No writer has done more to explore and explain the Pacific over the last 50 years than Albert Wendt. He’s in his mid-70s now and can look back on a lifetime of achievement as a novelist (starting with Sons for the Return Home in 1973), short story writer, poet and editor — also as a teacher, headmaster, lecturer, professor and mentor. He’s played those roles not only in New Zealand — where his first experience was as a schoolboy in Taranaki — but also in Samoa, where he was born and raised, and Fiji and Hawai’i. Not surprisingly, he and his work have been widely recognised, celebrated and honoured. Among the awards he’s received is the Order of New Zealand (ONZ), which is reserved for the country’s top 20 achievers. Here he’s fielding questions from Dale, and reflecting on the path he has been travelling.
First, I have a question for you, as a man who’s devoted much of his life to writing. How powerful is the pen in bringing about change?
When I was much younger and very optimistic, I believed I could change the world — and could do so quickly. Then, of course, as I wrote, and published, and argued publicly about issues, I began to realise it was tougher than I’d thought.
But, even after over 50 years of writing and participating in the artistic and cultural development of the Pacific, I still believe in the importance of ideas. Ideas survive and they change people’s thinking. And when a people’s thinking is changed, their lives are changed.
If we look at all the new scientific ideas, the greatest is the revolution in artificial intelligence. The so-called machines that we are inventing aren’t separate from us — they are part of us. That is the next stage of our evolution.
So now, I have a lot of faith. You write, you plug at it, you keep going at it, and it changes the lives of some of your readers. And those readers change the lives of other people. And sometimes you can effect political change in your society.
And writing still has that power?
Yeah. It still has that power. Poets, novelists, essayists, political writers — they can all effect change by what they write, by continuing public debate about important issues, by influencing people’s thinking.
What writers have inspired you, matua?
Just about all the writers I’ve read. When I was young, I tried to read everything. And I still do today. I could name whole libraries full of the work of writers who have influenced me. And these days, I’m heavily influenced by young Māori and Pasifika writers and artists.
You mention Māori and Pasifika in one breath. Do you see us as one?
Well, sometimes I do when I’m feeling optimistic. Sometimes I don’t. But I think Pasifika people and Māori people are much closer than they used to be.
When I first came to New Zealand as a 13-year-old, I was one of only five PI boys at New Plymouth Boys’ High School. When I started writing and publishing in the 1960s, there were only a few permanently suntanned writers and artists in New Zealand. There was Hone Tuwhare, Alistair Campbell and a few others. Very few though.
Now, of course, there are a lot more writers, artists, filmmakers. You name any art form, and Māori and Pacific people are in it today. And, in many ways, we are leading the artistic and cultural changes in Aotearoa and throughout the Pacific. It’s one of the greatest developments I’ve seen in my lifetime.
How hopeful are you that our Pasifika and Māori people are heading in the right direction?
Well, we all have our different ideas about what direction we should be heading. But I’m sure we all agree that we want to raise our standard of living, to make sure our cultures and our languages continue, and also to make sure that we lead decent lives and are treated as equals in our society. That’s what I’ve always fought for — and I’m encouraged by the hundreds of young Māori and Pacific Islanders who are political and are fighting for the same things.
What do you most care about? Is it your writing?
A lot of people probably think writers are so obsessed with writing that it’s the major thing in their lives. Writing has been important to me in my life. It has kept me on an even keel and kept my mind going. But it’s not the most important thing in my life. It never has been.
My family, my extended family, the community out of which I come, are the most important things in my life. The people I love. At my age now, at 75, that’s the realisation that I’ve come to. The people I love, and the places, are more important to me than anything else.
Now that you’re in your 70s, I wonder if there’s comfort in reflecting on your struggles and achievements and on your life and family.
That may be the view that many people have of old age. And that was the view I had when I was growing up. But now that I’m in that period of my life, it isn’t the view that I hold anymore.
One of my close friends recently emailed me about old age and he reminded me that “old age is not for sooks”. You have to be courageous. You’re facing the end of your life. You’re facing the end of your consciousness. Your body is beginning to break. Your friends, your relatives, are dying around you. And it becomes, for many of us, quite a fearful stage.
Naturally, at times, you’re anxious. But, because I’ve been a very introspective person, I’ve looked at this scenario, and I think I can handle the anxiety and the stress. And I’m still writing, and my writing is still keeping me on an even keel.
If you believe in an afterlife, I suppose, you can feel comfortable. You know that, when you’re going to die, you’re going to go to this beautiful place. But for me and a lot of other people, we don’t believe that. So you have to accept the realisation that your consciousness is going to end.
And the thing I’m going to regret most of all, is missing out on using my mind, and thinking about things, and writing books and so on. But I’m coming now to the acceptance that, of course, there it is. It is inevitable. And, for many ageing people, it’s not a comfortable position to be in. But we can help ourselves by thinking it through — and having around us those who love us and help us arrive at a more comfortable acceptance of the end.
Given that you’re not a believer in an afterlife, do you consider yourself an atheist?
No. I wouldn’t call myself an atheist. I come from a very fundamentalist Christian family, like most Samoan families. My father was a deacon in the church, and a lot of my cousins were pastors and even missionaries. And I grew up with the Bible and the church.
But I dropped out of it in my teens. I didn’t drop out in a rebellious way. It’s just that I began to do my own search. And my search has been a search for my writing, and art, which I believe in. So I feel comfortable in it. But I’ve never tried to thrust my beliefs on others.
In all societies, there are basic, fundamental questions you have to ask. What is the end? What is the purpose of your life? So, in every society, we develop religions to try and answer those questions. In a way, I’m very religious. I want the environment to be protected and safe. And in the environment, there are presences and atua that are real for me. But that doesn’t mean I believe in an afterlife.
Let’s turn from this big philosophical topic to the period, going back to the 1960s and 1970s when a number of Pasifika families came to New Zealand hoping for a better life for their children.
Well, it was a hard struggle, and it still is a struggle, for our families to make ends meet. As you know, we’re at the bottom of the economic ladder. But I think there are many more families who are better off now than they used to be.
And we’ve become more assertive in our political striving. Pacific people have learned a lot from Māori. You don’t give in. You fight. You struggle for equality and to get rid of racism. That racism is, of course, still prevalent today. And it surfaces now and then. But prejudiced New Zealanders are now more careful about their racism.
Another development is that we now have political representation. Many of our people are New Zealand-born and they have learned from Māori to become politically conscious and to fight for what you believe in.
This is why I love teaching. Especially at university. Because you meet so many of our young Māori and Pasifika people, who become politically savvy, and who are courageous, and won’t give in. So I think, in that way, we’re better off. We’re far more motivated to correct the wrongs in our society. Our people have now moved into the professions. They’ve moved into politics. And to put it crudely, we no longer take the shit from anybody.
I’m aware that your latest pukapuka is about your home and your early life, back in Apia. It’s called “Out of the Vaipe, the Deadwater”. What can you tell us about that?
Well, it’s a short memoir, or autobiography. “Vai” means water, or stream. And “pe” means dead, or stagnant. So I translated that to “deadwater”. The Vaipe is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Apia, where I grew up. And it had this small, swampy stream going through it.
I was born in 1939 and I grew up there. Our family had one acre of land in the Vaipe and I discuss that in the book, and I also discuss the school I went to. Because I had a German name, we were considered European. So we were allowed to go to Leifiifi, the only so-called “European school” in Samoa at the time.
Leifiifi School was established by the New Zealand colonial administration as the one for Europeans. So, if you had a European surname, you could go there. And the teaching was in English.
But I also had a traditional upbringing. My family were very traditional and our main language was Samoan. The Wendts come from the village of Malie on the island of Upolu. Our surname came from a German who arrived in Samoa in the late 19th century and married the daughter of Maualaivao Fili.
I acquired some English when I went to Leifiifi School. And, of course, when I came to New Plymouth to go to boarding school in 1953, I had to learn more English just to survive there.
How did it come about that you were sent to New Plymouth?
There were no high schools in Samoa at that time. So the New Zealand Government set up a scholarship scheme. And the idea was that it would allow some Samoans to get a good education here and then go back home and help in the administration of the country.
I think I was in the third group of “scholarshippers”. It was all paid for by the New Zealand Government — clothing, books, boarding school fees, travel back to Samoa, everything. They were very generous scholarships.
I had no say in which boarding school I went to. I was put into New Plymouth Boys’ High. Some of the other people I came with were put into other schools in New Zealand. After boarding school, I went to Ardmore Teachers’ College for a couple of years, and then I went to Victoria University.
I assume that some of those other “scholarshippers” went on to prominent positions in Samoa. Is that what happened?
Oh, yes. For instance, Karanita Enari, who came with me on scholarship, got his law degree here, went back to Samoa and became Secretary to the Government while he was still in his twenties. He ran the government administration for a while and then set up his own private practice. And he’s still practising law today.
Another one is Iulai Toma, who went to Scots College in Wellington, and who is now the Ombudsman in Samoa. He went on to represent Samoa at the United Nations. And there was Viopapa Annandale Atherton who went to Stratford Girls’ High School, became a highly qualified doctor, and practised medicine in Samoa for quite a while. She has only recently retired.
I understand that you came from a family that was politically aware and active. What effect did that have on you?
My grandfather, Tuaopepe Tauilo, was very active in the Mau leadership during the Samoan struggle for independence that began in the 1920s. And he and my grandmother, Mele, raised us not to take shit from anybody — and that we should help people who are poor and being badly treated.
That’s been my attitude all my life. I became very left wing in politics. And that leaning became more pronounced when I read writers such as Frantz Fanon and all the other 20th century African, Indian and West Indian political writers.
My politics are still pinkish. And I thought it was wonderful recently to see a socialist come to head the Labour Party in England. Here in New Zealand, my view is that our present Labour Party leaders should declare their socialism — and come out strongly for free hospitalisation and for education to be free for most people.
We should turn to some of the basic principles of socialism to help the majority of the people. But our present Labour Party hasn’t declared any of that. So I hope they watch the English Labour Party (now that they have Jeremy Corbyn as their new leader) and see what we should be doing here. I’ve voted Labour all my life, and I’d be totally supportive if they come out strongly for such principles as free hospitalisation and education for everyone.
When you look back at the part your whanau played in the fight for independence — and when you reflect on your own work — you must have a feeling of pride.
Yes. I’m very proud of it. Especially seeing that our Pacific Island community was treated so badly in the 1950s — and that carried on through the ’60s and ’70s too. Just as Māori were being badly treated and discriminated against. I was so glad I grew up with a generation of Māori like Ralph Hotere, Selwyn Muru, and all those friends of mine. Hone Tuwhare was another — I learned a lot from him about the struggle.
So I became very articulate and outspoken in various lectures and some public meetings, here and around the world. Especially here, I would deliver my very left-wing and anti-colonial views. And the audience, which would be predominantly white, would become more and more quiet.
But it wasn’t the quietness of agreeing with me. It was the quietness of rejecting me, and my ideas. I used to enjoy it, although it was also stressful. Why should we have to fight for things we should automatically have? Automatically, as human beings? Why should other people deny those to us? Things that they’re enjoying. Nobody on the planet likes that. Doesn’t matter which ethnicity you are.
Finally, how do you feel now about the opportunities you’ve had through your life?
Well, I believe we all are what we are and what our circumstances are — and what we do with those circumstances. We are the sum total of our choices. And even the non-choices are part of our lives. We can waste our whole lives on things that are not that important. But we have to come to that realisation ourselves.