Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel

a nutshell: through the traditional Samoan storytelling form of su’ifefiloi, Figiel tells the fascinating story of a teenage girl, Alofa, trying to make sense of the violence & sex she encounters in society

a line: “‘I’ is always ‘we,’ is a part of the ‘aiga [family]… a part of Samoa’ [also, read the book to discover just how extraordinary the first line is]

an image: I loved the moment when the narrator shared how she imagined a daffodil was a dancer that lives in the sky during their school recitals of Wordsworth’s poetry

a thought: among the book’s vignettes is a scene in which an incomer mocks Shirley Girl, who is fa’afafine (someone who dressed as a girl), following which the locals ignore her and her Samoan rugby player partner breaks up with her – I learned more about fa’afafine in Samoan culture here

a fact: this was the first ever novel by a Samoan woman to be published in the United States – it is striking that Figiel considers herself first & foremost a performance poet

want to read Where We Once Belonged? visit here

Sarab by Raja Alem (tr. Leri Price)

veiled woman on front cover of Sarab book with white and black scarf

a nutshell: this sweeping novel follows a woman whose familial devotion leads her to participate in the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, ultimately transporting her far from the Saudi desert where she grew up

a line: “Is it a duty in life to kill those who aren’t an exact copy of ourselves?”

an image: at one moment, a character opens the door to an apartment immersed in darkness where he could’ve cut the curtains of depression with a knife (PTSD is an ongoing theme)

a thought: I was intrigued by Alem’s tacit condemnation of gender stereotypes – how she portrays & subverts expectations of how a man or a woman should behave, e.g. probing a protagonist’s initial shock at a man in tears or traditional disgust at women’s menstruation – the latter is an issue that recurs throughout the novel

a fact: I began the book with virtually zero knowledge of this event in 1979 and learned more about it here; interestingly it seems the House of Saud’s response was essentially: ‘the solution to the religious upheaval was simple: more religion’

want to read Sarab? visit here