Map of the Samoan Islands.
At west are the islands of the Independent State of Samoa. At east are the islands of American Samoa, a colony of the USA.
Albert Wendt, born in 1939, is a Samoan writer of novels, short stories, and poetry. In 1979 he finished writing Leaves of the Banyan Tree, his most famous novel. Previous to beginning his career as a writer of fiction, he studied history in New Zealand. Wendt's knowledge of Samoan history - he wrote his Masters Thesis on the Samoan independence (or anti-colonial) movement known as the Mau - is reflected in Leaves, a novel set between the late 1920s and the late 1960s, and concerned with issues of colonialism.
Leaves may have been Samoa's first great postcolonial novel. Written in the 1970s in the wake of Samoa's 1962 independence from New Zealand, Leaves relates the troubled history of how colonialism under New Zealand rule altered the faʻa Samoa, or traditional Samoan way of life. One of the book's theses appears to be that even in the years following Samoan independence, Samoans were still trapped in a colonial world and in a colonial mindset. Under New Zealand rule, some Samoan leaders had learned the ways of the papalagi (the white people) and had, in essence, recreated themselves in the image of these men, their former colonists; these Samoans had recreated the behaviors and the treatment of others that they had learned from the papalagi, behaviors that appeared to be key to the papalagi's power and status in an imperial world. Wendt shows, then, how Samoans became their own captors, how they recycled the evils of the outside world within their own communities and families.
Leaves of the Banyan Tree concerns the life of a man named Tauilopepe. When the book begins in the late 1920s, Tauilopepe's father has just died, and Tauilopepe is yearning for a way to prove himself to his aiga, his family. He demands of himself to make lots of money like the papalagi, to be able to send his children to the best schools in Apia, the colonial capital, and to be able to build himself a nice papalagi house. He imagines he can achieve this by breaking ground on a new plantation (of bananas, cacao, and other plant commodities) on the outskirts of his village, Sapepe (a fictional village on the island of Upolu).
His new plantation is called "Leaves of the Banyan Tree." The significance of the name, and why it was chosen as the title of the book was not immediately clear to me. In Tauilopepe's plantation stands a mighty old and large banyan tree. When Tauilopepe and his aiga first begin to clear out the "bush" that will become his profitable plantation, they swing they knives all around them, cutting everything in sight. Tauilopepe takes a few swings at the Banyan tree, and then gives up. As the following decades go by (from the 1920s to the 1960s), much goes on in Sapepe and in Tauilopepe's life, but the Banyan tree remains. And as time goes by, he and his aiga take greater responsibility for the care of the tree, to ensure that it survives.
I think that the tree is the aiga, the Samoan family unit - and on a larger scale, the Sapepe/Samoan community -, and the leaves are the individual people within those groups. Ultimately, Tauilopepe has to maintain the Banyan tree so that it continues to leaf, just as he must maintain his aiga so that his family line, their land, and their status, does not fall apart (as it so nearly does a thousand times over throughout the book). The leaves of the banyan tree are thus the many generations of Samoan families and communities, the faʻa Samoa that goes on and on as traditions are passed down. And yet, the "Leaves of the Banyan Tree," the plantation itself, is a symbol of Tauilopepe's ruthless ambitions for profit and status, and thus it is the very cause of the degeneration of the Samoan family/community that the tree is meant to represent.
Banyan trees behind ʻIolani Palace, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi
A map of the Independent State of Samoa. The island of Upolu, on which Sapepe is fictionally located, is at right. Apia, the nation's capital, is on the north coast of Upolu.
Tauilopepe seeks money and status, knowing in his heart that the faʻa Samoa (Samoan way of life) is incompatible with modernity, and that the papalagi (white people) way is the only path to success in twentieth-century Samoa. His son, Pepe, is ignored by his father as a child. So Pepe is raised to a degree by the village tuʻua (senior orator), Toasa. Toasa raises Pepe to believe in the spiritual power of the faʻa Samoa, to understand the power of traditional songs, dances, mythology, cosmology. Tauilopepe, however, thinks that these traditions are what is keeping Samoans back from success, so he sends Pepe off to Apia to learn the papalagi ways at a boarding school. Pepe does learn the papalagi ways in Apia, and ironically, this disappoints and pains his father. See, Tauilopepe hoped that Pepe would learn about how papalagi run successful businesses and governments, and that Pepe would learn how to make professional connections, money, etc. But Pepe learns instead how to drink, how to curse, how to steal, how to use women, etc., from the Apia crowd. Wendt is masterful here in making it impossible for readers to mentally separate the good from the bad. Apia is presented as a world where money, status, etiquette, and success exist side-by-side with greed, corruption, racism, and colonialism. I think Wendt is saying that Tauilopepe's romantic dream of using papalagi ways to improve upon the faʻa Samoa is unrealistic: those very behaviors he admires of the papalagi (good business dealings, cheating out your competition, money, status, etc.) are the very machinery of the colonial enterprise itself! The more Tauilopepe hopes to modernize his town of Sapepe, the more he strips away the Samoan-ness that used to be the glue that held that town and community together.
Without giving away too much of the ending, Leaves of the Banyan Tree presents the back-stabbing, greedy, jealous, status- and money-craving Samoan people themselves, as the simultaneous victors and losers of their country's twentieth-century effort to overcome colonialism. Samoa's independence in 1962 barely figures in Leaves, and that's because the true transformation of the Samoan people took place in the aiga (the family, the home), not on the geopolitical stage. It was the small things, the way the people of Sapepe treated each other and outsiders, and the way they tore apart the very foundations of their community, that signaled the true change in Samoan history at this time. Behind the facade of political independence, the Samoans of Sapepe remained enthralled with the mechanics of colonialism and hegemony even after their country was "liberated." That so few of the characters in Leaves find any sort of liberation from the fears that strangle-hold them suggests that, from the vantage point of the 1970s when Wendt wrote Leaves, Samoa's postcolonial future looked incredibly uncertain. As one character of Leaves states in one of the closing paragraphs of the novel:
"I am...a product of the history and whole movement propelling our country towards an unknown future. Or, shall I say, I am that future. If I am evil then our whole history has been a drift towards evil."
This remains a rather unhappy place to cut off this review. But as depressing as Wendt's assessment of Samoa's twentieth-century history is, we can take comfort that over thirty years have now passed since Leaves was published, and I would hope that in the meantime the people of Samoa have found greater joy and deeper meaning in the faʻa Samoa that seemed almost extinct when Wendt wrote his book. These thirty years have witnessed a remarkable cultural renaissance in Hawaiʻi, where the native language, history, and art have all attained greater significance in the lives of kānaka maoli and haole alike. I hope that something similar has or is occurring in Samoa. And as for myself, I recognize that Wendt is but one window into the Samoan past; only a greater commitment on my part towards the study of Samoan history and culture can help me overcome the deficiencies in my interpretation of Leaves and in my understanding of the greater Pacific world.