Q&A with Courtney Sina Meredith
Talanoa with Tautai’s Director and Sāmoan poet Tusiata Avia
Courtney Sina Meredith: The year was 2008, I was a 22 year old newbie poet and I’d gone along to ‘Polynation’ at the Going West Books and Writers Festival in Titirangi to bear witness to some of my favourite Pasifika writers. I was already a big fan of Tusiata Avia’s work but I had never seen her perform live. She emerged about halfway through the programme, with her hair up in a gorgeous outfit, and she was unashamedly and completely herself. She owned it. Tusiata didn’t shape her words around the page, I was convinced the page bent with the heat of her verse.
Of course I hung around afterwards like the excited young blood I was, and as a student of Selina Tusitala Marsh’s I was brought into the tight circle of goddesses hanging out by the stage that included the likes of Karlo Mila and Serie Barford. Selina introduced me to everyone and I remember turning to Tusiata and telling her that I thought her work was amazing. She turned back and said – without missing a beat – that she’d heard of me and she was sure my writing would take me to New York one day.
Fast forward seven years and I found myself working alongside her in Creative Arts at Manukau Institute of Technology. We worked together for over two years which was a dream, and in that time I was privileged to truly get to know her and her wonderful daughter Sepela. I find it hard to describe Tusiata without using the word ‘magical’, she has an extraordinary power completely unto herself that transcends time and space – collapsing the distance between herself and the reader, or herself and the audience, until you feel as though you are nestled in her ribcage while the power of her poetry moves through you.
True to Tusiata’s vision, I did make it to New York with my poetry. Magic happens when great leaders take the time to believe in the young people around them. The following talanoa honours our community by hearing directly from Tusiata with her thoughts and contemplations during lockdown. She continues to be an urgent and prominent voice within literature and performance in Aotearoa and beyond.
CSM: Firstly, where are you in lockdown and who’s in your bubble?
TA: I’m in Christchurch where I live and am in lockdown with my 12 year old daughter and my 86 year old mum. We are a small bubble, but certainly not the smallest.
CSM: How are you feeling about the pandemic and what’s helping to get you through this extraordinary time?
TA: I experience varying degrees of anxiety depending on how trapped/ paralysed or managing-to-cope I’m feeling on the day. Sometimes I can listen to the PM’s updates and news re Covid and sometimes, to keep myself sane, I need to block it out and concentrate on getting through the next 2 minutes. In the last couple of days I’ve been doing virtual yoga with my friend online and that has helped hugely.
CSM: Are you finding inspiration in the new normal?
TA: Hmm, I wouldn’t exactly call it inspiration, I’ve got more to say on that in the last question.
CSM: How has the lockdown impacted on your craft?
TA: I work from home anyway, but I generally don’t do well alone. I’m very much like my dad in this way, I need to be around people, I am not a loner who is happy in my own company for more than a very short time. I think that’s also a common Sāmoan/ Pasifika way to be. Writing is traditionally such a solo art-form so I’m always looking for ways to do it in community: writing groups, being with other creatives as much as possible etc. In normal life, I usually write in cafes so I can be around people. I only really write at home when I’m drastically behind on a deadline or have to work at early hours of the morning. So, being stuck at home has meant my work has slowed right down. I’ve only written 3 new poems (one about Corona and I’ve lost the damn thing!). I know some artists are just loving all the time and space to themselves to work and are just pumping out stuff – I am not one of them.
CSM: What are you reading, listening to, or watching right now?
TA: I’ve been reading a heap of novels – I love the novel’s ability to take me out of this world into another one. Also the poetry of Joy Harjo, who is also the current – and first ever – indigenous American Poet Laureate. She is one of my favourite poets. I’ve just finished her memoir ‘Crazy Brave‘ – fantastic. I’m watching comedies, anything that can make me laugh – ‘Man Down‘ is working quite well at the moment. My daughter and I have gone hard on ‘Laughing Samoans’ and every night is movie night with her, so lots of kids stuff.
CSM: What are you looking forward to most once the country is back in good health?
TA: My daughter going back to school! That will be a huge relief for both of us – we’re driving each other mental! And of course, getting out of the damn house and being with my friends and family – face to actual beautiful face.
CSM: Is there anything else you want to share directly with other Pasifika creatives?
TA: I’d like to encourage any Pasifika creatives that are struggling. If you’re finding it hard to produce work please know that you’re in good company. I’m guessing that I’m not the only one finding it hard to work atm. Just do what you can manage, even if it’s just having a shower and brushing your teeth. That’s a win! I’m reminding you – and myself – that our creativity is a mysterious thing, it might not feel like anything is happening right now, that you are ‘wasting’ all this lockdown time. I encourage you to trust that your creative work will not disappear just because you may not be overflowing with inspiration and/ or the energy to make it into a physical thing. For some of us it is just underground, and that is an important place to work from when we are ready.