story by Liza Simon
photos by Sergio Goes
If you’re the kind of writer who lets it spill that your best work is written in a Honolulu kava shop, then lucky you stay in Albert Wendt’s class. While students swap best-kava-buzz-I-have-known anecdotes, Wendt listens bemusedly, as if this were a campfire on the beach and not his seminar at the University of Hawai‘i, where he holds the luminary literary post of Citizen’s Chair. Nodding his shock of white hair, he chuckles approvingly until there is an opening to describe his own kava caper: There he was at a ceremony where protocol called for him to down a particularly potent bowl of the intoxicant. Ahhh, but it was too strong even for him, and the night’s end found him stumbling home under the austral sky in Vanuatu. Wendt’s story inspires more student stories, and whatever comes up, he is ready with a validation. Grand old man of Pacific literature he may be, but in the classroom Wendt casts himself as a true peer, one who makes a person feel that the only wrong tale is the one withheld.
“We are always writing images about other images, poems about other poems. Nothing is totally original,” says Wendt, explaining that he doesn’t look for new plot lines or themes in stories—not in those of his students, not even in his own prodigious body of novels, screenplays and edited collections of Pacific works. But if there are indeed no new stories under the sun, it is no reason to despair in the world of Wendt. “The one original thing you can bring to the page,” he is quick to add, “is the way you write. In all my years, I have never come across two people who write the same. It’s as if your language is as unique as your fingerprint.”
Wendt’s focus on language is not surprising, coming from someone who grew up immersed in Samoa’s storytelling traditions, including the florid rhetoric of talking chiefs. And certainly his celebrated career has proved that you can speak in local ways and of local matters and set off a universal response. Wendt, who neither demonizes nor idealizes his Samoan characters but instead humanizes them, cracks through the mask of culture to map the common truths of the human condition.
“Samoan society is not all that different from elsewhere,” he says. “Any time you get two people together, there is going to be politics.” He shrugs off those fleets of Western scribes and anthropologists who once romanticized or otherwise cartoon-ized South Pacific islanders. “Samoan culture is dynamic and always changing. The problem was that 19th-century observers froze the culture the way they saw it. Had they come twenty years before or after, they would have recorded something totally different.” Think about Wendt’s observation and imagine the tables turned: Foreigners arrive in the United States during the Civil War and for the next 100 years write about America as a place of warring Confederates and Yanks.
For all his freewheeling insistence that stories simply repeat, Wendt ultimately illuminates Samoan cultural identity with a candor that can be as tender as it is harsh. He throws into high relief the heavy ties that bind in Samoa and the oft-oppressive influences of church and family. And so, in his novel Pouliuli, we meet Falesa Osovae, the upright old matai (chief) who escapes from a lifetime of social responsibility by faking madness, a perfect ruse until he realizes that he has forsaken and jeopardized the life of the only son who ever loved him. Trickster-like forces are also at work behind the public masquerade of the village leader in the multi-generational epic Leaves of a Banyan Tree. A highly versatile writer, Wendt has produced sci-fi-ish political thrillers like Black Rainbow, where characters teeter between cultures, simultaneously seduced and repulsed by both Samoan tradition and Western incursions. And he is a masterful architect of plots. We turn the pages of his books quickly, almost in hopes of warning the characters about the collision courses that we can see but they can’t.