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An Interview with John Enright

I first met John Enright several decades ago in American Samoa. My uncle, John Alexander Kneubuhl was a brilliant playwright and mentor to many aspiring artists and writers in Samoa. He recognized John as a kindred spirit, loved him like a son, and welcomed him into our, often eccentric but always entertaining, family fold. In the islands, we have a way of describing our family’s relationship to people like John. They are “calabash” relatives— special people, not related by blood, who repeatedly eat from the family bowl, sharing food, and therefore all manner of nourishment. Over the years, John has been part of so many events in the life of our family, some joyous and some heartbreaking, that we cannot help but think of him as our aiga (family).

John was already an accomplished poet when he arrived in American Samoa. His body of poetic work that describes his time in Samoa reflects the kind of insight and sensitivity that only comes with years of living an island life. His new crime novels, Pago Pago Tango and Fire Knife Dancing, resonate with the same authenticity. For anyone interested in the Pacific, they are a must read.
Though my contact with John is now sporadic, each time I interact with him, it’s like he’s just been around the block for a few minutes.

–Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl

VNK: Hey John, malo le soifua!

JE: Malo, Vike!

VNK: So tell me, what’s it like to move to Rhode Island after almost three decades of living in Samoa?

JE: I grew up with Great Lakes’ seasons. Samoa was like an endless summer with cyclones thrown in now and then. There is something to be said for being thwacked with New England winters four months out of every year. It changes your perspective of time. There are two weeks every May when the world goes from dead monochrome to lush greens. You can’t help but feel reborn. Seasons hurry you up. The separate years are easier to remember.

VNK: So how did you end up in American Samoa, in what? Was it the 1970s?

JE: I first visited Samoa in ’76, sort of on my way to Hong Kong for a magazine editorial job. I had some friends who had moved to Pago Pago. A couple of days turned into a couple of weeks. I almost lost the Hong Kong gig. Then, in ’81—I was back in San Francisco—Ronald Reagan became President, and I knew it was time to leave the country. I went back to Samoa and took a job teaching in the English Dept. of American Samoa Community College.

VNK: And you ended up staying for 26 years. You must have liked it. What sort of work did you do in those years?

JE: I spent six years at ASCC, teaching English, Literature, and Folklore. The big effort then was to Samoanize the curriculum and faculty. A group of us got together to create a Samoa and Pacific Studies program. I wrote funding for it into a federal grant proposal, and we got it started. I was appointed its initial director, but I left the college soon thereafter to start a Folk Arts program with NEA funding at the American Samoa Arts Council.

I spent my last twenty years in Samoa living off grants that I wrote—first at the Arts Council, then running a nonprofit environmental NGO, then finally as State Historic Preservation Officer—all on either federal or Macarthur Foundation grant funding. That is one way to survive as a writer, writing grants. Though it’s not as easy as some people seem to think. It’s a tough genre, because then you have to go out and actually do all the things you wrote you would do.

VNK: And through all of this you’re writing . . . really doing a lot of different kinds of writing. I know you’re an accomplished poet, but let’s hold off on that for a minute and talk about the more, what shall we call it? The more academic kinds of things you wrote. Like the article you did on the flying fox. What prompted this kind of writing?

JE: You mean papers with titles like “The Westernization of Time & Samoan Folk Arts” and an illustrated book on traditional Samoan fishing methods? There were a lot of those more academic pieces over the years, They were part of the job—technical writing, commission reports, papers to deliver at conferences, along with polemics, press releases, editorials, feature articles, begging letters. Whenever I am asked to talk about writing, I talk about that kind of writing, not fiction or poetry or drama. If you have to survive as a writer—live by the word—you have to be willing to try your hand at many genres. And research, research is so important. You have got to know what you’re talking about, and it’s not all at Wikipedia.

VNK: I’d like to turn now to your poetry. Congratulations on winning the University of the South Pacific Press’s inaugural International Literature Competition for your collection of poetry 14 Degrees South. That’s a big honor. How does it feel?

JE: Being a poet in America means getting used to being rejected. I have been writing and publishing poetry for 50 years. The recognition was an honor. If anyone is curious about living in a South Sea sometimes paradise, they should buy the book and read the poems. There are plenty more where they came from.

VNK: How do you think living in the Pacific, enveloped in the Samoan environment and culture, changed or influenced your voice as a poet and as a writer in general?

JE: Well, it changed me. It slowed me down. The tropics can get very meditative. Details of your insular life can become engrossing. I know you know what I mean. I felt much closer to the Asian poets I already knew like Yang Wan-Li and the haikuists, Basho, Issa. I think my voice as a poet was already pretty much set when I got to Samoa. I taught myself how to write fiction when I was there, so that voice may be slower, more languorous because of that.

VNK: And now you’re adding crime fiction to your writing arsenal, why did you turn to this genre?

JE: I had to write about what I had learned of Samoa, but I didn’t want to write ethnography. I wanted to write something people might actually read, and not another island memoir— not “Coming of Old Age in Samoa.”

Your uncle, the playwright John Kneubuhl, who was my mentor and guide in Samoa, had encouraged me to take the risk of being a palagi [outsider] writing about Samoa and Samoans. At the time, I was working with Joseph Kennedy on his Samoa history The Tropical Frontier: America’s South Sea Colony, and it was such a tale of two cultures—of a vigorous and resilient native culture up against that juggernaut of western civilization, the USA. So why not take that oh-so-American genre, the police procedural, and plop it down in paradise?

VNK: One thing that stands out to me in both Pago Pago Tango and Fire Knife Dancing is the almost lyrical attention given to establishing a sense of the Samoan landscape. Do you see a connection in your writing here in your preservation activities and your concern for the island environment?

JE: Yes, definitely. Samoa is such an incredible physical place. Its geography—in the fullest sense of that term—is so imposing that when you live there it takes a conscious effort to block it out and get on with what you’re supposed to be doing.

I was lucky, as an outsider I found a slot where I could make a living working to conserve as much of that—both ecological and historical—as possible. All the Detective Apelu novels are really about place, that place.

VNK: The plots, characters, crimes and tensions in your novels are so entirely realistic to someone like me who is part-Samoan and has lived in Samoa. Did you draw on actual events that occurred while you were living there?

JE: Maybe it’s because I spent so many years writing journalism and nonfiction, but the real, the actual is what appeals to me. I have zero tolerance for fantasy fiction. I think of it as a disease—tertiary solipsism. Writing fiction for me is not that different than reporting. The fictional part is the freedom to edit, splice, plot, transpose, highlight or ignore observed events. If you do it right, you don’t even have to analyze—that’s the reader’s pleasant job.

In answer to your question—yes. I would be hard-pressed to find a character, location, or event in any of my Samoa books that wasn’t pulled from reality or built upon the actual item. Why invent worlds when what already surrounds you is so rich?

A few reviewers have found fault with my less-than-ideal portrayal of Samoa, with my not feeding their fantasy of what life on a South Sea island must be like. Well, they never lived there and wouldn’t have lasted long had they tried.

VNK: So tell us, what’s in the present and the future of your writing life? What are you working on now?

JE: There are several more books in the Detective Apelu series. Since I moved to New England I have been working on a new novel series, with a new protagonist, that takes place here on the mainland, my new reality. America is a pretty weird and fascinating place if you have been away from it for a quarter of a century. I am an outsider again, just a reporter, writing another ethnography of an exotic place, where the people worship strange gods and act in peculiar ways. Just the facts, ma’am.