Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Universal Experience in Sons for the Return Home

Albert Wendt uses many literary tactics in Sons for the Return Home to allow active engagement between his characters and his audience. Wendt’s use of unnamed characters, along with ambiguous punctuation and statements, achieves a heightened sense of intimacy and immediacy that accord emphasis to his themes of universal human experience. The structure of his novel seamlessly weaves stories of the past and present to demonstrate the effects of cultural tradition and history on personal identity, which specifically stresses the continuous nature of racism and love that can only be altered through re-evaluating the past. While the setting and cultural heritages of Wendt’s novel are utterly local and distinct, the interactions between his characters transcend these specifics to portray catholic emotion and experience. Albert Wendt’s methods of characterization, style, and form in Sons for the Return Home ultimately engage and connect his characters with his audience on an intensified human level in order to incite awareness regarding the effects exterior circumstances have on personal emotion, experience, and identity.

Albert Wendt refrains from naming any of his characters in Sons for the Return Home, simply distinguishing each character with general identities such as “the boy,” “the girl,” “the man,” or “the woman.” This tactic implicitly grants the reader a transcending sense of intimacy and association with each character, which emphasizes the potential freedom each individual inherently possesses to form his or her own identity. However, Wendt’s characters—and ultimately, all human beings—are restricted and confined with designated exterior identities like skin color, ancestry, and gender. This juxtaposition of freedom and restraints demonstrates the fragile nature of personal freedom: inevitably, it is repressed or shaped by daunting exterior influences, values, and opinions.

Wendt’s literary style in Sons for the Return Home creates an intimate acquaintance between his characters and his audience. Without directly using quotation marks in conversations between characters, the reader is forced into actively reading and interpreting the text independently, and as a result, the action of the story becomes immediate and direct paradoxically through Wendt’s ambiguity. This heightened realism is captured through the reader’s first-hand engagement—his or her own interpretation of who is speaking—rendering the reader to question the actions, motives, and decisions of the characters on a more personal level, which mirrors an oral quality of storytelling, where the teller and the listener actively participate in the understanding and telling of the story. Because of the ambiguous context, the reader does not know who says “I love you” first, but ultimately, the reader will recognize that it does not matter. When the reader cannot depend on context to realize who is speaking, he or she understands the mutual emotions the characters experience. Through the lens of this narration, the reader acts as a foreigner and a native, exactly the way the boy and most of the characters in the novel feel about their own identity and place in New Zealand.

The structure of Sons for the Return Home interlaces stories of the past and present, highlighting the continuity and repetition of human experience, specifically regarding racism and love. The past and the present are a part of our every emotion. Such themes transcend time itself and can be changed only by re-evaluating the past and the values one has been taught to accept, to independently determine what is true. The boy’s mother tells highly idealized stories of her Samoan life to preserve her native culture and because of the expectations of her people, yet conforming to expectation jeopardizes the freedom one possesses to articulate his or her own sense of identity. Wendt permits his reader to realize this when the boy does not conform by breaking the custom and dating a ‘papalagi’ girl. Their relationship is beneficial to their personal understanding of love and human emotion, although this knowledge comes with a price. The boy and the girl experience numerous pangs of pain because of exterior forces that stereotype and interfere with their relationship. However, through pain, one grows. When the boy and the girl experience each other’s pain, they understand the highest form of human respect, compassion, and sympathy: love.

When one sees himself in another, despite cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and social differences, they also see humanity in themselves and in others. Humanity is recognizing that someone else, who may seem foreign with a different history or even future, is actually much more similar than one may think. Individuals have a need for recognition, which entails others knowing and understanding their culture and ancestry. This ongoing need of unity, respect, and togetherness in the face of suppressing outside forces is present in the aim of Wendt’s writing. Writing in English, Wendt shares the culture and heritage of his people with an international audience who may not have the physical means to travel to his homeland. Through his literature, Wendt intends to break such physical and social borders that may impede or obstruct human connection by making his reader aware of negative influences on personal identity such as racism and positive influences such as love. The same systems of hypocrisy, prejudice, desire, and compassion are found in every culture, and Wendt’s techniques of ambiguity allow the reader access to this information, immersing them in the inherent freedom to discover one’s own identity through love in the face of exterior forces.

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