Burning on, Paul Millar

Paul Millar interviews Albert Wendt

Paul Millar (PM):  Your new book looks impressive.

Albert Wendt (AW):  If I had continued writing short stories regularly – for a period I didn’t write any – it would be even bigger. The four new stories in the collection, I wrote last year.

PM:  What proportion of your short fiction would this represent?

AW:  Just about all of them, except for a few early ones.

PM:  What changes have taken place in your short story writing over time?

AW:  Looking back over a stretch of 30-something years, what I’ve actually found is, I write a story and that often turns into a novel. I find that process hard to control. I publish a short story as a short story and then it appears in a novel later on, and it appears in another form somewhere else. It’s how some artists work. You do one painting, use the painting or the motifs for another thing and keep on going.

PM:  Did you have a lot of editorial control over this collection?

AW: They gave me the option to revise any of the stories. But I decided to leave the stories as they are, or as they came out, to show the reader that there has been some development in my work. If I revise a story, I’m writing a new story from the vantage-point of someone who’s nearly 60 years old, whereas the story may have been written by a 30-year-old.

PM:  The newer stories keep pace with popular culture – you refer to Millennium or the X-Files. Metafictional and postmodernist elements come through quite seriously in some of your earlier work, but here you seem to be treating them quite playfully, even sceptically. Was that intentional?

AW:  I don’t see very much separation between fiction and non-fiction now. For instance, some of the stories are totally autobiographical. The names of the people are people who exist. I decided, as I went along, to throw in everything of the moment. If I was interested in certain foods, then I had the characters eating that food. (Millennium (laughs), I found I was watching it compulsively.) I learned a hell of a lot about doing that by writing my last two novels, Ola and Black Rainbow. It’s very playful, Ola; some of it’s quite dark but a lot of it is playful. And I don’t really care whether it holds together as a traditional piece of work – you know, well unified, consistent characterisation – because readers themselves will make up their mind whether they like it. When I wrote Black Rainbow I decided to make it a short novel, a more unified type of novel, but even in there I play around. For instance, there’s a whole chapter set in this night-club called the “Labyrinth”. It’s a tribute to Borges – a rewriting of an actual story by Borges – and the chapter says that.

PM:  Ola and Black Rainbow were criticised for being politically correct. Have critics fully appreciated what you’ve been trying to achieve as a writer?

AW:  Some have, the ones who understand that New Zealand is part not only of the first world but of a whole postcolonial world. Even the white settlers’ ancestors were colonised. The settlers in turn colonised Maori. So colonial hang-ups are still here. When I write in New Zealand, I’m writing about the postcolonial situation, where “post” means a literature emerging around, against, and over colonial literature. Some critics prefer not to understand my work for certain reasons; because there are certain truths about this country which I’ve been writing about, about the racism here which my people continue to suffer, and people don’t like it. They don’t like Maori who write this either (laughs). The reception of the Matriarch, the first great political novel in this country, was awful, by some of the leading critics. The real reason for their hostility was that Witi was exposing some very unpleasant truths about the history of this country. It’s his version of the history. It’s a valid version. If we fit my work, the work of Maori writers, and some Pakeha writers, into the postcolonial situation, then it makes sense.

PM: Given that your short stories often involve dramatic situations, and your novel Sons for the Return Home worked so well on film, are you going to start writing plays?

AW:  Last year I finished writing my first full-length play, which we hope to put into production soon. And when I finish the long novel I’m working on now – hopefully in the next two or three months – I’m going to try and write one short story every month. And then write my first full-length film script. I like to try different things. When I started writing a science fiction short story it became Black Rainbow. I think it contains some of the finest writing I’ve ever done, in terms of style and so on. Of course it wasn’t taken seriously here – people fail to realise there’s an emerging number of science fiction writers in this country.

PM:  I wonder if the reluctance to take science fiction seriously explains why Owen Marshall got such negative reviews for A Many Coated Man.

AW:  I have a feeling that’s one of the reasons. Someone said, why doesn’t Marshall continue to write short stories, he’s very good at it. It’s like people saying, why did Wendt waste two or three years writing Black Rainbow. He should have written other novels set in Samoa or Auckland. Well, when you do something like that, you’ve done it. The people who really like my work say, good, he’s moving on to something new. But it’s not really new because you see the same characters appearing in different situations and the same themes of power, and corruption by power. I loved writing Black Rainbow, and it’s proving okay, it’s now being taught in a lot of American universities. Some of the best critical work ever done on my work has been on Black Rainbow – by some young American lecturers.

PM:  What are the most significant aspects of your own writing?

AW:  I thought it would burn out, you know the interest in writing. It’s important in my life and I keep thinking, well maybe one day it won’t come any more and then I can be free. I mean I’m not seeing it as a burden because it is a gift. I realise it is a gift and I’m lucky to have it. And I keep thinking, well I’ll publish this big book and that’s it, but then I get restless and start another.

PM:  You’re not one of these 200-words-before-lunch-type of writers.

AW:  No, because I’ve always had to do my writing part-time. And I’m used to writing at any time. The bloody play was written during the busiest time of my year, while I was struggling with exam marking. I’ve been working on a big novel for at least fifteen years, ever since I finished Leaves of the Banyan Tree. It is reminiscent of the style of Leaves of the Banyan Tree, but then it has in it the style that I developed in Ola, and in my stories, and in Black Rainbow. I’ve learned from writing those novels in between writing this long one.

PM:  Do you write with an audience in mind?

AW:  It’s really me, the audience. I write the type of thing I would like to read. The readership I would hope for is the readership that reads the fiction and poetry of what I would call a postcolonial style around the world. Because I travel a lot, I go through immigration quite often. Pacific Island immigration officers mostly recognise who I am, not from my recent work, but from Sons for the Return Home, because when they were going to high school they loved the book. They usually say, “Have you written any more books since Sons for the Return Home?” (laughs)

PM:  When you were younger, you were reading a huge amount of philosophy, weren’t you. And someone like Camus was a tremendous influence. Is that still the case?

AW:  I worked the Existentialists out of my system, then I combined it, as you know, with all of my research into Polynesian beliefs. So the combination now is still the Existentialists plus my own view of the universe, Samoan beliefs. I’m now looking closely at Samoan beliefs about the universe and the cosmos and so on, and trying to introduce that into the world, and other young writers have been influenced by it.

PM:  What’s your sense of the writing of the last decade coming out of this country?

AW:  I’m on leave at the moment, so I’ve been catching up on the New Zealand and Pacific novels and poetry collections that I haven’t read over the last eight or so years. I’ve been disappointed on the whole. Much of what I’ve read, I’m left with the question, why were these works written? Perhaps it’s because I’m much older than a lot of the writers now. I don’t think I’ve become dated in my tastes or my view of the world because I don’t think my latest work shows that; but I keep expecting a lot more substance or, to use a cute word, “body”, in what’s being written.

PM:  Have there been highlights in terms of, say, emerging writers?

AW:  I don’t want to name some of the young ones, because others will feel hurt. On the whole, their books are very well written. But as someone approaching old age (or my third adolescence as I refer to it), I’m expecting more substance in the work. The world in which I live, the world that is my reality, is still the third world. Even though I live in a first world country, I live amongst, in New Zealand, a community of Pacific Island people living in third world conditions. We suffer the worst statistics in health, the highest unemployment, the worst housing, you name it. The realities I write about are the realities of a third world people living in a country that is first world.

PM:  If you were giving advice to a new Pacific Islands writer, what would it be?

AW:  We have some Pacific Islanders and Maori in our creative writing class. We encourage them to write about Maori and Pacific Island things. Not to go for the fashion, but to write about the things they feel deeply about and the problems they face at home. Coming from that, they are really coming from very rich depths, which may also be very painful. We tell them to avoid being too literary and write from the gut. Usually the polish will come. I prefer writing with “ihi” – I think you call it in Maori – body and soul.

PM:  If you were asked to predict what is going to happen for Pacific Island culture in the next millennium, what would you be expecting?

AW:  A very dynamic period of growth. It’s going to be most dynamic in the visual arts and the fine arts – that’s billowing into drama, as you know, and film. The writing I think will take a slower time. The energies, the creative energies, are going into those other things. What is very strong amongst Pacific artists is painting, sculpture, mixed media. Much stronger than the writing, much stronger than the drama. Serious writing has been a minority activity in most societies. If people are struggling with economic problems, they’re not going to be too interested in writing. They’d much rather have their children get a job that’ll feed the family. The Pacific Islands community in New Zealand has produced only one other novelist, John Pule – Sia Figiel, of course, lives and writes in Samoa. More people are beginning to write short stories, and I believe other novelists will come, soon.

Paul Millar teaches in the English Department at Victoria University of Wellington. His editions of James K Baxter’s Beyond the Palisade and Autumn Testament are reviewed on p18.

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