SIA FIGIEL ON ALBERT WENDT
This week friend and author Sia Figiel Face Booked me saying she had just written a review on Samoan writer Albert Wendts’ first novel “Son for the Return Home”. The conversation went “Sau (me) would you like to print this in your Observer Art Page?’ Well would I of course I could not resist printing a book thousands of Samoan students have read over the decades since 1973 when the book was published – so here we are on the Observer Art Page publishing this review for the first time. Sia Figiel’s literary and masterful insight into the biopic novel by Albert Wendt.
SONS FOR THE RETURN HOME, a review by Sia Figiel
He was bored with the lecture. He got up quietly, picked up his books, left the lecture hall through the back door and went to the student cafeteria.
These are the very unforgettable opening lines to Albert Wendt’s postmodern debut novel, Sons for the Return Home, a landmark of Samoan and Pacific Literature, first published in New Zealand in 1973.
These two lines make up the first paragraph of a story told in the detached third person (with an isolated second person narrative, a love reflection, in between) that already sets the tone of its grand and difficult themes, inherent in its title and gives rise to that classic question the American writer Thomas Wolfe explored in his last novel, published in 1940 when Wendt was barely a toddler, You Can’t Go Home Again.
This is a theme that is visited and revisited over and over as the main characters struggle with their search for home which gives rise to other questions, where is home? What is home? Is it a place, a person or is it a state of mind?
Groomed by their migrant to New Zealand blue collared working parents to be educated the palagi way for their grand return home to Samoa, the brothers are suspended in limbo, particularly the younger son and protagonist who finds himself in perpetual exile, not really belonging anywhere.
The novel is made up of three parts with a 20 year span that begins with Part I at a student cafeteria in New Zealand with flashbacks to Samoa, when the protagonist was a boy and their heartrending journey by boat towards the land of the long white cloud, New Zealand; their dream and ‘home’, temporarily, until their grand return back to Samoa, their ‘real’ and permanent home.
Part II tells of the present and the complexities of living as ‘outsiders’ who experience the natural perplexities that come with dislocation, the ugliness of racism, family violence, societal expectations based on stereotypes, and other brutalities that impress themselves onto the lives of the main characters in a very real and savage way that build up to the eventual realization that dreams and myth making of our perfect past, like all things, fall apart and throughout the narrative, and particularly in Part III, they fall apart mercilessly, like one small mirror after another, falling and shattering with resounding wounds and pain and hurt.
That being said, at its heart, Sons for the Return Home is a love story unlike any story of love told about the Pacific. It tells the story of an inter-racial union (in time) between a Samoan man and a palagi/pakeha woman; university students from vastly different backgrounds; stoic brainy and angry son of migrant factory worker Pacific Islander and over-privileged, attractive, blonde like a model out of a fashion magazine, daughter of successful businessman, descendant of migrants to New Zealand from Manchester, England, pakeha/palagi/white folks.
The lovers in the narrative have no names. They are nameless and are referred to only as He and She; a technique that reflects the French existentialist writer Albert Camus’s concept of the absurd and notion of revolt.
This is explored over and over again from the time He meets She and He meets Her parents and vice versa, unveiling relationships with Freudian undertones that explode in the revelation of secrets and lies about family history and memory and inter-generational karma brought on by the cycle of human desires and jealousies and hunger for power and control, all of which culminate in the violent termination of life and broken genealogies.
The all powerful Samoan matriarch with her insistence on keeping the race pure and the pakeha matriarch with her questions of race ‘he’s too dark dear’ expressing concerns about the color of the offspring of such a union, (i.e. what my grandchildren might look like) show over and over that despite their differences, they are united as mothers in their over-protectiveness which ultimately leads to the abortion that separates the lovers forever, each seeking meaning in their separateness by novel’s end.
But what was most epiphanic for this reviewer were the liberties with which sensuality and sexuality were depicted and the lovers connections to Nature as a force that brings them together as well as give meaning to their short-lived union.
The use of Samoan metaphor throughout the narrative, with references to the memory of island home in juxtaposition to the very cement cosmopolitan Wellington, and the exploration and discovery of the whenua in a trip that takes the lovers around the North Island are powerful characters in themselves; the island and the city and the whenua and how they form and shape the identities of each of the main characters.
Additionally, Wendt’s superb weaving of the Maori myth of Maui throughout the narrative, told by He as his superego, trickster self brings him closer to the land of the long white cloud.
Maui’s eventual quest for immortality finds him between the thighs of the Goddess of Death, Hinenuitepo’s where he comes vis a vis his own mortality which parallels with the protagonist’s search for home after he disowned his mother in a very public confrontation that expresses the dichotomies of conservative traditionalist vs modern existentialist, as well as old world vs a brave new one.
Wendt raises these questions in simple and deceptive prose that illuminates the complexities of both families and society. While Wendt himself might roar with challenging anger at the fa’asamoa and its gripping hold on the individual, there is a deep love and compassion that is felt throughout the narrative which drives it towards it’s hopeful end.
Since its publication in 1973, Sons for the Return Home launched the career into space of a writer whose prolific output continues to engage us with fresh and original thought, style and depth of perception that only deepens with age.
It remains a seminal work that has stood the test of time and remains relevant to the contemporary Pacific and to World literature. It is a work of intense revelations; that shows a writer fully engaged with his craft and his mission as an indigenous warrior on the path of decolonizing the Pacific mind and reclaiming the integrity of agency, hijacked by outsiders, some who even dared to suggest and insist that Pacific literature does not exist.
Sons for the Return Home is not merely a fierce testament to the contrary, it is a compelling manifesto of our existence and our humanity as Pacific people. Without it, this reviewer and all of us who consider ourselves Pacific writers would have had to fight much bigger battles. Battles already fought and paths already cleared singularly by a mighty giant without whose shoulders we wouldn’t be here, today.
Dr. Vanya Taule’alo writes & edits the Observer Art Page for the Samoa Arts Council (SAC). Guided by SAC’s vision “to envisage a future where the Arts Sector is fully developed for the benefit of Samoa”, the page promotes all forms of art and promotes the arts in the Samoan community. For more information on SAC see samoaartscouncil.com and Samoa Arts