Octavia Cade

Pasifika Futurism and Indigenous Ocean/Spaces: an interview with Gina Cole

 

Headland editor Gina Cole is the author of the short story collection Black Ice Matter and the speculative fiction novel Na Viro. She is interviewed by Octavia Cade. 

 

Octavia: Hi Gina! I remember first hearing about Na Viro when I was on a panel with you at CoNZealand, back in 2020 I think. You described your (what was then upcoming) novel as “Fijian Women in Space” and it made me want to read it immediately. How did the novel come about, and what were your main science fiction influences on the book?

Gina: I’m a science fiction nerd. I grew up in the 1970s watching a lot of science fiction programmes on television. My favourite was Star Trek because of Lieutenant Uhura and Nichelle Nicolls who played her. She was a communications officer on the starship Enterprise and she was in constant dialogue with the Captain. 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 white. But I didn’t see any other black women in science fiction or anywhere else in cultural production at that time in Aotearoa that I was aware of as a young person. And so Lieutenant Uhura made a big impression on me and I have loved science fiction ever since.

When I came to write my PhD I wanted to look specifically at science fiction written by Pacific writers. What I found is that there is not much science fiction by Pacific writers and very little set in space.  So I had to look to overseas writers. I discovered Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurism. Those genres inspired me to come up with what I call “Pasifikafuturism” which is basically science fiction written by Pacific writers, featuring Pacific culture, principles and values, and aimed at a Pacific audience and anyone else interested in reading science fiction from a Pacific Ocean point of view.  My novel Na Viro is a work of Pasifikafuturism. 

Octavia: One of the most interesting elements of Na Viro, for me, was the role of the Academy. We tend to think of academic institutions as places of knowledge and exploration, and there’s a temptation to believe that these characteristics are somehow ring-fenced from politics, or that they’re somehow more publicly accountable than private institutions for their decision-making. This isn’t actually true, unfortunately, and certainly, the Academy is the source of some pretty unethical behaviour. Can you tell us a little about how the connection between academia and exploitation came about in Na Viro?  

The Academy in Na Viro is an educational organisation that has taken over the role of governing and it is basically a corrupt colonising force using all the research and resources available to it to further this aim in the galaxy. 

Octavia: In the novel, in opposition to the Academy on an institutional level is the Global Indigenous Alliance (GIA), which Tia is so excited to join. There is not as much focus on the GIA, as Tia is rapidly forced into another path, but what is your feeling about how the GIA approaches exploration and knowledge-gathering? Tia’s interested in mapping ocean currents, so I’m interested in the different approaches to science that you see both the GIA and the Academy taking.

Gina: The GIA is an organisation that is governed and run along the lines of Indigenous cultural principles, practices and values. It is not so much focused on “exploration” with all the attendant coloniality of the doctrine of discovery. It is more focused on working in harmony with the environment. And so, it is a force at odds with the Academy’s ethos of colonising other planets and plundering their resources. The GIA does not want to go out into the galaxy and colonise other planets and other beings. It is more engaged with the Pacific Ocean as a biotic entity, and mapping and preserving naturally occurring elements of the ocean—the water, currents and sea life for the mutual benefit of the environment and the people that live there. 

Octavia: Tia’s reluctance to leave Earth for deep space assignments is an often unusual reaction in science fiction, where characters are frequently more interested in the exploration of “over-there” rather than “right-here”. Why do you think this is, and which would you rather explore?

Gina: Tia believes that humans have no place in space and need to stay on earth. Of course, that view is completely overturned when she is required to fly into space to save her sister from a whirlpool. And having been trained at the Academy as a spaceship pilot she is well placed to fly into space once she overcomes her fear.

And as to why science fiction wants to explore “over-there”, historically science fiction began at the time of European colonisation of the Pacific. European colonists portrayed the Pacific to their audience in Europe as exotic isles in “a far flung sea”, full of fierce cannibals who engaged in strange tattooing practices and homosexuality. These stories were propagated in speculative fiction of the time. For example, Daniel Defoe’s 18th century homoerotic novel The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe presents colonial tropes of cannibalism and slavery. Ballantyne’s 19th century novel The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean invokes “ferocious savages” and “Feejee islanders” with cannibalistic appetites.

The publication of this type of speculative fiction, replete with racist colonial themes and bloodthirsty imperialism, fed European reading audiences hungry for the colonial adventure ethos and played an integral part in what Tracey Banivanua-Mar calls the “cultural cartography” underpinning colonisation and life at the colonial frontier in the Pacific.

It was in this time of literary service to the furtherance and justification of colonial incursion into the Pacific and other Indigenous lands that science fiction appeared. Anishinaabe scholar Grace Dillon notes that science fiction emerged in the “mid-19th century context of evolutionary theory and anthropology profoundly intertwined with colonial ideology”. Dillon writes that, historically, science fiction “has tended to disregard varieties of space-time thinking of traditional societies” and to narrate the atrocities of colonialism as “adventure stories”.

Accordingly, the exploration of “over-there” rather than “right-here” is embedded in the historical beginnings of the science fiction genre. I think there is plenty to learn about right here on Earth.  

Octavia: Tia and Leilani’s relationship with their mother Dani is influenced not only by Dani’s abandonment of them but by her unethical practices, most of which derive from the Academy and their focus on the prioritisation and exploration (and exploitation) of “over-there”. How difficult was it to develop this fractured relationship, especially as Dani is so very unsympathetic?  

Gina: I really enjoyed the challenge of writing about the fractured relationship between the two sisters and their mother. In fact, I originally made Dani even more evil and unforgiving. I had to tone her down a bit and make her more human.

Octavia: Much of the moving through landscape, whether ocean or space, in Na Viro comes in the form of sail-craft or ships. From the kauri-carved drua to the almost sentient Pawta, the development and interaction with ships is so constant that those vessels are essentially characters and personalities themselves. This isn’t exactly unusual in science fiction, but that Tia spends so much time in ocean-based and spaced-based craft is. She’s basically competent in thousands of years of technology at once and that’s an incredible thing. The adaptability of innovation and heritage is such a consistent part of the novel—can you tell us a little bit about why this is such a focus for you?

Gina: I did a lot of research into Indigenous Pacific Cultural practices of building waka or waqa or drua (ocean-going canoes). I wanted to showcase and incorporate those practices into Na Viro. And allied to waka building is the art of celestial navigation or wayfinding. Wayfinding is the ability to navigate across the ocean using the stars, the moon, the sun, the planets and everything in the Pacific Ocean environment including waves, currents, animals, clouds, wind etc to enable you to travel across the sea to reach your destination, even though that may be below the horizon and not visible. That’s how my ancestors navigated across the sea hundreds of years ago. I use wayfinding in Na Viro as a way of travelling not only in waka on the ocean but also in spaceships and as a model for leadership.

I also researched the Pacific concept of the “vā”. Albert Wendt has defined the vā as “the space between”. The vā can be the space between two people or two islands or two planets. In Pacific culture, the vā is not empty space, but a space of connection and it needs to be cared for and nurtured.

I also wanted to include Epeli Hauofa’s concept of the Pacific as a “sea of islands”—meaning we are all connected.

I researched all these concepts and took them up into space as a sky of islands or a galaxy of islands or a universe of islands.

I wanted to look at space as a metaphor for the ocean and vice versa. There is an ocean in space and a galaxy in the ocean.

Octavia: The Pacific environment of Na Viro is distinctly different from that of today, with climate change and sea level rise having altered the landscape and made some existing islands uninhabitable. Science fiction is often a means of imagining possible futures, and yours indicates a history of refugee settlements and water wars, the inundation of islands. How much of an influence did existing patterns of climate change have on Na Viro, and how do you think environmental and social change will impact those of us who live in the Pacific?

Gina: The story is essentially post-apocalyptic in that it is set in a time where sea level rise has happened and many Pacific islands have been inundated. But it is also set in a future time where there have been incredible leaps forward in space travel and artificial intelligence. The post-apocalyptic focus is an understandable one for me as an Indigenous Pacific woman because it reflects our colonial past and its ongoing effects on Indigenous peoples in the present. This thematic approach towards the apocalypse is a turn towards an allegorical Indigenous navigation of the last 500 years of brutal colonialism and imperialism, which continues into the present day. As Daniel Heath Justice writes, “Our apocalypse isn’t a singular event, it’s an ongoing and relentless process, not unlike settler colonialism itself”. In Na Viro I wanted to shift the focus slightly from “the apocalypse” to Indigenous technologies and science fiction set in space, encompassing space travel and Pacific science and technology.

Octavia: Keleni comments at one point, “We’re hoping our islands will all come back one day.” This strikes me as particularly illuminating given the environmental changes that we’re all seeing now and which we’re likely to continue seeing in the future—the devastation and loss of beloved and familiar landscapes. It fits in well with the growing focus in literature on the emotional response to climate change. How do you navigate this response yourself, and how has that impacted on the relationship between character and setting in the novel?

Gina: The hope that Keleni expresses is based on a view that we, Indigenous Pacific people, will be here in the future and we will survive and our survival is directly linked to our islands. We only need to look at what happened during the Covid lockdowns when the damaging effects of human incursions into the environment were paused briefly and eco-systems recovered at an incredible rate. So, it does seem possible that the Earth can heal from the trauma we humans are inflicting upon her. The characters in the novel are living in a world where the focus on travelling into space in the quest to colonise other planets for their resources is replicating the same kind of exploitation and devastation that has already happened to the Earth. I guess Keleni is voicing the hope that even though humans repeat the same mistakes, the Earth will endure, and the islands will come back.

 

Na Viro 

Huia Press 2022

 

Works Cited

Banivanua-Mar, Tracey. "Cannibalism and Colonialism: Charting Colonies and Frontiers in Nineteenth-Century Fiji." Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 52, no. 2, 2010, pp. 255-281.

Dillon, Grace, editor. Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. University of Arizona Press, 2012.

Hau'ofa, Epeli. "Our Sea of Islands." A New Oceania: Rediscovering Our Sea of Islands, edited by Eric Waddell et al., The University of the South Pacific, 1993, pp. 2-16.

Justice, Daniel Heath. Why Indigenous Literatures Matter. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2018.

Wendt, Albert. "Towards a New Oceania." Mana Review, vol. 1, no. 1, 1976, pp. 49-60.Pasifika 

 

 

Photo credit: Vicky Leopold





Octavia Cade

Octavia Cade is a New Zealand speculative fiction writer. She has a PhD in science communication, and a particular interest in climate fiction. She's currently the recipient of a Creative NZ grant to write a magical realist novel about the aftermath of the Rainbow Warrior bombing. Her latest book, You Are My Sunshine and Other Stories, was published in 2023 by Stelliform Press.