story by Julia Steele
photo by Sergio Goes
When Celestine Vaite was 29 and pregnant with her third child, she sat down at the kitchen table and wrote a story called “The Electricity Man.” It was based on her childhood in Tahiti, and it was the first story she’d ever written. “My mother was a single mother of four children,” says Celestine, “very poor, lived in a shack but a very proud woman, a professional cleaner. For some reason though, she couldn’t handle the electricity man. He used to come and cut off the electricity all the time. It would reduce her as if she was a nothing. I used to tell her to tell him off: ‘You’re a strong woman raising four kids with no help from the government.’ She’d say, ‘No, I’ve got my pride; that’s why God invented candles.’ So years later,” Celestine says with a satisfied laugh, “I got my revenge.”
That revenge came courtesy of Materena Mahi, the heroine Celestine created at the table that day, a woman who wasn’t about to take a thing from the man who’d come to cut off her power. Here is a taste of their encounter:
The electricity man puts his right foot forward. “Move, I say.”
Materena also puts her right foot forward. “What do you think you’re doing?”
The electricity man puts his left foot forward.
“Don’t even think about it.” Materena also puts her left foot forward.
The electricity man pushes Materena out of the way.
And Materena pushes the electricity man out of her way. “Don’t mess with me, young man.”
Celestine typed up “The Electricity Man” and sent it to a few literary journals. One of them called Random House, and Random House called Celestine. “Have you got a whole book about Materena?” the publishing house wanted to know. “I thought, ‘No, but I will,’” Celestine recalls, “and by the time I had my fourth child, Materena was alive.”
Very alive. The book Random House wanted became Breadfruit, the first in Vaite’s trilogy on the Mahi family; next came Frangipani and after that, Tiare in Bloom. Together, the three books offer one of the truest, sweetest, funniest portraits of a Polynesian family ever written. There is a huge cast—Materena’s husband Pito; her children Tamatoa, Leilani and Moana; her mother Loana and cousins Rose, Mori and Rita; there’s Ati and Hotu and more, a whole constellation of Tahitians—but at the center of it all is Materena. In Celestine’s books, the challenges and the wisdom are distinctly island-driven, but there is a universality, too, in Materena’s quest to hold her family together, strengthen her children, sustain her friends and grow herself. The trilogy is widely read in Tahiti and even taught at university there, but it’s also embraced in places as far from the South Pacific as Italy and China. “I just got a fan letter from Romania!” Celestine marvels. Part of the appeal undoubtedly comes from the fact that Celestine’s novels feel as wide open as an island horizon. “I don’t like books that are difficult to read,” she says. “Like, three paragraphs about a tree? No, it’s not me.”
In person, Celestine is much like her books: grounded, confident, clear, generous, strong (“I used to be vulnerable,” she says with the deep, throaty, conspiratorial laugh that accompanies most of her words, “but I’m not anymore.”). Because she is so much like her books, you wonder just how much of Celestine is in Materena. After all, both Celestine and Materena had French fathers who never knew they existed—that is, until they got a phone call out of the blue from a grown daughter. Both have lived in shacks near the Tahiti Faa‘a International Airport. Both have families filled with enough colorful characters to populate a Frank Capra film. But Materena is not all Celestine; she was inspired by Celestine’s mother and like her, she is a professional cleaner. In truth, Celestine says, “she’s like my mum but with a daring attitude, which is me. I'm the part that’s really open to people. Obsessive about cleaning—that’s my mum.” As for the other characters in the Mahi clan: “When you have an extended family like I do, you have to take a little bit from this cousin, this auntie. I always throw myself in the mix. I’m everywhere”—Celestine laughs—“I’m God!”