Anthropology Magazine
The Problems With Coming of Age
Unit 14

Reading Sia Figiel

In this unit (to accompany SAPIENS podcast S6E7), students will learn about the significance of Sia Figiel and her writing. Students will consider how her writings empower marginalized voices and seek to help girls reclaim their lives. Students will discuss and compare the significant themes in Figiel’s books, including, but not limited to, gender, power, and culture.

Learning Objectives
  • Evaluate how Sia’s work challenges existing narratives and empowers marginalized voices.
  • Compare the significant themes in Sia’s books, including gender, power, culture, identity, sexuality, colonialism, and coming-of-age experiences.
  1. A group or person treated as insignificant.

Sia Figiel
  1. (born 1967) An award-winning Samoan novelist, playwright, and poet.

Professor Talking Points
  • Figiel is a Samoan novelist, poet, and playwright. She has written several novels, and her books have been praised for her use of traditional Samoan storytelling techniques. One of her most noteworthy works is her 1996 novel Where We Once Belonged, which won the Commonwealth Prize. Figiel’s work is a source of empowerment for marginalized girls and women and serves to offer a voice to those often overlooked.
  • Figiel’s novels explore several major themes that help the reader understand culture and allow a glimpse into Polynesian and Samoan culture. Figiel’s writing often reflects some of her own experiences of her Samoan culture. Some of the biggest themes explored in Figiel’s different works include gender, power, sexuality, identity, colonialism, and coming-of-age experiences.
  • The novel Where We Once Belonged explores these major themes and also works as a counter to Margaret Mead’s famous book Coming of Age in Samoa. In Figiel’s novel, Samoa is portrayed as a deeply restrictive patriarchal society, directly in contrast to the paradise of unrestricted freedom that Mead portrayed. The story follows Alofa Filiga, a young girl growing up in the village of Malafou. The narrative follows Alofa as she comes up against the many restrictions of her culture and society, works to come to terms with her womanhood, and searches for her identity while facing the restrictions put on her. The novel encompasses the coming-of-age experience of Alofa and the challenges and setbacks she faces in attempting to exert herself from the expectations placed upon her and claim her identity.
  • While Where We Once Belonged is Figiel’s most well-known work, the author has several novels that give readers an opportunity to explore and understand Samoan culture and coming-of-age in Samoa through her characters.
Academic Articles
  1. Abubakar, Sadiya. “The Samoan Side: How Sia Figiel Debunks Orientalism in Where We Once Belonged.” International Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies 14, no. 2 (2018): 105-120.

  2. Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen. 2007. “The Long and Leisurely Route: Coming of Age in Europe Today.” Current History 106, no. 698 (2007): 130-136.

  3. Borzekowski, Dina. 2006. “Adolescents’ Use of the Internet: a Controversial, Coming-of-Age Resource.” Adolescence Medicine Clinic 17, no. 1 (2006): 205-216.

Student Discussion Questions
  • How does Figiel’s work give voice to marginalized girls and women?
  • In what ways do society and culture inhibit marginalized people?
  • In what ways does your society and culture empower marginalized voices? What can be done to improve this?
  • What is the difference between gender and sex?
  • How are coming-of-age experiences related to sexuality?
  • What are the significant themes in Figiel’s work? What does each mean, and why is it important?
  • Take five minutes to jot down a few things about yourself and your identity. As you think about these pieces of your identity, consider how they fit into all aspects of you as a person and throughout your life. In three to five pages, reflect on your identity characteristics and how they define you as a person in the culture of which you are a part. Consider the themes from Figiel’s books and how identity is developed through culture as you write your response.
  • Choose three poems from the collection Girl in the Moon Circle by Figiel and identify the different aspects of culture in each poem. Write a paper comparing the various cultural elements and discuss the importance of each one in terms of identity.
  • With a partner, evaluate one of Figiel’s famous writings and demonstrate how her work provides a voice and empowers those in marginalized groups. Use examples from the chosen writing and outside sources to support your response.
  • Think about your own experience of becoming an adult. Write a paper discussing your experience as it relates to the major themes that emerge in Figiel’s work (e.g., identity, gender, power).
  • Watch “An Exploration of Coming of Age Rituals & Rites of Passage in a Modern Era” in “Additional Resources” and create your own coming-of-age ritual. Be sure to include all elements from the video, including the life skills you would test, the character traits you would instill, and the wisdom you would share. Lastly, how will you end your ritual?
Additional Resources
  1. Book: Sia Figiel’s Freelove

  2. Book: Sia Figiel’s The Girl in the Moon Circle

  3. Book: Sia Figiel’s They Who Do Not Grieve

  4. Book: Sia Figiel’s Where We Once Belonged

  5. Film: Kimberlee Bassford’s “I of the Water”

  6. Video: Ron Fritz’s TEDxTalks  “An Exploration of Coming of Age Rituals & Rites of Passage in a Modern Era”

Unit By

Chelsea Wheeler, Freedom Learning Group

The Problems With Coming of Age
Unit 15

Intercultural Understanding

A bright multi-colored mural against a large wall depicts an older woman in a headscarf, while a man in business attire walks by.