Nationality: Samoan. Born: Apia, Western Samoa, 27 October 1939; member of the Aiga Sa-Tuala. Education: New Plymouth Boys High School, New Zealand, graduated 1957; Ardmore Teacher's College, diploma in teaching, 1959; Victoria University, Wellington, 1960-64, M.A. (honours) in history 1964. Family: Married Jennifer Elizabeth Whyte in 1964; two daughters and one son. Career: Teacher, 1964-69, and principal, 1969-73, Samoa College, Apia; senior lecturer, 1974-75, assistant director of Extension Services, 1976-77, and professor of pacific literature, 1982-87, University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji. Since 1988 professor of English, University of Auckland. Director, University of the South Pacific Centre, Apia, Western Samoa, after 1978. Editor, Bulletin, now Samoa Times, Apia, 1966, and Mana Publications, Suva, Fiji, 1974-80. Coordinator, Unesco Program on Oceanic Cultures, 1975-79. Awards: Landfall prize, 1963; Wattie award, 1980. Agent: Tim Curnow, Curtis Brown (Australia) Pty. Ltd., 27 Union Street, Paddington, New South Wales 2021, Australia. Address: Department of English, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland 1, New Zealand.
Pouliuli. Auckland, Longman Paul, 1977; Honolulu, University Press of Hawaii, 1980; London, Penguin, 1987.
Leaves of the Banyan Tree. Auckland, Longman Paul, 1979; London, Allen Lane, 1980; as The Banyan, New York, Doubleday, 1984.
Ola. Auckland, Penguin, 1990; Honolulu, University of HawaiiPress, 1995.
Black Rainbow. Auckland, Penguin, 1991; Honolulu, University ofHawaii Press, 1995.
Photographs. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1995.
Flying-Fox in a Freedom Tree. Auckland, Longman Paul, 1974;Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1999.
The Birth and Death of the Miracle Man. London and New York, Viking, 1986.
Comes the Revolution (produced Suva, Fiji, 1972).
The Contract (produced Apia, Western Samoa, 1972).
Inside Us the Dead: Poems 1961 to 1974. Auckland, Longman Paul, 1976.
Shaman of Visions. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1984;Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985.
Editor, Lali: A Pacific Anthology. Auckland, Longman Paul, 1980.
Editor, Nuanua: A Pacific Anthology. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1995; published as Nuanua: Pacific Writing in English Since 1980, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1995.*
"Towards a New Oceania" by Wendt, in Mana Review (Suva, Fiji), January 1976; chapter on Wendt in South Pacific Literature: From Myth to Fabulation by Subramani, Suya, Fiji, University of the South Pacific, 1985; Albert Wendt and Samoan Identity by Sina Va'ai, Apia, Samoa, NUS Publications, 1997.* * *
As the Samoan novelist, short story writer, and poet Albert Wendt has said, he "belongs to two worlds in almost every way." For more than a decade after his early teens he experienced the difficulties of adapting himself to an alien culture in New Zealand, and his return to Samoa gave rise to a process of readjustment both to his ancestral past and to the post-independence present of his country. His writing stems in some measure from this bi-cultural predicament. It is a return to and a quest for the roots of his being. Significantly enough, Inside Us the Dead is the title of his volume of poems.
If his novels and short stories are the work of a self-acknowl-edged literary pioneer, they are much more than a welcome indication that a Polynesian literature is developing in the southwest Pacific. However difficult it may be to assess the ultimate value of productions for which in many important ways no firm basis for comparison exists, it is nonetheless clear that they achieve distinction as explorations of human relations and a way of life that have almost escaped the attention of romantic or racist outlanders.
Sons for the Return Home, Wendt's first novel, was published many years after his own return to Western Samoa. The simplicity of its plot and language is in marked contrast to the ambiguities and ironies of the pursuit of selfhood that, interwoven with a Samoan myth, provides the theme and gives substance and meaning to the narrative. Because it is mainly concerned with a Samoan family living in New Zealand, the fa'a Samoa or the Samoan way of life becomes an integral part of the novel's structure and not an intrusive element requiring unnecessary explanation. The doubts and difficulties implicit in the theme are developed in terms of incident and human relationship, and the disillusion experienced after "the return home" becomes the novel's climax, which offers no easy solution to the personal problems arising from cultural shock.
Wendt's later publications are centred on the extended families in the villages of Samoa, but they contain little to suggest that they are guidebooks to an exotic and romantic island-world. In the short stories of Flying-Fox in a Freedom Tree, in Pouliuli, and in the three parts of Leaves of the Banyan Tree the quest for identity, the attempt to discover the true self caught between the claims of contending cultures, and the search for a precarious freedom from the dictates of competing orthodoxies are raised to a higher level. They are not merely the consequences of racial disharmony, but originate in the basic conditions of human existence. The flying-fox hangs upside-down in the freedom tree. The powerful head of an extended family rejects his past, repudiates his present, and in advanced old age seeks freedom in Pouliuli, in darkness. The rise and fall of another titled head of an aiga in Leaves of the Banyan Tree, with his lust for power and his imitation of Papalagi (European) ways, may be related to the social pollution of the islands but have their source in a deeper corruption.
This long and powerful novel explores in myth and legend, in traditional social structure, and in the changing post-independence present not only what has happened to the fa'a Samoa, but what has happened to human beings. The comedy and the tragedy, the violence, the horror and the glory of human life, together with man's desperate search for the meaning of existence, are localised in a village setting populated by an extraordinary variety of characters. The middle section of an expanded version of Flying-Fox in a Freedom Tree, the novella that gives its title to the earlier volume of short stories, becomes an essential and thoroughly coordinated part of the whole book, linking the first section, "God, Money, and Success," to the third, "Funerals and Heirs," of this saga of a Samoan village.
The Birth and Death of the Miracle Man is a divergence from Wendt's earlier writings. Where in previous works Wendt's protagonists struggled to find a place for themselves in a society that suppressed individualism, in Birth and Death communal values, parent-child relationships, and a strong familial structure are emphasized. Particularly prevalent are the relationships between fathers and sons. "A Talent," "Elena's Son," and "The Balloonfish and the Armadillo" deal with fathers who have failed in their obligations and sons who are held hostage by unreasonable expectations, both of their fathers and of themselves. Occasionally a story like "Hamlet" verges on the sentimental, but most of the tales in this collection leave the reader with an affecting, memorable impression, entirely in keeping with Wendt's belief that the fa'a Samoa is best presented by Samoans themselves.
Ola, a novel, delves into issues concerning the creative process. A Samoan word that functions as both noun and verb, Ola means "life" and "to create life." It is these two merging concepts that the author tinkers with in the novel. When a biographer begins to rearrange Olamaiileoti Farou Monroe's letters, diaries, and poems, he finds that he has begun to reconstruct an entirely singular existence. Particularly effective is the chapter "Crocodile," which captures the conflict between public fictions and private realities. The schoolgirl Ola gets a glimpse of this conflict after sharing a moment of empathy with a middle-aged schoolteacher who had been previously shrouded in myth and innuendo.
Black Rainbow, Wendt's next novel, adopts the devices of science fiction to advocate cultural differentness. Set in a futuristic New Zealand, ala Orwell's 1984, Black Rainbow addresses the relationship between postcolonialism and postmodernism, contending that the creation of a national literature is a kind of colonialization itself—the imposition of a criteria on something that should be fluid. Through humor and a willful mixing of Anglo and Samoan popular culture, Wendt challenges the idea of a "pure culture," untainted by the outside world. Culture is not immutable, the novel suggests, but constantly in flux—modified and enhanced by outside influences. Taking as its subtext a lithograph by Maori artist Ralph Hotere, which protests nuclear testing in the South Pacific, the novel also explores the legacy of cultural imperialism and the effects of progress on the Polynesian Garden of Eden.
As a Polynesian writer Wendt has not been satisfied to produce fiction that has entertainment value alone or to exploit the fa'a Samoa for the benefit of the foreign tourist. His aim has been far more ambitious, and he has taken greater risks. If at times he lays himself open to adverse critical comment and his intentions have not always been realised, his achievement is nonetheless impressive. He has set a standard that augurs well for the future.
—H. Winston Rhodes,
updated by Lynda Schrecengost
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