In Pacific literary circles and in academia, poet and novelist Albert Wendt is a respect and highly esteemed voice. Since picking up one of his earliest works as an awkward, contemplative bookworm in my youth, Wendt has been to me, somewhat of a cultural icon.
Since the release of his very first work in 1963 (Tagata, the man who searched for the freedom tree), Wendt’s exploratory journey into the rich, multi-layered and complex world of Pacific cultures and peoples provides the onlooker with an intimate, first-hand look that can never be found in anthropological texts.
Two of his early works, Sons for the Return Home (1973) and Leaves of the Banyan Tree (1979) are especially engaging. Both novels provide readers with a view into two very distinct and popular themes in Pacific art and literature today.
In Sons for the Return Home (which was made into a feature film), the author unravels the intricate issue of race and love as seen through the eyes of a young Samoan, Sione and his love interest Sarah, a New Zealander. In Leaves of the Banyan Tree, Wendt sifts through the relationships between three generations of Samoan men as they cope with the rapid changes in their village life as well as their blossoming new nation.
With the soon-to-be-released electronic copies of these two treasures, I took a moment to ask Albert Wendt a few questions about his work.
LF: Why do you feel Leaves of the Banyan Tree is important reading for todays Pacific Island youths?
AW: Leaves of the Banyan Tree was first published in 1979. It was my third book to be published and it took me over thirteen years to write. It looks at three generations of the Aiga Tauilopepe in the village of Sapepe, Samoa, covering their history from the beginning of the village to the 1970s. I wanted to show the effects of colonial/foreign forces on our culture. Tauilopepe wants to make money by building a huge plantation, and by doing that he brings capitalism into his village. The novel shows the effects of that on his family and village. Though the novel is about a particular aiga in a particular village, it is about Samoa and what was happening to it at that time. It is still relevant today, because those forces continue to influence our lives. It is a novel, so it’s about how people think and feel and act and behave towards one another: how they are born, live and love and suffer and die. In this case that is set in Samoa. So young readers will find it relevant still. Leaves has been in print since it first came out.
LF: When writing Leaves of the Banyan Tree were there any parallels in your own life?
AW: I was born in Tauese, Apia, but spent much time in Malie, Vaiala, and Gagaifo-o-le Vao, Lefaga. My knowledge of village life came from that – and I’ve used that in Leaves and in my other work. Yes, many of the changes in my own life are reflected in the novel: changes in the life of my family and what I saw around me: the struggle for power and between generations – with the young rebelling against their parents and traditions and so forth. I was educated in Apia in the only English speaking primary school of that time; went to boarding school in the 1950s, in New Plymouth, into a culture so different from mine; went to Ardmore Teachers College and then Victoria University of Wellington, and then back to Samoa where I eventually became principal of Samoa College at the age of 29. And so goes my life history. And much that I’ve learned from that has gone into my books and stories and poems.
LF: Do you believe that Tauilopepe’s story still rings true with older Samoans today?
AW: Yes, I think it does with some Samoans. We don’t all read novels in the same way. We each read them differently and get our own meanings from them. So it’ll still ring true for some. If you don’t know much about Samoa and our culture there, Leaves will help you see those – but in your own way. We all have different preference and tastes – so we’ll all see Leaves according to those and who and what we are. A young reader will see it differently from an older one. A reader who grew up in NZ will see Leaves differently from someone living in Samoa.
LF: In Sons for the Return Home you discuss the clash between traditional Samoan life and the Western world. Why was it important to write this book?
AW: Sons for the Return Home was my first published novel. It was first published in 1973, and has been in print ever since. It is the first novel in English by a Samoan. It was hugely successful and was later made into a successful full-length feature film, the first film based on a Samoan novel. It is a love-story between a young Samoan man and a Palagi young woman; they meet at university, fall in love, and so forth. I use the love story to explore the histories and lives of the two families, to explore the interaction between two different ways of life, to expose the racism which is at the heart of colonial/NZ culture and its effects on the love between the protaganists and their families. It is a frank and hard-hitting novel written by the angry young man I was then – now I’m an angry old man! It was important for me to understand that anger and control it. When I read it today I know it could only have been written by the young man I was then!
LF: What do you see as the remnants of colonialism in today’s Samoa?
AW: Much of our way of life in Samoa was shaped and continues to be shaped by colonialism – we can’t stop forces/influences from outside, especially now that thousands of our people and their descendants live in NZ, Australia, the USA, etc. Every Samoan aiga I know is now international. My own, the Wendts which began in the village of Malie, now has large branches and hundreds of relatives in those countries. Many of them have never been to Samoa. All my novels and stories are in one way or another about that. For instance my latest collection of short stories, ANCESTRY, and my latest collection of poetry are set in Samoa, NZ, Hawaii, and so forth. Over the years I have also travelled all over the world, and I use much of that in my writing. Radio, tv, the internet etc now tie us all together whether we like it or not, as well.
LF: Do you feel that Samoans are still adversely or positively affected by its ties to New Zealand?
AW: When I’m now asked: where are you from? My answer: I’m from Aotearoa-Samoa. Who and what I am, was/and is, being shaped by those two countries. I can’t separate the two in my life. The way of life that I carry is Aotearean-Samoan. If I’m in Samoa, I’m in Samoa-Aotearoa. Does that make sense? I can’t do without my ties to Aotearoa, even if I wanted to. And that is true for most Samoans I know who are living here and in Samoa. I don’t put a value judgement on that because we each have our individual moral visions, preferences, tastes, prejudices, and so forth. All I can say is: right now I’m enjoying my life in Ponsonby, Auckland, Aotearoa – and I think I’m still Samoan in the way I define that.
LF: Your allegories effectively portray socially conscious messages and still leave room for the readers interpretation. How would you describe the condition or mind-set of today’s Pacific Island youth?
AW: At 72, I can’t pretend to understand ‘the condition and mind-set of today’s Pacific youth’. I’ve taught young people since I was in my twenties, and right up through university, retiring from academic life in 2008. I loved doing it because most of my young students were dynamic and brave and questioning – and in fact they taught me more than I ever taught them! I now find it difficult understanding even the lives of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I know they’re trying to survive and grow up in societies far more complex and difficult than the ones I grew up in. Right here in Aotearoa despite the negative stereotypes of our young people in the media, wonderful things are happening to our young people in sports, in the arts, in business, in all the spheres of life here. For instance we now have many first-class artists and sports people in every form of art and sports. I am very proud of them because they’ve had to overcome enormous odds.
LF: How important is it to have young reader’s read and understand the messages of these two masterfully written tales?
AW: Leaves and Sons, I hope, are entertaining reading and not just message novels. They may help young readers better understand themselves and where they’ve come from. To understand what love, pain, sorrow, joy, and being alive is all about.
LF: What message do you want to portray to today’s youths directly from the pages of Sons?
AW: From Sons? Perhaps how to be true to yourself, to speak up honestly against things you don’t like in your society, about helping others, about how wonderful love is and how easy it is to lose it. Sons is a love-story!
I look forward to and highly recommend to all readers these two great novels from Albert Wendt – Sons for the Return Home and Leaves of the Banyan Tree. Visit author Lani Wendt-Young’s website regularly for more information on when these two Pacific masterpieces will be released to the public in electronic form.