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What was she thinking? A palagi on why she wrote in the voice of a Samoan

Petra Molloy was born in the Netherlands and moved to Aotearoa with her family in 1952; she lives in Auckland. Her novel Chosen Boys is about child abuse in the Catholic Church. It’s set in dawn-raids South Auckland – and is written largely from the point of view of a Samoan mother. We asked Molloy to explain that choice, and why she stands by it. 

The very nature of betrayal is that it comes from those whom you should be able to trust above all others. The Catholic Church’s betrayal of its people is of the most treacherous kind.

My Dutch ancestors have been Catholic for untold generations. My husband’s Irish forebears have also handed down Catholicism for countless generations. My five children were born into the Catholic Church. Catholicism is in my blood. As much as any belief system it is a cultural tradition that has rooted me in a sense of who and what I am.

When I was a child I grew up in a story-book world. I loved fairy tales and myth and legend and all those stories where the dichotomy of good and evil was so clearly defined. My Catholic world was full of similar tales, of evil kings and pagan emperors, of devils and demons, saints and angels, of persecutions and martyrdoms and miraculous interventions. I grew up steeped in the liturgy and rituals of Catholicism: the priest in his sacred vestments, swinging the golden censer; the heady smell of the frankincense and myrrh. And then there was the God language, that Latin vernacular of the Roman Church: ‘In Nomine Patris et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.’ The wonder and magic of it, the beauty and mysticism of its ceremonies, soaked into my child’s soul.

But children grow up. And the fairy tale Catholic Church has vanished. Chosen Boys came from this, that long slow painful dawning of what lies beneath the Church’s beautiful ritual and its air of enchantment.

Chosen Boys is a fictitious story sprung from my own outrage. It deals with the sexual abuse of a seven-year-old and the effects on him, his family and community. It’s about the culture of concealment in the Church. It’s also about the resilience of a people, when their lives are being destroyed by the betrayal of the Church in whom they trusted.

The 1970s, when the story is set, is a relatively innocent period in that abuse was insidious, and people were not aware that it was happening – or perhaps, their trust in the Church was such, that they couldn’t have believed such a thing to be possible. I was a young woman in the 70s and was closely connected to the Church. I seldom heard it mentioned. Yet, sexual abuse in the Church was at its height during the 70s, enabled and facilitated by a Church whose official policy was to conceal it by moving the pedophile priest to another parish, where the abuse could start all over again. What chance did children have against bureaucracy like this? Their suffering is inconceivable. For many victims it has taken decades to tell.

Author Petra Molloy, and her novel, Chosen Boys

Chosen Boys is set in Auckland and is told from varying cultural points of view. The people in the story reflect the multicultural society that New Zealand was, and is; it is also the one I grew up and lived in.

The novel is told from many points of view, and one of these, a significant one, is that of a Samoan mother. After World War Two, due to economic growth and an acute shortage of workers in factories and industry, New Zealand invited people from the Pacific to leave their countries and migrate here; they were promised a better life with many more opportunities. The migrants who settled in Auckland established their communities in the then poorer, run-down suburbs of Ponsonby, Newton and Grey Lynn. When the economy declined in the early 70s, Pacific Island migrants were blamed. The 70s were a shameful period in New Zealand history. It was when we showed ourselves to be a nation that persecuted people because of the colour of their skin, a time when politicians publicly inflamed the bigotry already latent in sections of our New Zealand society.

There continues to be some debate about the concept of white privilege in terms of fiction writing. “White privilege” refers to an institutionalized form of discrimination that favours the predominant group. It’s why Māori and Pacific people face greater barriers in achieving good health, education and employment and adequate housing. Peggy McIntosh describes white privilege as “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks”. For those who have it, it’s unthinking, like the air they breathe. For those who don’t, it turns into a very unfair playing field.

More readers and critics are holding authors accountable for books that are perceived to be written from the standpoint of white privilege. These novels are said to imitate society’s oppressive systems and to strengthen racist perceptions about historically marginalized communities.

The American author of The Help, Katherine Stockett, was on the New York Times best seller list for two years only to be condemned by critics claiming that her book “misrepresents and stereotypes black women, black men and the black community” and “presents black liberation and success being dependent on white intervention and goodness”.

Lionel Shriver, too, was accused of stereotyping and marginalizing minority cultures in her novel, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047. Constance Grady, writing for Vox, said: “It is racist to suggest that an influx of Latino immigrants are destroying America’s national character; it suggests that America’s national character is, as a default, white, that America is fundamentally a country that belongs solely to white people. And The Mandibles does all of that.”

Yet, trespassing into the life of another is the basis of fiction. In the Shriver fallout, British-Indian writer Hari Kunzru argued: “Good writers transgress without transgressing … they are humble about what they do not know. They treat their own experience of the world as provisional. They do not presume. They respect people, not by leaving them alone in the inviolability of their cultural authenticity, but by becoming involved with them.”

In writing fiction there is no one answer. There are many powerful reasons why you should tread with care into a story that is not yours to tell, reasons that rise from historical, political or social imbalances. However, writing is also about imagining how others feel. It’s about creating empathy. To suggest that writers should stop writing about characters unlike themselves, whatever gender, race or ethnicity they might be, would be ridiculous. It would make fiction writing dull to say the least.

English novelist Maggie Gee put it like this: ” … every character contains part of ourselves, but they also lead us down the mysterious passage to another life we long to understand. We feel our way into our characters until, effectively, we are them as we write them. This is very like the definition of empathy, or its German origin word, einfühlung, “feeling our way into another”. All of us in some way are trying to understand, trying to see what we hold in common. We want to avoid building a narrow fictional world peopled with characters who are vain mirror-images of ourselves, so we walk the mile of the novel in a variety of different characters’ shoes.”

I walked in the shoes of a mother, during that shameful part of New Zealand’s history, and imagined how it would feel when the country you trust turns against your children. To face the possibility of having your seven-year-old woken at dawn by police bursting into your home with large dogs straining at their leashes. To be forced to send your sons into a potentially hostile world, to see them labelled “FOB” or “coconut”, to know they might be dragged into a police van for no other reason than the colour of their skin. But – and here I quote Maggie Gee again as I can imagine no better way of expressing it – ” … living through a fictional character is never as good as knowing actual joy or love, and never as bad as suffering actual pain or discrimination.”

Writing from the perspective of another is a privilege not a right. Gee again: “With the freedom to inhabit others, therefore, comes a price. The price is humility about what we know, a willingness to show our characters to their models and hear the critical comments they make.” To publish a novel is, in other words, to be out in the boxing ring, exposed to any knocks that might head your way.

Chosen Boys was written over four years. During that time I researched Samoan history, literature, myths and traditions. The Samoans I spoke to generously shared their world and gave me feedback on my initial manuscripts. In particular, I owe Dr Ramona Tiatia, Pacific Advisor for the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago, a debt of thanks for reading my initial manuscripts and for her invaluable advice, particularly in correcting certain cultural inaccuracies. She encouraged me to delve deeper into the Samoan cultural world, and into my Samoan characters. Rather than suggesting I might be trespassing, she generously invited me in. It has been a hugely enriching experience.

I hope that I have entered into the Samoan and my other worlds with respect, that I have trod in the shoes of all the mothers with reverence, and with an awareness that what I write is only the imagined experience of a suffering I can never truly know.

Much of Chosen Boys is written in the voice of mothers. Motherhood is gut wrenching. As women we know its potential for suffering. Throughout the book, I have used excerpts from Yeats. His poetry is full of myth and folklore and a mysticism that is hard to define. In his poem ‘The Mother of God’ he expresses this primeval quality of motherhood:

What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?

The Catholic Church knows nothing of mothers. Its history of child abuse is a violation of all that motherhood represents. It has treated mothers’ children as little more than fodder. Chosen Boys is about the love of mothers for their children and the lengths to which they might go to protect them. Motherhood transcends cultures. It is what we share as women.

Chosen Boys did spring from outrage at the Catholic Church. But as well as this, it’s simply a story. A story about a people who have been betrayed and the resilience of their love.

Chosen Boys by Petra Molloy (Escalator Press, $30) is available from Unity Books. 


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