As part of a course I’ve been teaching in Pacific Literature at AUT I’ve re-read Albert Wendt’s landmark fiction novel Sons for the Return Home. I first read this text when I was in high school in the late 1970’s, which was probably bordering on an act of subversion at that time. The only other NZ work I recall reading in class was C.K. Stead’s Smith’s Dream.
In the book a Samoan family migrates to New Zealand in the 1960’s (to Wellington) for economic reasons, always planning to return to Samoa with financial security and an increased standing in the local community (as having done well in the Papalagi (White/European) land. This point is crucial, the temporariness of their migration, though it in fact lasted for years. The parents imagine they will return to the same land they left, and that their two sons will fit straight in and somehow become traditional Samoans. This is a pipe dream. As Heraclitus said, ‘You cannot step twice into the same stream.’ The passage of time changes everything. The younger son is soon a hyphenated person, neither wholly Samoan nor a New Zealander. He becomes emotionally and physically involved with a young Papalagi woman, whose parents are an all too common mix of (psychologically unacknowledged) bigotry and themselves still with the strange temporariness of a people who have left the mythical ‘home’ but not quite settled in the new land, even though they were born in it. That both the groups of parents feel ethnical and cultural superiority over the other, is a nice comment on our selective blindness. The Samoan mother’s declaration of all the terrible habits of Papalagi children, then her admission she’s never actually known any, is a microcosm of just how much we take on board the cultural narratives that surround us. The younger son finds when he grows into a young man that he walks with a constant cloud of prejudiced assumptions around him, being constantly assembled into stereotype in the eyes of others.
Sons for the Return Home is a crucial novel in Aotearoa and the Pacific for several reasons. Firstly it established that Samoan authors had a role to play in creating fiction here, roughly paralleling the rise of the first Maori novels and full short story collections by Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera. Secondly it gave an impression of NZ that was from a source outside of the standard narrative sources. We had had many years of the Eurocentric point of view, with NZ re-cast as a little England (despite the fact the NZ was largely also settled by immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, then later the Dalmations coast in addition to the English). Then the ‘sons of Sargeson’ had given us the viewpoint and vernacular voice of the descendants of British settlers, but now broken free of the sense of being psychologically temporary settlers, or scouts of the motherland. In Frank Sargeson’s work the characters were of the NZ landscape, hewn by it, drawn from it and back to it. But the narrative viewpoint of the novels that followed was still clearly from a Pakeha worldview, and Maori and Polynesian characters viewed as the ‘other’. In New Zealand in the 1950’s and into the 1960’s being an ‘other’ definitely put you into the ‘submerged population groups’ (to use Frank O’Connor’s terminology. See. The Lonely Voice, 1962.)
Wendt’s work viewed New Zealand as a colonising force in Samoa, a new outlook for this country, where we (the general populace) were not that long into the recognition of the British as a colonising force here, as opposed to being ‘home.’ That part of it is still an awakening jolt, the realisation that colonisation isn’t as much about the who as the how. It’s about the supplanting of power, of superimposing a narrative of superiority and primacy, and is not solely Eurocentric in its blindness to indigeneity and existing cultural narratives. Colonialism is a mindset as much as it is military power and entrenching political superiority. Witness the Australian mining industry reps in Lloyd Jones’ Mr Pip, with their beer guts and stubbies and jandals and disinterest in the ‘natives.’
Some of the reactions to the novel are now pretty hilarious, in an obnoxious sort of way. One review in New Zealand lamenting that the author felt the need to ‘resort to the apparently obligatory florid ethnic scenes to fill out the book.’ Smarter analyses such as Na Te Morehu said ‘Sons, like Witi Ihimaera’s groundbreaking story collection, Pounamu Pounamu, “rips away the covers of niceties” and looks at the sustaining and confining aspects of nostalgia for a mythicised past and home.’ (Sharrad, 2003).
The book’s strongest moments for me are its most subtle. The protagonist’s father's shock on the boat journeying to New Zealand at seeing two crewman having illicit sex in a lifeboat (metaphorically his fear that his conservative family is about to ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.) The scene where the young boy is made to kill the pig at a feast, and goes through a maelstrom of emotions. The sequence where the two boys save an old man picking over a rubbish dump from being beaten up by bullies and their disbelief that a Papalagi elder could be treated like this. At other times the protagonist as a young man sometimes feels a bit too cool, a young man’s projection of the romantic view of the existentialist loner always swinging his jacket over his shoulder and leaving.
The New Zealand Wendt was describing was circa late 1960’s, when Samoans were often spoken of as if characters from Kipling’s jungles, with a searing mix of tut-tutting patronisation and outright contempt. But that’s trap set for us by history, this sense that we’ve evolved way beyond that. It is not an invitation for us in 2011 to get cosy and comfortable in leaving those days behind. To do so would be to ignore the warnings of this novel. The story is also as much about class conflict and inter-generational conflict (which was of earthquake proportions in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s) as it is about ethnic and cultural conflict.
Sons for the Return Home is a brave book by a brave writer who has shown courage and honesty for decades now. I recently read an obituary for a noted business figure that said that the figure ‘was a man of courage.’ A closer reading saw that said businessman in fact always stood up for the apparatus of power and those who held it, for entrenched privilege. To see such shooting from behind mile-high sandbags as courageous is ridiculous. It takes courage to stand against power, to deconstruct the myths of not one society but two, to rattle the bars around you.