COURTNEY SINA MEREDITH
Poet, playwright, fiction writer, musician
My early life began in Glenn Innes on Taniwha street. It’s pretty horrible to see what has been happening there over the past 5-10 years with all of the state housing being moved. The state house that I grew up in is actually one of those that have been taken away.
My mother had me on her own when she was twenty years old, I still tell people now that she would probably be the prime minister if she hadn’t had me. She’s a brilliant writer and the first poet I ever knew. When I was around two years old she got a diploma in journalism and began writing for The Sun. There’s photos of me tearing around the newsroom and sitting on people’s knee at the typewriter giving it my best shot, so I was surrounded by that world from a very young age. I never saw the community I was coming from as a defect or a disadvantage.
When I was five years old we moved to Ponsonby where I was one of a handful of brown children at my school. My understanding of the world was still very much about family, living for others and seeing the beauty from perspectives that are not just your own, so even then I didn’t realise there was a difference.
I feel as though I got the best childhood from being around so many different creatives. We mostly lived with Pacific artists around the city, so while I was growing up I was being shaped by quite a collective culture. I don’t know any other creatives now who can say that Black Grace had some of their very first rehearsals in their living room, which was the case for me. My mother didn’t want me to miss out on anything, so I had the swimming lessons, the drama classes and guitar lessons, but I know that she worked a lot harder to make those things happen for me.
When I was seven years old my mum went back to university and got her Bachelor’s Degree. She took me to so many lecturers and I absolutely loved them! I’d leave notes for the lectures – ‘great simile but speak up,’ slow down you’re reading too fast,’ so in a lot of ways where I am now isn’t the biggest surprise. I’ve been cultivated to become an artist so it was never a question of whether I would or wouldn’t, it was more about what kind of artist I would be.
We lived with Pauly Fuemana from OMC, the guy behind ‘How Bizzare,’ various actors, dancers, people working at TVNZ and they all had a different gift for me. I was always the only child around so they would constantly funnel their knowledge through to me. My grandparents would tell my mother that we can live with them so they can help her out, but she always had a different vision for her life that she was willing to work hard for which really helped me understand that it often takes a lot more than people see. It’s really taxing, unrelenting and no one is going to pat you on the back and say it’s awesome that you just slogged your guts out yet again, but it is the kind of person that it makes you into which is worth it. I think that when you’re working really hard and coming from a place where you know that you don’t have all of these resources to fall back on, you’re very open.
I got into speeches while I was in primary school and that’s when I got a taste for public speaking which has of course flowed into my poetry work now as I get to recite and perform my work. My very first performance giving a speech was a total flunk. I had written about my desk but the teacher went and moved all of the desks around over night so when I got to school the next day my entire speech was redundant. The whole thing came out as absolute nonsense and no one clapped, not even the teacher. At the end of that day I waited around until everybody had left and begged the teacher to give me another chance. So I went home and wrote a brand new speech and rehearsed it to death that night and first thing the next morning before delivering it. It ended up being an amazing speech and I actually got through into the finals.
After that experience I made a pact with myself that the work I put out has to be important to me and come from an authentic place, because there’s jut not enough of that voice in the world. If people like my work that’s a bonus, but I’m not putting it out there to be liked. I’m not getting any gratification from whether or not someone says they like what I do. Obviously it’s great when readers or audience members understand and enjoy the message I’m putting out there, but I think I learnt from a young age that life can’t be about external gratification because if my worth depends of someone else liking me or something that I’m delivering then I can’t be happy on my own. I see a lot of people in the public eye who constantly ask if you like what they’re putting out there or if it reflects what you expect from them and while I’m not judging anyone else’s process, I know that’s not sustainable. If it’s a passion and you want to play the long game then what you do has to come from somewhere that is unshakeable.
I have doubts sometimes too. Creating work now is really different to what it felt like when I was in my late teens and early twenties. On my first day of university I was standing outside looking around at all of the students and it hit me in a really concrete way that I don’t have connections or money like they do. If this doesn’t go well for me I can’t just go and work at my dad’s firm. If I don’t make this count in some way then my life post university won’t be like theirs because they just have so many safety nets.
I think it’s constantly a major struggle when you’re a writer because the process can feel quite lonely, you really have to be very disciplined. The greatest challenge that I’ve had to overcome on a daily basis, however, is severe endometriosis. I live with chronic pain which often comes with feeling low. It’s not just a challenge of getting my work published, or getting it out there, it’s sometimes just even summoning the strength to be present. I’ve had a lot of readings over the years where I’m in immense pain, but I’m so determined and committed that I’m not willing to let even the worst pain imaginable own me or claim me. It’s something I’ve opened up to talking about over the past few years, just getting the message out there to other women that they’re not alone, you’re not going crazy and your pain is real.
New Zealand is already a hard country to get published in and there’s disgusting statistics for Maori and Pacific literature. At best, three percent of fiction and poetry published annually is written by Pacific and Maori writers and that’s hugely problematic. It means that the New Zealand story we’re putting out there isn’t coming from all of New Zealand. It’s not representative as it’s only coming from a very small portion of our country’s people. It’s also an issue because when you can’t see yourself out there in the books that you’re reading and the television that you’re watching, part of your starts to question if you’re from an invisible community.
I’ve had so many conversations with women around the world about not getting boxed in. At the beginning you don’t want to be a woman writer because you have this notion of wanting to be judged and respected on the merit of your writing. In the world right now there are so many more women in arts degrees and coming through creative writing schools. There are more women writing and submitting manuscripts and there’s more women readers than male – we all know these things to be true, but on that journey there comes a point where for some reason it is men that get published over and over again and it is their voices that are celebrated, archived and made into history. So over time you come to understand that being a writer, being published and heard as a woman is so powerful and owning and claiming that does something for you on another level that you almost can’t articulate.
I want the world to be a bit smoother, especially for young creative women. There are a lot of amazing voices out there but most people don’t realise that the first person that has to support you is yourself. It is incredible what spending a little bit of your energy on someone else can do. Making myself accessible to others, nurturing them and being there to read their work if they’re ever feeling doubtful is far more important to me than a commercial opportunity, or someone buying my book.
I’ve met so many young people while travelling over the past seven years and I’m still in contact with a lot of them. I’m used to giving workshops here in New Zealand where young writers goals are to be published or have their books in libraries, but in a mountain village in Indonesia where there’s one toilet and flies all over the food, I had young people telling me they really want to be wise and have a story that is worth sharing. They have such a different narrative and view and it’s connections and experiences like these that constantly shape and change our work. I’ve come to learn that real strength and leadership is often quiet and unseen.
I moved to London in 2013 and came back home in 2014 feeling like a very different person. I became a commercial accounts executive living in this financial world where I was just about as far from my voice as I could possibly be. I decided to take in the experiences while I was there and came back to write a new book of short stories which became The Tale Of The Taniwha. A lot of people think that I’m actually telling the tale of a real taniwha, but really I’m paying homage to Taniwha street where my life began back in Glenn Innes.
I’ve had people say to me that the book really pushes the envelope and while they love it there’s no narrative, it’s too challenging to read, there’s too much poetry in the writing or it’s not what they were expecting from me. Truthfully I love all of those responses because none of them are right, just like none of them are wrong. I don’t think you ever want to get to a point in your life where you’re looking at a body of words and all you can think of is whether it’s short fiction or poetry. If you are at that point with your own experiences around you then have a break. When writing that book I was more interested in capturing life as I feel it happens to me. It’s messy, incomplete and unresolved. I find it hard with a lot of literature that exists with a narrative arc and you go to sleep with a nice and calm stomach because the characters got back together in the end. That’s all good and well, but there’s so much beauty in the mess and chaos and things being jagged or not quite working out.
My involvement in the Pride Festival this year really comes back to the Same Same But Different Festival which is a queer literary festival. I was included in the festival last year around this time and was then asked by the Artistic Director Peter Wells if I would like to join the board this year.
I see the Pride Festival more as a celebration than the changing of attitude. I think about Pride as this special time where everyone in the Rainbow Community, however they identify, can just really celebrate who they are. Of course you can own it every day of the year, but Pride is special because you can celebrate with your friends, go these shows and just really immerse yourself in a queer world. Knowing the kind of struggle that the Rainbow Community has gone through to get to this point, there’s still so much celebrating to do.
As a bisexual woman I’ve always found it hard and I’ve been really honest and open about that fact, because you don’t often feel queer enough or like you truly belong. Especially where I am now, I’ve got this lovely boyfriend so whenever people see us together they naturally assume that I’m straight. He’s straight, but I’m not and for me that’s never going to end. It has been really neat to speak out for bisexual women and just talk about how important it is to celebrate being bi and the fact that it is real, you’re not just stuck between these two worlds or being greedy. There’s a lot of horrible stereotypes that you hear about bisexuality from ‘it’s a phase,’ to ‘it’s not a real orientation,’ but there are real people living these real lives where they are bisexual. I’ve had so many people over the years, both gay and straight say to me, ‘just pick a camp..’ Don’t you think I would have done that by now if that was the answer?
Gender politics in New Zealand are second to none. We can think something is backwards, but if you go overseas you see how backward it can be. The strength of women in New Zealand really inspires me. Whilst New Zealand definitely has Tall Poppy Syndrome and being a high achiever is still something our country is getting used to, I love that if you want something in New Zealand you can actually make it happen. With hard work, tenacity and some determination there’s nothing that you can’t do in this country.
I do think that we are quite hard on our young people though. We all know that you really have to go overseas to prove yourself. We’re good at sending people out into the world to earn their stripes and then welcoming them back with open arms once they’ve proven they’ve got something great to contribute. Whereas in America you can really feel the difference with the way that young people dream, think and feel. It’s very different to the kiwi narrative, but that’s also what makes us so endearing. As a nation we are very modest and humble but we’re also quite brilliant.
One thing I always tell my students is that if you want to be a great writer you have to have something great to write about. What that means is your writing process should be 90% living and 10% writing. If you’re not feeling things, seeing things, pushing yourself, researching and questioning everything in your life then you can only bring to the page what you have inside of you. So to young women who are trying to work that out inside of themselves and thinking about what comes next, if you can let where you are be okay, then your writing will unfold with ease. We all struggle, but learn to let the challenges and obstacles work for you rather than against you. This is the same sun that shone down of Shakespeare, it’s the same story for each of us. There is no such thing as perfect conditions within which to create.