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Secret World of Butterflies: An Interview with Courtney Sina Meredith

Kevin Rabalais

The mysterious world of the butterfly, which tastes with its feet and drinks the tears of crocodiles, unfolds in a beautiful new book by Courtney Sina Meredith and Giselle Clarkson. Courtney spoke to Amanda Jane Robinson about writing Secret World Of Butterflies (Allen and Unwin, 2018).

Why did you decide to write a children’s book now?

I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book. I still have most of my collection from when I was a kid. I’ve tried to write a couple of children’s stories in the past and then realised it’s actually this really hard thing to crack - I had no idea that breaking into that market is actually not an easy thing to do. I guess I always hoped I’d get to do one a little later on in my career – and then the stars aligned, because I’ve worked with the museum previously and they rang me up about late last year like, ‘Hey, we’ve got this really amazing concept, we’re opening this beautiful butterfly exhibition next June and we want to launch a kids book alongside it and we would like you to write it, how do you feel about that?’ and I was like ‘That’s amazing!’ Now it’ll go next to this humongous private butterfly collection.

What was your relationship like with the illustrator, Giselle Clarkson?

Meeting her was best thing about this whole project. We get on really well, we’re definitely in that best friends circle with each other now. She flew up and we met with the museum team and Allen and Unwin. By then I already had a concept in my mind of what I might like to do, and she and I had our own little coffee and just thrashed it out a bit and talked about things we both thought would work – and then a lot of emails and phone calls and Facebook messaging, a lot of back and forth.

I was really invested in making sure that Giselle had a lot of freedom and creative agency. Apparently our process was really strange; apparently most writers and illustrators don’t meet each other, or they do after the fact. That would be strange. We’re full on about the whole team thing, but apparently there are a lot of other processes where it’s quite separate, so I think we were lucky. It’s been special.

What were some of your favourite books as a child?

I really love the Jolly Postman series, I’m going to be honest. It just felt super super magical. But then I have to balance it with an awesome local one too, like The Kuia and the Spider.

Were you thinking about subtext and messaging while writing this book?

Heaps of children’s books can have strong feminist messaging. Giselle and I did some cool, pretty woke things with it. I’m pretty sure everyone in there is a person of colour, except for maybe like, the dad in the distance, but then it’s obvious that the mum would be of colour.

We were pretty invested in showing that butterflies aren’t just pretty, they’re really courageous and awesome. I guess I did have that in the back of my head. Butterflies aren’t just decorative, and that messaging goes across when you think about how young women are socialised. We’re not just pretty, we’re also very powerful.

You’ve written poetry, short stories, fiction and non-fiction, and now a children’s book. Do you always know the form when you have an idea for a work?

At the beginning I just promised myself I’d keep evolving and keep moving, just following the trail of a new idea. I don’t always know what it will be. I just keep challenging myself and have a lot of fun with it. I mean, I say that knowing these processes are very stressful. But there’s that kind of fun part too, where you’re discovering something different about your process and yourself and the things that intrigue you. I’m interested to create and write all sorts of different things. That comes back to who I am as a person: I want to see different places, I want to meet different people, I want to try different food.

What do you keep around you when you write?

My mother, definitely. She manages me and she’s my editor and she’s my mum and she’s my hero. Before I take anything on, I’ll talk to her first and try to plan it out and give myself a little bit of shape to the project, so it doesn’t just feel like I’m in a big black hole of who knows what. Mum says great things. The line that comes back to me again and again is ‘Don’t get snagged’. She’s like ‘You’re not a cashmere sweater, don’t get snagged. Life is full of rusty nails, you just have to keep pushing forward.’

I’m forever stressed, I’ll just have these big freakouts and she’s like, ‘Sorry, you asked for this. You said you wanted to have a voice, this is what it means, it’s actually a lot of work and a lot of sacrifice.’ She’s pretty hard on me. There’s only about three times in my life where she’s been like, ‘I’m proud of you’. The rest of the time she’ll say, ‘There’s always room for improvement’. She’s like, ‘Head down, focus, you’ve got to deliver on these things and you’ve got to do it with integrity’.

Other things: good dark chocolate, nice perfume, my coffee. And good music! I don’t want to sound like everyone else, but I have been playing ‘This Is America’. I listen to a lot of Unknown Mortal Orchestra as well. I love those guys. Those are things that make you feel like you.


Secret World of Butterflies is released as a companion book to Auckland Museum's free butterfly exhibition, running from June 9 2018.

Around Auckland: Writers Recommend

Kevin Rabalais
One of The Open Book's many rooms

Every day the news covers yet another of Auckland’s problems: traffic, the housing shortage, the ageing and groaning storm water system. Sometimes it would be easy to forget the joyous, gleeful and gritty Auckland that inspires our local writers, artists and creative minds.

The Auckland Writers Festival has just concluded for this year. Dozens of writers poured into Auckland—some of them for the first time—for the Festival, one of the largest events on New Zealand’s literary calendar. Our fantastic local authors were there too—those who know and love our city; those who write in and about it.

I asked three of them to share their favourite places in Auckland, and this is what they said:

Peter Wells, award-winning writer, film writer and director, co-founder of the Auckland Writers Festival

Every morning I go to the strangest place for coffee. This is Browns in Remuera. If as a young man I had thought I would end up in Remuera – posh, elderly – I would have laughed in disbelief. But I ended up living in a beautiful old modernist house in Greenlane and Browns is the nearest good coffee destination. (I start each day’s writing with coffee.) Recently I found I had very serious cancer. Sometimes I could barely walk. A trip to Browns became a voyage to the moon. And as I looked around me at those coiffed, powdered elderly ladies, often with tiny shivering dogs, I knew where I really was: the Upper East Side in NY where the discreet elderly measure their lives in teaspoons.

Anna Livesey, Auckland poet and short story writer, author of Ordinary Time (2017)

Image: Anna LiveseyMy favourite place in Auckland is The Open Book at 201 Ponsonby Road. From the footpath, brick steps lead to the yellow door that is always open. The front room has notable books, biography, cookery. There is a literature room, non-fiction, a kids’ room with an animal rug and toys, popular fiction next to the coffee machine, and, at the back of the shop, the shaded art room has a small table under a window overlooking the garden.

I think of myself as a ‘book person’: a reader, a writer, a book collector. In my younger days I worked as a bookseller, and I often remember the deep contentedness of being always among the books, and the singular joy of finding the right book for a punter, watching them handle it covetously, knowing they would go away and be happy together. These days I make (comparative) bank working in insurance and I have two tiny children and not as much time for books as I would like. The Open Book is a rambling, perfectly curated, always improving, nook-and-cranny joy; a place that treasures brains, beauty and generosity; a haven in which to drink coffee, browse the shelves, play with the typewriter or the piano, listen to readings, chat to the proprietor, sit in the garden; a place to be among the books.

Hemi Kelly, lecturer at AUT in te reo Māori, licensed translator, and author of A Māori Word a Day

When I have visitors from out of town staying, I always make the effort to take them to the summit of Maungawhau (Mt Eden) at night. It might seem unsurprising but the view of the city contours dotted with a million lights is spectacular. I had two friends from Colombia staying recently, so off we went. We parked at the barrier and began our ascent.

Maungawhau is a special place at night without anyone around, you can feel the spirit of the mountain and those who once inhabited its terraces. My ancestor, Te Kawairirangi, was one of those people. He married into the local Waiohua people and lived in the area. In fact, it was here that he met his death at the hands of his wives’ (yes, two) people. The reason has been omitted from the accounts I'm familiar with.

There isn't a lot of lighting on the mountain but the moon was out and the city lights shed enough light on the path ahead. We had walked about 100 meters when a friendly ginger cat made itself known to us. The cat, who I termed our kaitiaki (guardian) walked ahead guiding us, looking back frequently to ensure we were following until we reached the summit. When my friends were ready our kaitiaki accompanied us half way down the mountain before disappearing.

Kaitiaki are all around us and are often represented by birds and animals. In the bustling environment we live in we often neglect to acknowledge their presence, but they are there, even in the form of a friendly ginger cat.

Sia Figiel at the Fale

Kevin Rabalais

On April 18th Sia Figiel made a special afternoon appearance at the University of Auckland. She stood under the curved trusses of the Fale Pasifika at the University of Auckland to talk about her most recent book, Freelove.

‘I am so humbled, and emotional,’ she said, ‘by the generosity of spirit that exists in our Pacific moana.’ She asked New Zealand’s poet laureate, Selina Tusitala Marsh, to stand and join her. ‘Remember,’ she said in acknowledging Selina, ‘This is the daughter of a woman who couldn’t speak English when she arrived in New Zealand.’

Selina brandished her Laureate tokotoko, and the two of them performed Sia’s poem, ‘To a Young Artist in Contemplation’. They spoke in a call and response, their voices echoing each other. Listen, listen, listen. Go back to the sea and scream in silence. In the fale there was enraputured silence. A young woman listened with her head tilted; a row of men nodded. On the deck outside, with a view of the Waitemata, Sia’s brother rocked his young daughter to sleep.

Sia Figiel has been part of the Pacific writing canon since her novel, Where We Once Belonged, won the Best First Book award in the South East Asia/South Pacific region of the 1997 Commonwealth Writers Prize. She read an excerpt from Freelove written in equal parts English and Samoan, a scene in which an inspirational teacher addresses students. During the Q&A, She was asked why so much of her work centres on young female characters.

‘The world came to know Samoa through the eyes of a white woman,’ Sia said, referring to anthropologist Margaret Mead, and her book Coming of Age in Samoa. In her work, Sia wanted to reclaim Samoan agency, the idea of Samoan sexuality. ‘There are so many rules. You can’t even breathe in the direction of a boy, let alone hold his hand.’ But Freelove, she said, would be ‘the last time I will touch this debate. I wanted to portray the insatiable Samoan appetite for learning, the brain as the most important organ. My next book may be on skydiving. I am done with Margaret Mead. And if I write about sex, it will be as a 50 year-old woman. That’s pretty hot.’

Recently Sia added diabetes activist to her list of accomplishments. In 2017 she undertook 2500 miles walk across America further diabetes awareness among Samoan and Pacific communities. Pressed about her next book, she said: ‘I would like to write about people who are not seen, who are never the heroes. About people who are caregivers, as caregiving is at crisis levels in the Pacific.’

She finished with advice for new writers. ‘You have to have an ego,’ she stated,‘because you cannot censor. If you do not have an ego, well, go be a waitress. You just have to believe you are bad-ass!’ But she was cautionary. ‘Not just an ego, you have to have humility. Otherwise no one cares what you have to say. Never forget who you are, or where you come from.’