Samoa: Leaves of the Banyan Tree by Albert Wendt

This post is a book review as part of the Traveling Between The Lines series.

samoaAs a foreigner, Samoa has always conjured up romanticized images of a tropical island paradise. A place where everyone is happy, and where you can have a pig roast, trip out on kava and leave with a traditional tribal tattoo and say you’ve experienced ‘the culture’. This narrow view is hardly reality since Samoa reportedly has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.  Unemployment and strict religious and societal expectations are cited as influencing factors, but are these really remnants of a colonial history in conflict with a noble past?

Located in the South Pacific, Samoa has had a very long and rich cultural history including royal lineages dating all the way back to 1000 A.D. For centuries, the Samoans prided themselves as noble warriors, a pride kept alive through an oral history passed from generation to generation, heralding wars fought with nearby Fiji and Tonga.

Then, in the 18th century, Europeans came establishing trade posts, Christian missions, and ownership of the islands. By the 19th century, large plantations under European ownership dominated and native Samoans were finding their traditional way of life threatened. In the early 20th century, Western Samoans began to fight for their independence which was eventually regained in 1962.

albert_wendtBorn in 1939 during the Mau movement for independence, Albert Wendt experienced firsthand the struggles his society faced which can be seen in his writing. There have been many books written about Samoa and Samoan culture, but they are often idealized, racist, and written by white people. Wendt understandably felt insulted by these works and wanted to confront their perspectives and highlight the negative effect of colonialism through his writing.

“Up to a few years ago nearly all the literature about Oceania was written by papalagi and other outsiders. Our islands were and still are a goldmine for romantic novelists and filmmakers, bar-room journalists and semi-literate tourists, sociologists and Ph.D. students, remittance men and sailing evangelists, UNO experts, and colonial administrators and their well-groomed spouses. Much of this literature ranges from the hilariously romantic through the pseudo-scholarly to the infuriatingly racist; from the noble savage literary school through Margaret Mead and all her comings of age, Somerset Maugham’s puritan missionaries/drunks/and saintly whores and James Michener’s rascals and golden people, to the stereotyped childlike pagan who needs to be steered to the Light.”  – Albert Wendt

It worked. He’s now regarded as one of most highly influential individuals shaping modern Samoan society. He has won many literary awards, including the 1980 New Zealand Wattie Book of the Year Award for Leaves of the Banyan Tree.

leavesI know I shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover but I was unimpressed when I first saw the amateur close up of leaves and roots and dull earthy tones. Blah. This relationship wasn’t starting off well. But it’s not what’s on the outside that counts, it’s what’s on the inside, and as far as content goes, Leaves of the Banyan Tree satisfies all of my literary cravings.

This story tackles such a controversial and complex subject though that it’s difficult to summarize in just a few hundred words. As noted on the cover the themes include “… greed, corruption, colonialism, exploitation, and revenge.” Sounds perfect to curl up with a blanket and a huge glass of wine and get totally sucked in. On the whole though it’s actually quite sad. Almost depressing.

Set in the fictional village of Sapepe in Western Samoa, Leaves of the Banyan Tree follows the troubled development of a traditional aiga (family) across three generations between the 1920’s and the 1960’s. The story centers around Tauilopepe, patriarch of the family and prominent figurehead in the village,  who struggles to grow his plantation despite European encroachment and embracing the modernization around him. He is driven by wealth, power, and prestige, and believes in “God, Money, and Success” above all else. His son Pepe, however, enjoys the village traditions and longs for his father’s attention and approval.  The two are often at odds and after being sent to the town to get a better education, Pepe rebells and is soon expelled and in trouble with the law. When Pepe prematurely dies of tuberculosis, Tauilopepe sees a renewed hope is his grandson whom Pepe has left behind. Tauilopepe assumes responsibility for Lalolagi and sends him away to boarding school in New Zealand to be groomed for success and inclusion among the Europeans. The consequence is that Lalolagi rejects his Samoan heritage, favoring the European ways, including the exploitation of his country.

The underlying dilemma throughout this book is how to preserve old values when often they must be compromised in order to survive. This results in a conflict with self, with community, as well as with the foreigners and the changes they are imposing. Nowhere is there a sense of peace and wellbeing. As a reader, I was in conflict with the characters. I often felt that Tauilopepe was misguided and created his own misery, that Pepe was plagued by self-victimization and didn’t stand a chance, and that Lalolagi was an entitled little shit. Throughout much of the book I wished they would just isolate themselves and go back to the old ways, and happier times. Of course this was unrealistic and I then felt a need to help them in some way but could not think how. Nor could they help themselves, and it’s easier to understand the pressures that might lead someone to take their own life.

There were no “rascals” or “childlike pagans” here. Wendt succeeded in developing complex characters with a proud and revered heritage ripped apart by an imposing foreign control.

Overall, I liked it, even though I left a little depressed.

Rating: 3.5 – Enjoyable and worth a read

Other Selections: Sia Figiel The Girl in the Moon Circle, Where We Once Belonged, They Who Do Not Grieve / Albert Wendt Sons for the Return Home, Pouliuli / Lani Wendt Young Telesa Trilogy, Afakasi Woman

Up Next: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Álvaro Mutis (Colombia)

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