WOMEN OF THE ISLANDS - GINA COLE
Decorated Fijian Writer and Lawyer Gina Cole will be spending three months at the University of Hawai’i, working on the second book in her 'Turukawa Trilogy', after being awarded the 2023 Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer's Residency.
After achieving her Masters in Creative Writing at Auckland University, Cole went on to publish her debut collection Black Ice Matter, which then went on to win the First Best Book Of Fiction at the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, all while being an Honorary Fellow in Writing at the University of Iowa.
Cole shares her love for science fiction, the Pasifika Writing Community and the involvement of Pacific queer, transgender and gender non-conforming characters in stories.
Tell us about yourself
My mother is Fijian from Culanuku, Serua on her mother’s side in the confederacy of Burebasaga, and Lovoni, Ono-i-Lau on her father’s side in the confederacy of Tovata. My father is Pākehā from the Firth of Forth in Edinburgh on his mother’s side and Langollen, Wales on his father’s side.
I was born and raised in Auckland although some of my early childhood was spent living at various lighthouses where my father worked as a lighthouse keeper. We lived at Cape Campbell, Farewell Spit and Cape Reinga. All beautiful and remote places in coastal Pacific Ocean settings that have had a profound effect on me and often find their way into my writing.
I travelled a lot to Fiji as a young person and stayed with my grandparents in Suva. My grandmother also came to stay with us several times when we lived at the lighthouses. They’re all gone now, but my grandparents still have a huge influence on me and my writing.
Where did your passion for writing come from?
Writing is something I have always done as a creative way to express my emotions and for fun. I think it started when I was four. My father was a lighthouse keeper at Farewell Spit lighthouse. We lived at the end of the spit in a weatherboard house next to the lighthouse. There was no school there so my mother taught me by correspondence school. I think because my mother taught me how to read and write, I came to think they were a natural thing that everybody did and I never stopped.
Your previous work delves into the Fijian experience, of note is your 2022 novel ‘Na Viro’, that takes this further and explores what the Fijian experience can look like in a sci-fi future. Where did the inspiration for Pasifikafuturism come from?
I am a real science fiction nerd. I grew up in the 1970s watching a lot of science fiction programs on TV like Star Trek, The Land of the Giants, Lost in Space, Dr Who, Flash Gordon, Get Smart, Time Tunnel, I Dream of Jeannie.
My favourite was Star Trek. I was a real fan of Lieutenant Uhura because she was a black woman and she was a communications officer on the Starship Enterprise and she was in constant dialogue with Captain Kirk. It wasn’t unusual for me to see a black woman and a white man in conversation because my mother is Fijian and my father is Pākehā. But I didn’t see any other women of colour anywhere else in cultural production at that time. So Star Trek and Nichelle Nicols who played Lt Uhura, made a real impression on me as a young person.
I have loved science fiction ever since.
In 2017 when I enrolled to do a PhD in creative writing at Massey University, I decided to write a thesis on science fiction. In my research I discovered Afrofuturism, which includes science fiction written by African American writers, and Indigenous Futurism which includes science fiction written by First Nations peoples from America. Those genres inspired me to formulate a genre of science fiction fantasy which I call Pasifikafuturism. Which is basically science fiction written by Pasifika writers, featuring Pacific characters and Pacific culture, for a Pacific audience and anyone else interested in science fiction from an Indigenous Pacific Ocean point of view. My novel Na Viro is a science fiction fantasy work of Pasifikafuturism about a young Fijian, Tongan, Majuran woman who flies into space to save her sister from a whirlpool.
How has being Pacific Islander influenced the genres in which you write?
I am a Pacific Island, queer, second-generation immigrant New Zealander; part of the Pasifika diaspora in Aotearoa. In my writing I swim in this constantly shifting pool of identity, navigating many currents in order to write my “self” into existence.
My own family histories are a useful prism through which to view the complexities of storytelling as a diasporic Fijian. While I recognise and acknowledge my Pākehā whakapapa, I identify most strongly with my Fijian ancestry. I was born and raised here in the Pacific and my sense of belonging and place is in the Pacific rather than in Northern Europe. This cultural identification casts me into waters where I must navigate the liminality, the “between-ness” of being mixed-race. My Fijian self-identity flows from the islands of Fiji, from the strong threads of my whakapapa rooted in Fijian soil, and it is my Fijian identity that informs my writing.
Several Pasifika cultural practices and principles underpin my science fiction writing. My formulation of Pasifikafuturism is informed by Pasifika cultural practices of waka building and wayfinding celestial navigation together with the Indigenous Pasifika perspective of the vast Pacific Ocean as a ‘sea of islands’ and the concept of the vā or the space between. In my writing of Pasifikafuturist fiction, such as my novel Na Viro, I take these cultural practices and principles up into space, into ‘a sky of islands’ or a ‘galaxy of islands’ or even a ‘universe of islands’, where interstellar space is a future setting for our Pacific cultural practice of wayfinding navigation, a way of travelling through space and a model for leadership.
What does it mean for you to have received the 2023 Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer's Residency?
Being the recipient of the Fulbright CNZ Pacific Writers Residency is so important to me. I know it will have a positive impact on my writing. I’m looking forward to spending time in the Pacific, immersed in a Pacific Island sensibility, on Hawaiian whenua – as well as having access to the university resources and meeting the Indigenous community of writers and artists in Hawai’i.
It will be an inspiring place for me to live when I’m writing about Pacific culture. I know the experience will feed into my writing and deepen the ideas I am developing about imagining the future from an Indigenous Pacific Ocean point of view.
And lastly, what is your hope for future Fijian authors?
My hope for future Fijian authors is that they will keep writing and publishing our stories.