The book of Solomon Island stories set off my own wild escape from the now, back to almost 40 years ago, when I was still at ASCC. I had started a Samoan/Pacific Studies Program and was teaching a new course in Pacific Literature. An author from Western Samoa, Agafili Leau Tuitolova’a, had just published a 70-page chapbook collection of stories in Samoan. A first—no one had published fiction in Samoan. There were maybe a dozen students in the class, all Samoan. Together, we attempted a translation of one of his stories into English. I split them up into squads, then we worked on melding their different versions into something acceptable. Not a short process, but also not a waste of class time. Also fascinating. Agafili combined street—well, bush—Samoan with chiefly proverbial language. I dare say my students learned more about literature from that joint exercise than from my lectures.
I mailed a copy of the final translation to Agafili, whom I had never met and did not know, over in Apia. He sent the students his thanks and appreciation. At the time I was organizing a territorial arts festival, Arts Fiafia. (I got Mavis Rivers, a native Samoan, to come down from L.A. and perform.) I invited Agafili to come over to our island to give a reading. (I had NEA funding to spend.) He accepted. I invited him to stay with me at Atauloma. I was alone there in the big place at the time, Liam not yet adopted and my estranged wife, Sinavaiana, off in grad school at UH.
Opening night of the festival there was a reception on the grounds of the museum downtown in Fagatogo, at which a deceptive rum punch was served. At the reception, a good friend of mine, the poet and musician Eti Sa’aga, also from Apia, took me aside to ask what the fuck was that murderer Agafili doing there? An angry Eti gave me the story. Some years before, a village card game had erupted into an alcoholic brawl during which Agafili had been knocked over by Eti’s uncle. Agafili’s genitals had been exposed when his lavalava fell off. He left and came back with a shotgun and blew Eti’s uncle away. After which, Agafili was attacked with bush knives by Eti’s people and sliced up so well he almost died. Eti thought Agafili should still be in gaol in Apia, not feted by me.
Agafili drank a lot of rum punch. The canapes served at the reception he did not consider food. On the way home he had me stop for a six pack of beer, five of which he drank before we got to my place out near the end of the island. By now English was beyond him. I could not understand much of what he was saying, but he was not pleased and he was hungry. All I had to offer him was a loaf of local bread and a whole cold cooked slipper lobster. Agafili took off his shirt and consumed them both, washed down with the final beer. All that was left of the lobster, shell and all, was the quarter-sized thickest carapace of its back.
Agafili’s back—and front—reminded me of a baseball, the long raised seams of scar tissue stitches. He had been stitched back together. The torso of a big, brown, powerful, reassembled slayer. He was still angry. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe because I said in Samoan there was no more to drink. We were seated across from each other in the front room, a coffee table between us. Agafili stood up, getting angrier. I stood up. It was a good thirty yards back to the guest bedroom. I did it walking backwards, Agafili following, accusing me—it seemed—of something, threatening. When we got to his room, I circled until his back was to the bed. Then I pushed him as hard as I could, and he fell back onto the bed, where he passed out.
In the morning it was as if the night before had never happened. We spent the following festival days in pleasant companionship. He helpfully corrected my broken Samoan. He gave a good reading. He did not have another drink.
It took several years for Eti and I to get close again. Connie and I were the only palagi invited to his daughter’s wedding reception. I guess ignorance is a forgivable excuse if you’re an outsider.