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Fiction

Two Birthdays

By Titaua Peu
Translated from French by Jeffrey Zuckerman
Groundbreaking Tahitian novelist Titaua Peu chronicles a family's dissolution in her new novel Pina, out this month from Restless Books. Translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman, the excerpt below describes the surprising circumstances in which Pina, the novel's nine-year-old protagonist, was born.

It all happened on Ma’s birthday. The morning had been off to a nice start, a special morning. She’d never seen the house abuzz like this. They were going all out for Ma tonight. Birthdays didn’t happen every day, and Ma’s husband had just been paid his leaving wages. Tomorrow he’d have to scrounge around for new work, but today they’d live like kings. Auguste, Pauro, and even Rosa had scrubbed the place clean, set up chairs for them to get some sun, and Ma was just taking in the sight of her family, not thinking for once about her fingers swelled up or her belly sticking all the way out. The tiny radio was spitting out songs that any other time Ma couldn’t have stood one bit. The Bee Gees were carrying on about fever, and the disco rhythm had Ma tapping her toes, rocking her body back and forth.

It had been ages since she’d smiled, hadn’t it? Ever since the man who’d become her husband had laid on the charm for her, years and years ago, a good twenty years ago. When Ma was seventeen, she’d been pretty, the prettiest one of all in tiny Huahine. She didn’t have a care in the world back then, all her dreams had been about simple old things. Finding a husband, one who wasn’t from her island, so she could move to the big city, to Tahiti. She heard about it all the time. Wild nights at Quinn’s, being happy and drunk and free. She’d been told water was flowing inside houses nowadays, coming out of pipes that could be turned on and off whenever you liked. That was magic, and maybe that could be her life. When Ma was seventeen, that was what her dreams were about, and every few days she made her way from her village to the Huahine harbor, where schooners came and moored, their bellies bursting with Tahitian dreams and smells. It was at that harbor that she met Auguste, the man who’d give her all these children.

“Back then . . .” The guys were fond of saying that: “Back then, I did this, he did that . . .” and in their eyes there was the gleam of something delicate and tender, something beautiful and sad. They’d say “back then,” as if that could make up for everything . . .

When they met, Auguste was a handsome, handsome fellow. Jet-black hair that came down past his eyes and made him look something . . . like he was outside time. He looked every bit proud of the body he had at eighteen. Auguste was a hungry sort. He was unloading all manner of goods and then loading copra by the ton. Ma was peeking at him behind his back, and he already knew what he wanted was her, to lose himself in her. He’d already gotten a taste of a woman’s body, nice and warm, a body that forgot itself, gave in. He’d already done the deed with his cousin, and they’d never said a word about it again ever. One afternoon, after the boat had been maneuvered in and moored, Auguste had jumped down onto the quay and told Ma that he wanted her. The next thing, he was talking marriage. Not two weeks since they’d first laid eyes on one another, Ma was headed off with him, and all Ma’s mother had to say about it was that she’d never be happy in Tahiti, not with Auguste.

***

She was turning thirty-seven, which wasn’t all that old. Her eyes were on Rosa who’d slipped on a flower-print pāreu and was swaying that small butt of hers to the pounding beat of a fifties tāmūrē. Ma had let out a guffaw at her daughter’s hips moving this way and that. A guffaw that had her bent over laughing when all of a sudden she felt her baby kick hard, so hard it hurt. The kicks were at the bottom of her stomach, quick sharp ones. Ma hollered at Auguste and then it was all shrieks because she felt water running down her legs. The only thing to do was to get up, grab what they needed, and go to the hospital straightaway. The baby was only seven months along and Ma was sure she would die. Not a single one of her other pregnancies had ever given her so much pain. This thing thrashing around in her belly couldn’t be a baby. It had to be a monster. She recollected the old woman’s words. A boy, the handsomest of all, and she passed out.                                              

When she finally came back to, she felt something like a gash down her stomach. Both sides held together by an enormous bandage, and Auguste saying that she’d been cut open. Ma was crying bloody murder and her child was brought in. A tiny, pitch-black baby. When the nurse announced that it was a pretty little girlie, Ma could have hit the ceiling. She knew not to holler the way she always did or it would have torn her right apart. She narrowed her eyes at the bundle of blankets and saw an ugly dark thing with tightly coiled hair. A boy? “The handsomest of all”? No. A girl who wasn’t one bit pretty, who kept crying nonstop, even after she’d suckled . . . Ma was as angry at the old woman from Paea as if she were God up in heaven and could have given her a boy or a girl upon request. For weeks, Ma didn’t feel a shred of warmth for the baby. She could go and cry in her filthy, soaking diapers—and so she did.    

***

It was years before Pina was told about all that. About the day Ma turned thirty-seven, about the rage she flew into. If she’d had any say in the matter, Pina would have chosen not to know about any of it, but people were monsters: family or not, they didn’t worry themselves about the feelings of others, not even children. And when the facts only got laughter and leering out of all of them, she was left with sadness and nights that felt downright lonely . . . So Pina dreamed up a world she’d survive in, dreamed up voices she could listen to, so as not to have to think about the world she was in.

Excerpted from Pina by Titaua Peu, published by Restless Books. Copyright © 2016 by Titaua Peu. Translation copyright © 2022 by Jeffrey Zuckerman. By arrangement with the publisher. 

English

It all happened on Ma’s birthday. The morning had been off to a nice start, a special morning. She’d never seen the house abuzz like this. They were going all out for Ma tonight. Birthdays didn’t happen every day, and Ma’s husband had just been paid his leaving wages. Tomorrow he’d have to scrounge around for new work, but today they’d live like kings. Auguste, Pauro, and even Rosa had scrubbed the place clean, set up chairs for them to get some sun, and Ma was just taking in the sight of her family, not thinking for once about her fingers swelled up or her belly sticking all the way out. The tiny radio was spitting out songs that any other time Ma couldn’t have stood one bit. The Bee Gees were carrying on about fever, and the disco rhythm had Ma tapping her toes, rocking her body back and forth.

It had been ages since she’d smiled, hadn’t it? Ever since the man who’d become her husband had laid on the charm for her, years and years ago, a good twenty years ago. When Ma was seventeen, she’d been pretty, the prettiest one of all in tiny Huahine. She didn’t have a care in the world back then, all her dreams had been about simple old things. Finding a husband, one who wasn’t from her island, so she could move to the big city, to Tahiti. She heard about it all the time. Wild nights at Quinn’s, being happy and drunk and free. She’d been told water was flowing inside houses nowadays, coming out of pipes that could be turned on and off whenever you liked. That was magic, and maybe that could be her life. When Ma was seventeen, that was what her dreams were about, and every few days she made her way from her village to the Huahine harbor, where schooners came and moored, their bellies bursting with Tahitian dreams and smells. It was at that harbor that she met Auguste, the man who’d give her all these children.

“Back then . . .” The guys were fond of saying that: “Back then, I did this, he did that . . .” and in their eyes there was the gleam of something delicate and tender, something beautiful and sad. They’d say “back then,” as if that could make up for everything . . .

When they met, Auguste was a handsome, handsome fellow. Jet-black hair that came down past his eyes and made him look something . . . like he was outside time. He looked every bit proud of the body he had at eighteen. Auguste was a hungry sort. He was unloading all manner of goods and then loading copra by the ton. Ma was peeking at him behind his back, and he already knew what he wanted was her, to lose himself in her. He’d already gotten a taste of a woman’s body, nice and warm, a body that forgot itself, gave in. He’d already done the deed with his cousin, and they’d never said a word about it again ever. One afternoon, after the boat had been maneuvered in and moored, Auguste had jumped down onto the quay and told Ma that he wanted her. The next thing, he was talking marriage. Not two weeks since they’d first laid eyes on one another, Ma was headed off with him, and all Ma’s mother had to say about it was that she’d never be happy in Tahiti, not with Auguste.

***

She was turning thirty-seven, which wasn’t all that old. Her eyes were on Rosa who’d slipped on a flower-print pāreu and was swaying that small butt of hers to the pounding beat of a fifties tāmūrē. Ma had let out a guffaw at her daughter’s hips moving this way and that. A guffaw that had her bent over laughing when all of a sudden she felt her baby kick hard, so hard it hurt. The kicks were at the bottom of her stomach, quick sharp ones. Ma hollered at Auguste and then it was all shrieks because she felt water running down her legs. The only thing to do was to get up, grab what they needed, and go to the hospital straightaway. The baby was only seven months along and Ma was sure she would die. Not a single one of her other pregnancies had ever given her so much pain. This thing thrashing around in her belly couldn’t be a baby. It had to be a monster. She recollected the old woman’s words. A boy, the handsomest of all, and she passed out.                                              

When she finally came back to, she felt something like a gash down her stomach. Both sides held together by an enormous bandage, and Auguste saying that she’d been cut open. Ma was crying bloody murder and her child was brought in. A tiny, pitch-black baby. When the nurse announced that it was a pretty little girlie, Ma could have hit the ceiling. She knew not to holler the way she always did or it would have torn her right apart. She narrowed her eyes at the bundle of blankets and saw an ugly dark thing with tightly coiled hair. A boy? “The handsomest of all”? No. A girl who wasn’t one bit pretty, who kept crying nonstop, even after she’d suckled . . . Ma was as angry at the old woman from Paea as if she were God up in heaven and could have given her a boy or a girl upon request. For weeks, Ma didn’t feel a shred of warmth for the baby. She could go and cry in her filthy, soaking diapers—and so she did.    

***

It was years before Pina was told about all that. About the day Ma turned thirty-seven, about the rage she flew into. If she’d had any say in the matter, Pina would have chosen not to know about any of it, but people were monsters: family or not, they didn’t worry themselves about the feelings of others, not even children. And when the facts only got laughter and leering out of all of them, she was left with sadness and nights that felt downright lonely . . . So Pina dreamed up a world she’d survive in, dreamed up voices she could listen to, so as not to have to think about the world she was in.

Excerpted from Pina by Titaua Peu, published by Restless Books. Copyright © 2016 by Titaua Peu. Translation copyright © 2022 by Jeffrey Zuckerman. By arrangement with the publisher. 

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