender. There are also things that might make a Mormon or conservative Christian audience nervous. Leila and Daniel do not have sex in the novel, but both have sexual desires and are not shamed for them. They celebrate their Samoan heritage through heavy tattooing and by dancing in revealing clothing. Finally, there is a transgendered character – a fa’afafine – that is simply accepted in the book and by the other characters as he is. In spite of its open sexuality and dark tone, I would rather my daughter read Teles? than Twilight. Teles? celebrates the culture of Samoa and female power. My daughter won’t be born in July but I could do worse than providing her with strong female role models and teaching her to embrace the cultures of those around her.
*Note: I am going to be reading other novels by Pacific authors in the weeks to come as part of a project I am working on. Here’s a list of the books I plan to read as well as their descriptions on Amazon. Some of them are Mormon like Lani Wendt Young. Others like Witi Ihimaera have left the church. Others include Mormonism in their novel in some way but don’t belong to the church themselves.
Witi Ihimaera, Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies – “On the East Coast of New Zealand two patriarchs fight to be proclaimed king. Tamihana is the leader of the great Mahana family of shearers and sportsmen. Rupeni Poata is his archenemy. They will fight to win the title of Bulibasha and be proclaimed the King of the Gypsies, Caught in the middle of this struggle for power is the grandson of Tamihana and his wife Ramona, the teenage Simeon.”
Albert Wendt, Leaves of the Banyan Tree – “Set in Samoa, this novel involves three generations of an aiga (family) and reads like a parable. Toasa, the head of the family, tells stories of lions and ghosts and poignantly describes his peoples’ connection to their land. He asserts that “his one inconsolable regret was the fact that Tauilopepe, the son of his friend, of the man he had loved so much, would be responsible for the final destruction of his world.” The Samoans are envious of the papalagi (European whites) but strive to better their own circumstances, unlike the characters in Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors (LJ 6/15/94). Tauilopepe tames the bush to create a plantation and acquire considerable personal wealth. As he gains stature in his community, he loses the love and respect of his family. Following his success, Tauliopepe is described by his son as being like “all preachers in their wooden thrones who do not listen to their own message because their hearts are stone.”
Vernice Wineera Pere, Mahanga: Pacific Poems – This one is hard to get a hold of and doesn’t have a description on Amazon. I bought the last pamphlet copy from Pioneer Book on Amazon for $20.00. The next cheapest copy is $75. If you live in Utah, you might be able to find a copy at your local library. Pere worked at the Polynesian Cultural Center and her poetry was published in pamphlet form by BYU – Hawai’i. She was one of the first Polynesian authors to be published.