Thoughts Out of the Vaipe

I just finished reading Out of the Vaipe, a short BWB book written by Albert Wendt. It’s an autobiography, mostly of his early life.

Two things really stuck out for me and kept me thinking:

1. Wendt writes early on that the story he is telling of himself and his life in Out of the Vaipe is highly selective, strategic, and leaves a whole lot out; so he warns his reader not to trust him, to be a little suspicious.

And he’s unapologetic for this approach. He basically says that not to do so would be to hurt and implicate the people he loves – for his story is not really his own, it intersects with and builds on the stories of many others for whom he has no permission to speak.

I really liked how honestly Wendt laid this out. I think often about how I can tell my story, how I can speak of who I am. If we don’t think of ourselves as separate little history-less people, then we when we try to speak of ‘ourselves’ we’re going to get all caught up in other people’s stories and histories too.

Sometimes those histories aren’t ours to tell.

But does that mean sometimes our own histories aren’t ours to tell??

I like Wendt’s compromise: I’m going to tell you what I can and want to, and I’m going let you know it’s not the whole thing; it can’t be.

It’s not a tell-all.

2. Wendt writes quite a bit about his transition from Samoa to a boys boarding school in 1950’s Taranaki. He talks about feeling homesick for a long time and feeling Mount Taranaki as a protective presence during that time.

‘I was homesick for a whole year in New Zealand. I was in the middle of Taranaki in this town called New Plymouth. I immediately fell in love with the mountain. Somehow I could identify with Mt Taranaki and it’s remained with me all my life as my mountain.’

It was interesting to hear someone recall a period of their life and have the salient, enduring relationship from the period be with a mountain.

It got me thinking about my own relationship with the places of my life. I don’t really have a relationship with mountains here in Wellington.

There is so much else that asks for my attention – cafes, art galleries, markets. Most of the mountains are coated in houses and other buildings; I hardly notice their mountain-ness.

But I do know other mountains. When I am home in Otago there are many mountains that feel protective, in the way Wendt wrote of Taranaki, though I’ve never thought of them in quite those terms before.

Matanaka, Puketapu, and Huriawa peninsula stand as important for me – for my thinking, drawing, growing.

I grew up walking on them, looking up at them, hearing about their Pakeha history and their Maori history, running races up them, shooting fireworks off them, watching the sun set and rise from them.

And painting them:


This is painting of Matanaka (on the left) and Huriawa Peninsula (on the right). I painted it in high school. Probably at the height of my teenage anger. It was a painting that helped me make sense of my parents separation: My mother lives in the township where Matanaka stands, and my father lives by Huriawa.

The two townships are close – Matanaka and Huriawa stretch towards each other and you can capture both their outer tips in the same photo. But they don’t touch. There’s all this (messy) ocean between them.

I lived between the two townships and so between these two mountains. And the mountains helped me make sense of that time, and those complicated relationships.

I don’t think we really have a good Pakeha way of thinking or talking about our relationship with land or how our own stories belong to other people too. So I’m grateful for Wendt’s writing, for it being in English, for it helping to articulate some things I otherwise couldn’t.