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by Bamber Gascoigne

Albert Wendt (1939-)


Samoan novelist, poet, and educator, who has promoted creative writing across the Pacific. Albert Wendt is probably the best-known writer in the South Pacific. Although his works are deeply rooted in the heritage of the Oceanic culture, they also reflect the common experience of people everywhere. Among Wendt's major works is Leaves of the Banyan Tree (1979), an epic spanning three generations and a modern classic work of Pacific literature.

"His father and Toasa had grown up together. They had spanned fifty years before his father died in 1928. In his memories of them Tauilopepe could never quite separate one from the other. They had both brought him up, nurturing him as one father, yet they were so different: Toasa full of laughter and vigour; Tauilopepe Laau, his father, aloof and silent, almost unapproachably cold. He had thought of them as making one complete human being - Toasa the flesh and bone and his father the calculating mind, the real power behind their leadership of Sapepe. But when his father died Toasa absorbed unto himself the being of his father, as it were." (from Leaves of the Banyan Tree)

Albert Wendt was born in Apia, Western Samoa, of mixed German and Polynesian ancestry. His father was a plumber, and a musician, who gave up his music for trying to get his children through school. "Our older relatives told us that our father used to drink and party a lot during his dance band days. . . . Not longer after he became a deacon, he stopped drinking altogether and preched against it from the pulpit." (Out of the Vaipe, the Deadwater: A Writer’s Early Life by Albert Wendt, 2015) In his childhood Wendt was fascinated by his grandmother Mele's storytelling – stories, poems, chants, legends and myths of his own people. At home he learned to read and write Samoan "using the missionary alphabet and the Bible". Although he could read and write English, he could not speak it much.

Due to his German surname he was able to enrol in Leifi'ifi Scool, reverved for the children of the New Zealand administrators and Europeans. Wendt won a government scholarship to study in New Zealand. His mother Luisa died when he was at boarding school; he couldn't attend her tangi (a Māori funeral). While studying at New Plymouth Boys' High School, he began writing for himself and contributed to the school magazine. He was encouraged by the example of Robert Louis Stevenson, who spent the last years of his life on Wendt´s native island. Wendt developed a habit of waking up at about 3 a.m., he studied or wrote until 5 or 6 and then slept again.

Wendt studied at Ardmore Teacher´s College near Auckland and at the Victoria University of Wellington, where he gained an M.A. in history. Before returning in 1965 to Western Samoa with his wife Jenny Whyte, a teacher, Wendt worked for a while as a schoolteacher in New Zealand. In 1969 Wendt became principal of Samoa College, running the school for years. Several of his poems, which were later collected in Inside us the Dead (1976), appeared first in New Zealand's foremost arts and literary journal, Landfall, and Pacific Islands Monthly. In the beginning of the 1970s, he wrote two plays, Comes the Revolution, for the First South Pacific Arts Festival, Suva, Fiji, and The Contact, performed at the Schools’ Drama Festival, Apia, Samoa. In 1974 he moved to Fiji, where he was appointed as senior lecturer at the University of the South Pacific.

While teaching he wrote Sons for the Return Home (1973), an autobiographical tale about an cross-racial romance. The protagonist, an unnamed young man from Samoa at university in New Zealand, cites Hoch Minh, Mao and Che Guevara, the heroes of Wendt's university studies. He was the first of a number of Wendt's existentialist heroes, a truth seeker who fails. Sons was praised for it tight narration and Wendt himself claimed that he would remove only nine adverbs if he had to edit it again. In Fiji's Parliament the book was denounced as "pornographic" and unsuitable for high-school students. Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree (1974), a novella, depicted the colorful, degraded world of street Samoan English. These early works have both been made into feature films. Pouliuli (1977) is the tragedy of an old village Lear-like chieftain, sickened by materialist greed, haunted by his past, and forced to encounter Western ways. In Fiji Wendt published such essays as 'Toward a New Oseania' and 'In a Stone Castle in the South Seas', in which he examined Pacific literature and his own role as a writer.

In 1977 Wendt returned home to set up the University of the South Pacific Center in Samoa. He worked closely with Mana, a literature magazine, and edited in 1975 collections of poems from Fiji, Western Samoa, the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), and the Salomons.

After Leaves of the Banyan Tree (1979), which took about 12 years to finish, Wendt did not want to write any more. This epic saga of Westerns Samoan life is considered a classic of Pacific literature. It won the 1980 New Zealand Wattie Book of the Year Award. Wendt mixes in the story personal metaphysics with mythic symbols arising from Samoa's landscape and Polynesian traditions. Tauilopepe, the grandfather, struggles to acquire wealth, power, and prestige. His rebellious son, Pepe, dies of tuberculosis and leaves behind a son, Lalolagi. He is taken away from his mother by Tauilopepe and sent to a New Zealand boarding school. Lalolagi rejects the Samoan language in favor of English, and falls in with businessmen to exploit the independent country's resources. The book provides a powerfully written account of the psychological effects of colonialism before and after the country's independence from New Zealand. Wendt sees the possibility of achieving liberation in the traumatic fusion of cultures through an existentialist individualism.

Wendt was awarded the first chair in Pacific literature at University of the South Pacific in Suva. In 1988 he was appointed Professor of English at the University of Auckland and in 2004 he took up the Citizen's Chair at the University of Hawai'i. In 2001 he was made Companion of the Order of New Zealand for his services to literature in 2001.

After returning from Hawai'i Wendt retired from academic life. Since 1991/1992 his partner has been the Māori literature scholar Reina Whaitiri. Their villa in Ponsonby, Auckland, New Zealand, had previously been the home of Michel Joseph Savage, the first Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Bryan Williams, a legendary Rugby Union Player of Samoan descent.

Although corruption, exploitation, and greed – the ills of globalization – were central in Wendt's work in the 1990s, he also began to employ postmodern techniques of storytelling. Ola (1991) has direct quotations from a range of Wendt's other books, from prose pieces to poetry. Like the author, Ola has a mixed-race background. Through her experiences and cultural confrontations during her travels, Wendt reveas prevailing racism and sexism. According to Wendt, a racist language was not used only by politicians and business leaders, but former academics and so-called pundits and journalists. Black Rainbow (1992) was was influenced by Milan Kundera. The political fable, an attack on French nuclear testing in the Pacific, used the frame of science fiction / detective novel. The idea for story can be traced back to the 1960s, when Wendt had a poster of an atomic-bomb blast on his wall.

While Wendt draws on traditional Polynesian culture, he takes the view that its disintegration under European influences has given the artist a new freedom to develop a personal style. Moreover, as he has said, readers are very interested in the way an author include other books, artists, film and television. Wendt's world is inhabited by real and semi-mythological beings, he uses European literature and history as well as images from Polynesian myths. Wendt's totemic owl is an image that constantly recurs. He has also acknowledged the influence of both Camus and Faulkner upon his writing. "The Outsider is one of the few novels I still re-read," he once said. Among his major themes is racism against Maoris and other ethnic minorities – "there is no difference between autobiography and fiction", he has said.

Most of the poems in Photograps (1995) deal with the author's life and extended family or Aiga. The Songmaker’s Chair (2004), a full-length play, was about generational conflict within an immigrant family. Wendt's vision of the patriarch of the family, Peseola Olaga, sitting in his favorite chair beside a radio, was based on his own father. The Adventures of Vela (2009), a novel-in-verse, was shorlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize; it won won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for the Asia Pacific Region.

For further reading:'Singing the Spiral of Time: Albert Wendt's The Adventures of Vela' by Bill Ashcroft, in Postcolonial Past & Present: Negotiating Literary and Cultural Geographies: Essays for Paul Sharrad, edited by Anne Collett, Leigh Dale (2018); The Novel in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the South Pacific since 1950, edited by Coral Ann Howells, Paul Sharrad, and Gerry Turcotte (2017); Postcolonial Pacific Writing: Representations of the Body by Michelle Keown (2004); Albert Wendt and Pacific Literature: Circling the Void, by Paul Sharrad (2003); 'Wendt, Albert,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 4, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); 'Burning on’, interview with Albert Wendt, in New Zealand Books (Aug 1999); Review of The Best of Albert Wendt's Short Stories by Albert Wendt, in Dominion (24 Jul 1999); The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, ed. by Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie (1998); '"The Techniques of Storytelling": An Interview with Albert Wendt', by Juniper Ellis, in ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, 28:3 (1997); 'A Tribute to the fa´a Samoa' by Valerie O'Rourke, in World Literature Today (1992); Comparative Literature East and West, ed. by Cornelia N. Moore (1989); 'Albert Wendt and the Far-Samoa,' in Essays on Contemporary Post-Colonial Fiction, ed. by Bock, Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim (1986); 'Order, Disorder, and Rage in the Islands: The Novels of V.S. Naipaul and Albert Wendt' by M.S. Martin, in Perspectives on Comparative Literature (1984)

Selected bibliography:

  • Guardians and Wards: A Study of the Origins, Causes, and First Two Years of the Mau in Western Samoa, 1965 (MA thesis)
  • Comes the Revolution, 1972 (play)
  • The Contract, 1972 (play)
  • Sons for the Return Home, 1973 (novel) - also made into feature film in 1979, dir. by Paul Maunder, prod. Don Blakeney
  • Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree: And Other Stories, 1974 (stories) - film 1989, dir. Martyn Sanderson, starring Faifua Amiga Jnr, Richard Von Sturmer, Peseta Sinave Isara, Aloema Anae, Fuialo Molimau, Afatia Aloese, Pativaine Ainuu
  • Pouliuli, 1977 (novella)
  • Inside us the Dead. Poems 1961 to 1974, 1976 (poems)
  • Leaves of the Banyan Tree, 1979 (novel)
  • Lali. A Pacific Anthology, 1980 (ed.)
  • Shaman of Visions, 1984 (poems)
  • The Birth and Death of the Miracle Man, 1986 (stories)
  • Ola, 1991 (novel)
  • Black Rainbow, 1992 (novel)
  • Nuanua: Pacific Writing in English since 1980, 1995 (ed.)
  • Photographs, 1995 (poems)
  • The Best of Albert Wendt's Short Stories, 1999 (stories)
  • The Book of the Black Star, 2002
  • Whetu Moana: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English, 2003 (ed., with Robert Sullivan and Rweina Whaitiri)
  • The Mango’s Kiss, 2003
  • The Songmaker’s Chair, 2004 (play)
  • The Adventures of Vela, 2009 (epic poem)
  • Mauri Ola: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English, 2010 (edited by Albert Wendt, Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan)
  • Ancestry, 2012
  • From Mānoa to a Ponsonby Garden, 2012
  • Out of the Vaipe, the Deadwater: a Writer's Early Life, 2015
  • Breaking Connections, 2015

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