Craig Santos Perez Reviews Aching for Mango Friends, by Jacinta Galea’i

Aching for Mango FriendsAching for Mango Friends
By Jacinta Galea’i
Tinfish Press, 2006
24 pp.
ISBN: 0-9759376-9-3

Reviewed by Craig Santos Perez

In the 2000 US census, there were 133,680 reported Samoans living in America, with 10,607 residing in Washington State. Aching for Mango Friends, a chapbook excerpt of an as yet unpublished novel/poem by Jacinta Galea’i, weaves a coming-of-age story of two young girls, Semoana and Sa’ili, who emigrate from Samoa to live with their Aunty in Washington where they will receive a “good education.”

The form of Aching for Mango Friends utilizes a Samoan storytelling technique called “su’ifefiloi,” a series of linked vignettes. In a “Preface to the Samoan Novel” (published on TinFish’s website), Galea’i describes fellow Samoan writer Sia Figiel’s use of this form:

Su’ifefiloi is a combination of the words, su’i, meaning to sew or to weave and fefiloi, a descriptive word that means mixed. [Sia] Figiel points out that when Samoan composers need to write a long song for a special event, they string together many different kinds of songs to make one long, long song […] Figiel threads together Samoan and English and prose, poetry, songs, and even mythology to capture the voices of adolescent girls growing up in a traditional Samoan village.

Galea’i voices her “long, long song” through short vignettes that shift voice, time, and point of view. The stringing together of various formal strategies, such as prose “talk-story,” verse stanzas, and columned-stanzaic dialogues, continually questions and re-defines genre expectations.

“My Sweet Neipa,” the chapbook’s opening poem, portrays Semoana playing and picking fruit in Samoa with her friend Pele. It’s composed of a columned-stanzaic dialogue, each column representing a different voice; an impasse of space spines the page. The arrangement of text and space mimics the shape of an absent tree; the two voices ripen the branches of silence and reach toward the margins. The echoing text is an invocation, contouring the “aching” for lost friends and a faraway home.

To counterpoise this stanzaic interplay, Galea’i utilizes prose talk-story. The vignette titled “Grandma’s Corner” describes Semoana and Sa’ili’s flight from Samoa to Washington. Galea’i deftly captures the emotions of this trip without falling into flat sentimentality:

That’s why I’m sitting on this airplane next to my cousin Sa’ili, whose father, my father’s brother, also wants her to get a good education in America. Our airplane is in the air now, leaving Pago Pago International Airport, flying over the pua tree next to our blue house […]

We are flying over grandma’s village of Malaeovevesi there below with the tiny Catholic church that my mother’s family used to attend before Uncle Falefa joined the military and bought a house in the City of Chief Seattle. Today, my relatives follow my Grandma to a church in Seattle and dip their bread in red wine while Boeing 747s fly over Beacon Hill, I-5, and Mount Rainier […]

This is the place my mother always wanted us to come to because this is where her family’s past and future now lie. I hope to unpack her family history and squeeze it next to my education so that it becomes a part of me here in America.

Their migration transpires in the overwhelming, vanishing present tense. Galea’i intimately understands how distances are bridged by longing: the plane and the pua tree, the church in Malaeovevesi and the church in Seattle, her family’s past and future. The “here” in that last sentence signifies not only an arrival, but also a desire to plait a location that incorporates the various arrivals and resistant departures of cultural memory.

Complementing the navigation of her characters, Galea’i writes in an improvisational cross-stitching of Samoan and English. In this linguistic borderland, we enter a space where both languages interact in playful struggle. Returning to the Preface, Galea’i comments:

For I see a wrinkle in my mat—my step-tongue—English, o la’u gaganafai—is becoming distractive in weaving this Samoan mat. Ioe. It’s difficult to tell my story using my step-tongue, Ifilisi. So I will shift to su’ifefiloi, a voice that will unravel my step-tongue’s rules but better express my Samoan story. Se’i liugalua lo’u leo i le leo su’ifefiloi, ona e fefiloi ai mea uma. Su’ifefiloi threads my mother tongue into my step-tongue and my step-tongue into my mother tongue an will better describe Semoana’s world, her people, culture and identity.

The Samoan words and phrases in Aching for Mango Friends isn’t translated into English (nor is the English translated into Samoan). Since I don’t read Samoan, I can only guess at their meaning and trace their sounds. In a vignette, “Jill Didn’t Understand,” Galea’i addresses this issue through Semoana’s interaction with Jill, a new American friend:

Then Jill asks why Sa’ili and I speak Samoan when she is around. I look at Jill because I am confused. Jill stares at me. Then she says she doesn’t like it when we speak Samoan because when we giggle she feels left out. I look at Jill because I don’t know what else to do. So I say that we speak Samoan because we are Samoan. Then she asks why we have to giggle. I say we don’t have to giggle. Then why do you? Jill asks. I stare at Jill because I’m starting to feel upset. So I tell her speaking Samoan makes us giggle. Jill looks at the ground while I look at the sky. Then I ask Jill if she wants to learn Samoan but she shrugs her shoulders and looks away. So I say it is ok that I understand. Jill nods and says it is good that I understand.

Although some may read this as an exclusion, I read it as an intimate inclusion into another’s native space. Once I surrender the desire to translate, the untranslated naturalizes the foreignness of my relation to the characters. Semoana does not worry about others not understanding; instead, she speaks Samoan because she is Samoan, affirming that she needs to translate her cultural identity only to herself.

Often interacting translation and cross-cultural interaction’s serious moments, Aching for Mango Friends also portrays the humorous side of diasporic experience. In “Sa’ili Takes PE,” Sa’ili becomes incredulous when she learns that the students shower naked at the end of PE class. Her American friend, Michelle, reminds her that this is America and asks, “Don’t they have PE classes in Samoa?” Sa’ili responds:

Of course, they do! But it’s Samoan
PE. We run around the track wearing
whatever we wear to school – slippers
lavalava, long skirts, jeans, anything.
And if the sun is too hot, we sit under
the pulu tree and pretend we’re reading
our torn up health book […]

In Samoa, we shower together all the
time, but we wear our lavalava. But
that’s in Samoa. Now taking a shower
naked with you and them? I don’t
think so.

Galea’i allows us to laugh at the characters’ “mis-culturations,” creating a safe space for them to speak about being Samoan, and for us to share their giggles, mispronunciations, and memories.

In the final chapter titled “Sa’ili Returns Home,” Semoana is cleaning her Aunty’s house with her cousins. When they reach the attic, they find a collection of finely woven mats collecting dust. These mats, known as ‘ie toga,” hold an important place in Samoan tradition. Historically, they were made and controlled by women and took several years to complete (on average, they contain 12 specially prepared pandanus strips per inch, and range from six to eight feet square). They are considered a valuable gift at births, weddings, and funerals, and worn during important public events, given to honored guests, and presented in attempts at reconciliation and peace. Because of this rich history, Semoana feels surprised to see these treasured mats hidden:

We move all of Aunty’s Moni’s ie togas from the attic. Aunty has so many fine mats and Melia, Mareta, Initeria, and I sneeze, sneeze and sneeze from all the dust. Ua tiga matou isu I le pefu. Melia says Aunty should get rid of the ie toga–they take up space, breed dust, and have no value in America. Mareta says, the ie toga is Samoan money. Initeria says they connect us to our past. We all look at Melia and she looks back and says, Well, they don’t mean anything to me. If I live in America I will not store fine mats in the attic–because as Melia said, they create so much pefu–but I will find some place, a safe place to store them because the ie toga does connect us to our past, which becomes our future.

The social importance of the “ie toga” also lies in its living history: who made the mat? who owned and wore it? why was it exchanged? Although we are not given this information, I anticipate that it unfolds in the full-length version. Semoana’s discovery of the mats in the dusty attic provides a powerful commentary on the difficulty of maintaining one’s roots when uprooted. I imagine that Semoana will dust off the mats to learn their history and, in turn, her own history as she weaves her future into its design. In her Preface, Galea’i describes Aching for Mango Friends as a symbolic “ie toga”:

This is but one mat, so you will only witness its mamanu. But there are many, many more mats to be woven by Samoan weavers, both old and young […] Many, like me, who were swept away on the Pacific Moana currents and now live scattered throughout the United States, yet still rooted to the islands […] They too have mats, beautiful mats that will make us weep, laugh, and even suspicious about us, unusual people from the family of Samoa whose favorite thing to do in the entire lalolagi, the whole wide world, aside from thanking and worshipping God, is to laugh and laugh, then cry and laugh some more until the tears make use breathless, gasping for air.

Aching for Mango Friends presents a few exquisite strands of an “ie toga” woven from the threads of the Samoan diaspora. By weaving this mat, Galea’i invites us to witness this story and to write our own migrations. While the sentiment and humor in Galea’i’s book makes us weep and laugh, the interweaving of its formal experiments leaves us breathless. By reading this work as analogous to the making and sharing of an “ie toga,” we become its honored guests and are bound to find in our hearts a safe place to treasure such a precious gift.


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