Profile – By Tupuola Terry Tavita.
Talking to Albert Wendt is like indulging in fine tequila. Heavy on the lime, easy on the salt. The man is a national treasure.
“Quite frankly, I find politics now quite boring,” he cuts in abruptly as I try to engage him in political yarn. Afterall, he was a very outspoken political commentator back in the 1970s, while editing and writing for the Samoa Times.
“At my age, the only thing that holds any real importance, is family. I try to come back to Samoa as often as I can.”
So what started off as an interview played out as a Sunday morning conversation with undoubtedly Samoa’s most celebrated poet-novelist. Interviews are demeaning for a person the intelligence and stature of Albert. Not only because he is not a question-and-answer person but that he prefers to engage his, well, companion.
Even calling this unpretentious man ‘professor’ has a pretentious ring to it. I just called him Albert.
So I put down my reporter’s pen and put away my notepad – and set of questions – to engage in a strolling conversation with this scholarly hero of many.
Inevitably, our chat ambled to his latest novel – The Adventures of Vela is a verse novel that reads like an Illiad – that deals with that touchy issue of religion.
“Samoan history starts when the missionaries arrived. There is this hesitancy to speak of our pre-Christian history. Especially our pre-Christian gods and worship. We cannot deny our children the right to know about that history. Young Samoans oversees are thirsting for that historical knowledge.”
To dismiss Albert as a heretic is way too simple. Though he did not say it – and I did not push his personal convictions – he comes across as more of a critic of organised church as an institution. In particular – the cultural paternalism and exclusiveness of the historicism inherent in its teaching.
“We were a godly people before Christianity arrived. We’ve always had priests. The missionaries did not teach us to love. We’ve always had love long before the missionaries arrived.”
So what are you advocating? I asked.
“I’m not advocating anything. And I’m certainly not advocating any mass conversion. I’m simply pointing out that we should not be ashamed nor afraid to talk about our ancient past. And there’s lots of lessons we can learn from the ancient past. Because religion then was not something you can separate. It formed people’s belief systems, how, when and where they travelled, their economic activity, how they interacted as a society and especially, their relationship with the environment.”
Vela has already scooped the Commonwealth Asia-Pacific top award. It is now up for Commonwealth Best Book to be decided by an international panel next week in New Delhi.
Growing up in Samoa, Albert muses, much of his early fascination with history was incited by his story-teller grandmother Mele.
“I was lucky I was taken under the wing of my 90-year-old grandmother. In front of people she would never indulge in that sort of ancient speak. But once everyone leaves, boy can she spin a yarn. She was happy to impart those stories because she knows I held a particular interest. So are many of our old people. But mind you, every year their numbers are diminishing and we need to carry forward that precious knowledge.”
Albert is not a person who likes to talk about himself.
Instead he’s mastered that Samoan art of deflecting attention, and praise, to others. God or in this case, the Head of State.
He describes his old friend as a man of “great intellectual curiosity”.
“He’s a true scholar of Samoan culture and history and brings a whole new dimension to the Head of State’s office. He knows his literature because he lives it.”
At 72 and ‘retired’, Albert has weathered well.
Bar the shock of grey hair, he looks fit with the twinkle of the well-traveled and the thinking man’s pensive poise.
He’s been away for over thirty years – teaching at the USP Suva, at Auckland University culminating with a stint as chair of at the University of Hawaii.
So is there a chance of taking up a post at the National University? That institution could surely do with someone of Albert’s stature to lift its profile. He respectfully takes a sidestep.
“I live in Ponsonby now with my partner Reina. We write and we paint. That’s where everything is happening…where Samoans are achieving in sports, in politics, in the arts and recently, in business.”
And what is his next offering?
“I’m working with some people in Hollywood. I cannot divulge any more than that as there are contractual agreements being arranged.”
And he’s also finding inspiration away from his work. Rugby and Albert make for an odd couple.
“I’ve been following the success of our Manu Samoa sevens team very closely. It’s good for the country, a good morale boost.”
And as he seems to be taking it easy late in his writing career, another Wendt meanwhile is quickly making a name for herself in Pacific literature circles. Writer Lani Wendt-Young is a nice of Albert’s.
“I’m certainly looking forward to reading her work on the tsunami.”
Ms Wendt-Young is compiling personal accounts of those affected by the September tsunami. Winner of the National University of Samoa short story competition, she’s also published in collections out of New Zealand and Australia.
Tupuola Terry Tavita is editor of the Samoan government newspaper Savali.