Saturday, July 3, 2010

Book Review: Albert Wendt's Leaves of the Banyan Tree (1979)

I don't know much at all about Samoa or Samoan history or Samoan culture. But as I move forward with my research about the Pacific world, and as I hope to learn more about the Samoan past, I am inspired and engaged by Albert Wendt's book, Leaves of the Banyan Tree.

Wendt's Samoa
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.


  1. Hiya

    I wrote a lot less thorough (or generous) review of Leaves over at my blog: ... I like your point of view though, especially the idea that the tree represented his aiga. You have a fascinating doctoral focus. I hope to read more about your discoveries in Pacific History.

    Thanks for posting this up. :)

  2. Talofa

    I enjoyed reading your review. In terms of the topic, I think it is harder for Samoans to create a cultural renaissance as experienced in Hawaii and NZ. In Hawaii and NZ there is a dominant Western culture on which to contrast with the traditional indigenous cultures of the Hawaiians and Maori. Yet in Samoa, it is seen all as one progressive movement or evolution of faa-samoa.

    The easier question is, where in Samoan history does one say is the traditional indigenous Samoan culture? Wendt might advocate before independence. Or maybe before German occupation? Others might go further back to pre-European contact.

    The harder question is, are modern Samoans willing to go that far back?

    Thank you for the great read


  3. Hamo Geek Girl: I actually discovered and read your review while I was sitting here trying to write up my own! Your inside perspective, as a Samoan reading Wendt, helped me understand just how dark "Leaves" can come across as. Wendt seems to have emphasized the profound cultural loss and cultural change that occurred in Samoa in the mid-twentieth century, but I think it is valid to ask: why not tell a story of cultural perseverance? But as you said in your blog, Wendt seemed to be writing for himself more than anything else. He was trying to exorcise his own fears about what it meant, for him, to be Samoan at that point in time.

    FreshyNZ: I think that your point - that Hawaiians and Māori, as distinct minorities in their homelands, use the dominant Western culture as a point of contrast against which to inspire and develop their own renaissance - is right on the money! Is, perhaps, one of the impediments to a "Samoan cultural renaissance" the fact that most Samoans today live overseas rather than in the Samoan Islands? Or are the experiences of Samoans in NZ and in the USA, for example, other opportunities for at least localized renaissance? I imagine that Samoans in NZ have used their contrasts with the local white population to redefine and express their Samoan identity? Would you say that is true?
    And your other question, is, of course, a very hard one for anyone to answer...Historians and other social scientists would, I think, all agree that cultures never were and never are static; rather, they are constantly changing, even in pre-European-contact times! This is to say that the development of "what it is to be Samoan," for example, since European contact, and even during colonialism, isnʻt just a story about the loss of traditional culture, but rather about that culture's evolution. Samoans today can lay claim to part of that history: understanding that some changes were indeed due to the input of palagi, while other changes in Samoan culture over the twentieth century were genuinely due to inputs from Samoans themselves.

    Thank you for both of your insightful comments! And for helping this palagi in NYC to learn a little more about Samoan history and culture! :) THANKS AGAIN!

  4. Wow. I love what you had to share about Leaves of the Banyan. Very insightful. I only just read this book myself, also really enjoyed the novel and reading your understanding of it!
    Thanks Gregory.

  5. Thanks for reading, Dinah. I just checked out your blog at producing culture, and I really enjoy what you have to say... especially about representations of race and gender both within and outside of the Pacific/Polynesian World. I, too, am very interested in this topic. I look forward to staying in touch.

  6. Thanks for the conversation.

    I think Samoans in NZ are more fortunate than other Pacific peoples here in NZ. Niuean, Cook Islanders and Tokelauans have free association with NZ therefore they are automatically NZ citizens. This has also meant there are now more of those people living in NZ than back in their island homelands. The effect has been a loss of language and culture. This has also meant the island populations in NZ have become the engines for their particular cultural renaissance, out of necessity.

    However, there are still more Samoans (and Tongans) living in the islands than in NZ. Therefore the cultural impetus or guardianship is largely still back in the homeland. Samoa is again different from other Pacific peoples in that there is a quota allowing a certain number of Samoans settle in NZ every year. This has kept a cap (for now) on the flow of Samoans migrating to NZ (as opposed to the Niueans, Cook Islanders and Tokelauans), but it has also allowed a steady stream of 'native' Samoans to keep adding to the Samoan population in NZ. This has kept the Samoan culture in NZ alive and in constant contact with the Samoan culture from Samoa (although there is an ever increasing gap between Samoan born and NZ born Samoans in NZ).

    Samoans, unlike Maori and Hawaiians, are deeply religious, and took to Christianity with great passion. Samoans became missionaries to other parts of the Pacific such as Tuvalu, Tokelau, Papua New Guinea etc. But this wasn't a revolution of faaSamoa, but an evolution. Many aspects of Christianity complimented faaSamoa. We even had a prophecy where the Goddess Nafanua, foretold of the coming of Christianity. Therefore, it is much more difficult to go back to a pre-Christianity faaSamoa, as the coming of Christianity was and is seen as a progression of faaSamoa.

    Therefore the traditional Samoan churches established throughout NZ and Australia are bastions of Samoan culture.

    NZ Samoans have in the last decade also moved to Australian cities in large numbers, further extending and possibly diluting the Samoan culture as it becomes twice and thrice removed from the island homeland. Added to that the rugby playing Samoans living in the UK, Europe and Japan. And then there is the American Samoans spread across Hawaii and continental America.

    The Samoan diaspora has moved significantly since Wendt wrote his book, but the same questions remain.

    I believe if there is a constant flow, back and forth, between overseas Samoan communities, and our homeland Samoa, then not only will there be a uniformity in the evolution of fa'aSamoa, but then there will be less of an urge to create sub-Samoan cultures (ie NZ born Samoans, Australian born Samoans etc).

    It is against this constant cultural battle that Wendt's historical questions get lost. If we are already struggling as it is to keep our younger overseas Samoans engaged in the modern faaSamoa culture, it would be much harder trying to create a renaissance of a form of faaSamoa pre-dating European/missionary contact.

  7. Dear FreshyNZ:

    I read your most recent comment with delight, as I was able to learn so much about the contemporary Samoan diaspora from you.

    I had turned to Wikipedia for demographic information on the Samoan diaspora, but as we know, Wikipedia articles must be read very carefully. The article on Samoans: argues that most Samoans now live overseas rather than in the islands.

    This is the count I have so far:
    Total population of Samoa: about 180,000
    Total population of American Samoa: about 65,000
    Samoans in NZ: about 130,000
    Samoans in Australia: about 40,000
    Samoans in USA (as of 2000 census): 133,000

    This data shows that most Samoans today live overseas and not in the Samoan Islands. Of course, the census data from NZ, Australia, and the USA, for example, include any and everyone who claim Samoan heritage, whether or not they identify Samoan as they dominant racial/ethnic identity. In the US census, for example, someone who is only 1/8 or 1/16 Samoan still has every right to include Samoan as one of their many racial heritages on the census form, even though they may self-identify as "white" or as absolutely anything else.

    But the main question that you are asking, and that needs to be asked, is: how should we read Wendt thirty years later? What do Wendt's arguments mean for the Samoan diaspora in 2010?

    The question of how to maintain "traditional" faʻaSamoa is, as you rightly say, surely compounded by the changing diaspora itself. Samoans in NZ or in the USA or anywhere must adapt to new surroundings, and new neighbors, and redefine Samoan-ness in relation to that which is around them. I am sure that being Samoan, and attempting to reconnect with faʻaSamoa, is a different experience for different people depending on where in the diaspora they live.

    I surely learned a lot about Samoan history and culture from your comment. I am so thankful for this conversation, and thankful that you are willing to share your opinions and insights with me.

    I have a PDF copy of a report from the 2000 US census about Pacific Islanders in the US. It has some interesting tables and maps regarding Pacific Islander communities here in the states...if you are interested in looking at it, I'd be happy to email it to you.

    THANKS AGAIN! And stay in touch.

  8. Thoroughly enjoying the discussion.

    Thanks for that info Gregory. I guess it's relevant to note the different paths the two Samoas have taken. Generally speaking, the American Samoan diaspora and the (Western) Samoan diaspora are separate, in that it is harder for a (Western) Samoan to gain entry in the States, and vice versa, it's much easier for (Western) Samoans to gain citizenship in NZ than for an American Samoan, due to the colonial history of the two Samoas.

    Therefore the flow of people, money and ideas generally follow either one of the two paths. While there are some interactions between the Samoans of the two diaspora paths, at the state level, in recent decades, there have been diplomatic tensions between the two Samoas. (Western) Samoans were often considered the poor cousin to the American Samoans due to the great economic, military and cultural presence of the US there. On the flip side, American Samoans were considered 'fia-palagi' or too Westernised. So when Western Samoa wanted to change its name is the Independent State of Samoa, American Samoans protested, saying they are just as much Samoans as Western Samoans. Customs and immigration between the two nations were tightened on both sides making it harder for those that did have any familial interaction between the two Samoas.

    Therefore, as a Samoan in the (Western) Samoan diaspora, I was probably meaning the population comparisons between (Western) Samoa and the diaspora populations of (Western) Samoans. On that count, there are still more Samoans in (Western) Samoa than there are living in NZ (and Australia) although not by much nowadays.

    The cultural expressions of Samoans in NZ and Australia have a direct impact on the Samoans in (Western) Samoa and vice versa. The same with Stateside Samoans having an impact on Samoans in American Samoa and vice versa. But it is a testament to Samoans on either side of the diaspora paths to honour and practice faaSamoa that even after over 100 years of a separated history, the Samoan culture practiced is still identical.

    In saying that, I think the two Samoas (or at least Western Samoa) have critical mass to sustain the culture within the islands, unlike the smaller ageing populations of Tokelau or Niue, who's future depend on the young, who now all live in NZ.

    You make an interesting point about categorisations in census. I had a discussion about this with a colleague and one point we brought up (but totally unsubstantiated) was that in a massive population such as the US 300 odd million, compared to NZ's 4 million, and with Samoans being spread across a larger area (Hawaii, Cali, from Anchorage to Arizona) than in NZ, the mixed-ethnicity of young Samoans is higher in the US than in NZ.

    In NZ the majority of Samoans live in Auckland (largely in South Auckland), Wellington and some smaller provincial cities. Therefore the higher concentration of Samoans would mean the probability of having children to another Samoan is higher in NZ than in the US. Hence the explosion of numbers of Samoans (albeit mixed ethnic Samoans) in the States. That, or there are just a lot of illegal Samoans in NZ who don't participate in the census ha!

    Sorry for the digression. Wendt is a great NZ-Samoan academic and writer. I say that because while many Samoans would admire his work, many would not necessarily identify with all the Samoans in his work.

    Wendt is challenging Samoan society and culture to reflect on a time that many have forgotten or are not willing to remember. But there is scepticism in such challenges, as we are all too familiar with Samoans who claim to be challenging society for the good, but don't walk the talk themselves.