The Big Idea: Cassie Hart

As a madeleine was to Proust, so was a video game to Cassie Hart: A thing which spurred something inside, which then became art — the novel Butcherbird.


It started in Minecraft. Glancing up from the water between two rows of wheat I was thrown back into my childhood when we used to play hide and seek in the swamp on the family farm.

It started with an ache of longing in my chest for those days, and that land which played such a formative role in who I am both as a person and a writer. There is something fraught and brutal about the environment there: harsh winds, chilly tendrils reaching down from the mountain, a crispness to the air that you don’t find in a lot of places. The way the land rolls, a reminder of when lahars flowed from the mountain, shaping the landscape around it permanently.

The constant reminder that this land is vital, vibrant.

Growing up on the farm grounded me in the beliefs of my culture, the bone deep knowledge that we are descended from the land. She is known as Papatūānuku in Māori culture, where everything comes from the atua (Māori gods). Where we are all connected: people, mountains, rivers, stars, sea, the sky, the land.

There is a concept in our culture called tūrangawaewae. It translates means that you have a place to stand, a place where you belong and is tied into the land. When Aotearoa was colonized, the shape of the country was changed irrevocably. Colonizers fought, stole, claimed land that was not theirs, much of which was siphoned off to farmers – my family among them. It’s a thing that no Māori tribe avoided. This theft of our culture is part of the make-up of our generational trauma.

It’s a weird space to live in when you know that not only are your ancestors the very people who were responsible for this trauma, but that you also have ancestry on the other side of the war as well. You are both aggressor and aggrieved. Descended from the people who benefitted from the violence and colonization of Aotearoa, and also those who were ripped from ancestral lands, forced to give up their (our) language and culture, to assimilate.

I have spent years grappling with the discomfort of holding these two sides of the colonization of Aotearoa New Zealand within me, and that informed and influenced the writing of Butcherbird. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, but such an important one for growth and understanding. For healing.

Trauma in Butcherbird, as in my life, is personal as well as intergenerational. Jena returns to the farm she was born on to dig into her history, to find out the truth about what happened there nearly twenty years ago when her family died.

Walking through the house and the land that she was banished from, she is haunted by ghosts in a literal and figurative sense; walking in both the past, and the present – the future is barely tangible. The only thing that really grounds her is the land beneath her feet, the timeless quality of it, the knowledge that no matter what else happens it will always be there.

Jena needs to reclaim what was hers, in a sense – memories, knowledge, physical objects, connections with those who came before her. It’s a journey that I’ve been walking myself as I reconnect with te ao Māori (the Māori world), and the language that should have been mine from birth. In learning te reo Māori (the Māori language) I’m able to access some of the magic and mana of my people, to find a touchstone, a safe place, somewhere I feel a deep sense of belonging. In Butcherbird, I wanted to explore how Jena could do the same.

Even though my version of the family farm has been sold and I will never walk those fields again, never pick blackberries from the bushes, or explore the reeds in the swamp, it lives on in Butcherbird. That place is Jena’s tūrangawaewae, the place where she can make her stand, discover who she truly is, and reclaim her life.

Sometimes we have to go back, before we can move forward.

Butcherbird is available digitally via universal link, or directly from the Huia website.

Visit the author’s website. Follow the author on Twitter.

2 Comments on “The Big Idea: Cassie Hart”

  1. What are the rules in publishing about title collision? Richard Kadrey had a urban-fantasy novel called Butcher Bird in 2007.

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