Samoan migrant wins top honour

By Vomie Springford

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Award-winning writer Albert Wendt, a former teacher at Kuranui College in the 1960s, has received the country's highest honour as the newest member of the Order of New Zealand.

After teaching English at the college, Samoan-born Wendt went on to write his first novel Sons for the Return Home in 1973, receiving critical acclaim.

The book has been described as "groundbreaking" and explored love, freedom and racism in New Zealand.

Since the 70s, Wendt has been an influential figure in the New Zealand and Pacific literature scene and is now part of a select group of 20 New Zealanders.

Born in Apia, Samoa, his writing reflects many of his experiences as a migrant coming to New Zealand.

The 73-year-old emeritus professor of English at Auckland University is a novelist, poet, playwright and painter, and was one of the first Pasifika professors in the country.

Barbara Playle, a former student and Masterton resident was taught by Wendt when she was 15, remembers him as being very young and witty.

"He was young at heart, people quite liked him."

A reflection of the era, she remembers it was rare to have a teacher from the Pacific Islands.

"It was quite unusual to have a Samoan teacher," she said.

Geoff Smith, a former teacher at Kuranui, remembers working with Wendt in 1964.

He remembers Wendt as quiet and keeping to himself but was still memorable. "He impressed me as being a very nice, sincere person."

He said Wendt "without a doubt deserves the recognition, he's a brilliant writer".

In November 2012, Wendt was awarded New Zealand's highest literary award - the Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement for Fiction.

He told the NZ Herald that when he started publishing in the 60s there were few Pasifika people writing in English and he was pleased to see a growing trend of Pasifika artists and writers.

In 2010, he won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for the Southeast Asia and Pacific Region for The Adventures of Vela.

He published two new books in 2012: Ancestry, a collection of short stories, and From Manoa to a Ponsonby Garden, a collection of poetry.

Two of his novels have also been made into successful full-length feature films.

 

- Wairarapa Times-Age

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