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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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.(24)
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.
Why didn't you help that man? Was it because you didn't want to get involved with the police?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.
Yes, but not just the police.
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)
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.
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.
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. The passage brings the protagonist closer to the land's original inhabitants and to his adopted home.
"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.
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
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
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
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
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
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 ) is involuntary. Back
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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