From whence he cameby Iain Sharp
Albert Wendt’s memoir Out of the Vaipe is a rich, rewarding and revealing read.
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.
God 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).
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