Editor’s Note: Penina Ava Taesali and I met while pursuing undergraduate English degrees at the University of California Davis and we have stayed in conversation ever since. In the years leading to her decision to apply for graduate school for an MFA from Mills College (which she obtained in May 2012) she asked if we could deepen our conversation by adding an aspect of mentorship to our relationship. I’m still honored she asked and I am blessed to run one of her poems and an interview in support of her debut poetry collection, Sourcing Siapo (Ala Press, University of Hawaii, August 2016).
Sourcing Siapo: A Poem and An Interview with Penina Ava Taesali
In Sourcing Siapo, you tell the story of a family of ten children at the mercy of class, cultural, and parental frictions that leave them struggling for a foundation amidst physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. While at times we learn, “Mom was there / as absent as God,” we also learn, “Mom heroed the neighborhood.” Writing about family members is often a challenge for writers, as is writing about abuse; how did you undertake writing these poems about your mother? Were you able to share any of the poems in this collection with her before she passed away?
I started the book for my MFA Thesis at Mills College in spring of 2012. My mother passed away on February 12, 2013. I didn’t plan on writing so much about the mother-daughter relationship in the first draft. The story developed into a process of healing and strength through my process of grieving for my mother. The character of the mother in the story is complex and she has many contradictions. She is a mother figure not easily defined in the traditional sense.
The narrator explores these contradictions without trying to make her mother into something she isn’t which is difficult. The line you quote, “mother heroed the neighborhood,” comes from a poem about the way in which my mother was a hero to many because she could find jobs for people and youth. That poem is about working on the tomato harvester during the summers. We were young; I was thirteen but there were children working on the harvester as young as nine years old.
My mother had severe dementia the last three years of her life so I wasn’t able to share this book with her. I did read her favorite poets, though, when I visited her and some of my poems too.
When writing about my family members I tried to do so delicately and fiercely at the same time. And hopefully fearlessly. I think the book is less about family members and their relationship to each other and more about the journey of the narrator’s reconciliation and forgiveness for her parents.
In the collection we learn that the mother loves to recite poetry and that the children benefit from the incantatory power and sound of those verses in rhyme and meter. And we learn that she in fact writes her own poetry, but there’s less enchantment for the narrator in those poems. We even get to read one of her poems in the book. Do you know where your mother’s love for poetry started? How did her relationship to poetry and writing affect you?
My mother was obsessed with Shakespeare, William Blake, Yeats, Keats and other English poets. She actually wanted to become a stage actress and poet. She also read Sylvia Path’s “Ariel.” A huge intellectual, she was always reading. She home-schooled herself. She read and studied Socrates and Plato. She was kind of a thinker and dreamer at the same time. I’m grateful that she had her own passions outside of trying to raise so many children.
Early on we shared some of our own writing together, but she preferred traditional English poetry and I wrote free verse. I was inspired by Whitman and she loved Blake. She also shared that poetry and writing is the only thing she felt she had over us and she didn’t want us to become writers. This is sad because everyone with the exception of one person in our family is either a poet or a writer. But growing up there wasn’t much encouragement for any of us to pursue the arts or our own inspirations for fear it would hurt our mother.
After the divorce the mother remarries “the drunk” and the children are separated from not only a beloved father, but also cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents. In the story the narrator is forced to re-invent herself and take on more responsibility. Can you talk about the way this collection returns the speaker to her culture and language and what the journey of discovery brought you both as a writer and a person?
Can you imagine being a young woman, like my mother, at the age of twenty-seven and having seven small children? Before my mother remarried, when we were young, we were either at my auntie’s house in Pinole or my auntie in South San Francisco or on the weekends, or they’d drive to Woodland, California to visit us. It was a large extended family, the real deal. Our grandmothers on both sides visited for long weekends or the entire week and helped my mother out.
My mother’s mother, Grandmother Grace, was also part of the Samoan clan. She actually introduced my mother to my father because she was dating his older brother, Uncle Mike. My father is the youngest of eight children. There was a deep sense of love with lots of play and getting into trouble all the time. But after my mother remarried, we were not allowed to visit our relatives. We lost that connection to family that Samoan culture values more than anything else. I longed for the cultural dances and music and songs after my parents separated.
But finally at the age of thirty-one, I was reunited with my father and Samoan relatives after twenty-one years of living apart. It was an amazing homecoming. My father lived in the Dorothy Day Senior apartments in the San Francisco Tenderloin. I was walking in the Tenderloin with my father and I saw that I looked exactly like him: The same Samoan facial features. I was happy to look like him and I appreciated my thick wavy curly hair and Samoan nose. I felt at home with my relatives and would weep when I’d meet a first-cousin that I hadn’t seen for many years, or I’d weep when I’d meet one of my first-cousins for the first time–“Penina’s crying again!”–my siblings teased me a lot. The last poem in the book “Papa’s Feast” speaks to what we lost and this homecoming when I was reunited with my family.
You wrote a 92-page book length poem that is very memoir-like. Can you talk about your decision as a writer to use poetry instead of prose?
That is an excellent question and I don’t know if I can answer it. I wanted to include songs, letters, prose poems and dreams using diverse poetic devices. Much of this process was deeply intuitive. Poetry can be intuitive, but with fiction or non-fiction you usually follow traditional story structures (with an introduction, plot, climax, and conclusion). Poetry can be incantatory and mythic. There are songs in the book that play this role. Writing poetry about challenging experiences gives the speaker some form of liberation and sanity at the same time. There is a truth to explore and that truth won’t let you go. In that process you have to listen and there you find some refuge, some gift. You become aware of the truth and a poet has to honor that truth. For me poetry is a medicine and a spiritual guide to descend into darkness and poetry is a way out of that darkness.
There were characters that came to me in dreams demanding they be included in this book. These were my brothers “November” and “September” who had passed away. Also my step-father visited me in my dream telling me clearly: “I don’t need or want your forgiveness.” That was shocking to me and gave me even more strength and determination to finish the project.
Writing about sexual abuse is often a challenge for writers; can you talk to us about why it was important to you and how you undertook writing these poems?
Writing about sexual abuse tells the world what happened to you and that what happened was wrong. It establishes that you had no control (and in my case, that I was only a ten-year old child).
I had to become my own witness to write the story. I had to see with clear eyes what this child went through and that although she pleaded for help no one heard her. I had to become her voice, her advocate, and her champion. I had to explore how the abuse impacted my relationship with men, my relationship with money, and my relationship with success, etc. I had to look deeply at my fears and anxiety of possibly someday sharing sexual pleasure with a man. There are so many reasons for me to write this story. The literature that deals with harrowing crises through which the narrator somehow makes it to the other side is powerful and allows us to feel that power.
Telling the truth is the first step in taking back your power. Publishing this book allowed me to own all parts of myself, gave me the chance to heal, and allowed me to take back a power I had forgotten was mine.
How did you come up with your title, Sourcing Siapo?
The title was a big challenge. My book is one long untitled poem and there are letters and songs that link the story together. Some readers have commented that the book reads like a novel. My hope is that readers will read the collection as one long poem and not as individual poems.
The only title that appears in the book is for the last poem “Papa’s Feast.” In fact, I thought about using “Feast” as the title for the book. But, sometimes a poet gets lucky on her long walks. I had just finished one of the letters to my mother; my story felt exhausting and it was depleting me. I wanted refuge. So I went for a walk.
I had a vision of a woman walking wrapped in her siapo cloak and descending into the underground. It is a mythic shamanic story of descending and ascending. When I got home I quickly wrote the first draft of what would become the poem that appears on page sixty-four, “Sing beat pound ink dye with all that is written here in these letters and songs bury me in my bark cloak . . .” It took me only three weeks to write the final draft. Usually of course it takes anywhere from three months to years for me to finish a poem. I got lucky that the title came to me for this vision of the narrator cloaked in her sacred bark cloth, reclaiming her culture and reclaiming every part of her story.
What is siapo?
Siapo is the bark cloth from the mulberry tree; we also call it tapa. When we were reunited with our Samoan family our auntie gave my sister and I the Tongan tapa, so siapo was the first cultural gift my sister and I received. The siapo was large – three times the size of a king-size blanket. Tapa is the Polynesian fabric made in the South Pacific. My Aunt explained the siapo was “made only by the women in the village. It is women’s work, and it is very hard work.”
Naturally I decided to include siapo artwork on the cover and throughout the book. My sister Eloise did all the siapo artwork for me. (See the additional links below to view the different motifs and legends regarding the coconut tree, the canoe, and others.)
I chose the verb “sourcing” as part of my book title to highlight the way I am actively searching and researching Samoan history and culture. I long for knowledge about the legacy that my relatives have honored for thousands of years. The word sourcing also is about researching and searching authentic scholarship on Samoan culture by Pacific scholars. I haven’t been able to bring myself to read Margaret Mead’s, “Coming of Age in Samoa” but I know I must read this book someday. One of my aunties was interviewed by Mead but Auntie said she and her friends made up stories and told Mead many lies.
My own relatives have shared legends as well as the story of colonization during World War II in the South Pacific. During this time the U.S. Navy removed my grandfather who was the high talking chief of the village, Utulei. Our people were forced to move up into the mountains and we were never compensated for their land. I included my brief conversations I had with my father and uncles in this book that speak to why they left Samoa.
In my book I also introduced the legend of Tuli, the Samoan golden plover, and the Warrior Goddess Nafanua. I would love to find more written about these legends. What little I know about these legends I tried to share in the book. These myths have given me a path back to the wisdom and healing of my own heart and soul. I have so much more to explore.
The following excerpt is from Sourcing Siapo (Ala Press, University of Hawaii, August 2016), p. 64:
Sing beat pound ink dye my siapo with all that is written here in these letters poems and songs bury me in my bark cloak cover my body with these restricted nouns absent fathersmothers sisters brothers crawling standing walking into these arms hands fingers legs feet heart sweat out wear out the forced alphabet
I’ll proudly walk inside this stiff strange resiliency of siapo and before I go—I’ll kiss my brother March goodbyewalk far from town until I stumble upon a hole in the Earth and descend into the underground I’ll leave behind the childrearing that failed that was too large
Father mother listen the cool darkness has befriended memy body is curling into breadfruit root I’ll sleep here a year or longer let the o’a (browns) and lama (blacks) seep into my muscles organs bones my bark cloak decomposing the sorrowful vowels the broken periods
So that I may rise into that enormous cosmologyleaving nothing behind for the gossips let their hurtling slurs rock me into the underworld where the third-eye council of women is bright the table long and there are plenty of windows for the sun
I am sitting with Grandmother Suliana outside of the fale on the beach near Utuleigrandmother points to the window in the sky
Fa’afetai tele lava daughter for your siapo storywe see octopus applauding with all six hands he is my Tamā I follow the footprints of fa’a gogo (sandpiper) my fetu (star) the fa’a masina (moon) Sina (Fire Goddess)
Granddaughter you now carry the water for our ava garden
Samoan writer, poet, educator, and cultural arts activist Penina Ava Taesali is the author of Sourcing Siapo, University of Hawaii, Ala Press 2016. For nine years, she worked as artistic director for the Oakland Asian Cultural Center (OACC), where she founded the Asian Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership, Talking Roots Art Collective, a youth arts education organization. During her time at OACC, Taesali also cofounded the Pacific Islander Kie Association, the first and only Pacific Island nonprofit in Oakland, which serves 70 families yearly. She was the cohost for Ohana Open Mike at Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland in the mid- to late-1990s and has been a featured poet for the KPFA FM Best Spoken Word Millennium Series. Taesali earned an MFA in writing from Mills College and currently lives in Salem, Oregon. Visit Penina at her website. Sourcing Siapo is available on Amazon, or contact Penina directly in March, 2017 to order from her.
Artist Eloise Ali’itasi Taesali lives in Ukiah, California. She is a member of the Mendocino County Art Association. She is a self-taught native artist, chef, quilter, painter and book artist. She makes wearable art, hand-bags, comfort-covers and pillow covers using Shibori and Eco-print techniques. In addition she creates siapo greeting cards using dried teabags that possess an undeniable patina reflecting the texture and coloring of traditional siapo. Ms. Taesali’s award winning quilt—Rain Maker has toured at local and national art galleries. Visit Eloise on Pinterest and at her blog ArtStudio49.
Siapo Tapa Cloth Mini Gallery, Museum of Anthropology, Columbia, MO
Discussion of the tatau (tattoo) where siapo symbols are also used: