Feb. 15, 2009
The use of the feminine perspective to tell “They Who Do Not Grieve” lends the story the authenticity of forced options and alienation that a masculine telling may not provide. Traditionally, woman have been asked to assume or understand those practices that men set in place, but they rarely are asked to establish or alter such practices themselves. Women, in this way, are the great cultural tag-along: always there, though, always in-toe. I do not mean to belittle women’s historic contributions, but I wish to convey the point that in a/ our patriarchal society the feminine is not the seat of power. Thus, when Malu, Lalolagi, Pisa, Alofa are cast-out, either by directed or voluntary exile, they tell both their own and a larger mythic story: male vs. female, society vs. nature.
In many Pacific tribal cultures tattoo’s are bestowed in stages – with age additional pieces are given. This process signifies, among other things, the growth of the individual. Interestingly, with age the individual is not necessarily granted distinction but belonging. The individual increasingly, and undeniably, becomes part of their surrounding culture. Each piece enmeshes the individual. Of-course, this also means that when the individual is denied their due tattoo they are exiled from the culture – they are no longer a member – proper member – of their tribe. This lends depth to the idea that “the female tattoo is my name: I am the fish, the starfish, the spear, the centipede that never was:” Lalolagi became the tribes-woman that never was when, in the course of events, she was denied her complete tattoo. (p. 7) She ceased to be a member of her tribe because she was not able to share in their/ the culture: she was stunted. She was a blight, an outcast – and she knew it: “Then when the plants were just big enough, that is, when the plants showed the slightest sign that they were springing buds that were about to bloom, she would weed them away. That became the cycle of her life. Every time she saw things growing – saw them blooming – she would destroy them.” (p. 103) She was, at once, both exiled from society thus forced to assume a more ‘natural’ position, and simultaneously set-against the very nature she was left to wallow in: in exile, she was set-against herself.
The members of the tribe are, to this extent, indebted to the tattoo artist who, alone, has the capacity to connect the individual, lost in themselves, to the culture they are particulars of. The tattoo is religious because it has the capacity to move the individual beyond himself or herself:
“Every action associated with the tattoo was a prayer. Is a prayer. The gathering of the materials and the act of tattooing itself, which I equate to a form of writing. Master tattooists are in this sense G-d’s medium on earth. Writing G-d’s truth, which is to be found in the starfish, the centipede, the canoe, the flying-fox, all the symbols of the tattoo, the elements of nature and of the universe that are mapped in memory, mapped on the thighs of our young women and the hips of our men. This is our payer. A prayer we carry with us. Always.” (p. 248)
The tribal tattoo thus mediates between the individual and society. It both signifies their membership and a means of existing beyond that membership. (The tattoo is a fetish item, in this way, it is an object the denotes membership, but also draws a line between one’s self and others and thus permits the identification of one’s self on either side of that line.)
Thus, when Lalolagi finally tells Malu the story of her tattoo – of her life – she is gravely concerned about the consequences of exposure: “Shhh… we have to keep the va. The space. Or the spaces in between. ‘Between her and me. The space that makes her say something like. ‘Do you want the whole universe to hear?’” (p. 235) But, of-course, this was her very concern: if the ‘Va’ – the space between one’s self and all other selves, one’s culture – is not properly maintained than the individual will be exiled, will be left alone. The Va was the very thing that was lost when the tattoo was left unfinished. And thus it was the loss of the Va that set Lalolagi and her descendents against nature, society, themselves, and, further, for fear of additional shame, left them to exile unable to ‘grieve’ for fear of a continued loss or corruption of the Va and the implications of such a deterioration.
On a personal level I can relate with Lalolagi. When I was twenty I purposefully left one of my tattoos unfinished. Through my twenties I continued to play Ultimate Frisbee and was thus continually asked by an older – forty-something teammate – ‘when you going to finish that thing,’ everyday. I am not bothered by the tattoo, as I said, it was purposefully left unfinished, I do however find it interesting that the piece bothered my teammate so thoroughly. It seems/ ed that the unfinished piece, perhaps any unfinished piece, left him unfinished. He seemed openly awkward around my leg, and forced to inquire about it. I do not know exactly what his motives were, but I do wonder if there is an innate human need for such a thing to exist as a completed work – a need that spans tribal and ‘modern’ cultural constructs.