Journal » Trout 15 » Interview With Albert Wendt: 5 [Brandy Nālani McDougall]
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Interview with Albert Wendt: 5

12 August 2002

Brandy Nālani McDougall

B: You’ve traveled and taught writing throughout the Pacific. Based on the experience, do you teach your Pacific students differently from your non-Pacific students?

A: Well, as you know, most of our classes are mixed with Pacific and non-Pacific students, but we pitch the teaching to a Pacific clientele. We talk about the Pacific based on a political philosophy that we’ve adopted over the years. Our teaching is very political, as you know. We take the literature we analyse with a consciousness to the Pacific and what has happened. We look at aboriginal, Maori, various Pacific islands, Hawaii – and that’s the way we teach today. And a lot of the students like it. We teach it to understand cultures. We don’t just teach it like in the new criticisms, in terms of literary quality. We teach it in it’s own way.

B: Do you think Pacific students have different needs as far as writing goes?

A: They do. I think what we’ve found over the years, it’s the same with most students, you’ve got to teach the literature that’s relevant to them, the literature of their world.

For instance, if you have a course in which there are no female writers, you must be certain that you don’t want any female students. You are downgrading women’s literature – and that was the case in New Zealand for quite a while until the canon was changed, and we teach a lot of women writers now.

So, if you don’t teach any Maori writers or Samoan writers, then what are you signaling, when you are teaching the national literature of New Zealand? You’re saying that Maori and Samoan literature is not good enough.

I don’t go for this type of value judgment in literature. We teach literature that reflects the community in the sense, if a community is multicultural, then at least you have to have a multicultural mix in the literature you teach.

What does it do to a Samoan student when she walks into a course and finds that none of the teachers look like her or reflect the culture from which she comes? She looks at the list of books, and there is not one piece of Samoan, Maori, or Pacific literature in it. A lot of the switched-on students will say they’re going on to another course (laughing).

B: Yes, and this sort of thing happens a lot.

A: But another thing we have to teach them is how a novel is produced or written, how a poem is written, because other students approach it that way. When I first started teaching writing, a lot of the texts they have today for writers didn’t exist. My basic idea for teaching literature is you read novels and poetry, which I like reading, and then you go on reading other things. Students will teach themselves, too.

I don’t believe in this idea that you have to teach “great books” – there are no such things as “good books.” I could go into a course of great books – ten great books – and come out in five years not interested because another ten books are now the “great books.” (laughing)

Usually those great books are selected on account of prejudice and cultural self-promotion, in a sense. I mean the debate’s been going on for quite a while now – it’s a stupid debate. I teach the literature I am interested in. If students are interested, then they come and take the course. And we get a lot of students.


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