As a writer, blogger, columnist, and speaker, Lani Wendt Young has a tendency to make waves — and that’s partly because she doesn’t shy off topics that many others find too uncomfortable to confront. Like the indefensible failure, as she sees it, of the mainstream New Zealand publishers to give Pasifika and Māori storytellers anything like the attention they deserve. So, within the last week, she’s been giving voice to her impatience, disgust even, with that state of affairs. In this interview with Dale, she touches on that issue again. But she talks too about how, as a little girl, she already had a taste for writing.
Talofa lava, Lani. I wonder if we might start with how you came by your names?
My full birth name is Lani Poto Jade Wendt. My parents took the name “Lani” from Hawai‘i, because, at that time, my father was studying at the University of Hawai‘i. Lani means heaven. In Sāmoan, it’s lagi or lalolagi. Poto means very clever.
That was a name given to me by my great aunt — a very fierce woman. When she heard I’d been born, she announced that my name would be Poto. It didn’t matter that my parents already had a name for me. I was always Poto to her. She never called me Lani. I guess my parents gave in and recognised her power in naming.
Obviously your dad was an academic. What about your mum?
My mum, Marita Aroha Johnson, who’s Māori, was training to be a schoolteacher when she met my father at Massey University in Palmerston North. She grew up in Pātea. I never got to meet my grandmother Kuini Matenga, but I know she was a hardworking woman who was determined that her daughter would have lots of opportunities that she didn’t have. That included going to teachers’ college.
Education has always been something really important in our family. My grandfather Henry Johannes Wendt was a plumber in Sāmoa. He only went to school until Standard 2. But then he did his apprenticeship in a plumbing shop. He had 24 children, and he worked really hard to ensure every one of them gained an education.
Twenty-four kids! He’s a legend!
Well, no. The legends were the women who were the mothers of all those children.
That’s a fair call. What’s your dad’s name?
My father’s name is Tuaopepe Felix Wendt. Tuaopepe is his matai title. He is the Sa’o, the senior title-holder, of our extended family ‘āiga. His name was actually Fili — named after his grandfather Maualaivao Fili, but when they went to register his birth in Sāmoa, the Pālagi at the office said: “Let’s make that Felix . . .”
The Wendt name is well known over here through Albert Wendt’s writing. How does he fit into the picture with you?
My father is Albert’s older brother.
You mentioned that your mum and dad met at Massey. How was it that he came to be studying there?
My father was in the very first group of college scholarship students out of Sāmoa. When they started the programme, they actually took intermediate-aged students. That’s how Albert came to New Zealand. He came before my dad, even though my dad is older. My father did fifth form in Sāmoa, and he was the top student out of a class of 10. Next he came to Wellington College, for seventh form, and then later he got a scholarship to do his degree at Massey University.
. . . where he was taken by the dashing charms of your mum from Kahungunu? And soon there were how many of you kids?
There’s six of us. I’m in the middle.
And where did you grow up?
In Sāmoa. My mum and dad came to Sāmoa right after they were married in 1962. That was the year Sāmoa achieved independence.
And your mum would be a fluent speaker of Sāmoan now?
Oh, definitely not. No, no, no. This was the age of “teach your children English because that’s the language that’s going to make sure you’ll succeed”. Most of us have learned our Sāmoan as we have gotten older, but growing up, we spoke English at home. When I was at school, they were still putting kids on detention for speaking Sāmoan.
So, you were raised in Sāmoa with your family.
Yes, we grew up mainly in Apia. My father worked at the University of the South Pacific. He was the head of the school there. He was one of the first Sāmoans to come home with a PhD. We lived on the campus during the week and we’d go to my father’s village and spend the weekends there. He took his matai village responsibilities quite seriously.
We had a good childhood. We all went to government schools in town. My parents made sure that we had access to lots of books. Every time one of them went overseas, they’d come back with one or two books. That was something we really looked forward to.
Stories were something I always appreciated. They were a part of our everyday life. Listening to aunties, grandparents, or my mum, just talking and telling stories, without ever saying: “Right, I’m going to tell you a story.” Stories were just a part of the fabric, woven into everyday life.
Who encouraged you into writing? Does somebody stand out in your mind?
I had several teachers who were big influences. In Standard 4, I had a teacher called Mrs Stewart. I clearly remember that I’d written a story which she read in front of the class. Then she announced to everybody that she was sure I was going to be an author and write books.
It was such a buzz, because it hadn’t occurred to me that I could be an author. Or even that this thing that I like to do, which is make up stuff, was actually a thing. It was a lightbulb moment for me.
I remember going home and telling my dad. He was very excited and proud. He said to me: “Your uncle’s an author, so you should write to him and ask his advice. Tell him that you’re going to be an author.” That was before the internet and email. So, I sat down and composed a letter and informed Albert of my grand aspiration.
A month or so later, I got a reply. He had written a very nice, encouraging letter and gave me some advice: “You’ve got to read a lot. Practise writing. Keep a journal.”
But what was more exciting for me is that, in this letter, he enclosed a $20 bill. And, right away, I was really excited, because I thought: “Wow, if I’m a writer, I write — and I get money!” That was another lightbulb moment. So I started writing letters to all my relatives. My Aunty Anna in California replied by sending me a massive box of M&Ms. The writing rewards were sweet!
Have you kept on keeping a journal? Is that part of what allows you to remember circumstances and characters and fuel for your work?
Most definitely. I kept a journal right from when I was quite young. I remember, when I turned eight, my parents bought this lovely big notebook for me. It had a fancy binding and cover. On the front, my mum wrote: “This is for you to express all of your thoughts.” She dated it, and I kept a journal quite religiously. I poured my heart and soul into it every day. I’m grateful to my mother for those seemingly little things, which were formative in my journey to becoming a writer.
When I was 14, my little sister was caught reading my journals. That was quite upsetting. It put me off writing a journal for a while! Once the internet was invented and I found out about blogging, my love for journal writing transferred itself to keeping a blog, which is a lot like a journal.
I suspect that keeping a journal or blogging are ways of processing and shaping your thoughts?
For me, writing has always been a way to process powerful feelings and emotions. Sometimes I get a bit worried because I’ll write when I’m really angry or sad. I’ve had to remind myself to also write about things that move you to joy. Otherwise I could end up just writing angry and sad things.
Writing is a way to process all those emotions and make sense of them. Also, it’s a way to save them. And then I go back and draw on them when it comes time to writing a novel or a short story and I’m able to access those emotions and those memories.
Who’ve been significant influences on you writing?
In my childhood, there were several books that not only captured my imagination, but also showed me the magical possibilities in the ordinary and everyday. I’m thinking of the Narnia books, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and so on. I was fascinated by the concept that you could step into something ordinary, like a wardrobe, and access a completely different world. It was the idea that alongside the everyday, there’s the possibility of magic.
Then, as I got a bit older, I listened to Sia Figiel, a powerful speaker and orator. I was really inspired because, for the first time, I could see a Sāmoan woman who had not only written a novel, but also had written about confronting intimate things. I was in awe of her courage.
In the publishing world, you must’ve experienced some rejection and disappointment, as well as elation when somebody cottons on to your work and says: “I like it. We’re going to publish it.” Can you talk about the process?
I was always writing little stories with the idea in the back of my mind that I’d write a novel one day. But you get busy. I’m a mum. Busy with work. I’ve got five kids. My 30th birthday was drawing nearer, so I decided that, before I turned 30, I was going to submit my writing to a publisher.
I wrote furiously and I put together a collection of 12 short stories. And, on the day of my 30th birthday, I went to the post office and I mailed them off to four different publishers in New Zealand. I felt this huge sense of achievement that I’d done it. And I put my real name on them because, up until that point, I’d submitted a couple of short stories under different names. At that stage, I didn’t have the courage to put my name on them.
I sent those stories off, and I heard back from only one of them, who said: “We do not publish short stories by unknowns. We would encourage you to try and get your work published in magazines, and then, maybe one day, you’ll have enough of a reputation so that you can have a short story collection.” Fair enough, I suppose. I was disappointed, but I wasn’t devastated, because for me, the achievement was in the fact that I’d done it.
I then entered a story in a national competition in Sāmoa, and I won. That was a wow moment as well. These sorts of things — competitions and literary contests — can be really helpful in nurturing new voices when we try to put ourselves out there.
I want to mention Dr Emma Kruse Va’ai as well. She was a short story writer who was working at the university at that time. She’d had a story published in the New Zealand School Journal. She stopped me on the road one day and asked if I’d thought about writing for the School Journal. I hadn’t. She told me about it and gave me the contact.
So I submitted my stories there and had one accepted, which was such an exciting moment for me. I’m really grateful to her and mentors like that, who took the time to encourage me in my writing. They showed me the importance of doing what you can to raise up and help encourage others, especially those who are just starting out.
Let’s talk about institutional racism in the publishing sector. We’ve made some headway but, at one time, there was a pretty uncomfortable attitude by predominantly Pākehā publishers who didn’t see the merits in Pasifika or Māori stories. What would you say of that period and that attitude?
I’d say that it still exists today. We’re not out of it. It’s still there. Historically, books and stories have always been powerful in the hands of the coloniser. That’s what colonisers do. They replace our stories with their own. They try to ban our language, bring Christianity and a whole lot of stories in to replace our traditional gods and our rich oral storytelling tradition. The missionaries even banned tattooing, which was one of our few “written” storytelling arts.
New Zealand is certainly not alone in this. But, in this country, publishing plays a part in maintaining existing power dynamics, in ensuring that only the right stories from the right people continue to be the stories that we celebrate.
We hear a lot of talk about how there aren’t enough Pacific or Māori writers. But that’s not an accident. It’s not just an oversight. It’s deliberate. It’s a deliberate outcome because the system is doing what it was designed to do.
Albert Wendt was the first Sāmoan and Pacific Islander to have a novel published. That was back in 1973. And, from that period to when I started submitting my novel to publishers, a period of 40 years, the industry published one Sāmoan woman (Sia Figiel), and a novel by Savea Sano Malifa, who’s the editor of the Sāmoa Observer.
So in all that time, in the entire world, there were only three Sāmoan authors who were allowed to have their books published. When I submitted my young adult novel Telesā to publishers in New Zealand, Australia, and America, all of them said no. I was told it wouldn’t have a market. So I turned to digital self-publishing, and, thankfully, my books found an audience. Like I believed they would.
But, since I published in 2011, eight more Sāmoans have published their own work using online publishing. There are lots of silly excuses that people offer for why there aren’t more of us published. They say, for instance, that we don’t like to write. We aren’t storytellers. We’re not readers. But that’s ridiculous.
My argument is that it’s definitely that the publishing industry, as it is now, is maintaining an existing power dynamic. And that needs to change.
When I said we were making some headway, I was thinking of publishers like Huia, but recognising, for the very reasons you’ve stated, that we needed to do something ourselves because if we kept banging on the door of Pākehā publishers, little or none of our work would make the bookshelves.
Companies like Huia are excellent. That’s exactly what’s needed. The Māori Literature Trust has an internship programme and efforts like that which are actively seeking out and nurturing Māori and Pasifika voices are excellent.
The reality is that, for the publishing industry, change is coming, whether they want it or not, because the digital era means that we now no longer need them. We’re able to publish our stories without going through them.
But not only that. People are tired of being fed a diet of books that don’t reflect our reality, and they’re now actively seeking books and stories that represent us. And we’re able to find those voices online. So I think traditional publishers need to adapt or they’re going to go out of business. It’s that simple.
I notice that you’ve been confident enough to broach subjects that others have avoided for a long time — issues about the church, sexuality, diversity, and the like. Have you done this consciously, or are you just trying to write the truth — even though it’s resulted in some pretty scathing critique online.
I don’t actively set out to take on different issues. It’s been more of an organic thing, where I’m telling a story, or I’m writing a column, and it’s what I feel particularly strong about. For example, the issue of child sexual abuse in my writing came about as a result of church leaders in Sāmoa who were saying odd things about that subject. These issues are important to me. I either write a column, blog, or address them in my fiction.
Yes, unfortunately, it has meant some people get quite upset. People don’t like to have their attitudes and belief systems challenged. They get scared when their power and control is being threatened. It has been really unpleasant. Last year was a difficult time for me and my family. Death threats, rape threats. Being a Sāmoan woman makes it harder to talk about certain issues. Men can get away with talking about certain things much more than a brown woman can.
It sounds like you’ve got a pretty decent bloke in your corner. I’ve read about some of the advice you’ve had from your supportive tāne who’s encouraged you to keep going.
Darren’s amazing. We’re an unusual combination, I think, because the only books he’ll read are triathlon books. He’s an Ironman and really into his sport. He’s definitely not a reader of fiction. But he’s the rock and the strength that I rely on.
Every time I’m launching a new book, I acknowledge him as the person who makes my writing possible. The fact is that writing is not a lucrative job. We have a construction company and, because of the work he does, it’s possible for me to write and do the things that I do.
But he’s also practical and no nonsense. When I tend to be a bit dramatic and artsy about needing to “find my creative vibe” so I can write, he’ll bring me back to earth and say: “Hey. How ’bout you just sit down and get some pages written?”
You’ve had awards and scholarships and opportunities. What has given you the most satisfaction?
The awards that I’ve been blessed to receive have been nice, but they certainly don’t give me the kind of joy that I get from, say, going to a whole bunch of schools with the Storylines tour.
That’s meant being able to go into classrooms, particularly those filled with Pasifika and Māori students, and talking to them about the importance of telling our own stories. Then reading them some bits from my book — and seeing their eyes light up as they recognise themselves on the page. That makes this work so worthwhile.
It’s not just a local appetite for indigenous stories, though, is it? There’s an international appetite and market, too. Do you see a significant overseas potential?
I definitely do. There’s a hunger worldwide for our stories told by us. People are getting tired of the same old stuff, remaking the same story or movie 10 times. I think that you can see that in the success of films like Crazy Rich Asians, Black Panther, and even Three Wise Cousins, which was a local New Zealand and Sāmoan film.
But what we need to be careful of is to make sure that we have positions of power when it comes to telling those stories and making those films. It’s all very well for the world to say they want to hear our stories, but it’s quite another for us to make sure that we have a controlling say in how they’re produced and how they’re transmitted.
Good on you, Lani, and good on the New Zealand Book Council for inviting you to give a lecture. I’d never thought of literature as a tool for colonisation and oppression. Do you think it’s widely known, just how suppressed our voice has been as a result of those colonising practices?
I don’t think so. And I think many of us are quite complacent. I count myself in that. Many of us don’t actually realise how widespread this is and how deep a problem it is.
It’s not just a matter of: “We should publish a couple of brown writers and that will take care of it.” It’s a much deeper problem than that. It’s a structural system that needs to be addressed. The whole industry needs to do something about itself.
It’s still white decision-makers who make the calls about what gets published, who do the reviews, who choose what books get reviewed and what books go into shops. It’s quite pervasive. And to me, it’s quite disturbing.
As a New Zealander, I think it’s shameful that only four percent of New Zealand fiction titles were written by Māori, four percent by Asian and Indian, and one percent by Pasifika.
And now, Lani, what’s next for you?
I have another book in my Telesā series coming out in a couple months. I’m also in talks about a screen adaptation for one of my novels. And I’m interested in trying my hand at a bit of scriptwriting, which is something completely new and different for me.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
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