Lani Wendt-Young. Telesa – Covenant Keeper. CreateSpace Publishing, 2012. ISBN 9781466253711.
Lani Wendt-Young, niece of Albert Wendt, is doing something of what I hoped to find when I set out on this journey – producing modern writing with a Pacific sensibility. She’s also been credited with getting young Pacific Islanders interested in reading, which I guess makes her the JK Rowling of the Pacific.
Here is where I get to proclaim/confess that I’ve not read a single Harry Potter book, so I’m not able to make detailed comparisons. Except, perhaps, to say that both authors have lured young readers in by creating an exciting realist-fantasy world, where incredible things can happen on the school oval. Both Harry Potter and Telesa’s Leila and Daniel live in a world that is somewhat familiar to their readers. If you squint a bit you can almost see yourself there.
The familiar, real world in Telesa is a high school in Samoa. The fact that the setting is Samoa is both incidental and essential to the story. Incidental, because Telesa is a fantasy romance novel for young adults, where an ordinary young woman discovers that she has extraordinary powers. She must learn to harness and control them, while also learning more about herself and why she has this gift, or perhaps curse. Could happen anywhere.
But this is absolutely, essentially a Samoan story. Drawing on Samoan legend, rooted in Samoan culture, fixed in the Samoan landscape. While this story could happen anywhere, it is happening here.
Leila’s beloved father has recently died, and Leila has defied her grandmother to leave Washington for Apia to learn more of the Samoan mother she never knew. She has come to stay with Aunty Matile and Uncle Tuala, who insist that, even though Leila has finished high school, Matile and Tuala insist that while she is in Samoa she attend school. She is to go nowhere but school, home and church.
Even in this confined world, for Leila, and us along with her, there is plenty to learn about life in modern Samoa. To begin with there is Simone, Samoa College’s glamorous fa’afafine and Leila’s first friend:
I studied Simone out of the corner of my eye as he preened next to me. Almost as tall as me, skinny, beautiful liquid black eyes (was that a hint of forbidden eye liner?), glossy hair combed in an Elvis style bouffant and carrying a shiny red handbag on one perfectly bent arm. (Don’t ask me how he fit any text books in that tiny thing.) Noticing my scrutiny, he stopped mid-wave to look me up and down, one hand on his hip, Kate Moss style.
Wendt-Young is able to subtly introduce us to so many small but important aspects of Samoan life without ever giving the impression of lecturing. We get glimpses of Samoan households and home life, cooking, important crafts such as fine mat making, obsessions with netball and rugby, the beautiful singing of a Samoan church congregation, and the tensions between Christianity and traditional beliefs. We even get a glimpse of the fia fia night at Aggie Grey’s for good measure (although interestingly, no mention of the fire show at the end).
Of course, the most exciting thing in Apia and at Samoa College is head boy and football star Daniel. Leila is drawn to this young man “all golden red in the sunlight, all heat, muscle and warmth. Always ready with that crooked smile”. But, as she learns more about the mother who has been hidden from her, and about the strength of her connection with the earth of Samoa, it becomes clear that Leila must push Daniel away.
As, it seems, for so many stories I’ve come across through Raintree Café, much of Telesa is about identity, fitting in, working out where you belong. Leila has been an outsider in Washington: “Too brown to be white but too white to be brown.” But in Apia Leila is amongst friends:
I was exulting in this new sensation. Is this what belonging felt like? Is this how it felt to fit in somewhere? I wasn’t sure. I had never been just one of the crowd. No different from my peers.
Wendt-Young, although now resident in Australia, also belongs in Samoa. It is clear in every part of Telesa that this is a treasured home, and one that she wants to share. She written a story that both goes beyond a single place and yet is deeply part of one. It’s a story that’s not really about Samoa, and yet is really about nothing else.