Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Importance of Learning a Person's History

My parents both come from very big, talkative families, so I’ve always grown up hearing stories about their lives before me. We have family reunions every year and all of their siblings tell embarrassing stories about each other, laughing about the ridiculous things they did when they were younger. When I was little these stories fascinated me; they were a glimpse into a part of my parents that I never saw otherwise, but as I got older I also realized that they were a superficial glance. These stories were funny anecdotes but they didn’t reveal who my parents truly are or why they are that way.

I’ve always had a good relationship with my parents, but as I’ve gotten older it has evolved in a way that has allowed me to better understand them and I think this is mostly because they actually talk to me now. Once I got into college it was like I had passed some invisible line and had become a “real person” to my mom. By this I mean that she started to tell me things that actually mattered to her, things that she didn’t have to tell me and I didn’t necessarily ask to know, but that are part of who she is. At first it was strange because she’s a very positive, upbeat person and some of the things she started telling me were not so happy or cheerful and were actually critical of other people, something she almost never is. She told me things about her past that radically changed how I looked at her and understood both her and my dad.

Among other things, this change in our relationship helped me understand how important someone’s past is to who they are. As a result of my mom’s willingness to share herself with me and my willingness to accept that she was a real person who makes mistakes and has flaws, I was able to get to know her on a deeper level and better understand why she does things that she does even if I don’t necessarily agree with them.

While my experience is definitely not nearly as dramatic, in ways it is similar to Lalolagi’s confession of her history to Malu. Malu knew some aspects of her history and why her family carried such shame before this, but it seems as if knowing her grandmother’s past is what truly allows her to understand Lalolagi as a person. At the end of the book it says, “Do not grieve. That’s what she remembers most of Lalolagi, her grandmother” (267). In light of all of the past betrayals, struggles, and rejection Lalolagi experienced her take on life finally makes sense to Malu. It wasn’t that her grandmother was a person without feeling or compassion, but rather Lalolagi was hardened by experiences like her best friends betrayal, the rejection of her mother, and even the loss of her original name. It seems to me that her experiences forced her to learn to trust no one but herself and also to continue on with her life rather than grieve over her hardships. Her original name was Tuto’atasi, meaning independence, and it seems that since it was taken from her, she has lived her life in a way intended to assert her independence from both her difficult circumstances and others. However, until Malu understands Lalolagi’s past she is unable to understand why it is that her grandmother lives her life in the way she does.

I think that it is also interesting that we as readers better understand Lalolagi in light of learning her history. When I first read the back I couldn’t get over how mean she was to Malu, spilling hot coffee on her, kicking her and beating her, and putting her down constantly. Lalolagi’s history seems sheds some light on this. Her Aunt Ela reveals that Malu looks remarkably like her mother, Mary, whose death Lalolagi blames herself for; this offers some insight into why she wishes to disfigure Malu and seems to despise her so much. Part of her behavior towards Malu is probably also reflective of a desire to teach Malu the values she views as important in life, one of which is not to feel sorry for yourself no matter what because life needs to keep going regardless of what happens, and thus there is no use in grief. They Who Do Not Grieve reveals the way in which learning a person’s history can deeply influence how you understand and view that person. No person is without a history and until they choose to reveal that to you it is difficult to fully understand why they are the way the are; learning a person’s history is a form of travel because it evolves the way that you understand and view them.

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