Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Emancipation of Pati & the Validation of Me.

On finishing my copy of "Out of the Vaipe", I felt a strange sense of completeness. A bewildering peace took over, and I suddenly realised this is the first time I have felt like this in a long time. The first time, I, as a Samoan, living in NZ felt validated, felt I was finally visible within a piece of literature! I felt real. I wanted to write and profusely thank the professor. I wanted to give him a gift of thanks. But what could I give? And what words could I draw upon that would rightfully acknowledge my whole hearted appreciation of this latest piece of work, and of him, and the impact it has had on me?

I begin humming. 'Butterfly'. Most people who know me know I worship at the temple of Ms Carey. I know what you're thinking. Mariah Carey and Albert Wendt - how absurd. I did worry how the Professor would take being compared to Mariah - on the surface level - to many a pop star, but an artist in her own right.

There are however some connections that can be made. The two of them represent the best in their fields.  Mariah, the number 1 selling solo/female artist of all time, and Pati - the Pacific's greatest literary hero - of all time. Sure the thematic focus of their work is markedly different - however those of you who are able to look beyond the glitz and glamour of the 'Touch My Body' - Mariah will appreciate the depth of her work, and understand how her pain and life experiences feature ever so melodically and soberly in works like 1991's 'Vision of love', 1995's 'I am free', 'Looking In', 1998's 'Outside', 'Butterfly', 1999's 'Petals', 'Can't take that away', 2001's 'Reflections' 2002's 'Through the Rain', and 'My Saving Grace', 2005's 'Fly Like a Bird'2008's 'I wish you well'.

These to me were/are more than mere pop singles - they are anthems that a lot of people have connected to in different ways. Music is an art form that is able to express and understand that which social conversation often shuns and ridicules. The power of validation can thus take shape in many different forms. 

It's true what they say about indigenous people who struggle in education systems that rob them of their cultural identity, glossing over indigenous stories as Wendt highlight's in 'Vaipe'. I had similar experiences in the NZ education system, gripped with the same anxiety, self doubt and hopelessness as a result and what I suspect was the purpose of the entire system at the time. I too had no stories that I could connect to. I learnt about the American Wild West - how settlers begun their lives in their new lands, constantly plagued by the Natives who lived there. We learnt about Australian ore mining in geography (zzzzzz), Shakespearean literature in English, and very little about Aotearoa's history - history from the perspective of it's indigenous peoples. 

At the same time, mainstream media and society were promulgating extremely negative perceptions of what it meant to be a Pacific islander in NZ. The forever present and growing gaps in academic achievement, the predominant focus of high rates of crime and poverty in low socio economic areas where most of us lived. There was no escape. And although I loved learning and gaining insights from different aspects of the Western World, I struggled as a younger version of myself, to balance a strong cultural identity and way of living at home, with an education system and society that basically whitewashed and sought to exterminate everything we knew, and everything we were.

I immediately drew upon Carey's extensive catalogue for solace, comfort, and hope. At the time, she was the only person I felt who was speaking clearly to those who did not conform to mainstream social stereotypes of gender/race. Mariah, through her art spoke of the struggles of being Bi Racial in a largely racist America, the identity crisis brought on by the obsession of other's and their need to feel superior and constantly question difference (Outside). I connected quite easily to messages of hope, serenity and the drive to break through and to break free (Butterfly). I dreamed of a future where Pacific people in NZ would no longer have to be treated and viewed in this way (Vision Of love/ Heavenly). It was Mariah and Me. She was my 'hero' from afar. 

My parents were my local heroes, but their lived experiences and journeys were markedly different from mine. Complaining about how unfair the world was thanks to capitalism and how western education systems diminish indigenous identities and cultures appeared pretty rich for someone who schooled in the land of 'milk and honey' and did not have to 'walk miles barefoot on rocks in the sweltering sun and monsoon-like rain with no lunch to get to school'! Got it every time :) They did what any good Samoan parent would do, which was to 'encourage' (in the broadest sense, sometimes by force) their children to get on with it :)

Having finished 'Vaipe', I felt a strong connection to Professor Wendt's life and story. Another not so far away hero. Although we are not connected by blood, I felt connected to him as a fellow son of Samoa - spending much of his life outside of the homeland. At the book launch  I felt at ease knowing that even at this stage in his prolific career, he still get's nervous about things like public speaking. I felt a strong connection to the reality of this great man, stripped bare for all to see. I connected to his love for family and friends, his passion for learning, and an ever present feeling of self-doubt and nervousness. I too eagerly awaited 'fagogo' from grandma Mele, smiled in acknowledgement of his scholarship. I also felt his dread and fear as he departed Samoa for Taranaki. I cried when he received that fateful letter about his mother. 

I entitled this piece 'The Emancipation of Pati' because of the sense I got from both the book launch and from reading this book, that it's production and completion represented a sense of emancipation. A great achievement of sorts which captures ever so poetically different moments of the Professor's life. A life which he said he 'carefully sifted through' in order to produce for public consumption. He alluded to other stories remaining untold, and the potential for those stories to hurt those he loved. Initially I was curious to know what those stories are. I then continued to read and that curiosity vanished. I respect his answer. The Professor makes it rather clear that he and his experiences are only part of the puzzle that is life. His wonderfully articulate and clear conceptualisation of the 'va', and the significance of relational space(s) to him affirms this.

I am not sure what else an Emeritus Professor and Great Chief would have left on his list of things to do/achieve at this point in his life - but I hope he can lay to rest all those anxieties and fears he felt over the years, and enjoy his emancipation; and join in the celebration of his legacy. I am certainly enjoying my validation :)

You can get your copy of 'Out of the Vaipe' right here!

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