115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

World SF and Albert Wendt's The Adventures of Vela

John Rieder, University of Hawaii, Manoa

I argue that Franco Moretti's theory of world literature does not offer an adequate place to understand or evaluate the writing of indigenous artists because it incorporates the view that literature becomes significant to “the world” only when it is recognized by European or American audiences. My reading of Wendt’s The Adventures of Vela demonstrates both the value and importance of Wendt’s work and the pertinence of his own satire in Vela against both colonial and nativist ideologies.

Proposal: 

Franco Moretti, in “Conjectures on World Literature,” constructs the world literary system as a set of core, peripheral, and semi-peripheral sites. This scheme makes a work’s impact upon or recognition by the core the central determinant of its status. The danger of constructing the world literary system on Moretti’s model, I argue, is that of perpetuating a colonial discourse that says the only meaningful choices are the ones the colonial culture recognizes.

            Moretti’s analysis of the “structural compromise” between dominant core forms and local plots and narrative voices follows the logic of colonial ideology. According to Moretti the history of the novel as it unfolds itself to the world literary theorist discloses “a law of literary evolution: in cultures that belong to the periphery of the literary system . . . the modern novel first arises not as an autonomous development but as a compromise between a western formal influence . . . and local materials” (58). But what does this law of literary evolution amount to? That the modern novel is disseminated around the world via the dominant colonial and imperial cultures where it originated, and imposes itself in foreign venues as one aspect of the general imposition of colonial cultural values on local ones. To call the transformation of local literary forms by their contact with the colonial literary culture a “law of literary evolution” is to naturalize this colonial history, turning colonial dominance into evolutionary development in a grand tradition of Social Darwinian ideology that one would have hoped was long dead by now.

            What is in my opinion most distressingly left unrecognized in Moretti’s scheme is consideration of an Indigenous or subaltern culture as its own center with its own world-constructing practices. I therefore call attention to the polemical and fictional writing of Albert Wendt, the most celebrated and influential Pacific Indigenous writer of the last half century. Wendt’s book-length verse narrative The Adventures of Vela is about a collision between worlds—the world of pre-contact Samoa and the world of the Christian colonizers. The Adventures of Vela is not adequately described as “indigenous science fiction,” but it certainly overlaps that generic territory in compelling fashion. Situating the printed text of Vela at the end of a long chain of storytelling and cultural transmission that stretches across the divide separating divine from human, orality from print, and pre-contact Samoa from post-colonial contemporaneity, Wendt positions his poemas a grand post-colonial fable (in the sense of “post-colonial” defined by Wendt in his essays) and at the same time as a “globalectic” exercise (in the sense of “globalectic” analysis defined by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o) that attempts to spark “a mutually affecting dialogue” between Western and Oceanic narrative traditions. Just as it straddles genres, media, and cultures, The Adventures of Vela straddles worlds in ways that usefully complicate the critical and scholarly discussion of world literature and world SF.

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