Host Christopher Merrill talks with New Zealand writer Courtney Sina Meredith about her latest book of stories, Tail of the Taniwha, and their underlying Pasifika Politique. They also discuss the strength Meredith receives from her family and her community, and the importance of mentorship amongst artists.
Courtney Sina Meredith Interview Transcript
I’m Christopher Merrill and you’re listening to Origins.
Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.
The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Visit the International Writing Program online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
This episode of Origins features New Zealand writer Courtney Sina Meredith.
Merrill: Courtney Sina MEREDITH (poet, playwright, fiction writer, musician; New Zealand) published her award-winning play Rushing Dolls in 2012; a poetry collection, Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick, appeared the same year. A new book of short stories, Tail of the Taniwha, is available in August 2016. Her writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, French and Bahasa Indonesia. Her participation is made possible by Creative New Zealand.
We are recording this from the University of Iowa on Monday, October 25, 2016. We had the chance to sit down with Courtney, who is here as a participant in the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency. Welcome, Courtney. So I wanted to begin by asking you how your heritage influences how your voice is heard in New Zealand or abroad?
Meredith: That’s a great question and I think to be honest it’s multi-layered. First and foremost, I would say the example that my mother set for me as a child - incredibly hard working, working two or three jobs to provide for me. My father wasn’t around. And also having this incredible grandmother too. She actually gave up her job at the denim factory so that she could look after me in the day while my mother went to get her diploma in journalism so she that could be employed as a journalist, which was amazing for us, seeing her bylines in newspapers. That example and that part of my heritage, that kind of work ethic that you never give up, is a huge part of who I am. Having that kind of an example at a really young age, and also being aware that I was coming from a place in New Zealand within the social fabric that was under represented, and the representations of Pacific Island women. When I a young girl growing up and as a teenager as well, those representations for me weren’t full enough. They weren’t round enough. They weren’t very sophisticated. It wasn’t about this kind of empowered Pacific Island women going out and seizing the world. It was more about supporting the husband, supporting the family, and staying at home, which I completely respect. And I know that there are roles that are definitely important, but being able to lead a movement around aspiration for the next generation and the women of tomorrow, that’s something you will find in my work as well. A lot of my first book of poetry Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick, a lot of that work was about creating constellations of change that I myself could work towards because those examples and symbols weren’t really already there. So in the early work when I was talking about rushing dolls and these women with bright red lips, and the blue-crowned lorikeet, another motif in some of my work – what I was doing inside of all that literature which I was generating from the community around me was just throwing out these brand new ideas, kind of into this imagined night sky in front of me and just toiling towards it no matter what.
Merrill: And what’s interesting is that you write in so many different forms from an early age, as a poet, a playwright, as a fiction writer.
Meredith: Yeah! You know what, I’ve always loved words. I really have, and I have been incredibly privileged, because my mother, she’s a writer too. And when I was really young, she would read me poetry. She would read me her own poems. And she was always talking about poets as these kind of revered leaders of society, you know, that to be a poet is this incredible thing. You’re kind of part way between the gods and the earth. And I’ve never ever for a second thought that there was a better thing you’d be than being a poet since I was a child. So I definitely grew up with this mindset that ‘Oh I would like to be one of these beings.’ And I think, music came into my life very early as well. I had quite a musical family. We always had music and singing around us. There was a piano at the lounge, lots of ukuleles and guitars. I started to learn classical guitar at the age of about nine, and started to write songs. And I had really encouraging friends. I had friends who if I said to them, “Oh, do you guys want to hear my new song?” I’d only be like twelve or thirteen or something, and they’d say “Yea! Play us your new song!” And I had a very patient family as well. When I was first learning how to play the guitar, it was horrible. And my mom and her friends would sit there with such patience because I had to play the full Kumbaya. I was like “No, you’ve got to wait until the very end.” So from a young age, I’ve loved writing, I’ve always loved words. But more than that, I realized from a very early age the power of words, who gets to speak, why does the principal gets to stand there on top of the stage and we all have to be quiet. And then when I was standing at the principal’s place during speech competitions from the age of eight, nine, ten, looking out from where he looked out and seeing everyone captivated, and being able to hold people’s attention and the feeling inside of me…There isn’t anything better than this. There isn’t anything more beautiful. Words are powerful, and I can really achieve something this way.
Merrill: And do you imagine that working in the different forms that each form influences the other? Do they feed one another, or does it feel more like a distraction to move from one to another?
Meredith: I think things have changed for me as I’ve gotten a bit older. In my teens, sometimes I wake up in the night and I just have a whole song in my head. And I didn’t have a choice, I just had to write them down right then. And then when I went to university, the songbird in me kind of quietened down quite a bit, and a whole lot of poems would just come into my mind at random bits of the day and I would just have to stop what I was doing. I was kind of controlled by whatever it was inside of me representing the thoughts or ideas and feelings that I have been mulling over for days, or months, or years before. And it wasn’t until I wrote my first play, and I looked back and thought, ‘Oh I’ve written this play, and I’ve written this collection of poems, and I loved to write songs’ that I started to question myself about, are these voices all different? Are these voices interlinked? And I think the themes are quite linked, the themes are linked. But my approach to prose is very different to my approach to poetry. When it comes to poetry, I think for me it’s the last bastion. I really want it to be free flowing, and to move at its own place. I don’t try to restrict it at all. I feel like the rest of my life is so…umm…the rest of my life is very on track and is very diligent, and it’s about getting the work done to the best of my ability. But when I sit down to write poetry, wherever I am, it’s the reverse of that. It can be crazy, messy. It doesn’t have to have an outcome, doesn’t have to have a meaning. So yea, for me it’s a beautiful joy.
Merrill: So your newest book is a book of stories, Tail of the Taniwha, which came out from Beatnik Publishing. I wonder first, how would you translate Taniwah into English, and then –
Meredith: Um – I guess the straight translation would be sea monster. The interesting thing about Taniwha in New Zealand is that they are seen as both warriors and guardians. It’s a mythical creature. But even though it’s a mythical creature, they are still very real policy considerations in New Zealand, even from local and central government around where we should build things. Should the buildings impact local Taniwha in those water ways. So there’s an interesting connection that New Zealanders have with Taniwha. And when you’re a child in any New Zealand primary school, we all know this song. There’s a song about meeting a Taniwha and it’s swimming in the moana, like in the water. So right from when you were a child, you were made very aware of what a Taniwha is.
Merrill: So what happens when you meet the Taniwha?
Meredith: He whispers in your taringa, which is your ear, “Won’t you come with me, there’s such a lot to see underneath the deep blue sea.” So he’s trying to take you, and you say, “No, no, no, I’ve got to go. But can we still be good friends? Because my mother is waiting for me underneath the kowhai tree. Taniwha, haere ra! Goodbye!” So it’s this magical meeting.
Merrill: (Laughs) I love that.
Meredith: Yeah! (Laughs)
Merrill: So this book blends genres, but also builds narratives. We’ve spoken about how you experiment with form. I wonder if you could tell us something about how you manage to put this collection together?
Meredith: Well, I came home from London in 2014. And I have done my whole year of being a starving – you know, the starving artist thing you have to go and do in London, and selling your soul. I had 29 job interviews and found myself in corporate roles where the only other people of color were opening doors for me in the morning, and I really struggled with it. But at the same time it was an amazing experience and I kept pinching myself like, “Is this real? Is this all happening?” But when I came back from London, I had to - there were things going on in my family, and I really wanted to ground myself; and I wanted to come back to New Zealand and continue the work that I had started with Brown Girls; and I knew that there was the place to be for my next book, whatever that book was going to be. I came back home, and the first thing I did was I actually had a meeting with my mother. We sat down in this coffee shop and I said, “Look, I really think the next book, it can’t be poetry. I think it should be prose.” And we discussed together all of the different things I could possibly write. We had a big brainstorm, and in the end we both really agreed that a book of short story would be a great challenge for me. Also, the first thing I did publish as an undergrad student were short stories. It wasn’t actually poems. And there were so many things I had seen in London, and there were so many new parts of myself I have discovered from getting to the absolute bedrock, from being separated from all of my family and just being out there alone, which is really hard I think from someone from a big family, especially when you come from like a very collective community where we all stand together as one. So being an individual in itself is a big deal. And we decided that I would write this. I went to Creative New Zealand for funding to write the book as well. I got funded for a year, so that two days a week I could be writing this while doing my job for the other three days. And I am sure you know there isn’t such thing as part time work anyway, so it just spills over and you just end up writing in the weekend, and in the morning, and lunch breaks. The work I was doing for three days spilled over as well. The process was really, really tough. But I had named the book before I even started to write it and I knew what I wanted it to look and feel like. I wanted it to be fresh. I wanted it to be engaging. I wanted it to be experimental…And I asked so much of myself to write this book though I had to be really vulnerable. The first book of poems was totally aspirational, and it was all about the world that I wanted to live in. And this is something different. This is actually me breathing life into experiences, real and imagined, and making some very strong comments on New Zealand society and how I feel about it as well.
Merrill: In “Great Works,” which is the opening prose piece of this book, the narrator is at the Tate Modern and says, “Am I that negress? That idea of exotica, beautiful, two-dimensional.” Then later she says, “They put us up on the walls because we are works of art, but it’s the wrong way around, Nafanna – they think they’re looking at us.” Which raises the question of whether art and literature serve to allow the seen finally become the seer – to permit the object to become the voice? And I wonder is that part of what you were doing?
Meredith: In this book, yeah, no, I think – I took a lot of risks as I was writing it, you know, “Be bold and great forces will come to your aid” [Basil King]. I was terrified writing this book. There were so much in here that is not just anti-prose in some ways, and very kind of almost anti-literature in the way that it’s designed. But it’s putting a whole, a brand new community at the center of a lot of these works as well; and looking out from the eyes of those people and not just giving them a voice, but giving them their political freedom as well to make huge statements like that. Especially, I mean, you can’t even imagine that just some young Samoan woman from New Zealand walks into the Tate and it’s like absolutely confronting these great works by Matisse. Like in what world does she have the right to do that? Well, in this world! (Laughs) And you know, in this book. And I loved the process. I’ll admit it was different from writing this book because in the first book I was just so young, and I was so free, and it was so much fun. I didn’t care about the reviews. I didn’t really know about the reviews, so I didn’t think I had thought about them for a second. But with this new book, it was though I had become conscious. It was like I could feel everything. I could feel every word; I could feel every page. And I was thinking, “Oh god, just don’t read any reviews when they come out.” I think that’s the best way to go about it. (Laughs) And just to remind myself why I was writing this book, why it was important, and also that I had been funded to write it. Yes, from Creative New Zealand, but specifically from the Pasifika pool of funding within the larger funding round, that they wanted this young Urbanesian voice to be out there.
Merrill: And the boldness of vision is matched by the boldness of the production of the book which I know you had a hand in the design of the cover and the interior.
Meredith: My publishers are amazing. So, we had a meeting after I had only been writing Tail of the Taniwha perhaps for about four months I’ve been writing, and we met up for coffee and they said to me, “Oh, so what are you working on now?” And what had given me quite a bit of confidence with the works inside this book is that three had been accepted for publication by major universities in Australia, and then two had been excepted for publications in New Zealand, and I had a really tight team around this book before my publishers came on board. So I had Lloyd Jones as my manuscript advisor, and he’s just fantastic and unflinching in terms of his focus as well. Definitely one of my guiding lights. Obviously my mother was involved in the process too, and I also had Rosanna Raymond, who is the foremost Pacific Island artist, on board for the beginning of the project around the vision and the strategy. So once I had that team in place and I started to produce the work, people were reading the work as I was writing it and I was getting feedback in kind of real time, which I know isn’t how a lot of writers work. They’ll wait until the end.
Merrill: This stands in stark contrast to the lonely artist in her garret.
Meredith: (Laughs) Yep. Exactly, exactly. And I think to be very honest, it comes back to who I am as a project manager as well. I approach my writing – I know I approach it in a very different way. I structure it in a very different way. It works for me. I wouldn’t say this process would work for other people. I mean I sat down with my publishers and said, here’s what I’m working on, here’s the look and feel. And I actually sent them a couple of the first stories, and I told them that I had this different vision for the design. And that this different vision for the design had come out of spending a lot of time at a really amazing small kind of publishing house/gallery split/fountain in Auckland as well back in New Zealand. And you’ve got this incredible designer, publisher, all round kind of creative genius there, Leyla Tweedie-Cullen. And it was kind of her influence on me really, introducing me to how the book can be a live space that made me rethink, even my craft as a writer in approaching the page. And I just started asking myself different questions with this book instead of just purely looking at narrative arc, narrative modes, or looking back at the New Zealand canon of what we think are good New Zealand short stories is, or even just what a good short story is. I asked myself different questions, like can I make this story grow? How can I make the reader work for this, to work out the truth for themselves? And how can I actually make the book operate in a different sense for the reader too, like how can they have a totally different engagement? So the design definitely represents that, and every single story I wanted to have its own nature, its own personality, and its own design layout.
Merrill: I love the way you describe that. It’s a wonderfully inspiring approach to the making of a book. You’ve said that, you’ve described your writing as “an ongoing discussion of contemporary urban life with an underlying Pasifika politique.” And I wonder how you feel that you’re accomplishing this as you move across different media, poetry, fiction, drama, song writing, book design, and in your professional life too, your project manager life.
Meredith: I’m going to confess that that was a gift from my mother. My mother actually came up with it. How long ago did she come up with it now? She came up with it a few years ago and she gave it to me because A, she knew I needed something to kind of not necessarily sum up what I am doing, but I needed something that I could bounce off on days where I’d be thinking, where is my work going, what is important about this, and what anchors me.
Merrill: And what your orientation is, right?
Meredith: Exactly. And so that has become a point of anchorage for me to quote Janet Frame, “point of anchorage.” It’s also because it comes from my mother seeing me as an artist, you know. What you’re doing Courtney is an ongoing discussion of contemporary urban life with an underlying Pacific politique. It also gave me freedom and the strength and the courage to believe that not only can I follow my voice to the ends of the earth if I have to, but to have this kind of certainty and reassurance that because I come from her, and I come from my grandmother, and I come from my great grandmother too, and all of these women before me who over generations have just stepped forward just a tiny bit more than the last, and then to be the person who for whatever reason get to sit here with you, gets to travel, and gets to speak about interesting things and to be able to discuss ideas for a living. That is the ongoing discussion. And the ongoing discussion again comes back to my heritage as well.
Merrill: And speaking of traveling and success, in 2011, you were the first Pacific Islander, the first New Zealander, and also the youngest artist to be selected as a writer in residence for the Bleibtreu in Berlin. And so that’s um, London is - that’s a certain point in the compass for a New Zealander, but Berlin is a different one. I wonder how that experience have shaped your writing, your practice?
Meredith: It was an incredibly seminal time for me because I met writers in exile, and I think that was really when the penny dropped that what I had been doing, and I just thought it was this brilliant exercise of the heart, that poetry for me is just an expression of who I am as a person, or that my writing was just another limb. And then you meet these people who have had to flee in the middle of the night and for them, writing is this political act. They can’t go home. The words that they are writing could really be the end of them. When I saw that kind of strength and that kind of determination, it really changed me. And it challenged me to be more than a writer and to see that actually in our day and age, if you really do want to kind of have this public platform as an artist and as a creative person, I believe you also have the responsibility to the human rights of others.
Meredith: And then also the most formative organization was Mau Dance Company headed by Lemi Ponifasio, who was the foremost Samoan choreographer and dancer, and just the most amazing artist in his own right. And it was Lemi, who I’ve known since I was seven years old, who got me over there and who forged this whole residency experience. And he took me under his wing, and he saw something in me, and he pushed me, and he challenged me, and he encouraged me to be my fullest self. That has also become a defining part of who I am as an artist now. If I see other talent, especially in younger writers and younger people - that’s a big part of who I back home - whatever resources and networks I have, I will share that with them too. And I do the very best that I can to be a positive influence in their lives. And I’ve taken up the responsibility and the fact that if you want to say these things, you have to back them up. If you want to talk about aspirational Pacific Islander women in the future, you do have to have those leadership qualities. It means a lot of positive role-modeling. It means sharing opportunities with others. And it means speaking up when you wish someone else could. So those organizations have been very good to me and I still am in touch with all of them. Definitely, it defined me as an artist and also as an active act of change and as someone, when I returned to New Zealand, I had just seen so many things, and I had experienced totally different world. It took me a very long time to get back into my life, to get back into my job, and to find how I could connect what I had seen and experienced with being back home, and how I could engage even from down at the bottom of the world with this kind of really exciting international literary movement.
Merrill: You said recently in a lecture for the undergraduate students at the University of Iowa that, “To not lose your sense of voice takes considerable focus and support and reaching out to learn new skills from others.” So what are ways that you’ve been most vulnerable to losing contact with your written voice, and what are some of the ways that you’ve continued to reach out, both professionally and in your own work?
Meredith: I have again been privileged that I have a very strong sense of self, and I am very opinionated, and my voice is definitely backed up by a very, very, very supportive family. And I know that not everyone has that, and that will always be the greatest treasure in my life. It’s the love and support from my family. It’s invaluable. But I think the comment I was making is that for others—should you not be so steadfast in your voice, or should you not have as much support around you as a unique individual, and that your unique voice and your unique stories will never come again—I think for others, you really can buckle under the pressure of writing what people tell you can be published. And also I know even with my own university experience, what I was writing can’t necessarily come before me. And the comments I was getting, I’m sure was very well-meaning and well-intentioned, but it was quite a clear kind of, “Should you want to be published, and should you want to be successful, your voice is great, but perhaps take these words out, perhaps move to the center.” I remember one of my tutors telling me, “Oh it’s just too alien.” And the first writer that I asked to read the first manuscript of Brown Girls, she sent me this huge email response of how there were too many wide shots, and it made her feel really, it made her feel left out somehow. She didn’t feel a part of the work, she couldn’t understand it and she couldn’t see it. And she kept saying things to me like, you need to find a solid foothold in the center like the rest of us. And then, you need close ups and you slowly, slowly work from there. And I know exactly what she was talking about. That’s the kind of traditional New Zealand mode of literature, is this one thought per page, close ups, slow-moving, realist, slice of life, whether it is poetry, or short story, or even a novel. And at the end of it all, it’s a little bit like a festival film, where you fill in the gaps yourself. And that sells. That gets agents. That gets you published by the major presses. But my voice wanted to fill in those spaces. My voice, yeah, I wanted wide shots because I am from this very collective family, collective community, and collective culture, where it really is about the group. I wanted to discuss life from inside of it, and I didn’t just want one thought per page. I didn’t listen to them a lot of the time, and I know they must have found that frustrating. Because they always try to tell me how to make my work more sophisticated. Even simple things like: You should say ‘stars,’ or, you shouldn’t say ‘sun.’ You should find other words for the ‘stars’ and other words for the ‘sun’. You should seek to be working with a higher vocab, and, which is fine, which was great, but I wasn’t writing for people who couldn’t understand stars and suns. So I think when I was making that comment, having that focus really comes down to having that sense of self, and the self-esteem. It does take a lot of courage I think, to say, this is really who I am. This is really my voice. And I am really going to put it out, and should people come back and say, “Oh, it’s not real poetry. It’s not real prose.” Or, “It’s not real…”, whatever. I take all of that as a compliment if people do tell me something isn’t real. It’s like, “Oh that’s fantastic. If it’s not real to you, but it’s real to me, then what is it telling us about our alternative realities? How far away are we from each other? How separate are our understanding of what art can be?” And one thing I’ve always struggled with literature is: Why can’t it be alive? Why can’t it be questioning? Why can’t it be experimental? When you look at other art forms, the innovation and the right of that innovation, and how much investment is put into the visual arts where you want brand new interesting exciting things all the time, and you have these huge art fairs, even online art fairs now where to be fearless, to take risks, to be bold, is just the height of creation. But when it comes back to writing, we suddenly have this mode of communication, which for whatever reason has almost dormant, or kind of, some of it are stagnant, and I just have those questions inside of myself to why of all the art forms, we can’t treat literature with the same playfulness, the same kind of lust for life? And why can’t it be sexy? And why can’t it be gold?
Merrill: Thank god for the stars and the sun. (Laughs)
Meredith: (Laughs) Yeah…
Merrill: So before we wrap up our conversation, could you tell us about what you are working on now? And where you are heading after Iowa?
Meredith: After Iowa, it’s exciting. I am going to be in Alaska for a three-week residency there with the Island Institute, and I am really looking forward to that. I’m going to be working with a few different high schools, and I might even be touring around some of the towns, I think by ferry. This is something that may happen. So my fingers are crossed that it does because I think that’d be quite magical. Myself as an artist, what am I working on at the moment, I have a few projects. When I get home, I am finally recording my first EP. So I am writing a lot of songs at the moment. In my hotel room, I’ve been writing a lot of poetry which I knew I would be doing, but all of these other works have kind of jumped up and tapped me at the side. Things I wasn’t expecting to be writing here. I’ve written quite a few monologues, and so I’m unsure if these monologues are connected, maybe some kind of like a one-woman play, or something broader than that. All I know is that the monologues just came by themselves. And then on top of that as well, with poetry, it’s going into my second book of poems, which is what I came here to Iowa to complete because I had already written the first half. That book is actually called, Love, Culture, Other.
Merrill: Well, Courtney, this has been a pure delight to listen to you and I can’t wait to read the new work and hear the album.
Meredith: Thank you so much, Chris. Thank you for having me, and just a huge massive thank you to the IWP. I’ve had a great time.
Merrill: Thank you.
Meredith: Thank you.
The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with editing and design by Donna Brooks, and production assistance from Todd Johnson, research assistance from Hodna Nuernberg, Claire Jacobson, and Nathan Bläsing; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available June 15, 2017 on iTunes and SoundCloud where I talk with Argentinian writer Mariano Tenconi Blanco.