Out of the Vaipe, the Deadwater: A writer’s early life by Albert Wendt (BWB Texts/Bridget Williams Books, 2015), 144 pp., $14.99
Unbearable sorrow, unbearable dislocation, unbearable beauty; these emerge as themes of this intimate memoir about Albert Wendt’s early life. They are also the prevailing themes in Wendt’s formidable body of work. But this volume takes us into a landscape he has not before explored in such depth. ‘The Vaipe’ of the title is a geographical location, a small pocket of land in Samoa bordered by a church, a police station, a market, a harbour and a swamp. Wendt claims this as a symbolic space in which his childhood unfolds in intricate detail, a space that exists inside Wendt’s memory and is now dramatically changed.
Wendt is a fundamentally important figure in New Zealand and Pacific literatures. From the publication of his first novel, Sons for the Return Home, in 1973, he has written what the New Zealand Book Council rightly describes as ‘a huge range’ of fiction, poetry and theory. He is the editor of many anthologies and mentor of Pacific and New Zealand writers, and is recognised internationally as a leader in postcolonial literature. He has been awarded many prizes, including the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, The Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement, and the Order of New Zealand. Born in Apia, Samoa, Wendt is a member of the Aiga Sa-Su`a of Lefaga, the Aiga Sa-Patu and Aiga Sa-Asi of Vaiala and Moata`a. In 2012 he was made the Maualaivao of the Aiga Sa-Maualaivao of Malie, their highest title.
On the front cover of Out of the Vaipe, the Deadwater is a quote from the book: ‘We are what we remember or want to remember.’ This is our first intimation of Wendt’s preoccupation with the power of the writer to select and shape our remembered experiences. Chapter One is titled: ‘An Unreliable Story?’ – implying an elusive darkness beneath the memoir, in which things the writer chooses not to remember might be omitted. But in his questioning of the published version of events, the Wendt of this memoir ironically proves his reliability. In questioning himself as a narrator, Wendt remains faithful to an impulse that has both informed his writing career and made him a force in Pacific literature. Nothing is taken for granted, especially the power of the written word.
The Wendt we meet here is an individual who exists in a cultural space in which he is accountable to his ancestors, his culture and his children. In this memoir he turns inwards to reveal his most painful truths, but always these truths are linked back to the familial ties that made, and make, him. And through it all we see Wendt so clearly; as a supporter of other writers, as a young ambitious writer himself, and as that schoolboy who lived in ‘The Vaipe’ with his relatives and who worked so hard to be the top of the class.
If colonisation and its effects may be used as a framework for understanding Wendt’s environment, then his work as a storyteller may be seen as a solution or a cure. Early on Wendt introduces us to his experiences of colonisation:
We learned more of the geography and history of the ancient Holy Land than those of our own country … My first sentence in English was: ‘And Jesus cried’. (69)
These influences formed part of Wendt’s upbringing. But they were not uncontested:
So I rushed home after school and asked (my grandmother):
‘Did you know that a Dutch man by the name of Jacob Roggeveen discovered our country?’
Patiently she asked, ‘Who told you that? … When you go to school tomorrow, tell your teacher that we discovered our country.’ (76)
Here pre-colonial knowledge acts as a balm for the colonial wound, and as a radical aid in Wendt’s personal decolonisation. The grandmother who told stories each night in the fale in the tradition of fagogo or myth-telling; Wendt’s knowledge of pre-Christian Samoan spirituality. Colonially impacted Samoa is Wendt’s context, and Samoan spirituality, mythology and oral tradition have been the tools of Wendt’s process of empowerment, both of himself and of a Pacific literature that did not exist before he helped to make it.
Wendt, however, takes care not to romanticise the society he grew up in. He relates how his family did all their cooking on an open fire outside, how he and his siblings got up at 6am, washed their faces outside and went to school without lunch. ‘To this day,’ he writes, ‘I still remember what feeling hungry for long periods of time was like’ (52). He describes Samoa’s strict Christianity, which permeates all aspects of community life, and his uneasy position outside of it:
… my father asked me to say the prayer. Everyone in our aiga knew I was no longer a church-goer – a major sin in Samoan terms … but they had forgotten that I was no longer the obedient, reticent son (53).
He tells of families vying for resources and power, and of the small politics that dominate community life anywhere. Wendt relates how he was awarded the title of Maualaivao in a saofa`i, portraying himself as feeling both unqualified for such a position and reluctant to assume the responsibility it holds (39–45).
It is this refusal to sentimentalise and simplify that makes Wendt’s fiction so effective. Writers like Wendt have commonly been made into ‘third-world translators’ by their reading public. Such translators are made responsible for both interpreting their culture for an English-speaking audience, and for preserving their own culture (Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the nation, T. Brennan, 1989). With such a responsibility, Wendt might be forgiven for wishing to purely promote and elevate Samoan culture for outside readers, but he refuses. In The Vaipe, familial and ancestral ties are a blessing and an obligation; traditional culture is both oppressive and a source of strength. In this way Wendt proves himself more than proficient at the dance of the translator, taking readers’ expectations and subtly subverting them.
But in the excerpts Wendt presents from his body of work, the characters often speak more passionately and vehemently than the constructed narrator of the memoir:
‘So our maps are at the bottom of the bloody heap. They’re still there though the bloody otherworlders have tried to fucking well erase them.’ (Black Rainbow, 1992, 33).
Wendt the memoirist gently contextualises. But his characters are allowed to vent, to rage and to violently object. Wendt uses his own fiction as an illustrative tool and a transformative medium, one the writer himself turns to in order to prove a point.
Perhaps the most moving part of Wendt’s memoir is his description of his schooling and his mother’s early death. Wendt says his novels are ‘peopled with orphans’ (126), and in this first traumatic loss he finds the beginnings of his ‘lifelong paranoia, anxiety and fears about living out of a suitcase …’ (126). But in answer to this placelessness Wendt offers up another solution, and this time it is writing itself. In a speech he makes when asked to address students at his former school, he encourages them to follow their interests and their passions, as he has done (135).
In Wendt’s recollection of moving to New Zealand, we see the roots of his first novel, Sons for the Return Home. Traumatised by the passage and by the growing cold, the man in the novel vomits into the sink, and his son weeps. Both put on uncomfortable, unfamiliar clothes, a symbol of what is to come. Wendt has given his characters here something he lacked when he was transplanted: a family unit. In the memoir he describes how he travelled to the boys’ school he would attend in Taranaki, at 13, where he was passed from the scholarship officer to the well-meaning caretakers, in turns weeping and vomiting, fearful of his new home.
On the first page of his 2015 novel Breaking Connections, the main character, Daniel, experiences the exact opposite of this terrible sense of dislocation:
… it’s his forty-seventh birthday, but he doesn’t feel the need for company, for people he is familiar with, feels safe with; no, inexplicably, though he is thousands of miles and memories away from ‘home’ he feels self-contained, complete, without a beginning or an end …
By the end of the novel Daniel has come full circle, remembering with ‘joy-generating lucidity’ (234) the tribe he has created for himself. This interdependence and sense of belonging is shown to be transplantable, a thing that may be carried within the individual, and which may bear fruit.
In contrast, Wendt’s life, in this memoir, is depicted as a life of many contradictions. Unlike Daniel, Wendt dwells happily within his current community, but also in the past, inside the stricken schoolboy, the young writer and the dislocated student. This work allows us access to a complex and honest figure, a Wendt who is both anxious and secure, grieving and grateful, and hopeful, all at the same time.
MICHALIA ARATHIMOS is a writer and reviewer currently living in Melbourne. She holds a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington. Her debut novel Aukati – Boundary Line will be published by Mākaro Press in May 2017.