3 Jun 2013

Distinguished Pacific writer given New Zealand's highest honour

7:10 pm on 3 June 2013

A leading figure in the development of Pacific literature has received the highest award in New Zealand's honours system.

The distinguished writer and academic, Albert Wendt, has been made a member of the Order of New Zealand in New Zealand's Queens Birthday Honours.

The Emeritus Professor, novelist, painter and poet has been an influential figure in the development of New Zealand and Pacific literature and is regarded internationally as one of the world's leading indigenous novelists and academics.

His award for services to New Zealand also acknowledges his contribution on various boards to Pacific people and New Zealand art.

Albert Wendt received the Samoa Order of Merit in 1994 and his works have won numerous awards and been translated into several languages.

He spoke with Don Wiseman earlier and told him what the award means.

ALBERT WENDT: I'm very happy to receive it. I'm happy because I know that when the news breaks, my family, my partner, my children and their spouses, my very large aiga around New Zealand, Samoa, the Pacific and the Samoan community here in Samoa and my Pacific community and my friends around New Zealand and the Pacific and the world will be very happy. And that will make me happy. For me, I consider it an honour and a privilege to receive it, but I'm very happy because I know all those people will be happy when they get the news. And also, people forget that I've been teaching most of my working life and I've taught hundreds and thousands of students, young and old. And I know a lot of them will be very happy when the news comes up because over the years many of them have become my friends and supporters. I wouldn't be here today without my aiga, without my friends, without those people and my readers. I wouldn't have achieved as much as I have without their support and their alofa.

DON WISEMAN: Yes. You've had an enormously long career. But over the last year or so the accolades have been pouring in. It must feel quite strange in a sense.

AW: It is strange, yeah. But they've all come at more or less the same time. So now I'm trying to cope with it in the sense... I've had all the media wanting to interview me and talk to me. It's fine, I'm used to it. I've had to do it all my life. It's very good. I'm glad. I would not be where I am now if it hadn't been my shifting from Samoa as a boy to New Zealand. As you know, there were no high schools in Samoa in the '40s. Samoa College, I think, opened in 1953. New Zealand set up for scholarships for the Pacific islands to bring us to New Zealand because there were no high schools in those days. So I won a scholarship to go to New Plymouth Boys High School, paid for by the New Zealand taxpayer. I'm very grateful to the New Zealand taxpayer because they paid for all my boarding school education, they paid for all my university education. And the shift to New Zealand changed the total direction of my life, and going to a boarding school also changed it. (Chuckles) And when I finished my degree at Victoria University I went back to Samoa and taught at Samoa College and became the principal at the age of 29. I loved it, teaching at Samoa College and running the school for a while. But I decided to go to the University of the South Pacific. Some of my friends there enticed me to come. I wanted to pursue my writing career. I couldn't see myself being a principal for the rest of my life. So the shift to Fiji was another huge change. And I was, as you know, at the University of the South Pacific from about 1975. They sent me back to Samoa to set up the university centre there and then I went back to the campus in Fiji in the middle of 1982, and I was the professor, the first professor of a subject area called 'Pacific literature'. And then another shift, when the coups happened in '87... It wasn't the coups that forced me to leave Fiji. My family and I decided... Auckland offered me a professorship in New Zealand Pacific literature, so the shift to Auckland again changed my life again. I've been asked, in the last few days, 'Did you ever dream when you were living in Samoa you would be where you are now?' (Laughs) Of course. My family were very poor in those days, but my dad and my mother and my grandmother know that the way out of being poor was education. So they made sure we all had a good education. My father built up his plumbing business. I have a lot of brothers and sisters. And the Wendt family of today, we have hundreds of relatives in Samoa, relatives in Auckland, Australia and other parts of the world. My family today - and my partner and I were discussing it this afternoon - is one of the most highly educated families that would find anywhere. We have lots of PhDs in the family, engineering degrees, MA degrees, BA degrees, different types of qualifications. And that's all attributed to the vision that my mother and father and my grandmother had for our family. And it's a vision that most Samoan families have in Samoa - they want their kids to be well-educated. I was lucky that I loved reading and so on.