Review: A Pacific Version of Twilight: Lani Wendt Young’s “Telesa: The Covenant Keeper”

By May 1, 2013

TelesaI first encountered Twilight when my then fourteen-year-old sister became obsessed with it.  Every Facebook status she posted was about the new film that was coming out or how excited she was to read the next book series.  One of my friends, who has a PhD in Women?s Studies and History and will beginning her first tenure track job in the fall, told me that she personally enjoyed the books but warned me that they had some troubling gender politics.  As people have pointed out in review after review of Twilight, Bella is a weak character whose identity is bound up entirely in her relationship with Edward.  She is constantly bleeding, twisted from accidents that prove that she isn?t able to take care of herself and would simply die if Edward didn?t protect her.  I tried to read the books but couldn?t get past Book Two where Bella dismisses a boy who loves her and would have provided her with stability and continues to pine after Edward.  Book Four is even worse: When Bella and Edward consummate their marriage, Edward is unable to contain his strength and leaves Bella covered in bruises.  My sister?s response: He shouldn?t have felt bad because it wasn?t his fault.

About a week ago, I decided to look for books written by Mormon Polynesian authors.  I came across Lani Wendt Young?s Telesa, a young adult novel that has been called the Polynesian version of Twilight.  Although reviewers of the book used that phrase as a form of praise, I was initially worried about that what meant ? possessive sex scenes overladen with domestic violence? Women who are unable to care for themselves in the most basic way?  Wooden prose?  Luckily, Young?s book is far better than that.  It focuses on a mixed raced girl living in Washington, D.C., who decides to travel to Samoa to learn about her mother who passed away when she was an infant after her white father dies from a tumor.  Although the main character Leila felt ostracized in her boarding school because she was ?too much? of everything ?  ?too tall. Too broad.  Untamable dirt brown that was too bushy, and only redeemed itself slightly by having gold highlights in the sun.  Too wild, Brooke shields eyebrows to match? ? she discovers that in Samoa many of the things that she hated about herself are considered benefits.  Girls are expected to be as skinny as they are in American beauty standards.  Everyone is mixed, and she attracts the attention of Daniel, one of the hottest guys in school.

In spite of the amiability of her classmates, however, Leila still has a difficult time fitting in.  She was taunted in Washington, D.C., and called the daughter of an ?island whore.?  She seethes with rage and snaps at anyone who she suspects is teasing her.  She also suffers from nightmares in which her long dead mother calls to her and finds her body inexplicably hot at night.  She is forced to flee to a pool of water in the Samoan jungle to find any relief from the heat that constantly courses through her body.  Eventually, Leila discovers that she has the power to control fire and the earth but unlike Bella, she is exultant in her strength.  ?I was living, breathing molten fire?contained no more in a pitifully weak body of flesh and blood.  Skin was replaced by flowing red and gold, like lava.  I felt my cheeks, my hair.  I breathed and the fire pulsed bright.  I twirled on tiptoe and my flames danced with me.  I flicked my fingers ? and a tiny fireball flew out, landing, fizzling harmless in the evening air.  A rush of pure joy ripped through me as I gloried in full realization of my fiery power.  I was virtually indestructible.  No-one and nothing could hurt me now.  It was the most exhilarating feeling I had ever experienced.?  Although Leila has to learn how to control her power so that it is a creative rather than destructive force, Young?s tone when it comes to Leila?s strength and power is celebratory.

In many ways, Telesa is a darker book than Twilight.  Mothers abandon their children and don?t always come back.  The main character is capable of cruelty as well as love.  Infants are smothered to death when they are born of the wrong gender.  There are also things that might make a Mormon or conservative Christian audience nervous.  Leila and Daniel do not have sex in the novel, but both have sexual desires and are not shamed for them. They celebrate their Samoan heritage through heavy tattooing and by dancing in revealing clothing. Finally, there is a transgendered character ? a fa?afafine ? that is simply accepted in the book and by the other characters as he is.  In spite of its open sexuality and dark tone, I would rather my daughter read Teles? than Twilight.  Teles? celebrates the culture of Samoa and female power.  My daughter won?t be born in July but I could do worse than providing her with strong female role models and teaching her to embrace the cultures of those around her.

*Note: I am going to be reading other novels by Pacific authors in the weeks to come as part of a project I am working on.  Here?s a list of the books I plan to read as well as their descriptions on Amazon.  Some of them are Mormon like Lani Wendt Young.  Others like Witi Ihimaera have left the church.  Others include Mormonism in their novel in some way but don?t belong to the church themselves.

Witi Ihimaera, Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies ? ?On the East Coast of New Zealand two patriarchs fight to be proclaimed king. Tamihana is the leader of the great Mahana family of shearers and sportsmen. Rupeni Poata is his archenemy. They will fight to win the title of Bulibasha and be proclaimed the King of the Gypsies, Caught in the middle of this struggle for power is the grandson of Tamihana and his wife Ramona, the teenage Simeon.?

Albert Wendt, Leaves of the Banyan Tree ? ?Set in Samoa, this novel involves three generations of an aiga (family) and reads like a parable. Toasa, the head of the family, tells stories of lions and ghosts and poignantly describes his peoples’ connection to their land. He asserts that “his one inconsolable regret was the fact that Tauilopepe, the son of his friend, of the man he had loved so much, would be responsible for the final destruction of his world.” The Samoans are envious of the papalagi (European whites) but strive to better their own circumstances, unlike the characters in Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors (LJ 6/15/94). Tauilopepe tames the bush to create a plantation and acquire considerable personal wealth. As he gains stature in his community, he loses the love and respect of his family. Following his success, Tauliopepe is described by his son as being like “all preachers in their wooden thrones who do not listen to their own message because their hearts are stone.”

Vernice Wineera Pere, Mahanga: Pacific Poems ? This one is hard to get a hold of and doesn?t have a description on Amazon.  I bought the last pamphlet copy from Pioneer Book on Amazon for $20.00.  The next cheapest copy is $75.  If you live in Utah, you might be able to find a copy at your local library.  Pere worked at the Polynesian Cultural Center and her poetry was published in pamphlet form by BYU ? Hawai?i.  She was one of the first Polynesian authors to be published.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Great stuff, Amanda.

    Comment by Ben P — May 1, 2013 @ 7:54 pm

  2. Interesting. Thanks for writing this up.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 1, 2013 @ 11:24 pm

  3. Your project sounds interesting and I’d love to see what the final result looks like plus what other source materials you uncover. What is the broader context of the study? Are you looking specifically at Mormon influences in Polynesian literature/ culture?

    I came across Wendt Young’s books a few months ago on the internet and was interested to learn of the Mormon connection. Of course, if you’re thinking about writing about any perceived Mormon element in her work you should be warned. She finishes her blog post about being a Mormon with this:

    “BUT if I ever see a critical essay written on ?Mormonism in the TELESA Series?, I?m going to vomit all over it. And call on the Dark Lord to set it on fire.

    You have been warned.”

    Indeed you have.

    I studied English literature at Auckland University and so sat in lectures from both Albert Wendt and Witi Ihimaera. I knew that Witi Ihimaera had spent at least some time at Church College and that many of the Ihimaera/Smiler clan are still members today. When I was an undergraduate student, however, Witi had just come out with his “gay novel”, and to be honest, I never felt like Mormonism had much to offer in understanding him or his fiction. I’d also never suspected a Mormon connection with Wendt (though coming from Samoa there has to be something) and Wendt Young, it appears, is his niece.

    Though I could be wrong, I suspect it is really clutching at straws to see any deep (or perhaps even shallow) Mormon influence in the works of Wendt or Ihimaera (though I could be wrong). I suspect, however, that Wendt Young is more influenced by Mormonism in her writing than she cares to admit (her subtitle and the phrase “flesh and blood” in the quote you gave above suggests there is something, if only at the level of work choice). At any rate, please keep us posted on what you find.

    Comment by Jon — May 2, 2013 @ 1:51 am

  4. Jon,

    I read that blog post and thought about including it with the article. I read it as a warning but my personality also saw it as a challenge and a gauntlet thrown 🙂

    The article is about depictions of Polynesians in Mormon popular culture beginning in the 1960s and going through the 90s, maybe to the present if I get ambitious. I try to contextualize the depictions with Mormon understandings of the Lamanite. I wanted to read Polynesian Mormon fiction to get a sense of how Polynesian Mormons portrayed the Pacific in their writings. Whether or not they are drawing on Mormon cosmology or whether Mormonism is absent from their work is part of what I am trying to discover. If Mormonism is absent that is just as important to me as if it is present because it suggests something about their work and the way that the books are perceived in the larger literary community.

    Comment by Amanda — May 2, 2013 @ 6:38 am

  5. Jon, I just wanted to add that I am a bit jealous that you got to take classes with Wendt.

    Comment by Amanda — May 2, 2013 @ 6:41 am

  6. Talofa and hello, i read your review with great interest – thank you for taking the time to read my book and share your insight on it. Very intriguing. Just wanted to add that while I am an active/practising member of the LDS faith, my uncle Albert Wendt is not and never has been – a Mormon. I look forward to reading more reviews of Pacific fiction here.

    Comment by Lani — May 2, 2013 @ 8:21 am

  7. Another Samoan/Kiwi with a (loose) Mormon connection you might look at for background is Oscar Kightley (one of the “Naked Samoans” and co-author of the feature film Sione’s Wedding and the animated series Bro’Town). From what I understand, he grew up in the church, though I don’t believe he has much to do with it these days. He’s a comedian and a well-known figure in New Zealand film and television and offers comical and sometimes satirical looks at the Pacific Island experience in Auckland. Bro’Town definitely played with religious themes, though not in a specifically Mormon way.

    Good luck with the article. Let us know when it gets published somewhere down the road.

    Comment by Jon — May 2, 2013 @ 8:53 am


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