Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Unborn State for Sia Figiel

In They Who Do Not Grieve, Sia Figiel experiments with a number of ambitious narrative techniques, among them writing extended sequences that take place in a dream reality -- or what might be more appropriately called an alternate reality -- and switching regularly between first and third-person narration. She also, in what is arguably her most daring storytelling risk, has one of her main characters, Alofa, retrospectively narrate her experience as a fetus within her mother's womb. Figiel depicts Alofa as not merely projecting her current speculations about the unfolding of her early development onto history, but as one who is relating in detail her memories of a past struggle. Though Alofa admits that as a "foetus" her "powers of memory were less developed," she presents her determination to survive her mother's multiple attempts to abort her as vividly as she describes her much more recent move from Samoa to Giu Sila (175). By depicting Alofa's gestation so vividly from her character's unborn perspective, Figiel seems to, whether intentionally or not, enter into a moral and political debate about when a fetus can be called a human, while contributing to a literary discussion of how to depict states of existence which humans either do not remember or of which they have no direct experience.

The issue of when a fetus can be considered a person is obviously a contentious one, because it inevitably ties into the cultural disagreement over whether abortion is a woman's right or murder. For some, though far from all, this debate hinges on the question of when a fetus becomes self-aware, therefore rendering it, by the logic of that viewpoint, truly human. As someone who, because of his father's career, has grown up surrounded by the pro-life argument and has therefore sought to participate in and read about discussions on the issue, I am perhaps too ready to interpret literature in such a way that illuminates my position in this debate, and I am therefore somewhat hesitant to analyze this episode in Alofa's story, lest my discernment of Figiel's intentions is distorted by my own beliefs. Nevertheless, Figiel does not write in a moral and political vacuum, making it extremely easy to construe Alofa's observation that she had a "goal" to stay alive "at the moment of conception" as an implicit commentary on the larger abortion debate (177).

If Figiel is trying to weigh in on the issue through her narrative, one could argue that the fanciful nature of Alofa's story undermines any validity it might aspire to as a contribution to the debate of when humanity begins. Regardless of one's beliefs on the extent of a fetus's awareness in the womb, few would contest that an unborn child actually possesses knowledge of "mathematics, calculations, [and] logic," as Alofa claims she did at that early age (176). What one must judge at this point is whether the fantasy Figiel is employing illuminates or obscures reality. Like Jane Kenyon in "Notes from the Other Side" or C.S. Lewis in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Figiel is trying to depict a period of which humans have no memory and on which they therefore disagree. While both Kenyon and Lewis depict the afterlife, Figiel is depicting the earliest stage of human life, which one could argue is just as mysterious. What one can ask, and it is a question I am still pondering, is if imbuing Alofa with such early self-awareness ultimately makes her fetal self seem less or more like an "abstraction" than any other unborn child (176). While in reality the difficulty of seeing an unborn child up-close makes its existence easier to dismiss, one could argue that, by presenting such a metaphorical depiction of the unborn state, Figiel makes the experience seem even farther removed from reality.


Hatrack River: Books, Films, Food and Culture. Various Threads on Abortion including, but not limited to:;f=2;t=043143#000015
Alcon. "Hypothetical on Abortion -- Now For All to Consider." 2008/01/08. Web. 2010/21/10.
Threads. "Re: Hypothetical on Abortion -- Now for All to Consider."
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B-Gurl. "Is Abortion Bad?" 2005/20/12. Web. 2010/21/10.
imogen. "Regulating Reproduction (a hypothetical)" 2009/05/03. Web. 2010/21/10.
PSI Teleport. "*sigh* It's your average abortion thread." 2007/25/07. Web. 2010/21/10.
Belle. "Alabama Abortion clinic shut down -- horrible story." 2005/20/05. Web. 2010/21/10.
AltName. "You know me. And I had an abortion." 2006/27/05. Web. 2010/21/10.
Christine. "Late-Term Abortions." 2009/03/06. Web. 2010/21/10.
"Stop FOCA,""Against So-Called Freedom of Choice Act" and Various Other Pro-Life Discussion Groups. Facebook. Web. 2010/21/10.
Figiel, Sia. They Who Do Not Grieve. New York: Kaya Press, 2003.
Lewis, C.S. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. New York: HarperCollins, 1980.
Kenyon, Jane. "Notes from the Other Side."
MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: Third Edition. United States: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008.
National Right to Life Press Releases. Print.
Web. 2010/21/10.

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