Out of the Vaipe: Albert Wendt

Award-winning novelist, short story writer, poet and painter, Albert Wendt, cannot imagine ‘retiring’.

For the first time in many years, the 76 year-old does not have a book on the go.

That doesn’t mean he’s sitting around.

Albert Wendt in his study

There’s the start of a novel in his head but he’s committed to finishing a series of paintings before the words take shape on a page.

“I can’t see myself sitting around – when I work, I really work.

“I can’t see myself saying ‘I want to enjoy my retirement doing nothing’. Now what does that mean? It’s probably the quickest way to go.”

He has been very productive recently, releasing the novel ‘Breaking Connections’ and an autobiography of his early years, ‘Out of the Vaipe, the Deadwater’.

The Samoan writer (ONZ CNZM), who lives in New Zealand, has stepped away from a long teaching career, most recently at the University of Auckland, but he cannot stop working.

He admits to waking in the early hours, a habit for many years, and confronts the fact he’s pre-occupied with how much time he has left.

“When I was younger, I was fascinated with death, like a lot of writers.

“You’ll notice in a lot of my work, early stuff, even then I was analysing what it is, but I wasn’t afraid of it because I was young and in my head, I had a long future ahead.

“I can’t sleep, I have to get up so I wake and I read, and that’s the worst time for me, pondering this, even when I don’t want to worry about it.”

Vivid scenarios at work

During his 60s, Albert Wendt spent several years teaching, writing and painting in Hawaii, and was able to keep those thoughts at bay.

“We came back here in 2008 and I had three books to finish and for the first time, I realised I only had a short life left; that life is finite.

“This thing that I had been pondering as a sort of semi-abstract thing was now real.”

He admits death scares him.

“It’s real and it’s in a frightening, scary way because in my head I keep saying, ‘well, I’ve got 10 years maybe to go’ and I don’t want the silence.

“The scary thought that you’re going to be absolutely nothing in the sense this memory and mind that you have, that allows you to be conscious and aware that you’re alive, is going to end.

“This fantastic life is going to end.”

The vivid imagination required for a writer contributed to the fear, although sessions with a psychologist has brought it mostly under control.

“I work out all these scenarios in my novels of people dying – it’s all imaginary but it’s real to me because I create it.

“You get used to your imagination working out all these elaborate scenarios and it becomes part of your life, and you start imagining those things happening to you.”

Albert Wendt with Hawaii painting

Pasifika influence

The Pasifika writer's imagination was also sparked in his early years growing up in a village in Samoa.

“There were very few books so we grew up in an oral culture and my grandmother was very good at telling the traditional stories she inherited.

“It was mainly her but everywhere you went in Samoa, it’s oral. At someone’s home, they greet you in a very beautiful way, you reply – you have to be very good at using language orally, and I think it was from there.

“I loved listening to stories and telling them plus I was also very shy and withdrawn so when you’re reticent and quiet, you’ve got to express yourself in other ways.

“I share this with a lot of writers [who] when they were young, were very quiet. You sat and watched and observed.”

He came to New Zealand as a 13 year-old and attended New Plymouth Boys' High School.

Unlike some, Albert Wendt doesn’t wander around for a long time with the characters and what happens to them, in his head.

“The main reason I avoid doing that is because once I’ve thought it all out, I don’t need to write about it.

“I sit down and I have an image in my head, or a line or I write a poem, and the poem then turns into a story that turns into a novel.

“Over the years, it takes me a long time to write a novel. During that time, I’m publishing parts of it as short stories.”

He says he understands why people like Picasso were so productive towards the end of their lives, after seeing an exhibition of his work in New York.

“My mind said to me, ‘You know why he’s doing so much in his old age? He’s just churning out the paintings’.

Artwork by Albert Wendt

It was the year 2000 when he rediscovered his love of art.

“I couldn’t stop.. it was like when I first started writing in my 20s. You’re totally consumed with it.

“It’s allowed me to stay alive spiritually and intellectually.”

Apart from teaching while he was in Hawaii, he painted day and night.

“There’s a photograph of me at 2:30 in the morning. I’m in the studio and I’ve got my lavalava, no shirt and I’m holding onto my lavalava to stop it falling off while I’m painting.”

His partner Reina came in and told him, “Al, you’re bloody crazy at your age”.

He no longer works at such a frenzied pace.

“I do it in a very measured way now like I do my writing.”

Artworks (left) by Albert Wendt

Open to new technology

While the pace may be more measured, he is open to new technology and has overcome his initial cynicism about social media.

“I was finding the number of people I knew was getting smaller and smaller. Now, it’s quite large through Facebook.”

There are many links to discover in the extended Wendt clan – his father had four wives and 24 children.

“I enjoy Facebook to communicate with the younger members of my family I don’t normally communicate with, who live overseas. Even the little kids, I reply to the little kids.

“I love talking to them on Facebook – they want to talk to me - all their daily lives, what they’re doing, if they have birthdays, what their parents are up to, post pictures of them.

“A lot of my writer friends think I’m crazy – No.”

He came face to face with other members of the Wendt clan recently at a wedding in Samoa.

“When you meet, you’ve met before. You meet every day on Facebook.”

Staying connected is important to him and family comes first but Albert Wendt plans to keep writing and painting for as long as possible.

“I can’t stop.. because I suppose it’s what I’m good at, I feel good when I’m doing it.”