Lawrence Jones reviews Ancestry, by Albert Wendt.
When Sons for the Return Home, Albert Wendt's first
novel, appeared in 1973, he was, as Iain Sharp said recently
in the Listener, "the only Pacific Island writer on
the horizon", and he was taken by readers and critics as the
representative literary voice of Oceania.
He confirmed this position with his next two novels,
Pouliuli (1977) and Leaves of the Banyan Tree
(1979), as well as with his first collections of poetry and
He has always taken seriously the task of the representation
of his culture, as he reaffirmed in a recent online interview
with Maryanne Pale: "We need to write, paint, sculpt, weave,
dance, sing and think ourselves into existence.
"For too long other people have done it for us - and they've
usually stereotyped us, or created versions of us that embody
their own hang-ups and beliefs and prejudices about us. So we
have to write our own stories!"
But he has also insisted that his representation of his
culture is personal, that other writers and artists produce
their own representations, and that cultural understanding
emerges from a range of representations, not from a single
"representative" cultural spokesman.
In a long tertiary academic career, from 1974 to 2008, at the
University of the South Pacific, the University of Auckland
and the University of Hawaii, as teacher of creative writing
and of Pacific and New Zealand literature, as essayist, and
as anthologist, he has helped to foster the development of a
multivoiced Pacific Island literature.
Since his return to New Zealand from Hawaii in 2008, Wendt
has had a busy retirement, based in Ponsonby, writing fiction
and poetry and painting, an early interest he had resumed in
Ancestry, a collection of 14 stories, was launched at
the same time as From Manoa to a Ponsonby Garden, a
collection of poems, and a new novel is due out next year.
The stories in Ancestry, he told Maryanne Pale, "are
about people in the Samoan and Pakeha middle class - mainly
successful university teachers and students, architects,
accountants etc and their families. It looks at love and
culture and people trying to survive in sometimes very trying
That last sentence reads almost like a general description of
Sons for the Return Home, and the book bears an
interesting relationship to that novel.
The novel came out of Wendt's experience as a young Samoan
coming to New Zealand for secondary and tertiary education,
while the new stories come out of the experience of returning
to New Zealand in retirement.
Wendt's fiction of the later 1970s and the 1980s focused on
the Samoa in which he grew up, while the fiction of the 1990s
was more "international" in its subject and its
postmodern-influenced narrative mode.
Ancestry is a return to the relatively straightforward
realism of Sons for the Return Home as well as to the
Samoan-New Zealand subject matter.
However, the "sometimes very trying circumstances" that
Wendt's characters encounter in Ancestry are very different
from those encountered by the protagonist of that first
novel, for the New Zealand of these stories is very different
from that of the novel and those Samoans trying to deal with
it are very different.
The young Samoan males of Robocop in Long Bay and
Absences do not face the aggravations of the narrow
racism of Palagi society circa 1960 but rather the dangerous
temptations of an immediate-gratification youth culture of
drugs and alcohol, electronic entertainments, free sex and a
sense of entitlement to the fruits of affluence.
The retired and successful achievers of One Rule have
to bring themselves, against their own cultural family values
and wishes, to reject the grandson who charmingly and
cynically tries to exploit them as cash-cows to feed his own
Or, a very different "trying circumstance" - the successful
retired architect of Interrogations and the title
story must learn to accept his wife, daughter and grandson
going to the "colonialist" Anzac Dawn Parade because the
grandfather of the daughter's estranged Palagi husband died
at Gallipoli, while his wife does not accompany him (but his
beloved and loving grandson does) on his monthly visit to his
Wendt told Maryanne Pale most of the stories in the volume
came "in 2012 in one intense period of compulsive writing";
the stories feel as if he had been visited by a host of
characters with their own life stories who might have been
the basis of novels (the feeling that a collection of Alice
Munro stories can give), but that he decided to use them in
longish stories, some of which feature recurring characters.
The stories average 22 pages each; almost all of them include
some summaries of the central characters' personal histories
- marriages, divorces, childhoods, careers, friendships -
what we need to know to understand the stories, the kind of
things that would be dramatised in earlier chapters in a
The back stories are told in outline, but in the narrative
present there is rich, sensuous detail in the sight, sound
and especially the smell of things - clothing, food, gardens,
The stories are also rich in psychological detail, the
nuances of thought and feeling, especially the small
irritations and pleasures of relationship in marriages and
partnerships, in parent-child or grandparent-child
interchanges, in friendships.
Most of the point-of-view characters are Samoan, but there
are also some nice touches with Palagi characters' views of
Samoans, as in Neighbours, where we see the responses
of a Palagi lecturer and his wife to the family celebration
of the 75th birthday of their Samoan neighbour as the
lecturer lies about his own whakapapa to keep secret the
shameful circumstances of his mother's death, which still
obsess him and which he has not even shared with his wife.
Especially novelistic in its fullness is the presentation of
Laura, a withdrawn young Palagi woman who had an extremely
painful childhood, as she comes out of her shell first in
Friendship in her relationship with a young Maori
woman student and her Pacific Island circle of friends and
then, after her marriage to a Samoan student in the group in
her first visit to his village in Samoa when she throws
herself into learning traditional Samoan village skills
(aided by a reading of an Albert Wendt novel). The two
stories could easily be chapters in a novel about Laura's
Wendt's extension of his range to the representation of the
Ponsonby Samoan and Palagi society around him in this
extremely readable collection of short stories is a
contribution to the evolving depiction of an incipiently
multicultural New Zealand and of the Samoan New Zealanders
who are part of it.
Lawrence Jones is an emeritus professor of