Breadfruit, the first novel in Celestine's
trilogy, was published in 2000.
With their tales of secrets and love and life, Breadfruit, Frangipani and Tiare in Bloom all celebrate the ingenuity and generosity of women. If Celestine has a raison d’être, a calling, it is this. “As a writer, the thing I appreciate the most is that I can plant seeds, change the mentality of my people. Oui? In Tahiti, women do all of the work, pass on the traditions, clean, cook. Men, from when they’re born, are like little gods. I want to change this mentality.
“Because I live overseas, it’s making me more aware of issues and braver. I go to Tahiti, I create a fuss, and they go, ‘Where is she?’ but I’m gone.” The laugh emerges once more. “The husband of the Minister for Women said, ‘If there were fifty women like her, there’d be a revolution.’ I said, ‘Well, there will be a revolution, because they’re all reading my book! No worry, they’re coming in force.’” Celestine has started a scholarship fund for young girls, and her passion, she says, is to get more libraries built in French Polynesia. “There’s only one library,” she scoffs, half-astonished, half-appalled. “It’s a joke.”
There may only be one, but as a girl Celestine was in it all the time. She was a voracious reader, and her hero was Guy de Maupassant, discovered when she was eleven. “I used to fantasize about how he wrote about peasants,” she remembers. “I asked my mum, ‘Can we have cabbage soup?’ He wrote a lot about the Seine, and the first time I saw that river, I was thirty-two, in France for a book fair. They filmed me, and my mother saw it in Tahiti and said, ‘Finalement, elle a vu sa rivière.’ Finally, she saw her river—her river. And I thought, ‘Isn’t this what it’s about? In books, you fall in love with people, you fall in love with places.’ It really showed me the way.”
Not that she dreamed of being a writer, though, when she was a girl; in those days, the idea was to be a pilot, then a psychiatrist, then president. “There was never a mention of writing,” she recalls. “But then again, mum and my aunties were great storytellers.”
Celestine left Tahiti for Australia when she was 21, following a surfer husband. “I had two kids, I couldn’t speak the language, my husband was away a lot. I look back and think, ‘How did I survive?’ And I’ve realized what a strong girl I was. But I always felt bad about my mum. She believed in us, made so many sacrifices. I was the oldest, and I was supposed to carry the flame and spoil her and I left.”
Today, Celestine has more than made up for that. Her mother has not only been immortalized, but she is also now a jet setter, Celestine says, who travels often to Australia and even went camel riding in the Outback when Celestine was there teaching writing workshops for Aborigine students.
Both Celestine and her mother, in fact, believe this path was all part of the divine plan, as chaotic and certain and fateful as the trajectory of one of Celestine’s own novels. “My mum’s very big on positive visualization, that you’ve got to send your thoughts to the universe for the universe to hear you,” Celestine says. “When I started writing, she told me, ‘Darling, when you dream, see your book in the bookshop.’ Then I dreamed of myself on a podium in front of thousands of people, and I thought, ‘OK, you’re getting carried away now, back to the bookshop!’” Comes the laugh and then, “We do that a lot, my brother and sisters, visualization. My new thing is I want to win the Pulitzer. I’m dreaming a lot about that. I’m wearing a white dress, my hair’s up, with tiare flowers. I can see it.” A final laugh—though this is not a joke, nor, given Celestine’s talent for detailing the soul of life’s complexity, does it sound all that far-fetched. Tiare flowers, in fact, sound like just the thing for New York. HH