31 Oct Sia Figiel – raising awareness of mental health in Pasifika communities

30 October 2017. – In a powerful series of social media posts, internationally acclaimed Samoan author Sia Figiel has gone public with her struggle with mental illness and called for greater awareness and advocacy for those in our worldwide Pasifika communities living with mental health issues.

Writing from the United States of America where she is currently based, Figiel says of her illness, “For the last 30 years, I’ve tried so desperately to hide the wound of my manic depression by covering it up as best as I could. But it seems that with each passing year, the more I became engaged in this act, the more the wound grew and grew and I became sadder and sadder as the years went by.”

“And yet, simultaneously, the sadder I became on the inside, the happier and happier I appeared on the outside. So much so that I could have easily been the model happy native on one of those overpriced postcards they sell at airports–welcome to paradise.”

“Faking anything takes energy. So imagine faking happiness. It’s like swallowing the insides of a pillow. Every. Single. Day.”

“I don’t know how I managed to do it for the last 30 years. And yet, that’s precisely what I was doing. It’s exhausting. So very exhausting.”

Figiel finally sought professional help a few weeks ago and was diagnosed with manic depressive bipolar disorder.

Figiel’s posts cover a range of related topics, including a reflection on her mother’s struggles when Figiel was a child.

“My mother had a nervous breakdown when I was around 7 or 8. It is part of the reason I’m in therapy, now. The way her struggle was treated back then traumatized us both, as it was deemed a possession and the methods that were used to extract ‘the devil’ from her remain with me to this day.”

Speaking to Samoa Planet, Figiel added, “Of all the Ph.ds’ and Masters’ dissertations on my work that I’ve read throughout the years, no one has addressed mental illness which is right there, in all of my books!”

“The facility with which the narrator moves between this world and the world of the dead or the Other World, whether it’s Alofa from where we once belonged or Malu in They Who Do Not Grieve, or Samoana in The Girl in the Moon CIrcle can all be traced to the facility with which I, personally visit the alternative world of mythology-‘an intimate world that is very familiar to me and my very Samoan imagination as a creative being–a poet and a writer and it would be interesting to see someone explore that.”

With Brother Frankie Figiel, nephew Tristan, son Pounamu Faafetai Toia and then NZ PM Helen Clarke at the opening of the Play, where we once belonged, Auckland NZ.

Since going public with her diagnosis Figiel has received the support and encouragement of many family and friends, including other renowned Pasifika artists and writers, some who have also shared their mental health struggles.

In thanking them she writes, “Your support of me has truly been an unexpected source of comfort. Especially as I’ve been alone in my own isolation and self imposed exile from most of you.”

“Your warmth and sincerity is contributing to my wellbeing and sense of healing–More so, I feel, than the pills I am taking at the mo’. I mean, the day I wrote that original status, was the day the weight I had been carrying all these years seemed to just melt away and I’ve been feeling lighter and lighter since.”

With Dr. Emelihter Kihleng’s M.A & Ph.d Creative Writing students at UH Manoa, Hawaii studying Freelove.

With Dr. Emelihter Kihleng’s M.A & Ph.d Creative Writing students at UH Manoa, Hawaii studying Freelove.

However Figiel’s personal struggle has awakened an awareness of the needs of others who live with similar challenges.

“I’m thinking of the hundreds, if not thousands of people in our Pacific communities who suffer and struggle with mental illness. People who may not have the support I am fortunate enough to have with you all.”

“Mental struggles are such an intricate part of our struggles as Pacific peoples. One that is not talked about.”

“And while it doesn’t necessarily carry the almost romantic way in which my diagnosis has been relayed to me, –it’s a creative strand…writers and poets throughout history have been afflicted by it, even Lord Byron talks about ‘our special malady, our madness or rather, that every poet must have a touch of madness in order to create’ Virginia Woolf knew it. Sylvia Plath knew it.”

“And guess how they ended it all? It gives me chills just thinking about it.”

Figiel is adamant that Pasifika communities must raise awareness and engage in vital dialogue about mental illness.

“The conversation needs to begin about people, especially Pacific youth in the diaspora, who may not necessarily have the luxury of an outlet that I have as a writer whereby manic induces creativity and I walk out with a book at the end.”

“This is something that engages my thoughts at 5am after a night of writing. The thought of others and how we could make their burden a little lighter.”

Figiel is Samoa’s first woman novelist. She is the author of five books including two volumes of prose poetry. Her first book, where we once belonged (1996), won the Best First Book award in the South East Asia/South Pacific region of the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1997. Her poetry won the 1994 Polynesian Literary Competition. Her works have been translated into French, German, Catalan, Danish, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish and Portuguese.

Acclaimed as a performance poet, she is a frequent guest at literary festivals. Figiel has held residencies at the Institucio de les Lletres Catalanes, Spain; the Pacific Writing Forum at the University of the South Pacific; the University of Technology, Sydney; and the East West Center – Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawaii.

She is the first Pacific Islander to perform her work at the Shakespeare Globe Theater, London.

Figiel worked as a high school English teacher in Pago Pago before she was hired by then Congressman Faleomavaega Eni Hunkin as a Speechwriter, PR Officer and Educational Staffer.

Sia Figiel is also an artist. Her paintings have been exhibited in Berlin and Leipzig, Germany, Tampa Florida and at the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum, Los Angeles.

In May 2017, Figiel completed a 2500 miles walk across America with the Seattle based Samoan artist Mario Lemafa to further diabetes awareness among Samoan and Pacific communities. She writes, “Depression and diabetes are twins that are very difficult to live with. However, one’s attitude and spirit are powerful in defying the odds.”

You can find Figiel’s books here, including her latest novel: FREELOVE

A list of Sia Figiel’s work:

  1. Where we once belonged
  2. They who do not grieve
  3. The Girl in the Moon Circle
  4. To a young artist in contemplation
  5. Freelove
1 Comment
  • Dearest Sia, my friend and respected artist of beauty. I always think of you often and hope you have been well. I have known you long and we both shared moments on the subject of depression. I have lived with depression longer than I know. I am sorry for the pain mentally and physically you have had to endure and carry on. I have cried to you of all my struggle as well. Lat February, I had a brain aneurysm and a craniotomy, and I have another they can’t remove. I have a grandson and he is 1 1/2. My eldest son named his baby Koa’. I am still here in the San Francisco area and I want to go home. Please Sia, I would always be there for you and I will be there for you now.
    Sincerely with love Queen Mary

    April 13, 2019 at 2:04 am

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