Deciding which book to read from a particular country can be tricky. However, as I work my way around the world with the help of readers across the globe, I’m finding that some titles choose themselves.
That’s certainly what happened with my Samoan novel. In fact, everyone whose been in touch with me about Samoan literature – from the Auckland Libraries Service to the Director for Economic Governance of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat – mentioned the same book among their recommendations, saying it had caused a sensation in the region. One person even stopped by the blog to tip me off when it was on sale for download.
With such widespread enthusiasm for this particular title, it would have been perverse not to choose it. And so Lani Wendt Young‘s Young Adult fantasy novel Telesa: The Covenant Keeper joined the other titles jostling in my virtual library.
From the little I know of the YA fantasy fiction genre – gleaned mostly from sharing a flat with a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan in my early twenties – Wendt Young’s book conforms to a tried and tested formula: misfit teen with supernatural powers is forced to make difficult choices and sacrifices in order to save the world.
In this case, 18-year-old American-Samoan Leila returns to her dead mother’s homeland, Samoa, in search of her roots. But as the secrets about her past begin to come out, Leila discovers that she is not as helpless as she first thought and that the very things that made her feel like an outsider at her Washington high school could be the source of extraordinary power, whether she likes it or not.
So far, so Sarah Michelle Gellar. What lifts the story out of the familiar mould, however, is Wendt Young’s use of Polynesian myths and culture as the framework within which Leila’s supernatural powers exist. Discovering that she is Telesa (a kind of spirit woman with powers connected to Mother Earth), Leila is forced to inhabit the mythology of her island heritage to gain control of her gifts and head off disaster.
Samoan culture plays a fascinating role in other aspects of the novel too. From siva songs and dances to malu tattoos, Wendt Young has the knack of weaving traditions into the narrative without making their inclusion and explanation feel worthy or forced. Her bold choice of making one of Leila’s best friends, Simone, a fa’afafine (one of Samoa’s ‘third gender’, as Leila’s uncle explains) is particularly intriguing – I suspect there aren’t many other YA novels that feature a transvestite teenage boy without making that the main subject of the book.
This cross-cultural element adds another layer to the novel’s discussion of identity. As Leila confronts her own fears about being an ‘in-between nothing’, she is given a powerful insight into the blind spots and failings of the Western culture she grew up with, not least the limitations of po-faced political correctness. ‘You Americans are so easily offended by our Samoan indecency’, teases Daniel, the boy Leila has a crush on.
The editing could have been tighter. There were a few too many will-they-won’t-they moments between Daniel and Leila and, as I followed Leila from Geography to Maths, to English class and back again, I found myself wishing with her that I could have cut school.
Overall, though, this is an enjoyable and engrossing book with a gripping story that whips the reader along. Its depiction of Leila’s struggles with identity, sexuality and society’s expectations will resonate with teens and ex-teens all over the world, while its warm portrayal of Samoan culture gives it a character all its own. No wonder it’s already found so many fans.
Telesa: The Covenant Keeper by Lani Wendt Young (Lani Wendt Young, 2011)
PACIFIC APPEAL: do you know any good novels, short stories or memoirs from other Pacific nations? What about people who tell stories in other ways – through poetry or song? Do you have friends or relatives in the region who might be able to suggest stories? Leave a comment or email ann’at’annmorgan.me and let me know.