Courtney Sina Meredith is driven, ambitious, articulate — and on a mission. Last week, the 30-year-old Auckland writer, poet and musician launched her second book, a short story collection called The Tail of the Taniwha. It follows the much admired Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick, a book of poems she launched at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2012. And, before that, her play Rushing Dolls, which has won several awards and is included in two anthologies.
As she tells Dale in this interview, her work is already taking her to places (Germany, London, the US) that she once dreamed of visiting when she was a litle girl living at Taniwha Street in Glen Innes — where her story begins.
Talofa, Courtney. Let’s start, as we often do, with our families. Paint a picture, if you wouldn’t mind, of your childhood. Where did you grow up? Tell us about your peeps.
My mum is the champion of my life. She’s my hero. It was just my mum and me. My dad was a sailor (he’s from Mangaia in the Cook Islands, and he’s still working on the waters) and by the time Mum was pregnant with me, he’d buggered off. But, despite him not being around, my mum was resolute: she was going to have this baby.
And so I was born into this really loving, big Samoan family in Glen Innes. My grandparents had migrated here in the ‘50s. And we lived in a state house on Taniwha Street. It was a full house. And I remember, right from when I was just a tiny little girl, feeling this amazing sense of belonging. I remember my uncles singing with ukeleles and my grandpa letting me join the circle. And I used to strum the ukelele hard out till my fingers used to blister. We had a piano in the living room, too, and I used to have a tutu with that.
My passion for music and words came at a really young age.
I remember writing my first poems, or putting them together, when I was only around four or five. I was about three years old when I was given a microphone set and a little keyboard. And I would have shows in the living room and invite people: “Come down, if you’re around at 1pm. I’m going to have a show in the lounge.” So my aunties, uncles, grandparents, my mum, my cousins — we’d all kind of sit around and be involved in these shows. I was blessed, too, because I have an amazing cousin (Dani), who was only four months older. She’s more like a sister to me. And she was just in the next room.
So, a brilliant childhood.
My mum’s name is Kim Meredith Melhuish. She became a journalist. She got a diploma in journalism at MIT (Manukau Institute of Technology) and then went on to work for The Sun and Central Leader, and was just out there in the industry doing these amazing things.
She was the one who introduced me to poetry — in fact, she was the first poet I knew. I remember her reading her poetry to me as a girl and it inspired me so much. She really instilled in me this absolute love and adoration for words and for books. I had so many books as a child.
I’ve actually dedicated my new book, Tail of the Taniwha, to my mother. The first book that I put out, Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick, I dedicated to my grandmother, Rita Sina Meredith.
The women in my family, the women in my ancestral line — they’re very important to me.
I’ve got a soft spot for G.I. It’s an interesting place, becoming perhaps even more interesting as time goes by. You didn’t go to Tamaki College?
No. Just before I turned five, Mum and I went flatting together. Ponsonby in the ‘90s is where the next stage of my life unfolded. So I went to Ponsonby Primary, Ponsonby Intermediate, then Western Springs College. And I’ve kind of been in central Auckland ever since. But my grandfather and aunty, uncle and cousins still live out in Glen Innes. So I’ve still got my connection to the place and I still love to go back.
There was a time when Pasifika peoples dominated in Ponsonby.
That’s totally our original place. My ma and pa (my grandmother’s parents), when they came here, they bought their house in Ponsonby. I still have a grand-uncle and his family who live in that same family home in Ponsonby.
You mentioned your whare, and I’m sensing it was full of books. People who enjoyed reading to each other. Who have you read? What types of titles have inspired you as you’ve grown up?
When I was a child I really loved Joy Cowley’s books. I remember her being like this magical voice for me. And I actually got to meet her when I went to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2012, where I launched my first book. And meeting her, for me, was like “wow”. One of my childhood heroes. And then, obviously as I came up to my teen years, I started reading Harry Potter, probably like everyone else.
But I’ve always had a real fondness and a love for poetry. Especially New Zealand poetry. Especially our Pacific poets. There’s a commonality that I love about the work that is produced in New Zealand. But there’re also differences, too.
You’ve had some tremendous success. I like the titles for your books, too. Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick — tell us about that, please.
Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick was important work for me to get out because it just wasn’t anywhere. Any time I was looking for representation, or guidance, or inspirational motivation in terms of being a young brown woman in this part of the world — who can be fearless, who can be exceptional, who can be educated, intelligent — who can be taken seriously and be professional and want different things — we just don’t have those representations yet. There aren’t enough of them. In terms of brown women being sidelined, being support acts, or being in roles where we’re kind of in reference to others — then yes, there’s an abundance of that. But not being the central figures and the makers of our own reality and the masters of our own destiny.
One of the major themes for me in that book is we are all enough as we are.
And it’s been really touching over the last four years, meeting women beyond New Zealand. Meeting African women. Meeting women in Indonesia. Meeting women in London. Who are like: “This book really speaks to my soul.” This book feels like the first time someone has ever talked about someone like me who is absolutely everyday and normal and real and relevant on the page. So that book will always be my great love.
Congratulations on getting it published. Not everyone can say they’ve had a book of poetry published. And part of it is this cultural dimension which filters through the words we use and the way we use words. How do you sense that your whakapapa emerges through your writing? Or do you have to deliberately include it?
A lot of the time I feel like I’m writing with the spirits. Or I’m writing with the women who’ve gone before me. I often feel as though there was a lot of living a life of duty and responsibility — and living a life of service to the family and to others. And I enormously respect that, and I honour that.
But there’s also a part of me that pushes and is very ambitious and that just won’t stop. Because it’s really more than me. When I’m launching books, or when I’m travelling the world, or when I’m on panels or in conferences — a lot of the time, if it was just me that I was representing, I wouldn’t be able to do those things. I’d be overwhelmed and I’d find the situations too complicated. Or I’d feel too vulnerable.
But knowing in my heart that, when I stand to speak, I speak with my mother. I speak with my grandmother. I speak with my great-grandmother. My aunties. All of the women before me who have never had these opportunities. Who have never travelled that far. Who have never had this much opportunity to evolve and to follow their free will and to be completely liberated. I take that really seriously.
And that’s why I push, and that’s why I dig deep. Because it’s much bigger than myself. In terms of how that embeds itself in my work, my whakapapa and where that comes from — definitely. I’m constantly keeping all of the people before me at the forefront of my mind.
That’s a beautiful explanation. Thank you for reminding us of the generations that need to be factored in. It’s a lovely kōrero. So, you’re suggesting that you don’t in fact choose your subjects — the subjects choose you.
Often they do. I might just wake up in the middle of the night and I’ve got a whole poem in my head that I need to write down. I can never completely say where the ideas or the thoughts or the inspiration comes from. But I’ve spoken with a lot of the other Pacific poets and I know that this is a shared experience that a lot of us have. We’re kind of channelling ideas. We’re working in collaboration as well with the communities around us.
I think part of that process comes down to making space within ourselves to hear voices other than our own. And I think that’s where our real strength comes from. It’s that we do want to include other voices, and we do want to speak for much more than ourselves.
Who are some of the Pasifika writers or poets that have inspired you?
Definitely Tusiata Avia. A huge inspiration of mine and also a really good friend. I have tremendous respect for her. I’ve got a lot of respect, too, for Māori poets. Robert Sullivan has been a key guiding light in my career over the last decade. Albert Wendt, obviously. It’s been amazing the path he has cut for the rest of us.
That’s why the job that I have out at Manukau Institute of Technology here in the faculty of Creative Arts is so important to me. I’m here as partnerships manager, but before that I lectured in world literature and Pasifika literature. Around 90 percent of our student body is Māori and Pacific and we’ve got a creative writing school out here. So, in terms of being able to mentor those students, being a resource for them, being someone who they can come and share their poems or their ideas with, and being able to turn to them and say: “Hey, that’s great. Keep going” — those small moments behind closed doors are very important to me.
I think there’s a lot of room to evolve and, yes, we’re all fundamentally Pasifika poets, but I think no one really wants to be completely boxed in as just being a Pasifika poet. Or even just being a male or a female poet. Or a location-based poet.
But I know that’s the source of strength from which we’re all writing. It is sacred, the work that we’re all undertaking. Even collectively in this space where we’re coming together as writers and artists. And shepherding the next wave of creative young people through.
But there’s definitely room to evolve. I’d like to see more representation of our voices. I’d like to see more diversity in publishing. And just more opportunities for our people to share their stories.
I guess with some of the rangatahi that you’ve been working with, you find a safe place where they can try things, make mistakes, but not feel whakamā about that or embarrassed. Is it a generalisation to say that Māori and Pasifika people, that we’re shy to write?
That’s difficult. I know for some people, that’s their experience. But when it comes down to why people would be shy to write or why people wouldn’t want to put their voices out there, I can completely understand how complicated this space is.
And a lot of that complication comes from within our community. We aren’t open and honest enough about just how hard we are on each other. How much we expect from our young people. We’re hard on our young people. We expect them to know the culture and rituals from generations ago. We want them to fit into ways of being that perhaps they can’t fit into any more. In terms of creating new ways for belonging, and what it means to be Pacific — what it means to be Māori — what it means to be a young person in this present moment — there aren’t that many options available.
So, for me, even just getting my own voice out, I’ve had a lot of people challenge me and say: “How can you even call yourself a Samoan writer? You’re not Samoan enough. You’re not brown enough.” I don’t know what people exactly have decided in their minds makes someone else brown enough, or Samoan enough, or Pacific enough.
What I do know is that we need to work harder on being accepting. We really do. We need to be telling our young people that they are absolutely enough as they are. And when they want to do something different with their lives, we have to find a way to accept that and be supportive and understanding.
So, yes. Talking about why people are shy to even write. I think it’s more than that. Why are people even scared to have a voice? What kind of an environment do we have, or what kind of an environment can we start to create where our young people can feel empowered and acknowledged?
Well, e-tangata’s aiming to counteract a negative stereotyping that’s existed in the media. Sadly, Māori have been confronting it for a long time. And our Pasifika peoples, too. You’re part of the counteracting of that, so continued success. Tale of the Taniwha. It’s a nice reference to Aotearoa. Why that title for your book of short stories?
Well, for me, it’s actually got a personal meaning to it. So, going back to my first time in Glen Innes and that home on Taniwha Street. And, when I was a girl, I used to sit on the front steps of the house and I’d watch cars driving past. And I used to imagine that there was a taniwha under the lawn in front of me. And it was just a tail under the front lawn. And it was gold and silver scaled and it was just thrashing around.
And I used to imagine in my mind that the head of the taniwha would be somewhere like London, or Paris, or New York — or somewhere big like that. And that, one day, when I was older and had gained enough knowledge and had enough strength, that I would go to the head of the taniwha. So, for me, it’s a personal title that harks back to the beginning for me. And it’s also a really nice way of me acknowledging Taniwha Street and where my life began. But it’s also tracking my journey, because I’ve been to those places now. I’ve been in London and I’ll be in New York in a couple of months sharing my work there. It really is, for me, the journey.
Remarkable. And I see you’re about to head off for a writing residency at the University of Iowa and then after that Alaska, where you’ll be working with indigenous rangatahi. So you really are going to the head of the taniwha. Tell me, what are some of the challenges in writing short stories as opposed to poetry?
Different people have different experiences. The thing with poetry — it’s all bones. It’s all bones on the page and everything has to be slick and it’s got to fit together in a very concise and considered way. And you have to grab people’s attention right there. There’s nowhere to hide on the page with a poem.
With the short stories, I felt immense freedom. Because there’s so much fat on the page and you can just build things really slowly. Every sentence has its place. But every sentence doesn’t have to be a jewel, as it does with poetry. So, in some ways, the pressure was off.
But, with this particular project, in some other ways the pressure was on because I was funded by Creative New Zealand to write the first draft of the manuscript. And I take my commitments really seriously.
And when I met with my publishers, we set a course that we wanted to launch the book this year in August. And I hadn’t written the entire manuscript by then, so I was working from this place of absolute adrenalin. Absolute faith.
So it’s been a really hard and fast project and I’ve had to turn it around in a much shorter timeframe than I would have otherwise. I work really well with deadlines. I know other people don’t like them but, for me, it maps everything out. I had a wonderful team. I had Lloyd Jones on board as my manuscript advisor. And I had Rosanna Raymond, a really renowned Pacific artist, come on board as an advisor early on in the piece. And I also had a couple of editors that went through the work and an amazing design team at Beatnik publishing. So we pulled the work together as a team.
You’re very confident, well-spoken. You articulate your thoughts behind what you do so well. That’s something that stands out about you. I guess we’re used to having our poets who are quite reclusive — some of them are hermits. How beneficial is it that you’re able to speak so well about the work that you do?
I think I’ve known from my very first conscious moments that I’ve gotta just go for it.
I haven’t come from privilege at all, and it’s always interesting to me when I’m in these events now, or I’m in other parts of the world, and I get brought into things that are quite elite. And I’ll be in a room with distinguished people and they’ll be talking as though we’re all from the same place, and they’ll say things to me like: “Oh, but you’d know wouldn’t you, because we’re all the same kind of people.” It’s nice for me to be able to say: “Actually, I’m not.” I’m not from this elite circuit. I was never intentionally trying to get into these places.
For me, I had a story to tell. And I watched how hard my family worked. This is one of the things that has made me — and perhaps given me the confidence to talk about my work or to be this open. I saw first-hand the hard work. I remember my grandpa coming in from working in his truck. I remember my uncles coming in from working on cars. Working in the factories. I remember the sacrifice of my grandmother leaving her job at the factory to look after me and my cousin so my mother could go and get her diploma. I knew from a really early age that there was immense sacrifice happening all around me, and I just had a sense that, if it was happening in our family, it would’ve been happening in other Pacific families across the country, too.
All of the opportunities I’ve had and the people I’ve met, were great. But for me, it’s about being able to share what I’ve learned. Share the networks and the contacts with the next generation and being a really open and generous resource for them because it’s really hard to make all of those connections by yourself.
Which is something that I had to embark on a decade ago. And when you are the work yourself — because I started as a performance poet and also a singer-songwriter in my teens — that’s hard. You have to have some really smart ways of managing how you feel about yourself, so that you can go out there and be around other people. And, yes, share the work. Be the work. But also, come home and just be yourself.
And that comes down to my family. My family has really grounded me. Especially my mother. It’s down to her incredible coaching with me over the years. My mum manages everything that I do as an artist.
If I ring her up and say: “This deal fell through.” Or: “These people want more from me than I can really give, and I don’t really know if I can do it.” My mum is always that voice saying: “Hey. Let’s come back to why we’re doing this. Let’s come back to why it’s important. If you can’t do it — you’ve had these opportunities, you have this education, and you have these contacts — if you can’t do it, how is the next girl that looks like you a decade younger supposed to be able to?”
A lot of the time, I put myself into these spaces because somebody has to.