Return to Exile: Locating Home


Juniper Ellis

Loyola College in Maryland

Copyright (c) 1998 by Juniper Ellis, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

  1. In his foundational essay, "Towards a New Oceania" (1976), Albert Wendt articulates the features of the new Oceania that his writing helps inaugurate.[1] This early essay announces an Oceania that encompasses myriad traditions and imperatives, including those of Wendt's native Western Samoa. Wendt invokes the art and literature of the entire region, which he has helped foster as a writer, an editor of landmark anthologies of Pacific writing, and as a Professor of English, first at Fiji's University of the South Pacific and now at Auckland University. Writing about the region is impoverished if it does not recognize what Wendt terms "[s]o vast, so fabulously varied a scatter of islands, nations, cultures, mythologies and myths" (49).[2] From this rich scatter emerges a literature that both antedates and draws upon papalagi or European sources.

  2. The emphasis in "Towards a New Oceania," manifesto-fashion, is on recovering and imagining Pacific Islands forms. Wendt urges, "[W]e must rediscover and reaffirm our faith in the vitality of our past, our cultures, our dead, so that we may develop our own unique eyes, voices, muscles, and imagination" (51). The body of Pacific literature that Wendt describes is both physical and metaphorical. Wendt grounds the conceptual in the material.

  3. But Wendt also conveys the way the Pacific reaches toward the fantastic, toward the faith that "[i]n the final instance, our countries, cultures, nations, planets are what we imagine them to be" (49). Storytellers and writers, then, can exert a tremendous power in articulating the shapes that their communities and nations can exhibit.

  4. Even in these early post-independence days,[3] however, Wendt emphasizes that a new Oceania requires both poetic articulation and political achievement. He focuses on the process of striving for meaning:

    In our various groping ways, we are all in search of that heaven, that Hawaiki, where our hearts will find meaning; most of us never find it, or, at the moment of finding it, fail to recognise it. At this stage in my life I have found it in Oceania: it is a return to where I was born, or, put another way, it is a search for where I was born. (49-50)

    His passage articulates the primary importance of searching for meaning. The personal shades into the political. The meaning that Wendt identifies is provisional, even temporary. Hawaiki on earth eludes the writer even in Oceania.

  5. In the final sentence, Wendt presents a formulation that clarifies not only the parameters within which he views Oceania but also his literary project. Oceania, he suggests, offers both "a return to where I was born" and "a search for where I was born." The very name Oceania encompasses sea as well as land, and the intricate connections among differing nations in the region. In other words, Wendt does not suggest that a simple return to his native region, his homeland, is possible. Instead, his project, expressed in a wide range of genres including essays, fiction, and poetry, becomes a search for his native Oceania. His writing occupies the productive space created in the simultaneous return to and search for a homeland.

  6. One of the most extended representations of the ambivalent quest for home emerges in Wendt's first published novel, Sons for the Return Home (1973).[4] This novel, widely reviewed on first publication, demands further consideration.[5] The novel offers conceptions of exile and return, isolation and community, that help constitute the intricate cultural networks of a new Oceania.[6]

  7. The novel draws upon Pacific Islands traditions in presenting a kind of permanent creation of homelands in exile. Here, "home" is representational--that is, the result of stories, family mythologies, and novels--emphasizing the power of narrative in creating culture. At the heart of such representations are conceptions of race and gender that the protagonist must confront. In limning the locations in which home can emerge, between differing departures and arrivals, the novel emphasizes the interplay among cultures within and beyond the Pacific Islands.[7] Specifically, the novel emphasizes the way Pacific Islands histories and mythologies anticipate and extend current theories of culture.[8] In his representations of home and exile, Wendt details the Pacific Islands stories and concepts that account for both cultural and geographical location.

  8. Wendt presents self-reflexive conceptions of Pacific space in his novels, stories, and poems. Indeed, his representation of literary and cultural cartographies rewrites postmodernist literatures and theories that attempt to show the processes by which meaning, identity, or culture is created or assigned. Wendt himself recognizes that his literature can be read along these lines, commenting about his conception of "literature as process," "Is it post-modernist? the more literary and with-it-avant-gardish among you may ask. I don't know. All I know is, post-modernism isn't new if you look at the oral literature of Polynesia, wherein the teller and her personality become the story, and so forth" ("Maps" 61). Postmodernism is not new; in fact, it is belated in its recognition of the strategies that other cultures and writers have long employed. Denying the originality of postmodernism, Wendt demonstrates its belatedness as well as its appropriation of strategies long-standing in other cultures and literatures. If Linda Hutcheon is correct in terming "Hail to the Edges!" the motto of postmodernism (73), she neglects to note the implicit colonization that this hailing of other cultures can have. Recent centrist versions of postmodernism prepare white readers to recognize the decentered narratives long established in the literature of Oceania, but stop short of allowing for the cultural specificity of works stemming from Oceania.[9]

  9. Postmodernism's potential for liberating culture from linear, totalizing narratives, which Wendt articulates in his most recent edited volume of Pacific literature, Nuanua (1995), is most apparent when one maintains the cultural specificity of works deemed postmodern. For example, Wendt's own work offers an extended transformation and reconsideration of postmodernist tendencies themselves, by showing ways in which Pacific cultures have anticipated and extended postmodernism's interest in the constructedness of identity. Wendt's interest in self-reflexive Pacific maps (both spatial and figurative) shapes his first published novel, Sons for the Return Home (1973), as well as his most recent novels, Ola (1991) and Black Rainbow (1992). This entire discussion thus bears upon Wendt's revision of postmodernism through his primary attention to Pacific cultures.

  10. Sons for the Return Home announces in its title the difficulty, even impossibility, of revisiting the home one has left. In one sense, the title refers in a straightforward way to the Samoan family who move to New Zealand in order to obtain a papalagi[10] education for their two sons.[11] For twenty years in New Zealand, the boys are groomed for a triumphal return to Samoa. The boys' parents, particularly their mother, create an elaborate mythology surrounding an idealized Samoa. In the mother's projection, the boys will return to Samoa, their status enhanced by their education in English and their familiarity with papalagi speech and dress. Her hopes culminate in the novel's final section, Part Three, when the family builds a conspicuous papalagi house in their native village.

  11. This meditation on home shapes the novel's entire narrative. Even the relationship between the unnamed young Samoan man and pakeha[12] woman in New Zealand is presented in terms of a search for home. Their love, usually taken as the center of the novel, represents one of the young man's attempts to achieve a sense of belonging. Through the man's love for the woman, Wendt suggests, he comes to feel, for a time, less displaced in New Zealand.

  12. Beginning with the novel's title, moreover, Wendt suggests that home consists of a projection, an ideal that can be more readily imagined than achieved. Home is where we are not, the place to which we long to return. A homeland, the title announces, is created as much by distance as by propinquity. Wendt reinforces the ambivalent nature of his title with his dedication. In the opening pages, the reader learns that the text is offered, "In memory of my brother Lloyd who could not make the return." The fragility of the human condition further complicates projections of arrival at a home from which one has departed. The dedication reminds us that return can be partial, incomplete, or realized only in death.

  13. The story itself is predicated upon the search for home in the midst of exile, a state that affects relationships formed and betrayed. Every aspect of the narrative furthers this consideration of home. In particular, the novel depicts the way conceptions of nature, gender, race, and representation constitute--at times impinge upon--home and its absence.

  14. The novel's narrative emphasizes the difficulty of arriving again at the same place. For the family's younger son in particular, the return home is not possible. The younger son occupies a position that complicates the entire family's return. At home in neither New Zealand nor Samoa, the protagonist is, at the novel's close, suspended in an airplane between the two countries. This middle state, by extension, can itself become a kind of homeland.[13]

  15. The novel's final paragraphs announce the way the younger son fashions a home from the sources and forms available to him in both papalagi and Pacific Islands traditions. The entire chapter revisions the close of Albert Camus' L'étranger (1942). In this narrative that relies on unnamed characters, Camus' is one of the few names that occurs.[14] Like Camus' protagonist, Mersault, Wendt's protagonist has "nothing to lose" (216). Separated from his family and his erstwhile pakeha lover, Wendt refashions the existentialist philosophy that one makes one's own home. Indeed, the sense of absurdity that Existentialism conveys has been anticipated by Pacific Islands philosophies. The Pacific Islands traditions Wendt invokes in his narrative both antedate and extend European modernity's sense of homelessness. Wendt provides a specific history and location for the experience of displacement and exile.

  16. The closing sentences of the novel evince the particular home the protagonist fashions from being suspended between two places and (at least) two traditions:
    He took out his pen, and on the cover of the slick Technicolor tourist brochure which he found in the plastic bag of airline gifts that the smiling hostess had given him, he wrote in large letters: 'And Hine-nui-te-Po woke up and found him in there. And she crossed her legs and thus ended man's quest for immortality.'
    He imagined Maui to have been happy in his death. (217)

    The tourist Pacific is over-written by a Maori tradition, in this case one that confronts mortality. The trickster Maui attempts to enter the vagina and exit at the mouth of the death-goddess, Hine-nui-te-Po. His quest is unsuccessful, and humans remain mortal.

  17. Maui both anticipates and complicates glossy images of an idealized Pacific. Maui's search joins the tourist's in reaching for the impossible. The trickster attempts to re-enter the womb, in a search for re-birth, and encounters death. The power of female anatomy and material constraints limit the trickster's and the tourist's sojourn. Within these limits, however, Wendt conveys a sense of possibility. His protagonist inhabits a middle realm, neither a tourist nor a native son in New Zealand and in Samoa. Wendt leaves his protagonist with a provisional sense of home, a home that is a state of mind as much as a geographical or cultural location.

  18. The novel offers this suspended sense of home after exploring the protagonist's attempts to take refuge in differing physical and emotional locations. The novel's structure embodies both the search and the provisional resolution. Comprised of chapters that can be assembled in any order,[15] the novel insists upon the way the past, present, and future create one another. Part One presents chapters set in New Zealand, intercut with chapters set in Samoa. Chapters depicting both nations are written in present tense; the New Zealand chapters open with the protagonist as a university student, occasionally casting back to his childhood experiences in Wellington. The chapters that depict Samoa and the departure from Samoa present the protagonist as a young child. Part Two focuses increasingly on the protagonist's present experiences in New Zealand. The family's return to Samoa occupies Part Three, which occurs in the narrative present and closes with the younger son's departure for New Zealand.

  19. The novel underscores the process by which meaning and a sense of home are created. Assembled from distinct parts that require the reader to help form the whole, the narrative calls attention to the crucial information that it both withholds and provides. The characters' names, most obviously, are not specified. This technique gives a universal sense to the encounters between the young man and woman and their families. The lovers' passion and their sharing of personal and familial histories portrays the perennial way in which people forge connections with one another. Wendt does not provide names, which can serve as one of the primary components in determining cultural location. He withholds this information in a narrative that emphasizes that the lovers and their families confront racial and cultural labels.

  20. Moreover, the narrative reveals gender-specific responses to these racial and cultural categories. Women, the novel suggests, may play a central role in defining and maintaining these boundaries. The mothers in particular demonstrate anxiety about the growing commitment the young people demonstrate. Their responses suggest that the women have more in common than either might like to admit. The man's mother declares, "'Our way of life, our people, may destroy her,'" and with more vitriol, "'I curse the day you were born! . . . My grandchildren to be half-castes. It cannot be!'" (73, 135). And the woman's mother protests, "'He's dark, isn't he?'" (131). The women in each family are central to articulating the cultural and racial identity they wish their family to maintain. The lovers' dilemma, in part, becomes the fact that to continue their relationship they must thwart their mothers' wishes.

  21. The particular and the universal both define and complicate one another. The lovers gain their meaning beyond any individual name or identity, in their relationship to one another and to their families and countries. But it is precisely these relationships that present obstacles.

  22. Wendt emphasizes that loving the young woman allows the man to ease, at least temporarily, his sense of exile. Through his love for her, he comes to understand her country. The narrative shifts into a rare second-person address to emphasize this process and to hail the reader:
    As you walk the main street of this city which, through loving her, you have learnt to accept, under the dark dome of this sky that covers this country which, through loving her, you have grown to know in all its moods and sickness and loneliness and joy and colours and cruelty, this is what your heart tells you. She is you; the very pores of your breath. Without her, this city, this country, would be a barren place of exile. (129)

    In this sustained contemplation of what the woman means to the Samoan protagonist, Wendt emphasizes that loving her enables the protagonist to understand the city and the landscape of his adopted country. The connection he creates with the woman extends to her native country, enabling him to become an immigrant rather than an exile in New Zealand. His love for her renders his distance from Samoa no longer an exile but a growing recognition that he claims two homelands.

  23. The novel depicts the process of identifying oneself and others with a particular country. But the passage offers a further insight: the protagonist recognizes most clearly what the woman means to him when he fears losing her. Wendt suggests that home becomes most recognizable when it is distant or threatened with loss.

  24. In this novel, the woman's pregnancy precipitates the crisis that destroys their relationship. Without the man's knowledge, the woman consults his mother, who advises her to obtain an abortion. A child of Samoan and papalagi parents is perceived as a specter in this novel: in addition to the mothers' mutual distrust of their children's union, the woman thinks, on an oppressive night, "It was as though the country itself didn't want her to have his child" (131). The woman projects onto her country her own mother's rejection of her possible marriage. She may even be helping to maintain the racial boundaries espoused by both mothers. At the same time, the woman divulges that the man's position in New Zealand is more tenuous than he yet recognizes. He cannot continue to rely on her to abate a sense of exile.

  25. The abortion haunts the lovers, interrupting the genealogies the novel traces, and driving them apart from one another. Genealogies form an integral part of the history presented by the novel, and are central to the conceptions of history and temporality developed by Wendt and other Samoans, including historian Malama Meleisea. In this novel, the abortion is a trauma to the lovers' relationship, shattering the movement of time, "as if time had stopped for a moment and, when it started again, that moment, that pause, was lost forever, but you continued to feel that it shouldn't have got lost, that it should still be there" (159). The woman escapes her inability to re-order her fractured sense of time by traveling to Europe. The man returns to the dilemma of identifying his home.

  26. The abortion presents a crux in the novel. Even more than destroying their relationship, the abortion occurs because their projected union so threatens the people surrounding them. An integral part of the novel's exploration of what comprises a sense of home is its concern with culture and race.

  27. The novel questions the extent to which people can think and live outside of labels. The young people first express their love immediately following a challenge from a pakeha man at a party. The young pakeha attempts to goad the woman into associating with him rather than the Samoan:
    "Are you with him?" the student said, still not looking at him.
    "Yes, I am," she replied.
    "Okay, if that's the way you want it."
    "That's the way I want it," she said.
    The student turned to go. "Bitch!" he mumbled. (24)

    The episode emphasizes the pakeha man's attempt to claim the woman on the basis of a prerogative granted him implicitly by his gender and his race. The student's unwillingness to look at the protagonist conveys his refusal to acknowledge the other young man, much as the narrative refers to the protagonist here in the third person.

  28. In simple, even laconic language, Wendt depicts the ways racism limits those who express it. The student's averted gaze and his denunciation of the young woman reveal the sparse extent of the student's conception of others. He attempts to regulate gender and racial identities. Racism is an unnamed but corrosive force in this exchange. By dramatizing rather than labeling racist attitudes, Wendt shows the way stereotypes operate. He points out the way simplistic labels constrain those who employ them, as well as those upon whom they are imposed.

  29. It is when the young lovers escape this party that they first articulate their love. Wendt shows the way the unnamed racism inflects their exchange of sentiments:
    "Now I'm beginning to understand what it's like," she said. She reached over and gripped his right hand. The starless sky seemed to press down on the car as it rushed headlong into the neon lights of the city, pursuing tram rails that glittered like knife blades.
    I love you.
    I love you too.

    Racism remains the silent referent, even when the woman declares that she is beginning to understand. Wendt refrains from having the woman specify what exactly she comprehends. As a result, her phrase, "I'm beginning to understand what it's like," acts as a pivot between their experience of racism and their declaration of love. The woman's referent is left deliberately unclear in this understated narrative. "It" can indicate both racism and love. In fact, her initial understanding of racism helps lead the lovers to their declaration of love. The italicized exchange expresses a kind of solidarity, a recognition of their shared humanity in the face of forces that would abrogate humanity.

  30. In the final lines of this chapter, Wendt does not attribute the lovers' speech. That is, he does not assign the initial declaration of love or the answering response to either individual. As a result, rather than separate voices, the reader encounters a mutual exchange. Wendt's use of typography calls attention to the way their words both stem from their experience of racism and enter a distinct realm. The words of love are set off by a line break and italicization. At the same time, the lovers' phrases are connected to and serve as a summation of the foregoing passage.

  31. The lovers' words are brave and fragile. Wendt explores the attempt to locate in their love a sense of belonging and identity. For the Samoan protagonist, the relationship represents the first time he has allowed himself to become involved with his adopted country. Wendt makes the protagonist's reluctance explicit in an early exchange with the pakeha woman. She confronts the young man about his unwillingness to help a drunk, unconscious, bleeding man:
    Why didn't you help that man? Was it because you didn't want to get involved with the police?
    Yes, but not just the police.
    Who then?
    With anyone. You get involved if you help people. Or hate them.
    Or love them.
    Yes. Or love them.
    But what about your parents?
    I am involved with them. But only them and my own people. (17)
    The exchange, which Wendt presents without using quotation marks to indicate speech, blurs the distinction between interior and exterior utterances. At this point, race remains an unspoken factor in the man's reluctance to be involved with anyone other than his "own people." Race hovers between being a silent and an explicit component of their discussion, a talk that requires readers to think about the unattributed speech and its assumptions.

  32. Thought, speech, and the narrative voice exist here on the same level. Put another way, these differing registers of expression inflect one another to create a passage that emphasizes the way meaning is produced. The chapter renders the way the two become increasingly a couple. Internal and external voices merge, as the narrative is carried by the dialogue the two create.

  33. In admitting his reluctance to become involved with anyone, the protagonist broaches the topic of racism for the first time in the novel:
    What about those other people?
    They can take care of themselves.
    Is it because most of them are white--pakeha?
    That has something to do with it.
    True. Very true. They turned me into one. (17)

    The brief interrogatives and responses begin to limn the features of racism, that which abridges connection to others. In this fragmented exchange, Wendt conveys the defensive posture the man has adopted, as well as the man's own self-knowledge of his position. The character is aware that he forms his opinions in reaction to others. But the very process of acknowledging the way he has retreated from contact begins to create a connection between the two.

  34. Wendt emphasizes that the young woman compels the young man to discuss racism. She, moreover, is the one who initiates their relationship, drawing the young man out of the silence in which he takes refuge. "'You are talented,'" she tells him, "'[i]n the use of silence'" (10). In detailing the nuances of silence, Wendt anticipates Keri Hulme's bravura depiction of the mute character Simon in her Booker-Prize winning novel, The Bone People (1983). Wendt and Hulme, of course, both call attention to the ways that silence can communicate. Simon's youth and his fragmented memories contribute to Hulme's portrayal of the difficulty of retrieving or reconstructing his past; by extension, she calls attention to the complicated process of portraying a pre-European-contact Aotearoa. The protagonist of Wendt's novel is twenty-five, and his silence represents a more conscious effort to prevent his past and his present from intersecting. But Wendt, as does Hulme later in her novel, presents the reciprocal formations of time past and present. Memory, myth, history, and violence intersect for Wendt's protagonist and for Simon, as each confronts the way the past and present shape one another.

  35. Wendt's presentation of nature relies upon this fluid sense of temporality. He also examines the way spatiality is inflected by the circling of past, present, and future. Nature, in this novel, impels considerations of homelands and interlopers. The woman guides the man on a trip through Aotearoa's North Island, enabling him for the first time to articulate an attachment to his adopted country. But Wendt complicates the scenario of a native guide illustrating features of the land to a stranger.[16] In this novel, the woman recognizes that she and her family are interlopers who displace the Maori. And the man is neither at home nor a stranger in New Zealand. By examining the way the couple create their own maps of the land, Wendt offers a complicated recognition of the geographical and temporal coordinates people invoke. In consecutive chapters, Wendt examines the way the two construct their understanding of time and place. For both characters, history and geography are comprised of the experience of displacement.

  36. Near the outset of their road trip through the North Island, the young woman announces, "'I have a history too, though it's not as old as yours or the Maoris' [sic] who owned the place before we robbed them of it'" (86). Wendt details the way the woman's relationship to the land is marked by guilt: her history begins with missionaries, traders, pakeha-introduced diseases, settlers, and confiscation of Maori land. She tells her history as they overlook land her family once owned, tracing the contours of her genealogy and of her family's place in this nation. The novel revises the "land and loneliness" tradition of white New Zealand writing that vaunts masculinity and conquest of the land.[17] For here the conquerors rest uneasily in their new holdings, aware of the people they have supplanted. The girl relates her grandfather's final, ambivalent words: "Just before exhaling his last breath, he mumbled something about the bloody bush and land having beaten him. For the first and only time they heard him use a four-letter word: "Fuck the Maoris, he cursed. Fuck 'em! Then he was dead" (90). The bush and land are joined inextricably with the Maori whose sovereignty the settlers challenged.

  37. The passage also re-writes Joseph Conrad's portrayal of the famous expostulation, "'Exterminate all the brutes!'" (51), in Heart of Darkness (1899). Kurtz's addendum to his report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs (50) here becomes a general curse. In place of the European ivory trader's brutal admonishment, the dying grandfather mutters in disgust and helplessness.

  38. The pakeha woman traces her relationship to the land in terms of her ancestors' history of appropriation. Wendt suggests that her genealogy is one marked by guilt and violence. The man, however, offers a history in the following chapter that also encompasses racism. The narrative he tells the girl begins with this acknowledgement. "He despised Maoris, he confessed," Wendt writes, examining tensions among Pacific Islanders and Maori:
    He admitted that most Samoans believed the same racist myths about Maoris as pakehas did: Maoris were dirty, lazy, irresponsible; they were intellectually inferior; they lacked initiative, drive, courage; they drank too much, were sexually immoral, treated their children cruelly; all that most of them were good at was rugby, bulldozering, dancing, and playing in bands. (97)

    The litany provides a virtual catalogue of racism in New Zealand. Veering between images of abandon and cruelty, the passage shows up the absurdity of these myths. Wendt calls attention to the way Maori are presented as at once indulgent and brutal, lazy and destructive. The contradictory extremes indict the limits of racist thinking.

  39. But the racism the protagonist acknowledges echoes racism directed toward both Pacific Islanders and Maori. Wendt takes his critique one step further by confronting this fact: "He paused for a moment and then said that it was funny how these were the very myths that pakehas believed about Samoans (and about Islanders in general)" (97). That reported pause suggests the way racism can be sustained through a kind of mimicry, an imitation of others' attitudes toward a particular group of people. Wendt's novel shows the process by which this mimicry drains those who practice it. The protagonist's confession of his own problematic attitudes enables him to become more at home in the land he is touring.

  40. He confronts not only his own limitations but also the continuing limits imposed by violence. He sits alone on a hill, overlooking the land and assessing his own place in it: "This was the first live hawk he had seen, and he was beginning to comprehend the beauty of fear, the awesome depth of freedom. Poised in the sky, the hawk seemed to be holding up the earth. The silence trembled as it dropped lower, stopped, hovered again" (94). Accustomed to the city, the protagonist encounters a landscape that is foreign to him. The hawk, which first sounds "like the beating of a huge heart" (93), helps him understand his place in this land. He associates the bird's flight with the owl that was his family's deity in Samoa before the missionaries arrived. In Wendt's portrayal, this flight balances the protagonist's history with his present place in New Zealand. The man perceives the hawk after he admits his racism to himself and before he acknowledges it to the woman.

  41. The heart-beat of the hawk's wings, which might even be taken as an image of the enduring land, is brought to an abrupt halt. Wendt's narrative embodies this harsh end: "The rifle shot severed the silence which held the hawk and the hills together, and echoed across the sky" (94). The paragraph begins with the hawk's demise, when the woman's rifle shot interrupts the protagonist's and the reader's contemplation of the hawk's suspension over the hills.

  42. The hawk, imported by the pakeha when they arrived in Aotearoa, plummets to the ground, leaving "the sky void of meaning" (94). But the woman's rifle shot does not just suggest that she continues her ancestors' encroachment on the land. Her violence also initiates a fierce response from the man. He castigates her, shouting "'Your lily-white ancestors ate everything else that was worth anything in this fucken area. Now you even want to kill the bloody scavengers you brought with you!'" (95). When she resorts again to violence, beating and kneeing him, he slaps her. The scene is predicated upon the way violence begets violence.

  43. More importantly, having acknowledged his negative feelings toward Maori, the protagonist again invokes race, this time in anger at the woman. The strictures of race are familiar, an easy refuge in times of crisis. Wendt's novel both acknowledges this fact and attempts to work against it. The lovers, of course, call a truce, allowing him to speak openly to her about the racist myths he has adopted in New Zealand. The novel depicts repeated instances of racism and attempts to thwart racism, honesty about race, and default denunciations of other peoples.

  44. The protagonist invokes the Polynesian trickster, Maui, to reconcile his position in New Zealand with his identity and history as an Islander. He cites the "absurdity in life [that] was at the core of all Polynesian myths and was especially evident in the saga of Maui, the legendary Maori hero" (99). In the man's recounting, Maui's exploits anticipate and surpass modern heroes:
    He is a better prole than Marx, a better warrior than Hitler, a better fornicator than Calvin, a better marcher than Mao, a more inventive masturbator than Hugh Hefner, a better visionary than Jesus--whose only achievement was turning the cross into a revered symbol, a better revolutionary than Che Guevara, and a hipster who makes Norman Mailer look like Liberace. (100)

    Maui, the protagonist suggests, runs the gamut from poetics and politics to self-indulgence and excess. Maui surpasses the demi-gods of the past and present. Narrating Maui's exploits allows the protagonist to stake a claim for a Polynesian-based history.[18] The passage brings the protagonist closer to the land's original inhabitants and to his adopted home.

  45. In their relationship, the two lovers replay some of the same questions of guilt and displacement the woman feels toward the land. If Pakeha suffer anxiety about the previous owners of the land they now hold, the Samoan manifests extreme discomfort about not being the woman's first lover. The novel confronts this ugly resentment. "'What about all those white bastards who had a good time with you?'" the man asks, only to elicit the woman's jab, "'Polynesians are supposed to believe in free love; they're supposed to practise [sic] fucking all round!'" (115). The scene deconstructs male anxiety about possessing a woman, which Wendt portrays as analogous to settler anxiety about taming the "new" land. Even after the two lovers share their histories with one another, they resume these racialist stances. The lovers are always suspended from one another, even in their most fervent passion.

  46. In fact, the young couple articulates most clearly what they expect from one another when they fear losing their relationship. The woman announces that she is pregnant only after trying to spur the man to fight the pakeha who was her first lover. To state the scene in the terms Frantz Fanon delineated in Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Wendt underscores the way black men's sexuality creates extreme desire and anxiety. [19] At a party, the woman's first lover, a pakeha, taunts the man, "'She really likes Islanders. Probably because coconuts are big where we fellows should be big.'" When the Samoan refuses to respond to these racist overtures in kind, and declines a physical fight, the woman shouts, "'Aren't you going to fight him?'" (124, 125). The woman wants her current lover to demonstrate his prowess for her previous lover. The pakeha man divulges his own anxiety, while the woman attempts to manipulate the men and the stereotypical conceptions of Polynesian virility.

  47. Meanwhile, the Samoan refuses to be reduced to the physical. He uses silence to defeat the pakeha man's racial slur, the insult that equates his appeal with his sexual organ. Wendt's narrative uses that silence to offer a critique. In a passage that traces the protagonist's thoughts, increasingly frequent in these final portions of the novel, the Samoan identifies the pakeha man who, "suffering from fear of his own inadequacies as a male, believed the racist myth of black virility, and who was now trying to convince himself (and his friends) that the myth wasn't true" (125). The passage emphasizes the ways myths continue to shape assumptions and behavior. The protagonist avoids the confrontation anticipated by both pakeha characters. In articulating the operative myth, the Samoan both acknowledges and challenges its force. The novel explores the way people turn to over-simplified myths to ease anxiety. The pakeha characters, of course, do not have a monopoly on this process.

  48. In this way, the novel addresses the way representation is inextricable from perceptions of home or exile. Myth enables the protagonist's family to sustain their conception of Samoa in New Zealand. Samoa becomes a distant ideal, as much created as represented in the stories the protagonist's parents tell: "a new mythology, woven out of her romantic memories, her legends, her illusions, and her prejudices, was born in her sons: a fabulous Samoa to be attained by her sons when they returned home after surviving the winters of a pagan country" (76). These myths project a home for the boys, a fabulous Samoa to which the family must return. The return is accomplished first in New Zealand, by narrating these very stories. And when the protagonist obtains his master's degree, the family journeys to Samoa.

  49. The difficulty for the younger son is that the trip to Samoa does not constitute a return. He does not encounter the Samoa he left at age five and only dimly recalls. Nor does he discover the fantastic country of his parents' stories. Instead, he finds Samoa to be "a country real only in myth or fairy tale or dream" (171). The protagonist orients himself by referring to movies about the South Pacific: "Beyond the airstrip, and reminiscent of backdrops in a Technicolor movie of the South Seas, palm trees rolled up to foothills" (171). Rather than an idyllic experience, however, the man encounters "nothing more than an uncomfortable seat, as a stranger, in a bus packed with the mythical characters of the legends his parents had nourished him on for so long" (172-73). A stranger, he is not so much returning home as discovering the way representations--filmic and narrative--order one's perception.

  50. Wendt founds his narrative on the ways representation and perception diverge and converge. His protagonist apprehends Samoa through the frames that have been placed around it by his parents' stories, his memories, and his experiences with movies and books about the South Pacific. But Samoa at once exceeds and fails to fill these borders. The protagonist cannot tolerate the mosquitoes and flies in Samoa, suffers from diarrhea, and yearns for privacy and solitude. His continual questioning of the ways people apprehend and identify themselves and their culture results in what his father terms a "permanent exile" (204).

  51. But Wendt emphasizes that the protagonist's exile does not result solely from colonialism and its continuing effects, nor from the displacement that occurs with actual physical exile from one's country of birth. Instead, the protagonist continues a pattern that began with his grandfather. Time is cyclical; the past, present, and future join and influence one another in a continual circle. Wendt embodies this idea in the circles of palms planted by the protagonist's grandfather.

  52. Indeed, the grandfather is buried in an unmarked grave at the center of one of these circles. And the protagonist articulates the way his own history repeats his grandfather's. The grandfather performed an abortion on his wife when he believed she was carrying another man's child. He doubted her, mis-used his healing powers, and killed her in the process. The abortion destroyed relationships in two generations, breaking off the genealogies that branch through Samoan history and Wendt's novel.

  53. Wendt confronts these broken genealogies. The protagonist's father acknowledges the violence his father inflicted on his mother. The protagonist listens as his father confesses that his own father killed his mother:
    "All you've got to do is admit it to yourself. I have now." He stood up and, surveying the palm grove and the sky and the grave, said: "He was a good man. And I will always treasure his memory. . . . He is still here because these islands are still here. . . . He is here even more now because you're here. But even if you go away, for me he will always be here." A smile blossomed across his face. "The bloody bugger won't leave me alone," he said in a mixture of English and Samoan. (207)

    The grandfather, a healer who killed, who upheld neither the ancient gods nor the new Jehovah, elicits mixed responses from his male descendants. He is identified with the islands themselves, and with a complete, unending circle of palms. History goes on, Wendt suggests, and repeats itself.

  54. The father's admission enables the protagonist to depart Samoa. The mixture of languages the father uses here expresses, with honesty, his own cultural history. To express the anomaly that is his father, he draws on his knowledge of New Zealand English as well as Samoan. Mixed cultural and linguistic sources convey the new Samoa produced by the branching movements of people within and across the Pacific.

  55. The protagonist's grandmother and his former lover comprise an important point on the circle Wendt traces. For the protagonist, "Now the two women were one: he couldn't escape" (190). The phrase suggests that the protagonist must confront his grandfather's actions as well as his own. He, too, has shared responsibility in the abortion. In order to understand his position in Samoa, he must examine the way the men and women of differing generations confront similar crises.

  56. The protagonist's final recognition of his location in Samoa occurs in a public confrontation with his mother. When he tells his mother that he cannot live in Samoa, she divulges her knowledge of the abortion the girl has had, saying, "'She can't come back to you anyway'" (214). The mother's attempt to preserve a Samoa pure in race and culture fails. She cannot keep her youngest son in her village.

  57. To mark his separation from his country of birth, the son disavows his mother: "'She is not my mother any more,' he said in Samoan for everyone to hear. The people outside gasped in disbelief and horror, as though they had just heard him declaring for suicide" (215). The audience outside the family's new palagi house emphasizes the continuity between family and community in Samoa. Wendt details the way the protagonist breaks with both family and community. The mother, in this passage, stands for both: "He had to do it. He hit her. The sharp final slap of his forgiving hand across her face broke open the womb of his grief and guilt, and he was free at last" (215). The protagonist strikes a blow at his mother's complicity in the abortion, in desiring an easy return to a pure home.

  58. Wendt also conveys the way the protagonist feminizes the pain he has been bearing. Striking his mother frees him from the "womb" of "guilt and grief." In carrying that burden, the protagonist has been infantalized, having returned to the womb, as did Maui in his search for immortality. The novel closes as the protagonist, like Maui, accepts mortality. His desires for home, his attempts to locate home in a place or in a person, cannot be fulfilled. Instead, Wendt's novel ends with the protagonist suspended between countries, balancing history, myth, and invention. The protagonist writes Maui myths on a tourist brochure, much as Wendt writes a novel that insists upon the new Oceania always emerging from the old. [20]


  1. Featured in the first issue of Mana Review, the essay, along with studies by Subramani and Ken Arvidson published in the same issue, articulated many of the cultural imperatives that would inform subsequent Pacific writing and criticism. Back

  2. This formulation anticipates Epeli Hau'ofa's emphasis, in his essay "Our Sea of Islands" (1993), on the connections among Pacific Islands and on the ways Islanders navigate both land and sea in their cultural and political formations. The two essays, both powerful expressions of South Pacific regionalism, present complementary visions of the area's cultures. Back

  3. Western Samoa was, in 1962, the first Pacific Islands country to gain political independence. Marjorie Tuainakore Crocombe has identified the ways writers and nationalism emerged together and formed one another in the Pacific. She makes the connection explicit in her article, "Independence movements bred the new wave of Pacific writers" (1980), but expresses the same idea in the Introduction to Mana Annual 1974: "The canoe is afloat. The flow of creativity in poetry, drama, story writing, as well as other forms of creative expression from painting to wood sculpture has expanded enormously since our society [South Pacific Creative Arts Society] was launched two years ago. . . . Mana is just a vehicle to help carry the rich cargoes of individual talent from every part of the Pacific to every other part" (1). Back

  4. In an interview, "'The Techniques of Storytelling'" (Ellis 1997), Wendt clarifies the chronology of his writing. Leaves of the Banyan Tree was the first novel he wrote, stemming as it did from a short sketch published while he was still at university. He wrote and published Sons, which grew from a short story, and Pouliuli, after writing Leaves. Then he went back to the manuscript of Leaves and revised it again, resulting in his third published novel. Back

  5. In an early essay on the novel, Wendt articulates many of the parameters that still deserve to be investigated. In "Inside 'Outsider' Wendt" (1974) Wendt writes candidly about his position as a "'mongrel' of two cultures": "In many ways it is a very lonely position to be in because you can never again belong totally to either of the cultures you grew up in. You will remain an outsider suffering from a frightening sense of unreality" (6, 7). Ken Arvidson has examined the novel's examination of a "struggle for balance" between the cultures as the protagonist attempts to confront the "literal and the semi-mythical realities of his ancestry and his race." W. D. Ashcroft suggests that the novel expresses a "philosophy of possibility" that tempers the exploration of cultural fragmentation. Helen Tiffin identifies in Wendt's works a "creative tension" between self-assertion and self-denigration. Tiffin suggests that Wendt's repeated depiction of assertive sexuality becomes a defiant protest against mis-readings of Pacific Islands cultures. Back

  6. The novel acknowledges the ways the new Oceania emerges from the old; the cultural networks of the past and present are based in part on migration, trade, and travel. Studies such as David Lewis's We, the Navigators (1972) and Thomas Gladwin's East is a Big Bird (1970) focus on specific navigational techniques that fostered these exchanges. The essays edited by Murray Chapman in Mobility and Identity in the Island Pacific (1985) examine specific situations and communities shaped by these journeys. Back

  7. Some of the most prominent theories that can be extended in light of the Oceania of Wendt's novels are those offered by Salman Rushdie in his essays on exile and home in Imaginary Homelands (1991) and Benedict Anderson's formulations of the nation in Imagined Communities (1983). Rushdie asserts in his title essay, "The broken mirror may actually be as valuable as the one which is supposedly unflawed," attending like Wendt to the ways fragmented shards of narrative can be used to imagine as much as represent a homeland. In Wendt's novels, the imagined communities often encompass individuals or constituencies whose participation in the nation (or village, in the case of Pouliuli [1977]) is involuntary. Back

  8. Wendt's novels fill in the parenthesis left open by James Clifford in his essay, "On Ethnographic Allegory" in the collection Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (1986). Clifford states, "Novels by a Samoan (Alfred [sic] Wendt) can challenge the portrait of his people by a distinguished anthropologist" (119). Attending to the concepts of culture portrayed in Wendt's novels allows a reconsideration of cultural theories that have been especially prominent in the metropolis. Wendt's novels examine the way culture is shaped by location, race, and gender (particularly masculinity), much as does the collection, edited by Ruth Behar and Deborah A. Gordon, Women Writing Culture (1995). Moreover, Sons for the Return Home examines the specific situations and forces that shape narratives that move away from the grand meta-narratives that Jean-Fran¨ois Lyotard associates with modernity in The Postmodern Condition (1979, trans. 1984). And the novel bears directly on the question of who it is that claims alterity or subalternity, a question focused so precisely in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's work. The novel anticipates the question Spivak poses in the title of her essay, "Who Claims Alterity?" (1989) and takes up the nuances of subalternity raised by the initial article, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" (1985) and developed in the interview, "Subaltern Talk," included in The Spivak Reader (1993-1994). Back

  9. Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism relies upon a concept of History with a capital H, relying upon a linear conception of time and economic formations. Jameson asserts that there is no longer any cultural difference left. In The Postmodern Condition, Jean-Fran¨ois Lyotard creates a celebratory metanarrative about the decline of metanarratives, using a highly selective account of the Cashinahua of Peru and Brazil to support his arguments. Lyotard does not grant the Cashinahua the specificity of declaring their geographical location, instead simply asserting that they emblematize the similarities among "pagan" and postmodern cultures. Back

  10. Papalagi is a Samoan word, meaning literally sky-breakers, used by Samoans and other Pacific Islanders to refer to whites. Papalagi is technically the singular form, while palagi is the plural; in practice, however, the forms are used interchangeably. Back

  11. The family's journey is emblematic of migration within and across the Pacific. These journeys antedate white arrival in the region, and continue to the present time. In Lagaga, their history of Western Samoa, Malama Meleisea and his twelve co-authors detail the large numbers of people who moved from Western Samoa to New Zealand to work. Between 1964 and 1966, for instance, Meleisea and Penelope Schoeffel Meleisea note that more than 2000 Samoans departed for New Zealand: "During the 1960s the New Zealand economy was able to absorb many Samoan workers and no real fuss was created over the many Samoans who overstayed their visas and remained in New Zealand to work" (161). Back

  12. Pakeha is a Maori word that means literally, stranger, outsider. Both Maori and Pakeha use the term to indicate white people, descendants of settlers in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Back

  13. Wendt thus presents an extended examination of the phenomenon Homi Bhabha terms, in The Location of Culture (1993), "culture's in-between." Bhabha considers the concept most directly in his "Introduction," but the remaining essays can be read as an extended examination of congruent theoretical territory. Wendt's novel extends the insight into the mixtures of cultures by providing an important sense of history and specificity. Back

  14. Wendt closes Chapter 15 with a reference to Camus: "Remembering it was Christmas the next day, he went and bought presents for his family and the girl. He bought her a collection of essays by Camus" (73). The sole formal gift Wendt identifies in the course of their relationship, the book of essays identifies part of the philosophy the protagonist wishes to express to his lover. In a 1992 essay, "Discovering The Outsider," Wendt comments explicitly on Camus' influence on his own early philosophy. (Wendt refers to an earlier English translation of L'étranger, now of course translated in English editions as The Stranger.) "I read and re-read The Outsider," Wendt relates. He specifies, "I've woven out of my ancient Polynesian heritage and Camus and all my other literary ancestors a way of writing/seeing/being....Much of the main character [in Sons] reflects the character of Meursault: searching for permanence in exile, refusing to lie, living in the present yet wanting to know more about his Samoanness and his ancestors" (49). Wendt's reference to The Outsider also emphasizes his use of the term "outsider" to describe himself (particularly in his essay "Inside 'Outsider' Wendt"). Back

  15. In "Inside 'Outsider' Wendt," Wendt clarifies that he constructed the novel out of chapters that could appear in any order. "I wanted to write each section, each chapter," Wendt suggests, "as a complete statement, short story in itself--little explosions that ran into each other, kept the reader in suspense, and yet made it possible for the book to be read at random at any point" (6). The book, of course, arranges these chapters in a fixed order, but Wendt's novel emphasizes the sense of process and creation required of both writer and reader. Back

  16. In Empire Writes Back, Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin suggest that the writers they term "postcolonial" often feature a "the journey of the European interloper through unfamiliar landscape with a native guide" (28). Wendt's novel, in a clear variation on this theme, portrays a New Zealand-born guide and a Samoan visitor, both of them conscious of their position as interlopers in the land of the Maori. Back

  17. The phrase has particular relevance for John Mulgan's novel, Man Alone (1939), although its broader implications encompass colonial and dominion writers' attempts to come to terms with the New Zealand landscape. Back

  18. The proclamation of a Polynesian-based history of course complicates Pacific Islands regionalism, invoking as it does a racial and cultural divide formulated and promulgated historically by anthropologists. The Pacific region in Hau'ofa's "Sea of Islands" is similarly divided by his prominent use of the terms "Polynesians," "Melanesians," and "Micronesians." Back

  19. Wendt's scene is most directly related to Fanon's discussion in "The Negro and Psychopathology," where Fanon presents such formulations as "For the majority of white men the Negro represents the sexual instinct (in its raw state). The Negro is the incarnation of a genital potency beyond all moralities and prohibitions. The women among the whites, by a genuine process of induction, invariably view the Negro as the keeper of the impalpable gate that opens into the realm of orgies, of bacchanals, of delirious sexual sensations" (177). In testing the power of the imagined or the ascribed to shape images of human sexuality, Fanon's examination coincides with Wendt's. Back

  20. I am grateful to the Fulbright Foundation for a research grant in New Zealand that enabled the initial work on this article. I also wish to thank the Loyola College Humanities Center for a research assistant grant, and Tim Durkin, for his help. Back

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London and New York: Verso, 1983, rev. 1991.

Arvidson, Ken. "The Emergence of a Polynesian Literature." Mana Review 1.1 (1976): 28-48. Reprinted in Sharrad. 20-38.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

Ashcroft, W. D. "The Place of the Spirit: Albert Wendt's Sons for the Return Home." New Literature Review 9 (1980): 24-32.

Behar, Ruth, and Deborah A. Gordon, eds. Women Writing Culture. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

Chapman, Murray, ed. Mobility and Identity in the Island Pacific. Pacific Viewpoint 26.1 (1985).

Clifford, James. "On Ethnographic Allegory." Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Eds. James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986. 98-121.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. Third Edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988.

Crocombe, Marjorie Tuainekore. "Independence movements bred the new wave of Pacific writers." Pacific Islands Monthly 51.8 (1980): 140-47.

---. "Introducing Mana 1974." The Mana Annual 1974: 1.

Ellis, Juniper. "'The Techniques of Storytelling': An Interview with Albert Wendt." Ariel 28.3 (1997): 79-94.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. 1952. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1967.

Gladwin, Thomas. East is a Big Bird. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1970.

Hau'ofa, Epeli. "Our Sea of Islands." A New Oceania: Rediscovering Our Sea of Islands. Eds. Vijay Naidu, Eric Waddell, and Epeli Hau`ofa. Suva: School of Social and Economic Development, USP, 1993. Reprinted in The Contemporary Pacific 6.1 (1994): 147-61.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism. New York and London: Routledge, 1988.

Lewis, David. We, the Navigators. 2nd ed. Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 1994.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition. 1979. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Meleisea, Malama. Lagaga: A Short History of Western Samoa. Suva, Fiji: U of South Pacific, 1987.

Mulgan, John. Man Alone. 1939. Auckland: Longman Paul, 1975.

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. New York and London: Penguin, 1991.

Sharrad, Paul, ed. Readings in Pacific Literature. Wollongong, Australia: U of Wollongong and New Literatures Research Centre, 1993.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Eds. Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988. 271-313.

---. "Subaltern Talk: Interview with the Editors." The Spivak Reader. Eds. Donna Landry and Gerlad MacLean. New York and London: Routledge, 1996. 287-308.

---. "Who Claims Alterity?" Remaking History. Eds. Barbara Kruger and Phil Mariani. Seattle: Bay Press, 1989. 269-92.

Subramani. "The Mythical Quest: Literary Responses to the South Seas." Mana Review 1.1 (1976): 6-27.

Tiffin, Helen. "'You Can't Go Home Again': The Colonial Dilemma in the Work of Albert Wendt." Meanjin 37.1 (1978): 119-26.

Wendt, Albert. Black Rainbow. Auckland: Penguin, 1992.

---."Discovering The Outsider." Camus' L'Etranger: Fifty Years On. Ed. Adele King. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992. 48-50.

---. "Inside 'Outsider' Wendt." New Zealand Bookworld 8 (1974): 6-8.

---. Leaves of the Banyan Tree. Auckland: Penguin, 1979.

---. Ola. Auckland: Penguin, 1991.

---. "Pacific Maps and Fiction(s): A Personal Journey." Migration and New Zealand Society, Stout Research Centre Sixth Annual Conference. Wellington: Stout Research Centre, 1990. 59-81.

---. Pouliuli. Auckland: Penguin, 1977.

---. Sons for the Return Home. 1973. Honolulu: U of Hawai'i P, 1996.

---. "Towards a New Oceania." Mana Review 1.1 (1976): 49-60. Reprinted in Sharrad. 9-19.

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