Black Ice Matter by Gina Cole (Huia Press, 2016), 250 pp., $30
At the recent Auckland Pride Gala event, Cole read her stories while dressed impeccably in a pale-green suit bearing a world map, and a tangerine shirt. The effect was simultaneously prim and outrageous, Pasifika and a little geeky. ‘Giving the gay men a run for their money?’ I teased. ‘Yes,’ said Cole, with a wry smile. ‘That was the intention.’ I believed her, too, because you sense a similar meticulousness at work in crafting her fiction; sharp prose paired with rich detail, and sudden lyrical beauty.
Black Ice Matter is a careful meditation on mortality and loss, channelled through (mostly) Pasifika characters and the unrelenting presence of ice – in the form (mostly) of glaciers. Cole is New Zealand-born and of Fijian, Scottish and Welsh descent. Her short fiction is remarkably colourful and complex, and often funny or sharply ironic. I was propelled through the collection by visceral suspense: a sense of darkness just around the corner, getting darker.
You may be momentarily disoriented by Pacific heat juxtaposed against sharp, white glaciers, but the effect is calculated: the characters are often emotionally suspended against their mismatched geographies. In ‘Pigeon Shoot’, for example, Litia’s small son is accidentally killed in her homeland, Fiji, while her ex-husband, Bram, is unreachable. He is a DOC manager away on Fox Glacier, adrift both physically and emotionally.
The evocative power of Cole’s work is at its finest when delicate strands of detail she has woven throughout the stories pay off in unexpected, extended metaphors. Serafina, severely beaten by Fijian military because of her husband’s supposed coup involvement, cradles the tabua (whale’s tooth) he has given her. Cole writes: ‘She held the tabua to her face as she did every night, feeling the icy cool smoothness of the cementum and dreaming of the whale swimming in a family pod under the ice in Antarctica … The whale, a faithful companion … sounding into the yawning darkness’ (p. 15).
Where Cole’s craft becomes most skilful and impressively dazzling is in plotting narratives that require ‘heavy-lifting’ for our suspension-of-disbelief. It’s generally true that short fiction requires hefty carrying up steep slopes: a narrative that might convince us over a few hundred pages in a novel, is, instead, rendered in around twenty pages. It’s like having a tiny, top-floor apartment but still needing the same furniture as your old house. You might want the view, but how are you going to lift the piano?
Reading Cole’s work, I often felt a bit giddy at how far a story would take the reader, with the narrative always demanding further suspensions of disbelief, like a snow-bridge at the point of collapsing, perhaps. Her work sustains this narrative power-lifting because of her deft hand at unfolding narrative and providing rich detail: black ice matter, if you will.
In ‘Till’, a story I loved for its audacity, the Fijian protagonist is a university-based researcher whose knowledge of glaciers, and mettle, is tested as he falls and is trapped in a glacial crevasse. So far, so good, right? Then he becomes aware of the cool and ghostly presence of a cave woman frozen to death thousands of years ago: ‘Ancient leaves, and a rodent-like animal with rabbit ears, whirled in suspension around her’ (p. 36).
Faced with this ancient woman, the protagonist remembers his own deceased mother cutting black seeds from papaya. We are told her death propels him into science. He uses his intellect to escape Fiji’s coup cycles: ‘They hawked their prodigious intellects around the universities with no embargoes on foreign students. Most ended up in Kyung Lee University in Korea and the University of Santiago de Cuba, vying for scholarships’ (p. 38).
The careful use of realism – of data and debris and the raw matters of human life – enables us to follow, albeit haltingly, the speculative aspects of her work.
Another breath-taking story is ‘Swim Bike Run’, where a jealous, butch lesbian protagonist participates in a triathlon, supported by her ever-patient and perhaps overly docile partner Karena. Told in the first person, the story is written in a kind of stylised, sports jock vernacular: ‘With all the challenges it throws at you in so many ways, and in all its myriad forms, I love the race. But I’m dead in the water and so is Karena’ (p. 17). For much of the tale, I experienced a rising dislike of the protagonist, Alberta. Alberta expends a lot of breath alternating between physical descriptions of the hard slog of the race – ‘there is always a mash-up, and visibility is poor in any conditions, rain or shine’ (p. 23) – and indulging in monologues about her jealousy of Karena’s ex-lover, or else her own complicated and unresolved feelings towards her ex-lover Bianca, whom she uses to make Karena jealous: ‘Karena ended up crying and I ended up steaming and looking out the window. Femmes and their crying! I couldn’t get to Taupo soon enough’ (p. 22).
At that point, given that I am femme and feminist, I wanted to put the book down and go and make an Earl Grey tea. However, since being being femme has made me super-resourceful, like a triathlete, I persisted with the story and found that the last few pages offered a challenging and insightful lens into Alberta’s macho behaviour. I won’t extrapolate and reveal Cole’s sleight-of-hand, but it’s a clever story.
It was hard, however, to shake angry, butch Alberta from the ether, and I found myself reflecting more on masculinity within the collection. Several stories have male protagonists who are emotionally detached. They experience the vastness of mountains and glaciers as a means of transmuting their inner grief or loss into something more tangible, more physical. In ‘Pigeon Shoot’ an absent father is in Fox Glacier; in ‘Ice’ he is in Antarctica. In ‘Till’ the Fijian protagonist trapped in the glacier had to literally meet an ancestral foremother to confront his own mother’s death; in ‘Glacier’ Swedish Stig travels to New Zealand to escape the suspected suicide of his wife, Greta. Masculinity, then, is about buried emotion, wrought across the ever-changing, often hostile, natural expanse.
Black, feminist writer bell hooks argues that men ‘act out’ through rage or emotional unavailability, while expecting unconditional love from their female partners.
Usually adult males who are unable to make emotional connections with the women they choose to be intimate with are frozen in time, unable to allow themselves to love for fear that the loved one will abandon them … They decide that it is better to put their faith in being powerful, in being dominant.’ (my italics)2
So, perhaps masculinity acts as an emotional freeze-ray, and men are suspended in ice above the glacial torrents of suppressed emotions, waiting for an emotional thaw – like the animals in Narnia.
There is some thawing in Cole’s collection, too. In ‘Home Detention,’ Lucas is compelled to travel through a rumbling and shuddering city to check in at the local cop shop – a condition of his home detention – because of his love for and dedication to his young son. In the final story, ‘Melt’, lesbian protagonist Rena carves elaborate ice sculptures with her lover, Vivienne, for the ice factory where they both work. Angry and stuck-in-traffic and facing the destruction of their handiwork in the summer heat, Rena ends up handing out ice glasses to other stuck passengers: ‘She looked back along the line of cars and saw Vivienne shining in distant heat waves at the limit of the vaulted highway, turning and weaving her way back to her’ (p. 187).
I want to end by returning to the proximity of death – the menace and suspense – that pervades the collection. A flick back through the collection reminded me that ten of the thirteen stories deal with the dead or the dying, who meet often violent ends. What to make of all these corpses? Elizabeth Knox writes:
The fantasy that I’ve loved – fantasy, science-fiction, horror – has, it seems to me, often been inspired by dread or longing … I love fantasy because I love wonder, but also because I love these deep, antisocial, ahistorical apprehensions that even adults have and that art might also choose to process.2
There is something of this dread or longing in Cole’s fiction: an other-worldly layering of our fears and desires that make her stories rich and compelling. An instinct to sit with the dead. Or to find what is beautiful within the unrelentingly glacial terrain.
TULIA THOMPSON has a PhD in sociology from the University of Auckland and an MA (Hons) in creative writing from the University of Auckland. Her work has been published in Niu Voices: Contemporary Pacific fiction and elsewhere. Her young adult novel Josefa and the Vu was published by Huia in 2007. She blogs about social justice at www.tuliathompson.wordpress.com
1. Hooks, B., The Will to Change: Men, masculinity and love, Atria Books, 2004 [65–66].
2. Knox, E., ‘The Charm of Fantasy’, in The Love School: Personal essays, Victoria University Press, 2008, 356–59 .