From whence he came

by Iain Sharp / 24 September, 2015
Albert Wendt’s memoir Out of the Vaipe is a rich, rewarding and revealing read.
Albert Wendt
Albert Wendt: scholar and tribal leader. Photo/David White


When I was university student in the 1970s, taking philosophy, the topic that most excited me and my classmates was “the existence of God”. A petulant mob of born-again atheists, we were all too willing to voice our grudges against the churches in which we were raised, but our lecturer had no patience for our adolescent tosh. Shifting the focus from “God” to “existence”, he set our minds reeling with talk of the reality of shadows, dreams and fancies. He made us think about what it meant to exist in the imagination.

Albert Wendt muses in a similarly unsettling philosophical vein in his new memoir, beginning with the epigraph, a quote from his 1991 novel Ola: “All is real, whether borrowed or created or dreamed, or mixed together with facts, fictions, strange sauces and herbs and condiments in quantities peculiar to each mixer, dreamer, cook, creator. We are all the possibilities of every creator.”

What matters in a life, particularly a writer’s life? Stories heard, books read and movies seen might be as significant as events experienced. Novelists and poets spend much of their time inhabiting fictional realms of their own devising. Thus one of Wendt’s strategies in Out of the Vaipe is to point to key passages from his earlier works.

He raises the thorny issue of reliability. “Don’t trust me, be suspicious,” he warns. “I’m deliberately leaving out most of the story – it’s none of your business, and I don’t want to hurt the people I love.”

Don’t fret, however. Out of the Vaipe still manages to be a reader-friendly and revealing book. Wendt’s policy throughout – a wise one worth contemplating if you plan to write a memoir – is to scrutinise his own shortcomings with ruthless candour while turning a kindly eye on everyone else he names. And the story-telling impulse runs too deep in Wendt’s make-up for him to leave us floundering amid philosophical abstractions for long.

The main narrative is a vivid account of how, as a bright but shy 13-year-old, Wendt won a scholarship that took him from his home in Apia’s Vaipe district to a New Plymouth boarding school. He struggled, first with seasickness during the voyage, then with devastating homesickness. While he was still there, his much-loved mother died of cancer.

He is eloquent on the contradictions of the divided self, gazing outwards from the rifts in his own thinking to the split thinking of all Samoans and, by extension, all migrants in an increasingly mobile world.

Out Of The VapeGod comes into this, of course. As not just a scholar but a tribal leader, Wendt recognises the importance of uncovering ancient Samoan beliefs. The dense overlay of Christianity since colonial times does not make this easy. Wendt is a rationalist sceptic frightened by the obliterating end of consciousness. Yet he is also the son of “a lay preacher and influential deacon in our church”. As well as the intellectual arguments, there is the emotional weight of family loyalties – fa‘alavelave, in Samoan, the things that entangle you.

All the book-length essays in the BWB Texts series are worth examining. Out of the Vaipe is one of the richest and most rewarding.

OUT OF THE VAIPE, THE DEADWATER: A WRITER'S EARLY LIFE, by Albert Wendt (Bridget Williams Books, $14.99).

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.

Latest

Are FitBits a boon for your health – or a threat to your privacy?
107343 2019-06-20 00:00:00Z Health

Are FitBits a boon for your health – or a threat t…

by Donna Chisholm

One in five New Zealanders owns a fitness tracker, but what effect do they have? Donna Chisholm investigates.

Read more
Larry Smarr: The world's most self-measured man
107358 2019-06-20 00:00:00Z Health

Larry Smarr: The world's most self-measured man

by Donna Chisholm

A US computer scientist who has been monitoring the state of his health for nearly two decades says he’s healthier now than he’s been in 15 years.

Read more
The most common scams – and how to avoid them
107425 2019-06-20 00:00:00Z Tech

The most common scams – and how to avoid them

by Joanna Wane

"Dear Beloved Friend"....

Read more
The National get in touch with their feminine side in I Am Easy to Find
107163 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Music

The National get in touch with their feminine side…

by James Belfield

As The National announce two intimate theatre shows in Auckland, James Belfield reviews their brave and collaborative new album.

Read more
German violinist Carolin Widmann brings her daring style to NZ
107272 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Music

German violinist Carolin Widmann brings her daring…

by Elizabeth Kerr

The award-winning musician will make her NZSO debut playing Stravinsky’s only violin concerto.

Read more
In defence of NZ Rugby boss Steve Tew
107277 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Sport

In defence of NZ Rugby boss Steve Tew

by Paul Thomas

Naysayers may rail against rugby’s continued “corporatisation” under Steve Tew, but he’s given them plenty to applaud as well.

Read more
How New Zealand's community newspapers are bucking the trend
107362 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

How New Zealand's community newspapers are bucking…

by Venetia Sherson

Community newspapers are bucking the trend, as enterprising new owners breath life back into them.

Read more
What filmmaker Andrea Bosshard learned from her goldsmith father Kobi
107381 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

What filmmaker Andrea Bosshard learned from her go…

by Ken Downie

Filmmaker Andrea Bosshard inherited a creative streak from her goldsmith father Kobi but he also taught her an important life lesson.

Read more