Interview with Albert Wendt: 9
Brandy Nālani McDougall
B: The Songmaker's Chair was the first play you've written, however it was very well received and ran for sold out audiences throughout Hawai‘i. What drew you to write this story as a play rather than as a short story or a novel? Do you have plans to write any other plays?
A: Right now I have no plans for other plays. That side of me is going into a film script for a full-length feature film. I'd never written a full-length play before. That was the basic challenge in writing The Songmaker's Chair. I also wanted to write about the first generation of Samoan migrants to Aotearoa, as a tribute to them. I knew little about the production side of theatre – and I learned much about that writing the play and getting it produced. Some of it I didn't really want to learn. Theatre is a very precarious occupation and it's unfortunately rampant with ego. However, I came to have enormous respect for actors and how much they have to work for so little money. I was lucky to have two great directors and lots of committed and gifted actors. And the audiences came in large numbers.
B: Your latest novel is written entirely in verse and will be published by Huia next year. How long have you been working on it? When did you realize that it would be an entire novel in verse rather than an epic poem?
A: I don't really know how many years I've spent on Vela. But it seems to have been a lifetime. I don't know when I decided to see if I could write a whole novel in verse. The fact that poetry has a small readership didn't deter me. At that time I was young and ambitious and believed I could do anything. I was foolishly, recklessly brave! And when the going got tough I never gave up. I don't regret taking all this time. I've learned more about language and how to write from writing Vela than any of my other writing. And the people in Vela, even the very frightening ones, are now firmly part of my aiga. I've lived with them for so long. I feel elated that I've written the longest verse novel ever written in our part of the world. A huge sense of accomplishment.
B: I must say that you and Reina are both dearly missed in Hawai‘i after your years of teaching and working to foster and strengthen Hawai‘i and Kanaka Maoli literature. After leaving Hawai‘i and before returning home to Aotearoa, you both toured parts of the continental U.S. What was that like? I know you've mentioned in previous communications that the indigenous presence of the past and present seems to have been erased from the generalized American memory.
A: Reina and I flew from Honolulu to Las Vegas and spent a few days with a cousin there. Then Reina drove us to the Hoover Dam and onto the Grand Canyon. After three days there we drove to Santa Fe. Then flew to Hartford and spent two weeks with my sister and her husband at New Haven, visited New York, and then flew to LA and, after two days there, flew to Auckland. We were on the road, as it were, for six weeks. I kept a diary of the trip – the first time I've ever done that. Now I'm using those notes to write a sequence of poems and a long essay about the trip.
The essay is titled “On Holocaust Road.” During my life, I've read a lot of American literature and studied American history, art, politics, etc. During that trip I had to ‘relook’ at all that, or should I say, what I saw and felt and read while travelling through America made me reassess, reevaluate, and resee all that. You can read about that when my poems and essay are published.
It's enough to say, that the journey eventually, for me, became one on what I've come to call “Holocaust Road”, a journey through the most terrifying holocaust ever committed on our planet. It also made me re-see the American literature that I've admired and loved, see most of it as being part of the cover-up of that holocaust! North and South America were huge killing fields of the indigenous peoples. That awful treatment of the indigenous people in the USA continues today and there's no mention of it even in Obama's campaign.
Of course, as you know, that holocaust spilled over to Hawai‘i in the nineteenth century.
B: Yes, and this is why it's so important to have literature written by indigenous peoples to challenge the narratives that try to just cover it up. You remain an inspirational figure for many of us in the Pacific because your work and your teaching of creative writing and Pacific literature has so strongly fought against colonialism and stood for indigenous self-empowerment and self-representation. Mahalo a piha.
Also, I need to tell you “Congratulations” on your recent retirement from teaching. Do you have any further advice for young and emerging writers and artists? How did you know that writing and art were what you would do your whole life?
A: I didn't know it would turn out that way, at first. And I have no regrets. That's how it turned out. Well, not too many regrets! I could've earned more money doing other things! But writing and teaching and now, painting, have kept me alive emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and, at times, have saved me, allowed me to survive some personal crises.
My advice to young writers has always been: Talking about writing is not enough. Go to your computer – or whatever you use to write – and write and keep writing and revising and revising!
|© Copyright 2008 Brandy Nālani McDougall & Trout.
|This issue of Trout is sponsored in part by UNESCO.