Big Fella - Ta’afuli Andrew Fiu "Purple Heart" – The Book and the Author
TAAFULI ANDREW FIU "PURPLE HEART" THE
BOOK AND THE AUTHOR
Good On 'Ya tell a friend and win
Arse Kickers When Ta’afuli Andrew Fiu was 14 he was going to
be an All Black. The winger for the De La Salle new competitions
One-on-One College second XV had already scored a bunch of check winners
Editorial tries for his school team and was looking forward to
taking the step up to the top level the next year –
A Bit Of A Laugh just like one John Kirwan had. That was until he got
The son of an immigrant Samoan family, Ta’a was
renamed Andrew by the nuns at the Ponsonby
convent school he attended as a young fella. It didn’t
go over too well with his parents but then again it
was just another abuse doled out on Pacific Island
immigrants by the religious and societal hegemony
of the time.
Like many Polynesian immigrants in the 1970’s, the Fius had moved to the suburb
of Mangere in South Auckland to be closer to the industrial operations that
employed so many Pacific Islanders. When Andrew fell ill, he was taken to his local
doctor, only to be diagnosed with a cold and sent home for bed rest.
It wasn’t a cold.
What Andrew desperately needed was a correct diagnosis – Rheumatic fever was
what he was actually suffering from. If you don’t know, rheumatic fever (an outbreak
of the illness was occurring in New Zealand in the early 1980’s) attacks the muscles
of the heart and does it quickly. Within weeks Ta’a Andrew Fiu was in Middlemore
Hospital, confined to bed in an unfriendly adult ward. He would watch nine people
die in his first month of hospitalisation, and he would be in and out of wards for the
next 26 years of his life.
Purple Heart is the memoir of an extraordinary life. In the book Andrew candidly
outlines life as a Samoan growing up in New Zealand society – the family
gatherings, the dawn raids, the ample meals, the zeal for religion and a father’s
disciplinary actions (there is one scene in particular that will horrify and amaze in
Mostly though, this is a book of great humour in the most trying of circumstances.
It’s a book about a lost childhood and a fast tracked maturity, all set against a
backdrop of pacific island family, western medicine and a systematic racism.
Chief protagonist among Andrew’s less-than-ideal ward mates is Bob Weston (not
his real name), one of the most abusive, bitter and bigoted characters ever to make
it into print. His tirades at a scared but indignant teenaged Andrew are recounted
with an intensity reserved for the most traumatic of circumstances. Bob Weston was
an arsehole – and Ta’a was effectively imprisoned alongside him. Think of the worst
way for a child to grow up and triple it. His posthumously delivered letter to the
author has to be read to be believed.
When I meet Andrew it is the 40-year old media and
design agency owner. Part pragmatist, part fatalist. I
get the impression that at any given moment he is
trying his best to hide what must be an almost
overwhelming sense of bitterness.
Although he doesn’t mention it in the book he tells
me that he saw that original doctor again a few
years back - the one who had misdiagnosed him. He
was driving a taxi.
Most of us faced with the man who, because of his
inability to do his job, had cost us two and a half
decades of health, would probably have more than a
few things to say. Andrew just shrugs and asks
rhetorically ‘what was I going to do? Grill him?
What’s the point?’
I couldn’t help thinking that I wouldn’t have been so big. It turns out that Andrew’s
case effectively helped lead to a more thorough qualifications process for immigrant
doctors. Or so the story goes.
He’s pretty well adjusted – he says that whenever he makes a decision to do
something, the first question he asks himself is whether he would regret it if he
didn’t. (I can understand that) Andrew thinks the same racial undertones throughout
the book are still as relevant today but as Mr Grace, the 90-year old roommate who
died in the sunshine, told him: It could always be worse.
That advice at least has never left him – though I suspect there have been many
times when he has, at least subconsciously asked “yeah? How?” before regathering
his composure. Today he is a successful businessman and a leader in his
community and while he is obviously enjoying some form of independence there still
is a frustration in Andrew – I suspect “I never got the chance to be an All Black!”
would be chief suspect.
Grab a copy of Purple Heart – it’s an honest and often emotional account of a life
very much less ordinary and an almost accidental history of our nation’s unchanged
attitudes toward certain cultures. It’s also about the ties that bind and the impotance
of self-awareness. But most of all this is a story of courage – a timeless tale of how
a young fella grew to be man under the most trying of circumstances.
Big Fella has five copies of Purple Heart to giveaway.
Last updated: 6th of August 2006