Finding a Mother Tongue

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Afakasi | Half-Caste
By Hali F. Sofala-Jones
Sundress Publications, 2019
90 pages, $12.99
Review by Max Heinegg

Afakasi | Half-Caste by Hali Sofala-Jones

In the villanelle “O Le Upega Le Talifa | A Net That Cannot Be Mended,” Samoan-American poet Ms. Sofala-Jones begins her collection Afakasi | Half Caste (Sundress Publications, 2019) by remembering when her father tried to teach her (and her siblings) his mother tongue of Samoan. As a child who was born and raised in America speaking English, she struggled to learn the words of his song, and failed to catch the accent. Humiliated, she ran to her bedroom in tears.

Each tainted word whispered palagi,
Betrayed me as half-caste, half-breed.
There is no language for the afakasi.
I live in the silence of my own defeat,
severed from the twin skin of speech.
There are no words that are mine to speak.
There is no language for the afakasi.

As she says in a Poets in Pajamas Reading: “I wasn’t Samoan in Samoa, and I wasn’t white in the States.” She refers to herself as afakasi, or of mixed racial heritage, and for her, this was initially more a source of inner conflict that pride.

As a poet, her language is accessible, detail-oriented, but also elegant:

Because I was born of two worlds colliding.
My dad smelling still of taro root hot from the fire pits
and my mother white as a thin slip of snow
dusting the Ohio hills of her childhood home.
(ibid)

From feeling like an outsider as she watched white television stars, to being ridiculed by schoolchildren for her looks at the theater where she worked. In “My Hands,” a disturbing poem about how, on a bus ride with white kids, she takes a dare and tries to rub off her own skin’s color with an eraser. The wound heals, but scars. When her father asks where it came from,

I told him that I’d run into a door,
and he believed my lie.

How could he imagine the truth?
The violence of self-erasure,
the desire to be unmade and made again?

The image of a child wanting to erase herself, literally, is poignant and terrible. Her response, like many people who are bullied, was not to lash out, but to turn on herself. As she writes in “USO / Sister,” “They do not know how it feels to be a Samoan in America,/ to be a girl with a body like a lumberjack.” When she finds she is growing some facial hair, “her palagi mother takes her to be electrocuted” (“Electrolysis”).

Loving her own body is a challenge in a society that privileges a slim, hairless version of femininity. As the speaker ages (because the collection doubles as a coming of age story) her voice becomes more empowered. She writes poems like “How to Pass: For Samoan Girls Who Are Mistaken For Men,” and her melancholy has been replaced with sarcasm, her tone moves from being wounded to being unwilling to abide it any longer:

8. It also helps if you visualize a question mark at the end of every sentence. You
Know?
9. If you’re fat, and you probably are, know that this poses more problems.
10. This list is by no means comprehensive. Some folks will still mistake you for a
man. Have you tried surgery?

In “Fa’Afafine / In the Manner of a Woman,” she writes about her uncle, who wears makeup and dances “better than women I’ve known in the States”; he helps her to see the limitations of the American sense of gender identity.

stubble forming on my chin already—
Who can name us woman or man?
Who can tell us we are neither or both?

Her experiences in Samoa with her family broaden her sense of gender identity and she learns to accept her body as a Samoan one. As she writes “In the House of My Fathers,” “They told me the body was no marker for the soul. They told me I was home.”

While a coming of age story often ends in a victory, “Mamalu / Sacred,” ends the book with the poet returning from Samoa, though her grandfather has died. Her journey which began with a sense of being deprived of the language she needed to speak to her experience as an afakasi ends with her finding it.

This is a sacred story.
I write down a line
that turns into two
and the three
scrawled across a page he will never see. I find my tongue.



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About Author

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Maximilian Heinegg's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Cortland Review, Columbia Poetry Review, The American Journal of Poetry, Tar River Poetry, Borderlands, and Wisconsin Review. He has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize, and been a finalist for the poetry prizes of December Magazine, Crab Creek Review, Rougarou, and Cultural Weekly. He is a singer-songwriter, and his his records can be heard at maxheinegg.com.

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