Monday, December 12, 2016

Fiji: Black Ice Matter, by Gina Cole

I thought it wouldn't be too difficult too find fiction from Fiji, given that it is one of the larger Pacific nations. It turns out I was wrong. While there are a number of well-known Samoan authors, Fiji was proving far more elusive. Our library had two books - Peter Thomson's memoir Kava in the Blood, which Ann Morgan read for her year long project, and a poetry collection The Lives of Coathangers by Sudesh Mishra.

I felt there should be something else out there - then I came across publicity for the release of Gina Cole's collection of short stories, published by Huia Publishers. Gina Cole is described variously on the sites I found, as either "of Fijian, Scottish and Welsh heritage but identifying most strongly with her Fijian heritage", or more simply, Fijian. I was unable to find where she was born or how long she has lived in New Zealand, where she now lives and works as a lawyer, and has studied creative writing. However, I decided that this book was as good as I was going to find for Fiji in the meantime.

Given that the Fijian link is strong in the book, and Fiji is a tropical nation, there is also a surprising amount of ice in the stories. There are glaciers, black ice making roads treacherous, the art of ice sculpture, and a story simply called "Ice" which turns out to be the drug ice, or crystal methamphetamine. Despite this repeating motif, the stories are wonderfully varied. Some are set in Fiji, others are set in New Zealand with characters of Fijian origin, and one is set in a Chinese factory and written in the voice of a young girl making Barbie doll costumes for export to the west. Nearly all are original and surprising. I loved "Till" in which a Fijian glaciologist falls into a crevasse and discovers something unexpected. (How does a Fijian become a glaciologist? "At the end of high school, he joined the other students in his year clamouring to escape the suffocating coup culture of Fiji. They hawked their prodigious intellects around the universities with no embargoes on Fijian students" - in this case, developing his maths talents at the university of Sapporo, in Hokkaido).

It wasn't the many occurences of ice that struck me as repetitive - rather, the positioning of a story "Rabbit Shoot", immediately after "Pigeon Shoot". While they are somewhat different stories, I felt the book would have been strengthened by omitting one - probably the first. Even though it was the more "Fijian" of the two, I found "Rabbit Shoot" more compelling. This was a minor quibble.

However, when I came to the story "Home Detention", I found myself constantly picking holes in the author's veracity. Although the city isn't named, this is clearly set in Christchurch - the very specific time 12.51 gives it away, and the phrase "threatening to fall in every aftershock since the big one had hit five months ago". This is set in the earthquake of February 22nd 2011, which followed the earlier quake of September 4th, 2010. And as soon as I read "it should have stopped after a few minutes, but it kept on going", I couldn't stop myself from looking for errors. For a start, the quake lasted around forty seconds, not minutes. (The more recent Kaikoura quake took about two minutes, and that was a very long shake). Then, I felt that there were far too many houses that were completely falling apart - all the worst damage crammed for the convenience of the story into one or two streets. But the clincher was when Lucas reached the police station and found it had caved in. In fact, the police headquarters was still usable for some months after the quakes, although the police did eventually move out and the building was demolished. Granted, it is fiction, but it was a real event in which 189 people lost their lives, and I felt the facts were twisted a little too much in order to suit the story. It also made me wonder where else the facts might have been twisted, though when I checked some other stories they seemed to be accurate enough - in particular in the last story in the collection, where Rena comes from Rabi - an island I had never heard of, but which turns out to be a real island in Fiji, with some interesting history as the place of resettlement of the inhabitants of Banaba (also a real island).

In any case, "Home Detention" is a good story, but I felt that it would be improved by fictionalizing the quake more, and setting it, say, in a future earthquake in Wellington (where a large quake has long been thought to be overdue).

"Black Ice Matter" is Gina Cole's first book, and I am looking forward to what she may write next.

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