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Telesā: the Covenant Keeper, Lani Wendt Young

May 27, 2013

Telesā: The Covenant Keeper Book Blurb

“Nestled in the heart of the Pacific is Samoa – a lush tropical paradise. We walk to a different drum beat. Nestled in the heart of the Pacific, Samoa is a lush tropical paradise. We walk to a different drum beat. Here, ancient mythology tells of Telesā. Demon women who are guardians of earth and gifted with the elemental powers of Air, Water and Fire. Telesā are vengeful and cruel, tales to frighten children.Or are they more than that? From Washington D.C. comes Leila, in search of family, a place to belong. Instead she finds her destiny and it threatens to tear her apart. There is the bewitching call of a Telesā sisterhood and there is Daniel. Will Leila embrace her birthright or will she choose the one who offers her his love with a crooked smile and dancing green eyes? Will Daniel be the element that gentles the fire of the Telesā? Or must love burn at the altar of the Telesā covenant? There are many different kinds of love. All of them require sacrifice. ‘Who will give everything for the one they love?'” ~ from the back of the bookTelesa “The first book in a YA urban fantasy fiction series set in contemporary Samoa.” ~ Fishpond 

Telesā: The Covenant Keeper First Page(s)

“PROLOGUE ‘No… please … how to stop it? How can I stop it?’ I burst into useless tears. Tears that fizzed and hissed in a heartbeat of heat. No amount of crying would help now. I wrung my hands, no way out of it. It was hopeless. In a few minutes I would be a mass murderer. A killer. In my mind’s eye, I could see it now. People on fire running in circles, frantically beating at the hungry flames. The smell of flesh scorching, peeling off ashy bone. Screams. Pleas for help. I sank to my knees, drained dry of strength. Unwilling to watch the carnage but unable to take my eyes away. I was drowning in a sea of fiery despair. Suffocating in a red night of terror. A clear, calm voice spoke from beside me. ‘Leila. Call it back. You can do it. Call it back. Call it back NOW.’ I looked up, eyes glistening with molten tears. He stood as close to me as he dared, shielding his face from the heat with his hands, the edges of his clothes singed and charred. ‘I can’t.’ Abject despair in my voice. ‘I don’t know how.’ ‘Yes, you can. You have the power. You know you do. You spoke to it before. It listens to you. Call it back now before it’s too late. Please.’ It was the ‘please’ that did it. That snapped me out of the depths. He wanted me to call the fire. He believed that I could. And I wanted him to believe in me. Slowly, I raised myself from the ground, closed my eyes and willed that fiery beast to come home. To listen to me – its mistress. To return and feed instead on my molten core. I trembled at the very thought of the blaze finding its way back. How could I possibly summon it all when it had grown so exponentially as it fed? But this was my fault. I had to find the strength from somewhere. I opened my eyes and shuddered at the majesty of the sight before me. Directly ahead of me was a massive wall of fire. It had stopped advancing across the field and now it stood waiting; the beast waited for my command. Now – it asked – what would you have me do? Opening my arms, every ounce of my being quivering with fear, I summoned it home. I burned. Inside and out. I burned. There was indescribable pain and the knife edge of pleasure. It was ecstasy and hell all at once. Then, as swiftly as it had begun, it stopped. I was empty. A dried husk scorched beyond belief. Withered and dead. I fell. The steaming darkness claimed me.”

“ONE What was I doing? On a plane thousands of miles away from everything familiar, going to a land I had never seen? Well, a land I didn’t remember seeing, I corrected. Clenching my palms tightly, I pressed my head against the window, staring blindly out at the motionless clouds. The engines of the 747 were a dull roar and the air hostess a vapid chatter behind me as I tried to block out the images that threatened to bring tears to my eyes. Flashes. Dad. Weakly trying to clasp me close as he lay on his hospital bed. Trying to push aside the oxygen mask so he could whisper in my ear. ‘Leila – very important – I love you – whatever you do, don’t go back there, don’t let them send for you. Please stay here. Please don’t go back.’ ‘Excuse me, here are your arrival forms to fill in. Do you need any help, Miss?’ The flight attendant was a slender woman with hair swept up in an effortless swirl. Her eyes were concerned as she looked at my tear-stained cheeks. Cringing under her gaze – and resenting the assumption that I, a world-weary eighteen-year-old, would need help filling in a simple form – my reply was abrupt.” ‘No. I certainly do not need any help from you.'” (p.1)

Ref: Lani Wendt Young (2011) Telesā: The Covenant Keeper.  (Tauranga, N.Z. Lani Wendt Young : Kale Print)

Themes in the novel

MYTHS AND LEGENDS IN MODERN LIFE; STORY AND THE IMPORTANCE OF STORIES; FAMILY; MANKIND’S RELATIONSHIP WITH  THE NATURAL WORLD; LOVE; ROMANCE; ADOLESCENCE; IDENTITY; MIXED HERITAGE;

Possible directions for study/questions to apply to Telesā

There were a couple of things that struck me about this novel. Consider:

  • In what ways does Leila’s character shape this story? In what ways does her heritage shape this story (Samoan/American)?
  • What image do we get of Samoa from this novel? How does it compare with other novels about Samoa?
  • Lani Wendt Young’s blurb on the Writers’ Festival page states that “the Telesa trilogy …blends Pacific mythology and romance into YA thriller.” In what ways does Telesā do this? Which of these narrative conventions are evident in the book and how are they adopted/reworked? 
  • How do Samoan legends shape modern life in Samoa? …in New Zealand or America or Australia? How do these legends shape this story – and how do they shape our picture of Samoan adolescence/family life/values, etc.?
  • How could this story have been told differently? What if the protagonist were born and raised in Samoa with two Samoan parents? (What impact would such a change in character have on the story told?)
  • I think it is significant that Wendt Young has chosen to tell this story with a protagonist and narrator who is part Samoan/part American and in the process of rediscovering her Samoan heritage and family. That Leila comes to Samoa from the States with very little knowledge of her Samoan side does open up the tale to a wider readership (creating opportunities for explanations to be included about aspects of Samoan culture), but I think such an identity is also an important one to explore in its own right. Being afakasi (having mixed heritage) is a common enough experience and it comes with its own tensions and peculiarities. By exploring such an identity in young adult fiction, Wendt Young not only begins to address what she describes as “a gaping chasm in the Young Adult market for fiction with Pacific Island themes, characters, places and values” (p.427), but also reminds us of the many possible ways one can experience ‘being Samoan’.  Consider, for example, Simone’s declaration: “Maybe it’s different back where you come from, but here we’re all afakasi, mixed and it’s no big deal. Daniel gets teased about it all the time, especially since he’s part Tongan and historically Samoans and Tongans hate each other. Today, back there, [Daniel] was talking about himself [during the debate], which is why everybody was laughing.” (p.45, italics in original)

4Someone with more experience of Samoan culture could surely add a number of other questions and shed a different light on this text, but I see a couple of THEMES presented by Telesā. For example:

  • mixed heritage: as mentioned above. Note that this is explicit in the character of Leila: “I was a ramshackle collection of ‘too’s. Too tall. Too broad. Untamable dirt brown hair that was too bushy, and only redeemed itself slightly by having gold highlihgts in the sun. Too wild, Brooke Shields eyebrows to match. Dark eyes set too deep into a forehead too wide. Lips too thick – lips that my dad had called ‘luscious,’ but who was he kidding? Legs too skinny and gangly that loved to run but didn’t do too well in high heels. Too brown to be white but too white to be brown. Ugh.” (p.12, italics in original) Having a melodramatic moment, Leila also describes herself as “an in-between nothing [who] nobody wants around.” (p.72)
  • Mankind’s relationship with the natural world: the Telesā are ancient guardians of places, protectors – though the ones Leila comes up against (her mother’s covenant) have changed and become more demanding and violent, for which reasons Leila challenges them…  (How important is the land to the organisational framework of this story? …to the organisational framework of the adolescence being narrated here?). The telesā are explained a couple of times in the book (pp.177-178, 218-219, 221, 253, 255-256, 272, 378-380, 396) and are characters in their own right. There are multiple types, though, so while the story is dominated by the out-of-control telesā of Nafanua’s covenant, they are not presented in a fully negative fashion…. Importantly, perhaps, Leila’s character (and self-identity?) is tested in terms of how she will care for the Earth (eg., pp.321-325, or when blowing up the chemical spillage (pp.254-260) – or when choosing not to remain in the sisterhood of her mother (pp.319, 359, 381) – and how to deal with them in the end (pp.405, 409)). Leila’s identity as Telesā is recognised and valued by Daniel (p.350) – who sees her ‘for who she is’ and likes what he sees…. The relationship between mankind and the natural world is not presented in one of those dichotomised morally judgemental visions of Western Science vs. indigenous knowledge, but the politics of this interaction are addressed in the novel (NB p317).
  • the multiple forms of storytelling. Obviously myth and legend, but also; Tattoos are an important story form and an expression of identity which Wendt Young explores through her characters (NB Leila’s malu, p.249-250 and how her peers receive this tattoo…). Dance and music are also shown to be important in this novel and all three are brought together as ways of telling a story when Daniel and Leila perform in their school’s culture night:

“Daniel walked out to take his position first. The stage had been set to represent a forest clearing with a pool in its center, ringed by burning flares, a cluster of rocks was where he would sit. He wore a brief piece of siapo tied at the hips. His burnished chest was bare save for the single bone carving that hung around his neck. His whole body gleamed with glistening coconut oil and his tattoos spoke their story clearly in the moonlight. He was the noble warrior of every myth and legend and there was a hushed breath of awe before the audience rippled with applause, the more feisty among them whistling and catcalling. Woohoo! Go Danny! Work it, baby, work it! The appreciative noise died away as Daniel took his seat and picked up his guitar. The incomplete night waited for his voice. Danieal sang. And everyone was swept along in the story of his music. Even though I had heard it many times before, Daniel’s singing never failed to entrance me. If telesā‘s gift was dance, his was song. It had a similar effect on one. It tugged on memories of a past you never knew you had, on a history you did not fully understand, on the power of an earth that you knew you would never completely comprehend. I was silenced by its beauty and Simone had to nudge me when the time drew near for me to enter. … I was only dimly aware of the applause from the crowd as I danced, of my aunty and uncle beaming proudly in the front row. My heart, breath, and soul were completely focused on the siva as it told its own story, as it listened to Daniel’s words and replied.” (pp.337-338, italics in original)

  • the Pacific, Pacific literature and Pacific narratives more generally: I don’t think we can ignore ‘the chasm’ Wendt Young refers to (above). It certainly exists. That said (and it remains a discussion worth having), there are many other narrative forms than YA fiction – some of which Wendt Young includes in her tale (tattoos, dance, music, etc.) – so how might this story compare with stories told in some of these other forms (tattoos readers have or are familiar with; dances they have participated in; music they know….)? What picture do we get of adolescence/Samoan heritage/the Pacific/etc. in these different narrative forms? What stories do they tell and how do they tell stories differently than YA fiction?
  • Home / family: the protagonist begins this journey after losing her father. She wants to learn about the mother she never knew. In what ways are the concepts of ‘home’ and ‘family’ explored in this novel? How are they presented? How does the protagonist’s attitude towards home and family change during the novel? I like the ongoing importance of Grandmothers (Daniel’s and Leila’s) in the novel (NB p.166) as well as aunty and uncle… Wendt asserts the need to include Pacific values in YA lit and I wonder if the relevance of different family members to this story might be included in this assertion – how does the importance of the ‘extended’ family compare in different YA novels in different settings? Leila begins with a shortage of family (no siblings or cousins, etc. (p.5)) and needs to learn about Samoan family values when she arrives and offers to pay her aunty and uncle for having her (p7). Also significant is the importance of Leila’s Dad to her decision making – and of her mother to those same decisions… NB also Uncle’s statement: “you are here in a strange place that you know nothing about. There are different customs and … and expectations here that may seem strange to you. We are responsible for your safety. And your behavior will be a reflection on us – your aiga. We wish to ensure that your stay here is as uneventful and peaceful as possible. That means working hard at school, going to church on Sunday like a good girl, and not roaming about like some manner-less child with no parents.” Leila “wince[s] at this phrase. A child with no parents.” (p.15, italics in original). 
  • samoa_islands_map - West and Americanadolescence (Samoa vs. America?): this comes up from time to time in the story and I wonder if it is worth considering more closely (eg. Uncle Tuala tells Leila: “We know that children in America are raised differently from here. We are sure that our ways may seem a bit strange at first to you. But we must make it clear that while you stay, you will be our daughter, and so you will have to behave a certain way. Ahem we have seen those types of young people that come here from America with their styles and their language and their disrespect. We hope you will not be like that.” (p.8) Leila does fall afoul of these differences when she pushes her aunty to tell her about her mother: Aunty Matile yells at her: “You are too Westernized, too palagi to understand. You are too palagi to show respect to us, your elders? To us who have taken you in when your own palagi grandmother cannot handle you anymore?! Tapuni lou gutu! Shut your mouth now!” (p.21) Leila herself wonders how Samoan teens compare to American ones (p.33, p.37)
  • identity (mixed heritage and familial as mentioned above, but also gender): Not just because this is an adolescent romance! Simone, who becomes one of Leila’s best friends is fa’afafine, which her Aunty explains like this: “Leila, in Samoa we have three different genders if you will – men and women and fa’afafine. It’s tradition.” (p.29). In terms of belonging, Leila uncovers her heritage, better understands her own power and develops a sense of belonging through this novel (NB p.336)… so yeah, identity.
  • food: the importance of food and good cooking to the family home is reiterated throughout. I haven’t thought it through fully yet, but I’m always interested in the way food is used in literature. It seems to me that the moral differences between Aunty Matile and Netta/Nafanua are reflected in the cooking – Matile’s is better… so hmmm (NB pp.12-13 when Leila first sits down to eat at Matile’s table)

NOTE: A question I don’t know the answer to: What is the difference between Telesā and Telesa?

Texts that invite comparison

Perhaps any novel that treats with the above themes. I think a cross-genre study might be fun.

I also can’t help noticing that Leila’s powers are bound to her emotions. This seems to happen a fair bit in paranormal adolescent romance (Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series springs to mind – and the linking of ‘Spirit’ with emotion in that series – but there are plenty others). What role do emotions play in these adolescent romances? Are they connected to adolescence as much as to romance?

How to use this blog

Mindmaps help me think critically.  They help me see the links between things and plot a course through all the observations and questions that a text provokes when I read it ‘as a text.’  This blog is a mindmap of sorts; full of random thoughts and relevant-seeming quotations or ideas.

  • There is a tag cloud to the right of the blog, which shows the topics I am exploring as ‘tags.’
  • You can also use the search bar at the bottom of the page to see if a particular word/book/author/theme is mentioned.
  • I have a section titled ‘Blog Notes’ in which I explain my blogging style.
  • I have a ‘Literary Resources’ section which includes general ideas on literature and its study as well as the questions I apply to any text I study.
  • These questions (eg. Character Questions) may be useful to any other reader wishing to look at this text differently (refer to very early on in the blogging history of this section).
  • I absolutely welcome discussion: comments, suggestions, ideas, criticisms… please add them!

Wendt Young’s Telesā : a History

Publishing History:

Telesā: The Covenant Keeper was published in 2011 (self-published I believe?) and is rather unique in terms of being Pacific adolescent fiction. Wendt Young writes: “I have taught English literature in secondary schools in Samoa for ten years and know there is a gaping chasm in the Young Adult market for fiction with Pacific Island themes, characters, places and values. Our youth need books that they can see themselves in, that they can relate to, that will assist in lighting the fires of creativity and a love for reading.” (p.427)

Bibliography of secondary literature:

Author information: Lani Wendt Young

http://www.laniwendtyoungauthor.com/ http://sleeplessinsamoa.blogspot.co.nz/ http://samoacoconutqueen.blogspot.co.nz/ According to the blurb in the book, “Lani Wendt Young was born and raised in Samoa. She completed her tertiary education in the USA and New Zealand before returning to Samoa to teach high school English for ten years. She now lives in Auckland, NZ with her husband and five children. Lani’s award-winning short fiction has featured in collections published in Samoa, NZ, Australia and the United Kingdom. Her first book – ‘Pacific Tsunami‘ was published in 2010. ‘Telesā: The Covenant Keeper‘ is her first book of fiction.

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