Faraway places evoke the bittersweet flavor of a young author's homeland

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A few blocks back from where Apia meets the sun-warmed sea, the town's main market sprawls like a tropical banquet. Here the sharp tang of the sea and of tuna boats gives way to the fragance of ginger, bananas and coconuts. People arrive on pink and yellow buses to buy chili peppers and the green breadfruit that ripen among giant leaves. Hungry dogs wander the market's edges, children roam its narrow aisles, and everywhere in the humid air hangs the scent of things plucked from branch and soil.

Born to a Samoan mother and a Polish-American father and raised in a village just outside Apia, Sia Figiel used to visit the Maketi Fou as a child. Years later, walking through the main market in Prague, she found memories of Apia's hectic market rushing back. On a train from Prague to Berlin she began her first book, Where We Once Belonged (1996), on a napkin. She wrote more of it in Germany, far enough from home that "the smells, the sounds and everything about Samoa that I knew became so vivid," she says. "It enabled me just to write."

Like the marketplace, Figiel's writing distills the essence of Samoa, a nation that, in her words, floats "in the middle of a vast ocean ... so peaceful, so fearful ... so angry, too, sometimes." She calls herself a performance poet, and she writes like one. Her brisk prose and vivid poetry are threaded together in Samoa's su'ifefiloi storytelling style, which Figiel likens to "a necklace of flowers-each flower is connected to another and another." In Where We Once Belonged and They Who Do Not Grieve (1999), Alofa and Malu are young girls growing up in villages built on kinship and tradition, absorbing American television and their grandmothers' wisdom. Plants, animals and the sea flavor everyday conversation. Words fly "like poisonous fish" and the "hibiscus branch tongues" of the cane lick a schoolboy's legs. In language both dreamy

and sharp, Figiel depicts the forest's vines and secrets, and the sea where goddesses and fish swim.

At the heart of this world is the extended family, the aiga, which both protects and punishes. Little happens without its knowledge or approval and, in Where We Once Belonged, Alofa and her friends feel its steady grip. There are endless chores, church duties and rules. Girls who walk around at night and laugh too much are bad. Being alone is frowned upon. "I' does not exist," Alofa says matter-of-factly. "I' is we' ... always." The aiga's wrath awaits those who disobey. Figiel's frankness -not just about violence but also about incest, suicide, teenage pregnancy and adultery-tells ugly truths rarely discussed in modern Samoa. "Real love is when children are beaten up bad by their parents," recites Alofa, after she is bashed and has her head shaved as punishment.

The directness with which she unravels dark themes confirms Figiel as a bold arrival in the still-small ranks of contemporary South Pacific writers. But the 33-year-old, who was banned from speaking at a New Zealand girls' school because her writing was "vulgar," says she aims to explore her people's troubles rather than judge them. And

despite its influence, neither Alofa nor Malu are victims of their aiga's ills. Figiel's village childhood echoes through her sentences: "A lot of it is in my work, and despite all that we saw-that I saw-all that I write about is done with love," she says. As was her traditional Samoan malu tattoo, which traces her family's history and is "the ultimate expression of love for those bonds, the space between yourself and your community."

It's a link that can't be erased by the seeping influence of the outside world, which sees Malu obey a goddess by lighting a fire with "a trick I remembered reading in National Geographic." Old and new intermingle. Villagers regard the outside world with both suspicion and desire, envying neighbors whose relatives move overseas and send home money. "Those simple words she used-But you have no relatives in Australia! Or Amelika!'-stabbed us in the back, in the front, everywhere," says Alofa. But leaving can mean exile. Alofa's grandmother Tausi dies uprooted in her daughter's New Zealand home, while her aunt Siniva

is hounded after she returns and rages against the spread

of Western lifestyles.

Figiel once felt Siniva's anger. Now she sees outside influences as "enriching. I'm a bit more optimistic these days." And no matter where the young author, who's been published in the U.S., Australia, Europe and New Zealand, travels she carries Samoa in her tattoo.

As her skin is pierced "so that the imprints of birds, centipedes, crabs, worms and other animals are forever

a part of me," so too are her readers, left with a sense of Samoa that lingers like the rich aroma of the Maketi Fou in the heavy

afternoon heat.