Table of contents
Podcast S6 E7 | 30 min

Weaving Stories: Two Women Speak

5 Dec 2023
Author and poet Sia Figiel and activist and anthropologist Doris Tulifau share their stories of being Samoan women. They also discuss the violence and challenges they’ve faced and how they survived.

We turn from Margaret Mead and Derek Freeman’s conflicting accounts of adolescence and sexuality in Samoa to more stories from Samoans themselves.

Author and poet Sia Figiel and activist and anthropologist Doris Tulifau are two Samoan women from different generations. Yet they share a bond and have had similar experiences of horrific violence that they have survived.

They give us a glimpse into the dynamics of power that are tied to sexuality and their heartfelt journey of reclaiming their own power.

On a TV set three women sit in front of a green painted room and a desk, with a camera recording them off to the right.

Sia Figiel (left) and Doris Tulifau (right) speak on live television in Pago Pago, American Samoa.

Ari Daniel

See the companion teaching units “The Anthropology of Sexuality” and “Reading Sia Figiel.”

This episode is included in Season 6 of the SAPIENS podcast, which was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Read a transcript of this episode .

Weaving Stories: Two Women Speak

[introductory music]

Voice 1: What makes us human?

Voice 2: Who you are.

Voice 3: History.

Voice 4: Your function in community. That’s where we find our purpose.

Voice 5: We are profoundly connected as human beings.

Voice 6: What makes us human?

Voice 7: Let’s find out.

Voice 8: SAPIENS.

Voice 9: A Podcast for Everything Human.

Sia Figiel: When I saw the insides of a woman’s vagina for the first time, I was not alone. I was with Lili and Moa. Lili’s name was Ma’alili, but everyone called her Lili. Moa’s name was Moamoalulu, but everyone called her Moa. Lili was 17, and Moa was 16. They were older than me. They were already menstruating.

Doris Tulifau: This is Samoan novelist, poet, and playwright—and my friend—Sia Figiel. She’s reading from the first paragraph from her groundbreaking novel Where We Once Belonged.

Sia: That first line is loaded with colonialism, gender studies, Christianity.

Doris: Where We Once Belonged follows the story of a 13-year-old Samoan girl, Alofa Filiga, as she navigates the restrictions of her village and journeys through adolescence. In this opening scene, Alofa and her two friends have just discovered an issue of Playboy that has fallen open onto a page of a vagina.

Sia: And they were all in awe of it and looked at it; they’d never seen that part of their bodies before.

Doris: Sia was awarded the Commonwealth Writers Prize in the South East Asia/South Pacific region in 1997 for this novel. One of the judges told her it was those opening lines that won her the prize.

She says the novel’s now taught internationally, including at the Sorbonne in France. And yet there are Samoans angered by Figiel’s words.

Sia: There was a lot of animosity. There was a lot of hate toward the book: “How dare you write!” I mean, “How dare you write!”

Doris: Some Samoans found this depiction of teenage girls exploring their own sexuality blasphemous. For Sia, the local backlash outweighed the positive reception abroad.

Sia: And then I came to understand, of course, that you’re not a prophet in your own country. For a long time, I have to say, it was that that made me stay away from Samoa all these years.


Doris: Fifteen years, all told—long enough that she missed the births of all three of her grandchildren. In my opinion, Sia’s one of the few people willing to acknowledge everything about Samoan life—the good and the bad—but I get why her work pushes so many buttons. Her writings push into the closets and corners that many Samoans prefer to keep out of view.

Much of her writing remains tethered to Mead and Freeman. And yet Sia invites us to turn our gaze away from them: two outsiders fighting over how young Samoan girls are supposed to act.

Sia: The fact that they were talking about young girls was something that just fascinated me so much. And so wherever I went, it would gather momentum.

Doris: Sia says the two anthropologists thundered in her head for decades like a swirling hurricane. And so she wrote. The ideas and words poured from her mind like rain.

In her work, Sia highlights the differences between what Mead and Freeman reported and argued over in their research and what she observed as the reality of everyday Samoan life.

And she does so by bringing Samoans themselves center stage.

Sia: Well, it was always about sexuality. Always. From the beginning. Because that’s what Mead spoke about, and that’s what Freeman had spoken about. So the book, especially that very bold first paragraph of Where We Once Belonged, is saying, “OK, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Neither do you.”

Doris: These girls do. And this is what happens when they get together.

Sia: It was so important to me that they spoke their truth.

But a lot of people who were anti–Where We Once Belonged were saying, “Why are you putting our laundry out there? Why are you putting our dirty laundry out there?” And my answer to that is, “So that we can wash it.”


Doris: In this episode, we wash the laundry. We face the hurricane. We explore the complexity of Samoan female sexuality and expression through the eyes of a couple of Samoan women today. We’ll talk about exploration and pleasures as well as coming to terms with one’s sexuality. And we’ll also talk about the painful stuff, like sexual violence.

And we want to reiterate that this isn’t everyone’s experience in Samoa. Many Samoan women know the joys of love and sexuality without fear. But for those who do, as for every society, we need to address these issues. Because Samoa isn’t the only place where people experience sexual violence.

Sexual violence was made part of the conversation by the Mead–Freeman controversy. But those two didn’t have a complete understanding. So it’s time we recognize this hard reality: Sexual violence happens. It is terrible and must be fixed.

We must also go beyond the caricature of women as mere sexual victims. Rather, we are strong. And we can use our strength to not just navigate these experiences and survive but to share our story and find our voices to liberate ourselves and others.

So consider this a trigger warning.

This is The Problems With Coming of Age. I’m your host, Doris Tulifau. Today our episode is “Where We Once Belonged.”


Unlike in Mead’s telling, sexual awakening isn’t easy for Samoan girls. Sometimes it’s painful. It’s almost always complicated.

Within Samoa, there’s been a long-standing fear that discussions around sexuality and sensuality might incite something unruly because in Samoa, women are held to these high expectations … to uphold Samoan values. And I was no exception.

Growing up, someone in my community always had an opinion about me, an opinion they usually shared: “You should get a tattoo.” “You should say this to your elders.” “You should serve your family and community before yourself.”

There was no way that Mead and Freeman could capture the full experience of becoming a Samoan woman. Of being a Samoan woman. They tried, but their research inevitably fell flat.

Sina Gabbard: It’s this essentializing and extremely problematic description of Samoan women and Samoan adolescent girls and culture.

Doris: This is Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard. She’s a retired Samoan professor of Pacific literature and creative writing.

Sina: I think it’s clearly indicative of her [Mead’s] lack of experience and insufficient research … speaking to my own experience as a Samoan woman who has basically spent my adult life researching the question of what it means to be Samoan, including being a Samoan woman.


Doris: Mead and Freeman wrote about two ends of a spectrum: free-loving women and ceremonial virgins. But these ideas were informed and constrained by Western virtues and values. Samoan sexuality is so much more complex. For instance, we’ve long included nonbinary perspectives …

Sina: … in which we recognize the Other in ourselves. The Other is us, really. It’s a mirror. We’re looking at ourselves in a mirror. And the Other can be any number of mirrors.

I realized I had a completely fluid sense of my own sexuality. Then when I met the term in university—“androgynous”—I thought, “That’s my gender. I’m androgynous.”

Doris: The other thing about Samoan sexuality is the central role of female power and strength. More commonly, Samoa also has an acceptance of people who define themselves as fa’afafine (to be as a woman): biologically male but presenting as female.

Sina: My experience of Samoan womanhood, without essentializing anything, is as a combination of mana, of dignity. Brad Shore refers to this quality, this spiritual energy, as the withholding of physical power, of enactment; it’s kind of a vessel for sacred power.

There’s a quiet dignity and quite formidable personal power that I find palpable. There is something inviolate in this quality of power; it’s very, very quiet.

Doris: This is why we must create opportunities for Samoan girls and women to be heard. Because our perspectives and experiences hold a great deal of power.

Just take Sia Figiel, who says she was the quintessential Samoan girl.

Sia: I was at the pastor’s house. I was at pastor school, which was daily, from three to five. So your whole philosophy of life was formed by Christian values.

Doris: Then at age 11, she read the Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon in the Hebrew Bible. And something awakened in her.

Sia: When I discovered that, I was like, “What is this doing in the Bible?” You know, the sensuality of the Song of Solomon. You know, when they called me, “Where’s Sia?” “Oh, she’s reading the Bible!” [laughs] “Oh, leave her, leave her alone!”

I just loved the Song of Solomon, just the sensuality of it, and to me that was beautiful, to discover this language that was in this book that we’re supposed to read.

Maybe that’s where I started living in my head and enjoying language, enjoying a different language.

Doris: [It was] a language that would help lead her to become a writer.

I grew up in the hurch, too. But I didn’t find solace in the Bible.

The church has defined my family for generations, as I explained to the producers of the podcast:

[Doris’s earlier recording with the producers] My grandfather got called to San Francisco to do our church. So we were the first Samoan church, the Samoan Congregational Christian Church, in San Francisco in the ’70s. And then, even though my dad and siblings were here [America] and in New Zealand, everyone came back to build the church. So we came back to San Francisco in the ’80s, and our church got bigger and bigger, bringing more Samoans from the diaspora into America through my family.

I grew up as one of five kids. We’d spend school years in California and summers in Samoa. So I always had my foot in both worlds. And the thing that brought our family together, Sunday after Sunday, in California and in Samoa, was the church.

I spent a lot of time there, but I also did a ton of extracurricular activities, which was the end of the world for my mom. She hated it. She was also comparing me to people at church. She’d say, “I wish you were like that girl.” But she had no idea what they were like behind closed doors. They weren’t perfect. I’ll tell you that much.

My mom and my community expected me to be the quintessential Samoan girl, obedient and respectful:

[Doris’s earlier recording with the producers] When we have food for the whole Samoan community, girls are always serving. So it’s all the men in a circle, then the wives, and then the kids, and then us.


We were expected to serve tea and food, eat after everyone’s been served, present the Samoan handwoven mats to the chiefs within the village.

My whole life was one of taking care of others and making my family proud. But no matter how much you did, it was never enough. That’s what being Samoan felt like to me. In return for all this caretaking, I was promised safety.

But that was all an illusion.

That’s after the break.


Welcome back to The Problems With Coming of Age.

So despite my efforts to be the perfect Samoan girl, the safety that I was promised in exchange turned out to be a mirage. Here’s the rest of my story, as I shared it with the podcast producers:

[Doris’s earlier recording with the producers] So from the ages of five to 14, I was sexually abused by my uncle, and it wasn’t a blood uncle. Like for me, I always have to say that it wasn’t blood-related because my own family always gets mad at me. And my own uncle was like, “Don’t say it was a uncle.” “But he lived in our house, and you guys made me call this man ‘uncle.’”

My family was so involved in the church community; they made a point of helping out other Samoans who were immigrating to the mainland U.S. This uncle was one of them.

[Doris’s earlier recording with the producers] You brought over everyone. You’re trying to save everybody, like “Move to America. We’ll help you legally live at our house.” But we never made sure there was boundaries. We never made sure there was conversations like, “You’re living here, and these are my kids … You don’t touch anybody.” I never said anything to anybody.

He would always do it when my parents were in the garage, or he’d try to touch me while my brothers were playing right beside me.

Abusers manage to manipulate more than just the person they’re abusing.

I remember just blocking it all out of my mind.

Over time, I found ways to get him to stop: distancing myself with school sports and activities so he couldn’t get close to me, wearing coveralls so he couldn’t touch me as easily. Finally, at age 14, when he saw me cry, he stopped.

[Doris’s earlier recording with the producers] But I wasn’t the only one sexually abused. It was me and all my cousins. But my cousins were stronger than me. So they were like, “We have to do something.” And they were 12 and already strong enough to speak out, and I was like, “OK, let’s go talk to the wife.”

She just looked at us, and she cried. Then we were mad. But as I get older, I realize she couldn’t do anything. He was the breadwinner. He was making all the money. He was also a citizen. She wasn’t. And she had three kids … five now.

Once we confronted her and saw she wasn’t going to do anything about it, we just … let it go.

[Doris’s earlier recording with the producers] I think I just blocked it from there, and I just kept really exceeding in school because I wanted to get away from our family.

So I was in everything. I played every freakin’ sport. I was the president of every freakin’ club. I did a billion things just to get away from home, get away from everything. And I got a full-ride scholarship to go to school, and then I just left home at 18 and never came back.

At the same time in college, I started working at a women’s shelter. And the organizers asked me to meet with a group of Pacific Islander women, as if being Samoan meant I’d know what they needed:

[Doris’s earlier recording with the producers] They were just telling me their stories. I didn’t know they were gonna talk about sexual abuse. I thought they were just going to talk about some gossip. And they were like, “You know, this comes from when I was younger … in our family, I was abused by my uncle.”

Hearing their stories unlocked something in me:

[Doris’s earlier recording with the producers] It’s crazy because I’m doing all this work on abuse and promoting my people. I didn’t care. I just had to keep on going. Who cares? It’s not about me.


I started therapy, and I continued doing work with other survivors. I kept on seeing the same story, reflected and refracted.

Finally I had had enough. Silence was getting me nowhere. I realized there was a power in sharing my story. First with strangers and then with my family:

[Doris’s earlier recording with the producers] I didn’t want my parents to find out through social media or through people because that’s horrible. So I went home to my parents. I flew back home to talk to them. I told my dad first because my mom is so old school that I just didn’t think she would understand. And my dad was just hugging me, and then he said, “Just tell mom; you gotta tell mom. If you can deal with mom, you can deal with anyone.” So I remember him calling my mom down, and right when I told her, she just said, “Who?” And then she just left, and she went to his house and smashed his door and spit on him.

I remember thinking, “I should have told you.”

It was the first time I ever felt like she loved me.

Because she was always really mean. But you know, she grew up in Samoa very poor. So my dad used to always try to remind me, “Your mom doesn’t understand. She grew up really poor. You know, her family … it’s different.” I was like, “It doesn’t mean she should treat me like that.” And then when she did it, I just said, “I should have told you a long time ago. I really just made all these my own stories of that you didn’t love me, you didn’t care. I wanted to get away from you. I hated you for so long.”

And it was hating the wrong person.

So a lot of my work is on perpetrators. We blame everybody else.

Today I share my story often because I know it can help others. It helped me when others shared theirs.

That’s why I started Brown Girl Woke, an organization that empowers girls to lead—through scholarships, access to clean water, and support around issues like bullying. Brown Girl Woke is a safe space for young women trying to grow and getting to know the world, the future, and themselves.

[soft music; birds chirping]

Sia: O, benevolent Moon. O, merciful constellations. O, sagacious galaxies. O, bountiful stars. You hold my anguish in your cosmic memory, exploding in the distance, illuminating the sky with your chaotic stellar pulse.

Doris: We’re in Sia Figiel’s brand-new performance space in Samoa: the Galumoana Theater, or the Blue Wave Theater. She’s reading from Freelove, her 2016 novel.

Sia: Show me your owl eyes. Press your once-warring hands into mine, cup my mountainous feet in your palms. Hold my oceanic face close to yours. Exhale into my lifeless nostrils and revive me with your mana. Ravish me with your riddles of existence that question the widths and depths of the vast expanse and woman’s quest for immortality.

Ah, that’s the first time I’ve read that out loud.

Doris: Freelove is a novel that straddles poetry and prose. Like much of Sia’s work, it’s about sexual awakening. And it’s a book that takes the questions of the Mead–Freeman debate and transcends them by showing the soaring power of Samoan sexuality and love through Samoan voices.

It’s narrated by a 17-year-old woman named Inosia. The first half of the story takes place over the course of a single day. In the second half, Inosia’s reflections encompass months and years.

[rising music]

It begins on White Sunday, or Lotu-a-Tamaiti, a national holiday in Samoa where Samoan families and communities commemorate and honor children. On a trip into town to buy thread for her mother to sew clothes, Inosia runs into her teacher, and he offers to give her a ride. It’s the start of a whirlwind sexual awakening that culminates in the forest nearby. He helps her explore her sexuality for the first time and opens up what feels like a glorious Pandora’s box.

Sia: It addresses things that are silent, and it also shows the Samoan man as an educator. In every outside book that looks at Samoa, it sees men as preying on young girls.

Doris: In Freelove, Sia shows a young Samoan woman claiming her sensuality and sexual identity naturally and free of judgment.

Sia: It was a book that I couldn’t have written 30 years ago just because I didn’t have the emotional intelligence to tell that story because it’s a huge story.

Doris: The title, Freelove, plays off Mead’s use of those words in her writing. It was Sia’s way of directly confronting Mead and Freeman and their ideas about Samoa.

The joys and pleasures that Inosia experiences in the novel both parallel and contradict the ideas of free love that Mead wrote about.

Sia: It is like all my powers. Everything I had went into this book. Everything. Because I was really determined that I needed to heal, and my readers who’ve been following me need to heal as well.

Doris: Healing meant finding a different story to tell about Samoan sex and love.

Sia: Freelove in many ways was a cleansing because not only do I address shame but I address ways not to be shameful—for young girls to look positively at themselves, to look at their own bodies and their own identity, to not seek validation from the outside … that it’s always been there; it’s always theirs.


Doris: For almost three decades, Sia’s mind had been filled with that hurricane of thoughts of Mead, Freeman, and their views of her society. Those ideas had consumed her.

Freelove was a celebration of sexuality and the Samoan experience. But when she finished that novel, after writing those words and those feelings, she was empty. Hollow.

Sia: It’s so beautiful [crying]. I just remember crying nonstop for months and months after the book was published. And I think it’s when we stop yearning that … [sighs] life becomes meaningless or has no meaning.

Doris: Sia became depressed. Hopeless. She grieved the end of this monumental chapter of her life—one that took nearly three decades to complete.

Time passed. And Sia realized she was done with Mead and Freeman.

Sia: I no longer have to address it.

[nature sounds; birds chirping]

Doris: Sia came to understand what was next for her.

Sia: And that’s why I was able to do the play.

[singing voices]

Doris: That play is O Tusitala: Tellers of Tales, a show about the works of the Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson who lived in Samoa in the 1890s before his death. As in her other works, Sia wanted to highlight the voices we haven’t heard. When it was performed at the Galumoana Theater in Samoa this past July, she worked with dancers, a chorus, and a single actor who plays all the roles.

Then in August, Sia brought the play to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She performed that play as a solo performance.

Sia: I was very comfortable in the writing of O Tusitala: Tellers of Tales because I’ve already done my work with Mead–Freeman. It’s no longer a hurricane in my mind.

And like all hurricanes, once they subside, this destruction and chaos, you see new little plants or new things come out of it.

Doris: Sia and I both grew up as Samoan girls. But we each realized, in our own ways, that we needed something more.

We’re not breaking tradition. We’re reimagining it.

For decades, others—like Mead and Freeman—spoke for us. About us. Past us.

But now it’s our turn. To tell our stories. To be heard.

And so the question that remains is: Is that enough for someone who hasn’t grown up here, who may never have stepped foot on the shores of our islands, to really know us?

That’s next time, on our final episode of The Problems With Coming of Age.

[theme music]

Kate Ellis: The Problems With Coming of Age is a co-production of SAPIENS and PRX Productions.

Be sure to check out the season’s college curriculum, historic photographs, and so much more on our website:

Doris: This episode was written and produced by Rithu Jagannath, Ashraya Gupta, and Ari Daniel. This season was hosted by Kate Ellis and me, Doris Tulifau.

Kate: From SAPIENS, we were supported by Chip Colwell, Tanya Volentras, Esteban Gomez, Sia Figiel, Salamasina Figiel, Sophie Muro, and Christine Weeber. The season’s humanities advisers were Danilyn Rutherford, Lisa Uperesa, Nancy Kates, David M. Lipset, Nancy Lutkehaus, Agustín Fuentes, Don Kulick, and Paul Shankman.

Doris: And fa’afetai to the more than three dozen people we interviewed in American Samoa and Samoa for helping to shape our understanding of this story.

Kate: The executive producer of PRX Productions is Jocelyn Gonzales. The project manager of PRX Productions is Edwin Ochoa. The business manager is Morgan Church.

Doris: Dan Taulapapa McMullin created the season’s cover art. Celina T. Zhao was the fact checker.

Kate: Audio mastering by Terence Bernardo.

Doris: Music by APM with additional tracks by Malō Fa’amausili recorded at Apaula Studio as well as songs kindly provided by Bobby Alu.

Kate: SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

Doris: And SAPIENS is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which has provided vital support. Our thanks to the foundation’s entire staff, board, and advisory council. Season 6 of the SAPIENS podcast was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

I’m Doris Tulifau.

Kate: And I’m Kate Ellis.


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