Albert Wendt

Albert Wendt, (born October 27, 1939, Apia, Western Samoa [now Samoa]), Samoan novelist and poet who wrote about present-day Samoan life. Perhaps the best-known writer in the South Pacific, Wendt sought to counteract the frequently romanticized, often racist literature about Polynesians written by outsiders.

Born into a Samoan family with a German great-grandfather, Wendt was educated at Victoria University, New Zealand (M.A., 1964). He edited several collections of modern poetry, including Lali, A Pacific Anthology (1980), and promoted the culture and arts of the Pacific Islands. In 1977 Wendt established in Western Samoa (now Samoa) a branch of the University of the South Pacific; through satellite television, classes and lectures were broadcast throughout the southern Pacific region. He taught at colleges and universities in Western Samoa, Fiji, and New Zealand.

Wendt synthesized the history, myths, and other oral traditions with contemporary written fiction, unifying them with his unique vision. His fiction portrays the traditions and mores of the papalagi (people descended from Europeans) and depicts their effect on Samoan culture. An early example of this theme appears in Sons for the Return Home (1973), his first novel. His other novels include Pouliuli (1977), which is a Polynesian version of King Lear, and a Samoan family saga, Leaves of the Banyan Tree (1979). Wendt’s short-story collections include Flying-Fox in a Freedom Tree (1974) and The Birth and Death of the Miracle Man (1986), and his poetry is collected in Inside Us the Dead: Poems 1961 to 1974 (1976), Shaman of Visions (1984), and Photographs (1995). His later fiction includes Ola (1991) and Black Rainbow (1992).

manoa ‘From Mānoa to a Ponsonby Garden’

Ultimately a book about ageing and the consideration of death, this collection moves from the warm valley winds of Hawai‘i to the seasons of a garden in Auckland.

In Hawai‘i Wendt watches the changing shadows of the Ko‘olau mountains from his verandah; considers the nature ofmauli, the seat of life; walks protected in his partner’s perfumed slipstream to work; and writes to fellow poet Hone Tuwhare from the excesses of Las Vegas.

manoaukr In the second half of the book we move to the garden in Ponsonby in 40 vivid ‘garden’ poems that are the triumph of the collection. Here joints need replacing, poets grow older, tsunami destroy and friends slip away, but a spirit of renewal and humour pervades – along with prowling cats, baking muffins, flashing kingfishers and visiting mokopuna. And scattered among the garden poems are some of Wendt’s inky, drawn poems about the Sāmoan tsunami or galu afi.

From Mānoa to a Ponsonby Garden is an extraordinary, alert and confident book by one of our most celebrated writers.

Original language: English.
Published in 2012.

leaves‘Leaves of the Banyan Tree’

“A saga of three generations, Leaves of the Banyan Tree tells the story of a family and community in Western Samoa undermined by the changes brought about by colonialism. It is considered a classic work of Pacific literature and Wendt’s best novel. A big story in every sense of the word… peopled by the richest assortment of characters in Pacific fiction, running the gauntlet of human action, the gamut of human emotion.” – New Zealand Herald

Leaves of the Banyan Tree concerns the life of a man named Tauilopepe. When the book begins in the late 1920s, Tauilopepe’s father has just died, and Tauilopepe is yearning for a way to prove himself to his aiga, his family. He demands of himself to make lots of money like the papalagi, to be able to send his children to the best schools in Apia, the colonial capital, and to be able to build himself a nice papalagi house. He imagines he can achieve this by breaking ground on a new plantation (of bananas, cacao, and other plant commodities) on the outskirts of his village, Sapepe (a fictional village on the island of Upolu).

His new plantation is called “Leaves of the Banyan Tree.” The significance of the name, and why it was chosen as the title of the book was not immediately clear to me. In Tauilopepe’s plantation stands a mighty old and large banyan tree. When Tauilopepe and his aiga first begin to clear out the “bush” that will become his profitable plantation, they swing they knives all around them, cutting everything in sight. Tauilopepe takes a few swings at the Banyan tree, and then gives up. As the following decades go by (from the 1920s to the 1960s), much goes on in Sapepe and in Tauilopepe’s life, but the Banyan tree remains. And as time goes by, he and his aiga take greater responsibility for the care of the tree, to ensure that it survives.

A novel.
Original language: English.
Published in 1979.

sons‘Sons for the Return Home’

This is a crucial novel in Aotearoa and the Pacific for several reasons. Firstly it established that Samoan authors had a role to play in creating fiction here, roughly paralleling the rise of the first Maori novels and full short story collections by Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera. Secondly it gave an impression of NZ that was from a source outside of the standard narrative sources. We had had many years of the Eurocentric point of view, with NZ re-cast as a little England (despite the fact the NZ was largely also settled by immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, then later the Dalmations coast in addition to the English). Then the ‘sons of Sargeson’ had given us the viewpoint and vernacular voice of the descendants of British settlers, but now broken free of the sense of being psychologically temporary settlers, or scouts of the motherland. In Frank Sargeson’s work the characters were of the NZ landscape, hewn by it, drawn from it and back to it. But the narrative viewpoint of the novels that followed was still clearly from a Pakeha worldview, and Maori and Polynesian characters viewed as the ‘other’. In New Zealand in the 1950’s and into the 1960’s being an ‘other’ definitely put you into the ‘submerged population groups’.

Wendt’s work viewed New Zealand as a colonising force in Samoa, a new outlook for this country, where we (the general populace) were not that long into the recognition of the British as a colonising force here, as opposed to being ‘home.’ That part of it is still an awakening jolt, the realisation that colonisation isn’t as much about the who as the how. It’s about the supplanting of power, of superimposing a narrative of superiority and primacy, and is not solely Eurocentric in its blindness to indigeneity and existing cultural narratives. Colonialism is a mindset as much as it is military power and entrenching political superiority. Witness the Australian mining industry reps in Lloyd Jones’ Mr Pip, with their beer guts and stubbies and jandals and disinterest in the ‘natives.’

Sons for the Return Home is a brave book by a brave writer who has shown courage and honesty for decades now. One can recently read an obituary for a noted business figure that said that the figure ‘was a man of courage.’ A closer reading saw that said businessman in fact always stood up for the apparatus of power and those who held it, for entrenched privilege. To see such shooting from behind mile-high sandbags as courageous is ridiculous. It takes courage to stand against power, to deconstruct the myths of not one society but two, to rattle the bars around you.

A novel.
Original language: English.
Published in 1973.

fox ‘Flying-fox in a freedom tree and other stories’

This early collection of eight short stories and a novella is vintage Wendt. Stories convey the unease of a traditional island community caught up in the rapid changes of the modern world. Wendt writes with enviable directness and with deep feeling: comedy and tragedy are often hard to distinguish as his characters struggle to come to terms with their changing world.

Wendt illuminates various currents in Samoan life and the constant struggle to overcome the discordance they cause with techniques taken from oral storytelling as well as from contemporary and post-modern literature. Tone and tense vary from story to story, within a story, even within a paragraph. Language does the same. There’s the literate voice of the assimilated narrator (the patronizing, detached nephew who relates the events in “Pint-sized Devil on a Thoroughbred”), and the lively pidgin of the unassimilated (as in “Captain full” and “Virgin-wise”). Wendt uses Samoan phrases, for which a non-Samoan reader needs the glossary, as well as transliterations (alcohol is “Devil’s Water” to some and “making fire” is making love). The interplay of technique and influence reflect the post-colonial situation of the Samoans, the dichotomy between loss of tradition and the freedoms and possibilities endowed by multicultural contact. Mr. Wendt weaves the elements of disarray into distinctive and intriguing tales.

Collection of short stories.
Original language: English.
Published in 1974.

pouliuli ‘Pouliuli’

“Few novelists of the Pacific islands could be less derivative in terms of the real vision into the life and character of non-Western society…. Even fewer novels, Western or Third World, can reach the strength and artistic power of Pouliuli.” – World Literature Today

In Pouliuli, a novel written by Albert Wendt, Faleasa Osovae awakens to find the life he’s been living all along is a mere façade. Pouliuli invites readers into the Samoan community of Malaelua, which is turned topsy-turvy when Faleasa misleads his aiga and community by acting maniacal. Albert Wendt ties a famous Malaelua saga about a mythological hero named Pili to Faleasa Osovae’s life. In the myth as well as in Faleasa’s story, they both had the same goal, which was to live the rest of their life “free”. To accomplish this goal, they both had to accomplish three tasks. Pilis’ tasks were to eat a mountain of fish which the giant’s had caught that day, to race the giants down a river, and make himself disappear. Faleasas’ tasks were to destroy Filemoni, Make Moaula the new leader, and remove Sau and Vaelupa as council leader. Of course they couldn’t have done these tasks alone so both of them enlisted help from friends. Pili enlisted the help of Tausamitele, Lelemalosi, and Pouliuli. Faleasa enlisted the help of his long time friend Laaumatua and his son Moaula. Finally to get the freedom they so wished for they had to complete one last task. In Pili’s case it was to divide his kingdom among his children while Faleasa had to remove Malaga as congress of the village. In the end, they both end up with nothing. Both ending up in the darkness of Pouliuli.

A novel.
Original language: English.
Published in 1977.

vela‘The Adventures of Vela’

“We are the remembered cord that stretches across the abyss of all that we’ve forgotten,” sang Vela.

Journey through the many stories and worlds of the immortal Vela, the Samoan song maker, poet, and storyteller—Vela, who was so red and ugly at birth they called him the Cooked; Vela the lonely admirer of pigs and the connoisseur of feet; Vela the lover of song maker Mulialofa. Follow Vela down through centuries as he encounters the single-minded society of the Tagata-Nei and the Smellocracy of Olfact and recounts the stories of Lady Nafanua, the fearless warrior queen, before whom travelling chroniclers still bow down today.

A Pacific epic, this novel stretches hundreds of years before the arrival of Papalagi to the present day and fuses the great indigenous oral traditions of storytelling and Western poetry.

A novel.
Original language: English.
Published in 2009.

mangos‘The Mango’s Kiss’

An epic novel stretching out from Samoa to Europe, America and New Zealand, from the turn of the nineteenth century, through the First World War, the Spanish Influenza Epidemic and beyond.

Since the 1960s, Albert Wendt has created a profound and fabulous Pacific world that is uniquely his own. A fictional world focused on Samoa and New Zealand and reaching out to the centres of the world, a world inhabited by the richest menagerie of characters in Pacific fiction, characters whose lives and stories reflect our own complex depths. Sixteen years in the writing, The Mango’s Kiss is a striking addition to that world.

Pele’s first moment of remembered consciousness is the morning kiss of the mango fruit on her cheek. That kiss brings with it the awareness of mortality, pleasure and pain. It is a gift from her father, Mautu Tuifolau, the local pastor, the man she adores. Love is never simple, though, and in this story of the struggles and passions of Pele and her family, it must adapt to the growing world that stretches out from village life in Samoa to the cities of Europe, America and New Zealand. It must accommodate the conflicts of a gifted family and the attraction of extraordinary outsiders, from a famous English writer to an American anthropologist, missionaries and the trader Barker, with his quest for gold and epic tales of an adventurous past. And it must encompass the family’s links to the ancient gods of pre-missionary times and move through the turn of the nineteenth century, the First World War, the terrible Spanish Influenza Epidemic and beyond.

A novel.
Original language: English.
Published in 2003.