Interview with Albert Wendt: 1
12 August 2002
Brandy Nālani McDougall
The first part of this interview took place on 16 August 2002 in Albert’s office at the University of Auckland,
where Albert was Professor of English, and Brandy was studying poetry and Pacific Literature as part of her
B: So how did you begin writing?
A: I began writing in high school, at boarding school. I had English teachers who encouraged me to do some writing – essays mostly, but also poetry and stories. Then
I started publishing some poems in the school magazine.
I’ve always read poetry and fiction – that started very early in my life. We had very few books in Samoa,
so I would go into the boarding school library and read. That interest transferred into writing. So, when I went to teacher training college,
I was very active in art and writing. I published more there and did a lot of art as well. But I didn’t continue with my art
after that. I haven’t done any serious art for about 25 to 30 years. But I have always been passionate about art, especially
art by indigenous people.
When I went to university down in Wellington, I began to publish work in literary magazines. I joined a
writer’s group there. Then I went to Samoa after that, and while I was teaching, I finished my first novel, Sons for the Return Home,
which wasn’t really my first novel, but it was the first to be published. I started working on Leaves of the Banyan Tree
long before that, but it was such a long novel that I kept leaving it, putting it aside while I wrote the other novel. Then I published
Sons for the Return Home, Pouliuli, and my first collection of poetry, Inside Us, the Dead.
Since then, I publish regularly, even though it’s difficult because of my way of life – I do a lot of other work.
B: How did the teachings of your family encourage or enable you to start writing?
A: The culture of Samoa is very rich orally. My family, even though it has a German name on my father’s side,
is totally Samoan. My father was the only one who spoke English, but he couldn’t speak English until he went to school and learned.
I couldn’t speak it until I came to New Zealand and picked it up orally.
So, my whole family’s traditions are Samoan. My grandmother was an authority on Samoan culture and oral literature
and she handed a lot of that on to us. My mother was very good on the guitar, but she died when we were young. My father was
a gifted musician, but he never continued; instead he developed his business. So, those art interests have always been in my family, and
being a large extended family spread out all over the world, it provides for very rich material for one’s life, and writing is a part of that.
B: Why did you choose writing as your primary art form?
A: I just transferred my interest in oral literature into writing, and there was also my love of books. I think it has a
lot to do with the experience of living in exile as a young person – you go into yourself more. Reading is a way to try and understand the world, your position in the world.
When I started, there were very few Polynesian writers at the time in New Zealand. There was only Alistair Campbell, Hone Tuwhare and
Jackie Sturm. Of course, I loved New Zealand literature as well – the writing by Pakeha. But the models I really used were the Polynesian writers
here in Aotearoa, West Indian writers, and the emerging literature of the 1950’s and 60’s of postcolonial countries, countries who were former
colonies – African, West Indian, Indian writers, Latin American writers. That’s really the world I belonged to when I began as a writer.
B: You mentioned Hone Tuwhare and Alistair Campbell, Jackie Sturm – would you consider them to be your Pacific writing teachers?
A: Not necessarily, I learned from their work and they’re older than me, from an older generation. They were the ones
I used as models. I looked at them and saw they could do it, so I thought I could, too. Similarly, some of the younger writers look at my work and believe they can do it.