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Ancestry by Albert Wendt

Ancestry is a collection of 14 short stories by leading New Zealand author Albert Wendt. Wendt, who is of Samoan ethnicity, has been consistently at the forefront of New Zealand literature since his first novel Sons for the Return Home was published in 1973. These stories are mostly set in New Zealand, but some elsewhere in the Pacific, from Western Samoa (“First Visit”) and Hawaii (“First Class”).

Ancestry by Albert Wendt
Ancestry, Albert Wendt (Random House New Zealand, September 2012)

Western Samoa was administered by New Zealand until 1962 and waves of Samoans have immigrated to New Zealand (or, to use the increasingly common Maori term, Aotearoa) during the last 50 years, primarily for employment. Wendt stresses familial frictions and the associated cultural influences from so-called Western forces, themes which transcend Samoan-Western situations and in spite of coming dressed in Samoan lava lava (clothing) in a uniquely Aotearoa-New Zealand setting—a real melting pot of Polynesian (the indigenous Pacific Islanders and Maori) and European cultures—are hardly unique to this setting and which should resonate soundly with readers elsewhere, especially Asians for whom such scenarios are not uncommon.

The Pacific Islanders that appear in New Zealand fiction are more often than not relatively poor, but Wendt’s characters are, by and large, middle-class Samoan professionals, ensconced within university faculties, with a sprinkling of doctors and lawyers. They live very comfortable lives in villas in such  fashionable Central Auckland suburbs as Ponsonby and Grey Lynn. They also eat and drink to excess: Wendt describes in detail all the many foods they imbibe as well as their rigorous preparation. In fact, for many, their diurnal range is to attend and/or run lectures, eat, drink, chat about the content of the lectures and the personalities involved, and sometimes to have sex, or at least to talk about the possibilities of having it (a sizeable majority are also well advanced in age and declared users of the “little blue pill”).

There is little depiction of Pacific Islander street-life in the less affluent South Auckland suburbs such as Otara where the first Samoan immigrant families settled and near where I grew up. The saga of Fale and his fated father in South Auckland in the story “Absences”—  

 

another long period of the unbearable fusion of police and lawyers and court and suffering victims and pain and humiliation and his absences

 

—is one the of the few references to the way of life of fewer and fewer Samoan families these days. Such stereotypical personages are very much on the fringes in this collection.

More significantly, Wendt is consciously depicting the new role of Samoan elders in Auckland and beyond, which is not to so obviously proselytize about the significance of the Church and fa’a Samoa (the traditional Samoan way of life, tenets of which include respect for elders and matai or chiefs, and the primacy of the extended family) than to act as mentors and guides for their younger generations, most of whom have only ever lived in Aotearoa. In “First Visit”, for example, a palagi (foreign) woman goes to Samoa for the first time and learns for herself the “reality of Samoa”.  Being “a proper Samoan” is by no means an easy accomplishment for younger Samoans, such as her boyfriend, who now live in New Zealand and return to their parents’ homeland for the first time.

At the same time the elders are forever aware that they are Samoan and that their language (Wendt makes copious use of Samoan lingo), customs and culture remain as vital as they ever were, albeit modified by Western influences on diet, language, religiosity and mores. Thus, in the excellent tale Fast, Jonas’s father reveals to his citified son that he has never lost the art of high Samoan oratory as he respectfully addresses the dead and the living at the funeral of Jonas’s palagi friend.

 

In the end, then, it is this accent—however underplayed in most tales within the collection—on being Samoan in the current era and the concomitant changed roles of moneyed Samoan elders as maintaining this, that defines Ancestry. These Samoans might not be brawling and struggling nowadays, but they remain essentially Samoan and the mission of their elders is to continue to pass on this quietly, and—in the end—quite delightedly and proudly. So, we read in the final story “Family” that

 

It is time for lunch. For the scrumptious lunch of family favourites that Stephen has prepared with love, gratitude and hope.

 

Ancestry is a well-written paean to these universal human virtues and to the vital maintenance of one’s cultural heritage.


Vaughan Rapatahana is a Maori writer and poet who lives and works in Hong Kong.