By George Turner
Something of a history book, George Turner offers his observations of the traditions, beliefs, behaviors, and routines of Samoan people sometime around 1880-90 (ish). He describes everything from the geography of the island chain (including American Samoa which was, at the time of publication, part of the country of Samoa instead of a U.S. territory) and the political and decision-making systems of village and district chiefs down to common foods (and how to prepare them) and attire for day-to-day use as well as special events. He even delves into the creation myths from indigenous gods and belief systems, and also the stories behind the names of various islands and villages. If it can be observed and written about by a white guy, Turner documents it.
“Samoa, A Hundred Years Ago and Long Before” is organized in a straightforward fashion without any preamble, probably similar to other writing at the time of publication (I haven’t read many documents from 1880-90, so it’s hard for me to compare). Each chapter is titled with an entirely self-explanatory heading, and subheadings indicate the specific topic to be addressed in the following paragraph. Chapters are fairly short, which makes it easier to put down and pick up the book for bite-sized reading. Differences in grammar and sentence length sometimes make it difficult to follow the topic of a sentence, which can make it hard to find flow when reading (but certainly make for interesting meta-analysis of the writing and content!).
I read this book mainly because I am an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) from Samoa and wanted to know more about the pre-missionary history of Samoa, and partly because the recently released “Moana” movie addresses myths and gods with which I was unfamiliar from my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Clearly, my knowledge of Samoa has gaping holes. I found answers to some of my questions, and was particularly fascinated by the chapters detailing the histories of island and village names (to the point of feeling giddy and making exclamations out loud while reading the origin stories). Much of the book I read with a grain of salt because Turner writes with a colonial attitude toward the Samoan natives, frequently referring to their “heathen” behavior. If your interests fall within the very specific range of material addressed in this book, then it is worth the read. For the general public, probably not.
Edited by Niko Besnier
People who identify as LGBTQ, transgender, and gender nonconforming occupy a unique position. Though often marginalized by mainstream cultural norms, laws, and practices, this position also offers a exceptional perspective from which to create alternative and multiple modes of being, relating, and existing. This anthology collects recent research specifically addressing the unique positionality of people that identify as LGBTQ, transgender, and gender nonconforming in South Pacific island nations. People with these identities fall on the outer edge of social circles just as the South Pacific islands fall on the outer edge of geography. The resulting analyses look at how Pacific Islanders make sense of their identities within traditional and national contexts, but also under the influence of colonialism, neocolonialism, religion, Western cultural exports, and development assistance. Authors draw on frameworks of public health interventions, human rights advocacy, and policy changes to look at the variety of individual expression. These varying perspectives help to understand the importance and difference between personal and familial relationships, the compatibility and conflict between traditional and globalized notions of LGBTQ identity (imported via mass media as well as migration patterns), and how labels both help and hinder efforts to promote acceptance and visibility. Grounded in the present with a thorough understanding of how history influences day-to-day existence, this research offers a nuanced, illuminating, and centering collection of academic literature for those on the edges of society, geography, and other constructed categories.
I knew I had to have this book because it addresses life in the South Pacific. What I did not expect was such a revelatory, insightful, and understandable analysis of the intersections of identity. This is queer, feminist, anticolonial theory at its best. Though some of the authors made points that felt contradictory to my experience in Samoa, most provided further clarification and new frameworks for understanding the nuances of gender identity, gender relations, and sexual orientation in the South Pacific and how they are distinct from those in other areas of the world. I especially enjoyed the pieces that talked about the impact of colonialism and neocolonism while trying to make sense of traditional practices and values. My main point of contention with this collection is that it focuses almost entirely on male-bodied individuals exploring different modes of feminine expression, relationships, and behaviors with very limited attention to female-bodied transgender expression. There is still some room for improvement, but overall it is a great book. It may take some time to get through the whole thing (though I have enjoyed textbooks in the past, this is the first textbook I purchased without a syllabus requirement and instead the sole purpose of reading for pleasure), I highly recommend this book.