Interview with Albert Wendt: 3
12 August 2002
Brandy Nālani McDougall
B: Who would you say is your audience?
A: Well, all of us create an audience as we go along. I hope that when I start a novel that other people who read novels will read my novels. That’s the way it turned out. Then of course, people who read it may like it and they follow your work. Those who don’t like it, go on to read others. But you create your own audience.
There may be more people outside your culture who read you than inside it. Many people ask: “Who’s the audience for Maori and Pacific books?” and the inference in that is that our people don’t read – it’s an insult and a racist assumption. We make our own audience, and we may have to wait for a new generation of readers, because the audience can change, too.
And people ask: “How come certain novels survive, certain poems survive and go on to survive for a long time?” The answer to that is their readership. Your novel may only be read by 500 people at the beginning, but along comes the next generation and they say, “This says something to us”. So they pick it up and read it – then another generation comes. It’s really the readership that makes novels, poems and all arts survive.
Of course, it helps if you teach the literature. I don’t know if Shakespeare would have survived this long if he hadn’t been turned into this huge writer with millions of people having a vested interest in the study of Shakespeare – otherwise they don’t have a job. I mean, I like Shakespeare the man. But his writing was used as a part of the whole colonising process. England imposed its own literature on the rest of the world and exported Shakespeare, poor guy, as one of their symbols and used him that way. That wasn’t Shakespeare’s intention. Now he has been decolonised – I mean, the very people who brought Shakespeare as a part of the colonial process, now re-read Shakespeare in a very different way. But literature, as you know, was one of the forces used by the colonising powers to colonise. It’s strange; The irony is that some of us like that colonial literature, but we now read it in a very different way. We’ve made it our own, like we’ve made English our own. We’ve indigenised it.
But back to audience – some people ask me: “But how do you explain why some writers get a lot of readers and some writers don’t?” I say, “Well, does it matter?” I suppose if you have to make a living from your writing than hopefully it works out for you, but I’ve never had to make a living from my writing – I suppose that’s why I haven’t published as much as other people.
I always keep my writing in perspective. It’s only a part of who I am – an important part, but I don’t know how important it is ultimately. If you care about whether the work survives after you – well, you see, I won’t be there to care anyway. A lot of writers build their whole self-esteem on it, so when there’s harsh criticism of their work, they get really hurt by it. I mean, we all get hurt by it, but some of us say, “Oh, well, bugger that.” Some of the readers like it – that’s the main thing. Plus, I like it. And there are more important things in life.
B: This idea of creating an audience, has that been something you’ve felt throughout your whole career?
A: You just create your audience and then you go out and read your stuff and get interviewed, and your books get taught.
Our literature is a small literature. We remain small compared to other countries because we have a small population. But because it’s in the English language, it gets to more readers because the English language is usually taught at the university level. But that’s not necessarily so.
With English writers, well, take American writers for example, they all understand and speak American English. But even if you write in American English, there’s no guarantee that the American audience will read your work. As a matter of fact, the readership in America is very poor for the size of the country. As I understand, the writing of fiction and poetry is undergoing a huge crisis there. Huge.
In New Zealand, with a population of about 3.5 million, if you sell about 500 copies of your poetry book, that’s quite good. In America, let’s say with a population of 240 million, even if you sell 500,000 copies – it might make a good living for the writer, but compared to the total market, it’s not so great.
|© Copyright 2008 Brandy Nālani McDougall & Trout.
|This issue of Trout is sponsored in part by UNESCO.