As a white, cis, het woman I have never had to search very hard to find people like me in the media I consume. There are still issues with how women are portrayed in TV, movies, comic books, and, yes, even some books, but I could look at Buffy Summers and relate to her even if I’ve never been that feisty and tiny. I fell in love with heroines like Anne of Green Gables and Jo March, and I knew they looked like me (maybe some of my obsession with red hair started with Anne?). I honestly never thought about whether or not my non-white classmates saw themselves in media because I, like many children and teenagers, was inherently self-absorbed. My mother pushed me to read novels with male protagonists as a youngster, so I would be more well-rounded, but I don’t recall the same focus on exploring other cultures or ethnicities in my reading. Given my fascination with learning I think she assumed I’d try a variety of them naturally. Of course, whether or not I was adequately exposed to other cultures is a lot less important than whether or not young non-white, non-het, non-cis youngsters had role models to relate to in media, but I don’t think it was even a consideration for most companies and creators in the mid-80’s to mid-90’s.
Representation in media has become much more important over the past ten years or so, and now I constantly see news about how a certain comic book or TV show is breaking ground with how they portray a specific minority group. Sadly, we still have a long way to go given how excited, both positively and negatively, consumers get when new non-white, LGBTQ, or well-developed female characters get introduced.
From interviews I have read with Lani Wendt-Young and author’s notes at the end of her Telesa series books part of her inspiration for writing the story was to give Samoan children positive role models as well as sharing the mythos of her birthplace with the rest of the world. Some of the plot is drawn directly from LWY’s life, and others utilize local legends to create a beautiful world that was as alluring to me as it appears to have been to young readers from the region.
The premise of the story is a blend of paranormal and romance. Half-white, half-Samoan Leila Folger has never quite fit into her father’s elite Washington DC family and the stuffy life she’s been asked to lead. When her father dies she returns to her deceased mother’s family in Samoa to try to find a place to belong, where her brown skin doesn’t mark her as an outsider. However, Leila finds more than she bargains for in Samoa, and she is torn between a heartbreaking choice. Will she choose the young man who has opened her fortressed heart or the clan of powerful women who can teach her to harness the strange power burning inside of her?
The second and third books in the series, When Water Burns and The Bone Bearer, continue Leila’s story to a satisfying conclusion and continue to blend Pacific Islander legends of teine sa into an intense story about love, power, and devotion to nature.
Leila is perhaps the poster child for why young people need representation in media given her deep-seated anger and resentment at the beginning of Telesa. She is mixed-race, and her white father’s family have often, both purposefully and accidentally, made her feel like an outsider in the group. At the same time as an outsider to Samoa she is the easiest viewpoint for someone like me to identify with in the book because everything is new and different to her. While I don’t necessarily need more representation, I appreciated having a character who was learning about Samoan life and culture much as I was.
Daniel Tahi, Leila’s adversary and love interest, was designed especially to give young Samoans and other Pacific Islanders a positive role model in a book according to LWY, although I suspect he may also be somewhat patterned on the author’s real life husband! He has been raised as a traditional Samoan boy, and his manners, hobbies, and appearance are all things that a young person from the region could look to as reflecting local culture. Most strikingly to me Daniel has chosen to get traditional Samoan tattoos because he wants to honour his culture with his body. He also holds his grandmother in extremely high esteem, is respectful of women and his elders, and generally embodies the type of young man many Samoan parents would love their daughters to meet (based on the author’s notes; I have no way to compare).
So so far we have a mixed-race character, a Pacific Islander specifically Samoan character as a hero…what else can Lani Wendt-Young add in? Samoa and many of the countries in the Pacific Island/Oceania region have a third gender, which is individuals who are genetically men who dress and fulfill societal roles as women. My limited research left me confused as to the origin of this third gender, but it appears to have been accepted since the early 20th century if not for many centuries. The Samoan term is “fa’afafine,” which roughly means in the manner of or like a woman. While I won’t go so far as to say that all fa’afafine are trans* (they aren’t), I definitely think that the phenomenon falls on the LGBTQ spectrum since it defies binary gender norms of the Western world.
LWY doesn’t have just ONE fa’afafine in the Telesa books though; she includes a whole group of them! Simone, Leila and Daniel’s friend and classmate, is the most prominent, but she has a coterie of other fa’afafine who join the main cast for various events and adventures. No one tries to change them or make them male, and the fact that everyone knows that they were born with male genitalia doesn’t seem to be an issue. In fact when Leila and Simone move in together both the families are relieved that they won’t be living alone (very frowned upon in Samoa for a young woman) although they don’t understand why they need to leave their families at all while they attend university. Simone being a fashion designer hopeful is a little stereotypical, but it seems like some fa’afafine love the spotlight just like members of every other group.
The paranormal element of the books comes from the teine sa, a Pacific Island legend of beautiful and powerful female spirits who are traditionally used to scare young women into behaving themselves and not being overly vain. These goddesses are also believed to protect and honour the natural world, and LWY develops this aspect to create a female dominant society where men are valued only for their ability to give the goddesses female children. It’s an entire group of extremely powerful women to look up to, and while not everything the telesa, the name for the spirit woman local to the author’s home in Samoa, do or about their culture is something most people will agree with, it’s amazing to see novels with a wide variety of nuanced female characters. So we can add a couple more tick marks for strong female characters (in all senses of the word) and non-white female characters.
Lastly, Lani Wendt-Young herself has provided representation to young people in Samoa, Australia, and Oceania as a published Samoan author. Like Leila she is part-white, which seems common to many countries in the Pacific Island region, but she was born and raised in Samoa. She has said that many young readers were shocked and thrilled to find out that a Samoan could become an author when she did book tours to New Zealand and Australia because they felt that only white people could become writers. Sometimes it seems that the best way to provide representation is to do what you love and just be yourself.