Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sons for the Return Home

Catlin Castan
28 February 2013
Sons for the Return Home
            In the beginning of part two, Wendt parallels the external with the internal, that is—he compares the boy’s internal emotions with that of the external environment: the weather. Wendt writes: “The night was chilly, a stiff wind was blowing in from the south, and the black starless sky echoed the fear he felt: for the first real time, he was confronted with the fact that he could lose her”(122). In this moment, Wendt includes a romantic narrative in which he describes the weather as a way to shed light on the boy’s emotional state, and vice versa. This provides Wendt’s audience with a better understanding of the text.
            I found it interesting when the mother and the boy discuss his potential desire to marry the girl. Upon expressing his certitude in pursuing marriage, his mother exclaims, “’No!’…refusing to accept the severance of the umbilical cord. ‘She is a papalagi. You cannot love her enough to want to marry her!’”(134). In this quotation, the boy’s mother displays her true colors—she proves herself to be the most racist character within Wendt’s text. It is also important to note the use of “umbilical cord”, referring to a natural process. The boy is severing his biological ties to not only his mother, but to his culture. In this moment, the boy can be seen as straying away from the restricting nature of racial barriers; his mother’s denial affirms his deep- rooted presence in Samoan culture. In severing the umbilical cord, he is leaving his comfort zone—his home; the boy is now ready to fully commit to participate in an inter-racial relationship. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Who is the colonizer and who is the native?

One of the main themes of Sons for the Return Home is this tension between the colonizers and the natives.  We briefly discussed last class, Grace’s “Sky People” and her warning that the oppressed should not become oppressors in the process of decolonization.  In the second half of the novel, this theme is most present when the man visits Apia and he notes that “money and the quality of a person’s English were two of the town’s peculiar ways of estimating status” (195 Wendt).  In this scene, there is an issue of classism as the receptionist assumes he is uneducated and wants a free meal.  The city-dwellers are prejudiced against the rural Samoans assuming that they are poor and untrustworthy.  After discussing Grace’s warning, this scene is most surprising that the oppressed are somewhat oppressing their own people.  The Samoans who are the victims of racism throughout the novel are willing to victimize other Samoans based on class.  In this case, the receptionist was not advocating for decolonization as Grace discusses, but she is perpetuating the effects of negative effects of colonization on Samoa further.  Now, not only does racism exist abroad for the Pacific people, but their own country internalizes classism, another system of oppression, in this scene between the rural and urban communities. 
            Up until this point, all of our novels have been relatively clear on who is the colonizer and who are the natives; who is being oppressive and who is being oppressed.  Things Fall Apart and Potiki both make clear that the white man is the colonizer.  In this scene between the two Samoans, the oppressor and the oppressed becomes blurred for one of the first times in our course of reading.  Similar to how we said anyone of any race can be racist, it is evident that anyone can be the oppressor and the oppressed, in this case, simultaneously.         

Not Quite At Home

As our understanding of post-colonialism continues to form and take shape, new emotions, reactions and examples push us to expand this understanding.  In his Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies, John Ashcroft writes that “materiality and locality of various kinds of post-colonial experience are precisely what provide the richest potential for post colonial studies” (Ashcroft, 190).  In Albert Wendt’s Sons for the Return Home we encounter unique colonial experiences between a boy and a girl, a boy and his surrogate homeland and a boy and his native homeland. 
While some elements of these experiences are similar to past Homelands texts, others add new facets to our post-colonial study. For example, at the novel’s end the boy seems almost contented with not having a homeland.  The girl who allowed him to accept New Zealand as a home and who was so intimately bound to his discovery of the country has left him. He feels alien in his native Samoa and unable to relate to the Samoan way of life. In the final chapters Wendt describes the boy’s grandfather as seeing “too clearly, too honestly” (Wendt, 203).  Does one’s ability to truly see two societies with all of their quirks, traditions, prejudices and gifts render us unable to feel at ease in either one? This example focuses Ashcroft’s “various kinds of post-colonial experience” onto a specific and individual example, a very root that adds to the diverse nature of post-colonialism. 
The initial discomfort and awareness experienced by the boy in response to never quite feeling at home is seemingly conveyed through Wendt’s structure of the novel. Parts I and II offer us the pieces of a story which we must puzzle together.  It is within the story that we know of the boy’s alienation.  As Part III opens, the account of Samoan culture, tradition and belief seems to transport us to some other Homelands text as Wendt momentarily departs from the story of the boy.  This switch from narrative to cultural profile makes us almost uncomfortable as we become suddenly aware that we have been transported worlds away from the boy’s life in New Zealand. The boy’s story offers us a different view of Homelands—the inability to know exactly where we belong. 

You Can't Always Get What You Want

Homes have a funny way of attaching themselves to you.  You can live in one place for so long, that it becomes a part of who you are.  And once you leave, you begin to miss every mundane aspect; the things you never took notice of before now seem like the things you cannot live without.  The funny thing is, while you are away, your new home becomes equally a part of you.  Without realizing, you grow accustomed to your new surroundings, all while longing for the home of your past.  The saddest realization however, comes when the opportunity arises to return to that original home.  It never seems to live up to the myth you made of it, and you start to miss what you left behind once again.  The cycle begins again.  You are never happy; you are always longing for what was.     

In Albert Wendt’s novel, Sons for the Return Home, the unnamed protagonist experiences this profound longing for “home”.  Wendt carefully structures the story with anecdotes of the past and present in order to mimic this longing.  Up until he meets his papalagi girlfriend, the protagonist feels as though New Zealand has nothing to offer him.  His good grades, success in sports, and university matriculation mean nothing because he constantly feels like an outsider.  During this dark period, his stories of the present are flanked by stories of the past.  Learning about his past sheds light on his present life.  As the reader, we learn of his rich cultural background, and of the carefree life he and his family members enjoyed as islanders. However, these stories of the past quickly disappear when his girlfriend brings meaning to his life.  Because she is from New Zealand, the protagonist begins to develop a new appreciation for the country he once despised.  At the peak of his relationship, we only hear stories of the present, because he is happy.  He longs for nothing.  Once she leaves him however, he returns to Samoa and the stories become reversed.  Back at home he begins to realize all the faults of the place he had been idealizing for years.  His stories of the past quickly become stories of New Zealand and his girlfriend.  He longs for indoor plumbing, books, and bug-less nights.  As his discontent in Samoa grows, his stories of New Zealand do as well.  By structuring the novel in this Wendt shows the reader how one is never truly happy when he longs for something in his past.  Stories of the past seem to surround the protagonist when he is most unhappy, highlighting his discontent.  This format allows the reader to become fully immersed in the protagonist’s inner turmoil, creating a very personal reading experience.     

Post-Colonial Romeo

            We have already discussed (almost wistfully) the potential that both parties involved in post-colonial literature—the natives and the invaders—could coexist and compromise with one another.  In the Wendt introduction, he says, “Much of our early literature saw the colonial and the indigenous as in irreconcilable opposition, the colonial as the evil destroyer; no benefits at all were seen in colonialism or the emergence of blends and mixtures and fusions of the indigenous and the foreign, even though our literature itself is living proof of that” (pg 4).  In Wendt’s novel, Sons for the Return Home, he takes this idea even further.  Not only are the natives and the evil destroyers blending, mixing and fusing, they are interpreting those words very physically.  Sex plays a vital role in a lot of this novel which is almost off-putting (maybe distracting is a better word) but it is important for the reader to believe that these two characters could fall in love so quickly and against all odds.
            And yet, the story stops short before there is the potential for them to create anything mutual.  There is no marriage, no baby, no white picket fence (I recognize that this is me now imposing the American dream), and no compromise.  Instead of the boy being forced to live in New Zealand or the girl being forced to immigrate to Samoa like their respective families feared, they both return to who they were meant to be before meeting each other.  Or do they?
            They have both been changed by the other.  There is no real indication of whether these changed are good or bad, only that they were necessary.  The changes are almost neutral.  His family has also been changed in more ways than their aversion to Samoan food and reluctance to go back to outdoor plumbing.  His father is more accepting and forgiving and his mother is more of a Kiwi.  There is no knowing how the girl’s family has changed except that she may have begun to change them through knowing the boy.  Wendt shows through a passionate love that changed two people how their empathy and compassion can ripple out towards their cultures.  It’s no different than Romeo and Juliet who knitted two families together despite irreconcilable differences.  It’s unfortunate that in stories like these, love doesn’t last as long as change.

Name Game: A Love Story in the Pacific

            Albert Wendt builds the dissonance between the Samoan’s and papalagi or New Zealanders through dialogue.  More pointed, the dialogue in chapters four, fifteen, and twenty-six, reveal the push-pull mechanism that dictates the prodigal love story in Sons for the Return Home.  The cultures of both the Samoan and papalagi impose divisiveness for our two lovebirds.  The tone is set in chapter four when the protagonist even states, “’because they humiliate you,’ he said to his mother. ‘We’ve been here for nearly thirteen years and they still treat us as strangers. As inferiors’” (13).  This is indicative of the main character’s uneasiness with his current position; one of loneliness and isolation because he is the obvious minority.  As an insult to injury, the principle is condescending to his leading Samoan pupil and his parents, by prefacing the success as relative to other Samoans, not other students.  In chapter fifteen, our male character learns around Christmas time that his mother likes his girlfriend but doesn’t approve of her.  Wendt writes, “’she doesn’t know our customs, our ways of doing things. And our people wont accept her…our way of life, our people, may destroy her’” (73).  When your mother cautions you in such a way, it drops your stomach and really brings uncertainty to the table.  He is stripped of his confidence or at least his footing; his mother’s sentiments put the Samoan way of life in contrast to the white New Zealand way.  This also portrays that sometimes the minority, in order to stay intact and strong, isolate themselves for the sake of pride and tradition. Her quote, possibly, reminds and enforces the oppression that the minority has endured.  In chapter twenty-six the mother creates another obstacle for the love story.  She says, “my own son married to a papalagi. My grandchildren to be half-castes. It cannot be!... There they [her parents] don’t want her to. All palagi discriminate against us” (135).  She continues to build incredulity in her son’s mind, and shows that both sides (Samoan and papalagi) are racist.  The racism throughout the story restrict and prevent the ability to mend a relationship, Wendt depicts racism and its spectrum in different ways.  

Thursday, February 14, 2013


Catlin Castan
13 February 2013
When asked about my home, I immediately begin by describing the characteristics of my three crazy siblings, my mom’s homemade meals, and my dad’s dry sense of humor (Just to name a few). I rarely ever put emphasis on the structural elements of my house, but rather describe my home: the internal essence of a house.
In Patricia Grace’s novel Potiki, Grace highlights the difference between a house and a home. She does this by relating the people to the place. Grace writes: “There was in the meeting-house a warmth. It was the warmth that wood has, but it was also the warmth of the people gathered”(88). In this quotation Grace asserts the idea that beyond the sense of warmth within the tangible structure of the house, the people that are gathered there are what makes the house a home. Grace then takes it a step further making a spiritual connection to previous generations that have gathered on the land, she writes: “It was the warmth of the past gatherings, and of people that had come and gone, and who gathered now in the memory”(88). In this moment, Grace offers her audience with the chance to honor the people of the past. Simultaneously, Grace suggests that these people should also be remembered in the present-- they are eternally current in the mind: in memories.
Fifteen years ago my Mom’s “dream” house was put on the market. Lovingly, my Dad purchased the house and a few short months later my family moved in. Although this house was only two minutes away from our previous house, my Mom claimed to have “fallen in love” with the house years before. When we asked her what was so special about the house, she replied, “the built-in armoire in the kitchen”. My siblings and I could not help but laugh—what could possibly be so special about a piece of built-in furniture? Upon seeing the house for the first time, we all rushed anxiously to the kitchen, curious to see the armoire that motivated our family’s move.
Then there was total silence. It was beautiful. There stood the armoire that my mother had fallen in love with years ago, and in that moment, we all understood why she felt so strongly for it. Original to our house built in 1890, the armoire stood ceiling to floor—old and wooden, it was magnificent! More specifically it was the overwhelming sense of character that stood out to me. For over a hundred years, this piece of furniture stayed near perfectly intact despite the alterations to the exterior and frame of the house. Amidst constant change, the armoire remained unchanged- it remained authentic. For me, the armoire is a tangible manifestation of history, of the past. Just as Grace explains in Potiki, I am able to feel the warmth of the past as I share the armoire with the generations that were in possession of it before me. Through a connection of spirituality, the past is able to exist in the present through memories.
Similar to the eternal nature of memories, is the art of storytelling. Within Potiki, Grace makes a fascinating connection between the nature of the land and the art of oral storytelling. As land gets passed on from generation to generation, it has the tendency to undergo alteration. This comes with any change in time or new ownership. This tendency mirrors that of storytelling; stories are altered in oral tradition when being passed down between generations. Although an oral story is an intangible transfer or exchange, the importance lies in the essence of the exchange: one must gain something to lose something. The previous generation is lost, but the new generation gains the experience of the past. The essence of a story always remains as the core of the tale, Roimata states, even though “the stories had changed” (103), the essence of the people always remains engrained in the land.

The Wisdom of Children

As we’ve come to learn throughout the course of the semester, stories seem to be the binding forces of culture.  All nations, people, families, and individuals have their own stories; those of which are held sacred, and told again and again because their telling has so much to teach.  In her novel, Potiki, Patricia Grace shows us that the Maori are no different.  They tell stories of the past to illuminate the future.  They speak of the dead to comfort the living.  And interestingly, they listen to the tales of children as if they hold divine wisdom.  The importance of the younger generation within this culture impressed me.  I admired the respect the adults have for the inherent wisdom children hold.  Reading about their place of value helped me to reflect on my own experience with little ones this past week.   

My first day at Tunbridge was a little nerve-wracking.  I wasn’t sure what exactly I would be doing, who I would be working with, or how I would feel being back in an elementary school setting.  I hadn’t worked with young kids in a while, and I was anxious about being around them again.  What if I lost my patience?  What if I couldn’t control them?  What if they didn’t want me to be there?  All of my nerves were quickly diminished when the Pre-K came running into the cafeteria after dismissal.  They immediately began clinging to my legs, asking if I would be their new teacher.  I had forgotten how little five years old is, and I was shocked by everything they had to tell me.  Barely knowing who I was, they were eager to talk to me and share their stories.  What I learned in those first few hours was incredible.  Children have much to offer, their innocence brings about a kind of spirited inhibition in their stories.  All they want from us as adults, is for us to listen.  

Within minutes of arriving at Tunbridge, a little boy asked me where I was born.  I told him I was born in New Jersey, to which he responded with a flustered sigh.  “No silly” he said “Were you born in America or not?”.  Indulging him, I said I was born in America.  He proceeded to tell me that he wasn’t, so of course I asked where he was born.  He told me he was born in Africa, but when he said this, all of his classmates immediately put him down.  “No you weren’t” they said “You were born in Baltimore”.  Ignoring them, he continued telling me his story.  “I was borned in Africa and when I was reeeaaallllly little my mommy wrapped me up in a blanket one night and took me on an airplane to America”.  Whether or not his tale was true, I found it fascinating.  He must have heard this story somewhere, the details were too rich to have been pulled from thin air.  Maybe he was born in Africa, or maybe it was one of his parents or grandparents, or maybe he was lying.  Wherever he got the story from, I loved that he shared it with me.  For some reason, he found it important to share a part of his life with me, and ask me about mine as well.     

While the kids were eating a snack, a beautiful little blue-eyed girl sat down next to me.  She told me she wasn’t going to participate in the next activity because her nana was coming to pick her up soon.  “I live with my nana you know” she told me frankly.  “Oh really?” I said, “That’s nice”.  “Yeah I don’t live with my mom and my baby brothers.  I live with my nana and my big sister.  But sometimes I go to my mom’s house, and sometimes I visit my dad” she continued, “And I have two dads”.  All of this information was overwhelming, and I didn’t really know what to say.  “It sounds like you have a big family” I finally came up with.  Immediately, I felt sorry for the little girl.  From what she told me, it sounded like she did a lot of bouncing around from house to house, caretaker to caretaker.  But I forgot about the little girl’s story until we began reading Potiki.   Toko, like this little girl, has many parents. His “borning mother” and his “making father”, Hemi and Roimata, Granny, and all his brothers and sisters make his family whole.  He does not distinguish the love he has for each of them, instead he views all of them as the pieces that make up a whole.  Learning from Toko, I reconsidered this little girl’s family.  Just because it doesn’t resemble my own, or any type of conventional family, it is still a grouping of people who love her and provide for her.  No matter how it’s broken up, family consists of the ones we love and the ones who love us.  

Starting my service-learning project and reading Potiki couldn’t have come at a better time.  Both have reminded me how much children have to offer.  Their stories not only provide entertainment, but a kind of unconventional wisdom, which probes me to think more about my own life and how I have come to view the world.