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Pacific Islanders’ Worldbuilding: Crafting Authentic Narratives

As part of our 2024 Asian and Pacific Islander Month events, we’re delighted to announce our inaugural panel discussion, “Pacific Islanders’ Worldbuilding: Crafting Authentic Narratives.” How can we effectively integrate our cultures into our writing? What role does worldbuilding play in our storytelling process? And do writers have a responsibility to faithfully represent their cultural heritage?

To delve into these questions, we’re honored to feature distinguished guests: Kanaka Maoli author Malia Maunakea of the middle-grade novel, Lei and the Fire Goddess (Penguin Workshop, 2023), with its sequel Lei and the Invisible Island coming out June 4; Māori writer Cassie Hart, author of the speculative thriller Butcherbird (Huia, 2021); and Gina Cole, the visionary Fijian author of sci-fi novel Na Viro (Huia, 2022) and creator of the term “Pasifikafuturism,” which she enlightens us about. Leading the conversation is our esteemed moderator, Shay Kauwe, author of the forthcoming urban fantasy, In Language There Is Death (2025, Saga Press). 

Below is the transcript of their discussion. It has been edited for readability and is not an exact transcription of the video. Thank you!


Shay: Aloha everyone! I am so excited to be hosting this panel today where we are getting the opportunity to speak with Pacific Islander authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and speculative fiction in general on their process for world building where they will share their experiences and advice. I'm happy to introduce todayʻs panel. We have Malia Maunakea, Gina Cole, Cassie Hart, and myself, Shay Kauwe. I’m going to hand it off to Malia so that she can introduce herself and her book. 

Malia: Aloha everyone! My name is Malia Maunakea. I am a hapa Hawaiian author of middle grade, which means books for readers eight and up and hopefully in the future YA, which are books for twelve and up. Mostly contemporary fantasy. My family is from Puna on Hawaiʻi Island and Māʻili on Oʻahu. My debut middle grade novel, Lei and the Fire Goddess, came out last summer. It's about a girl on an adventure to rescue her best friend who's been kidnapped by the fire goddess, Pele. It’s perfect for fans of Percy Jackson and Disney’s Moana. 

Shay: Thank you so much, Malia. Next, I will be handing it off to Gina Cole. 

Gina: Tēna koutou katoa, ni sa bula vinaka, malo e lelei. My name is Gina Cole. I am Fijian from the island of Ono-i-Lau and the Lau group and I’m part of the Pasifika diaspora born and raised in New Zealand, Aotearoa. I write mainly fiction and short stories. And I have a short story collection called Black Ice Matter, which was published in 2016. And my science fiction fantasy novel Na Viro was published in 2022, in a genre which I call Pasifikafuturism. So, Na Viro is a story about a young Fijian, Tonga, Majuran woman who flies into space to save her sister from a whirlpool. 

Shay: Thank you so much, Gina. And, we have Cassie Hart. I will hand it off to her. 

Cassie: Kia ora. I am Cassie. I’m a Kāi Tahu author from Ngamotu, Taranaki. I write a range of horror and speculative fiction, and my award winning novel, Butcherbird, came out in 2021. It’s a supernatural thriller set in rural Taranaki where Jena returns to her family home to uncover the truth around the fire that killed her family and long buried secrets come back to bite. 

Shay: Thank you so much everyone for sharing your work and a little bit of what you do. And for people who are watching at home, my name is Shay Kauwe. I am today’s host. I am also a hapa Hawaiian author of fantasy and other speculative fiction. I hail from Waimānalo on the island of Oʻahu in Hawai’i. And my upcoming book is entitled In Language There is Death. It is an urban fantasy about a world, where every language is its own branch of magic and an unlicensed spellsmith must defend her community from the rabidly expanding city of Los Angeles. Set to release in Spring 2025. 

So, thank you everybody for being here today. I’m really excited to get us kicked off and jump into some of the questions that we have, which were submitted by various people and also just what I think would be a really good dive into your different works because we have a wide breadth of kinds of stories here. I’m going to start with a few general questions. If it’s alright, I’ll kind of call your name just so you don’t overlap each other because this is a virtual meeting for today. Feel free to stop me at any point. 

I was hoping to start with Gina. I know that your latest book is science fiction like you mentioned, you had a specific word for it. Pasifikafuturism. I’m not sure if I’m saying that right. Can you explain a little bit about what your worldbuilding process looks like? Like, how do you start an idea and then build upon it?

Gina: So, Na Viro was written in a genre I call Pasifikafuturism, which is basically science fiction/fantasy written by Pasifika writers featuring Pacific characters and Pacific culture and aimed at a Pacific audience, and anyone else who’s interested in science fiction from a Pacific Ocean point of view. So, my worldbuilding process for Na Viro was centered around trying to represent these elements of Pasifikan indigeneity. And so my ideas come from my culture and what I think that might look like in a futuristic setting. 

So for example, one of the indigenous Pacific practices I incorporated into my writing was the art of waka building or ocean going canoes. And also ally to that was the art of celestial navigation or wayfinding, which is how my ancestors navigated across the sea using everything around them in the Pacific environment. And so, I also used the concept of the Pacific concept of the vā, which basically means the space between and it can be the space between two people or the space between two islands or the space between two planets. And it’s not empty space. It is a space of connection that needs to be cared for and nurtured and I think this is kind of a common concept in the Pacific. This kind of concept of being interconnected. And also the concept that the Pacific is a sea of islands, meaning we are all connected, again. And so I researched these sorts of concepts and took them up into space. Into a sky of islands or a galaxy of islands, or a universe of islands. 

Shay: Thank you so much. Just as like a follow up question, I’m curious what inspired you to write in this specific genre. The move from traditional practices and then taking it into a science fiction realm. Was there any particular moment where you made that connection?

Gina: I am a real science fiction nerd. I grew up in the 1970’s watching Star Trek and all the other speculative fiction space stories on TV at the time. Like, the Land of the Giants and Lost in Space and Dr. Who and I Dream of Jeannie. I love science fiction, but I didn’t see myself in any of those, represented in any of those programs. The only woman really that I connected with was Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. She was the only Black woman anywhere on television in the 1970’s that I was aware of and anywhere in cultural production at that time. So she made a real impact on me. And I also found that there were very few science fiction novels written by Pacific writers, especially set in space. And so, I wanted to change that. 

During my PhD, I researched, well I discovered Afrofuturism and Indigenous futurism. You know, both Afrofuturism and Indigenous futurism include science fiction written by First Nations peoples whether they’re from America or from—in the case of Afrofuturism—written by African American writers. And they inspired me to formulate this genre which I call Pasifikafuturism. And that’s, you know, Toni Morrison said that if there’s a book you want to read and it hasn’t been written then you must write it. So, I kind of went along that track because I wanted to see Pacific Islanders represented in science fiction set in space—

Shay: Yeah,

Gina: And we weren’t. 

Shay: And it does feel like a natural extension from what you were discussing about wayfinding. Like it very much is a literal connection between space and Pacific Islander people so that makes a lot of sense. 

I’m going to be moving on to Cassie kind of taking a little pivot here into horror, but still very much worldbuilding. I think I’m curious, what does your worldbuilding process look like? Obviously I think most people probably wouldn’t associate the Pacific Islands with horror naturally—it tends to exist in spooky English countrysides, but what brought that idea to light? Cassie: Yeah, that is—I think it is least seen, I think it’s especially because for people from our culture like we have this connection with our land and our place, and like this respect for nature and the environment relationship and those kinds of things, so it is maybe not necessarily the most obvious fit. But for me, it was in part—with Butcherbird in particular—I was writing a love letter to the place that I grew up, which was this farm that my grandparents—well, my grandma—had lived on her whole life, and so it was kind of like I had that connection to the land and my characters have the same connection to the land, and Taranaki, our mountain, who is such a huge presence in the region that I live in and other places. 

And, if you’ve ever seen me talk on a panel about my book, I always talk about Taranaki and how wonderful it is, because he just is. So, you can throw that in there. But I think for me, because I love horror so much—I grew up reading a lot of horror. My family—extended family’s—library was full of Stephen King, but also lots of science fiction, and all the Dune books, and all the Terry Pratchett, and the Belgariad—and lots of very white fantasy, because that was what you had then. So I grew up, everything was speculative to me, and I spent a lot of time being speculative on my farm, on the land—on my grandparents’ farm—so, for me, because I love horror so much, I wanted to—I wanted to put that into a book, and I think in particular in New Zealand and other countries where you’re on an island there’s that sense of isolation, which I wanted to play into. Not necessarily a cultural thing, but certainly that sense of being apart—like away from other things. 

So yeah, I think for the worldbuilding stuff, it was less about what you might think of in terms of worldbuilding, like the specifics of geography or, you know, the culture, or the way things play together—and more about history. So, while my main character is not Māori, the secondary character—the second point of view character—he is. So he kind of represents my biracial background and discomfort of not knowing so well where you come from, and learning things about yourself that you didn’t know before, and there’s also things about generational trauma, which is very common in our kind of experience. So yeah, maybe not exactly how you would look at worldbuilding from other angles, but that is how it kind of worked together for me. 

Shay: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. I definitely feel that sense of place is something you can find in all of the books that we have here—definitely. I know Malia, for example, that your book is set on Big Island very heavily, where your family is from. And Gina, though your stories take place in this fictionalized world, it very much is rooted in your own experiences, and own places and the cultural practices you have. I kind of want to draw on this idea about this discomfort of not knowing, because I feel it leads into Malia’s book a little bit more, specifically your main character, who I think, interestingly enough,  though it is a middle grade story, it has a lot of the same feelings and experiences that Cassie just described. 

I love how you weaved in these magical elements into your story Malia, because, you know, I feel that was a lot of this character’s journey and understanding who they are. So I am just kind of curious—also ‘cause you’re the only person I think who is very strictly fantasy—how you went about building this magic system? And, you know, it is a big job to take these cultural elements and create your own magical world so how did that work out for you, if you don’t mind me asking?

Malia: It’s scary when you’re combining something that is so culturally kind of sacred or passed down for so many generations to think about altering it in any way, so by introducing characters that hadn’t really been in our oral histories before I tried to give myself an opening—or give myself that flexibility to create that magic system. It is kind of playing off of—I don’t want to give spoilers—but it is kind of playing off our stories a bit. But I never heard any stories about how exactly those creatures in our genealogies worked with us. It’s always been sort of vague to me, so I hoped that by creating this story and my interpretation of how these creatures interact with their families it would be okay. Because I am not messing with the big ones. I am not messing with the gods. I am not messing with the people who’ve been in legends and lore forever. I introduce newer characters that are not in any of the stories—that I can manipulate and shift and change.

Shay: Yeah. I think I’d like to pose this question, since it’s come up naturally, to the group. About—you know—do writers have a responsibility to represent their cultures accurately when they’re drawing on their own cultures, their worlds, and ideas? Like all of us obviously take elements of that.

I know Cassie for example in your book, there is mention of bones. Which as anyone in a Pacific Islander culture can tell you, like that is a very sensitive topic. Something that’s core. As well as in Gina’s story, right—the idea of wayfinding, but you know pulling it into this uber-scientific world, where I—if I am not mistaken—I remember in one particular part about traditional and modern were kind of blended together in how they both mapped out the world and also in the creation of things like sails or communication devices, so like where is that line? For you folks when we’re writing these kinds of stories that are—I know sorry, that is a big kind of question. But—

Cassie: I think it is a big question, but I think sometimes the line is not like a hard line that everyone has to follow, but it’s the line of where you’re comfortable. And sometimes, like I was saying to someone earlier about how even though New Zealand is very small, different tribes have different versions of the stories. There are commonalities in the stories that we have, but there are so many different ways of looking at them or ways that they’re told or retold. And I think sometimes, when we’ve been disconnected from our culture by force–in a lot of ways you know, through governing systems–and we have to try and piece together, almost a process of pulling together the threads of what we can find and weaving our own way into our culture. So, in some ways, I can’t see it as a hard line because it partially is like, what is knowing? But also what is relevant to my iwi or someone else’s iwi? You want to be respectful, but also you have to find new ways to connect with the old, and I think it’s part of our job to try and do that in a way that is respectful but allows us to kind of weave our own magic with our histories and our culture, if that makes sense. 

Shay: Yeah, absolutely.

Malia: I like what you said, Cassie… that the oral history isn’t perfect. Like, a lot of the stories that I’ve been researching do have conflicting details or major discrepancies, from one island to the next, or even within districts. So I think, just like you said, we’re not retelling history, we’re not non-fiction writers, we are fiction/fantasy/whatever writers, and that gives us a little bit of grace in what we’re doing as long as we’re able to explain and show where the truth ends and the story begins, a little bit. 

Cassie: Yeah, and where our truth begins as well, because it’s just like the acknowledgment of “this is the way I envision it, this isn’t the way that other people would”, you know? I found out just a couple weeks ago–because Taranaki has always been male to me–but I found out that actually around the coast, further round the mountain, they consider him to be female. I didn’t even know it and I’ve lived here most of my life. Even within the same region. And no one’s ever said that to me until someone did. For me he’s been male my whole life and for this other person she’s been female. That’s my truth, that’s their truth, and that’s okay, they can both exist. They can co-exist at the same time, and that’s okay. 

Gina: Yeah, I think in the Pacific we can’t get past our history of colonization and what has been lost, and how we are trying to often retrieve a lot of information that has been lost in that process. And I think in writing science-fiction I’m trying to imagine Pacific peoples living in the future, and there’s a fantasy spin on it. So, I do research Pacific culture and then try to take it in a future setting, but like you say Malia the stories are a bit broken sometimes because of the impact of rampant colonization, and predatory capitalism, and militarism, all of these impacts on our culture. And I think that just representing our culture at all in the future is a good thing. I also think that our culture doesn’t remain static. Culture evolves. So I think there’s a certain amount of licenses, I think someone was saying, especially when writing science-fiction or fantasy. To represent our culture in an evolved state we can have that license to that. But I think some things will remain the same and in those situations there is some kind of, I feel, some kind of responsibility to get it right. And I think those are principles and values that remain the same over time, like you know, the importance of family, and principles of reciprocity, and manakitanga which is looking after each other, and kaitiakitanga which is stewardship, or kotahitanga, unity. These kinds of baseline principles and values that we have I think we can embed them in a science-fiction or fantasy story and kind of expand out and make, I don’t know, waka made out of rainbows, you know? But our values endure over time. 

Cassie: Yeah, I agree with that one.

Shay: About that, you said colonization touches all of us, I’m reminded of the quote from Queen Liliʻuokalani. I’m definitely not going to say this exactly right so please forgive me, but the way to lose a kingdom was to be inflexible and intolerant but another was to be too flexible and too tolerant of many wrongs, and that it was a very, very thin line like the width of a blade of pili grass. And I think that kind of expertly sums up all the different contexts very much for what we do as writers, but just to balance both, because… why I think for example Gina your expression of connecting Pasifikafuturism to Afrofuturism is this idea that I think a lot of times Indigenous peoples were framed as wanting to go back, and I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I think that a lot of our writing is actually about moving forward, and how to make progress with these things that have happened to us. They’re facts: colonization, the destruction of language for example, or losing our culture becoming diaspora. So how are we trying to put these together? What now is really what I find as a similar theme in all of our books.

Cassie: I think one of the beautiful things about speculative fiction is you are imagining worlds where things are different, and that’s the power of it, because we can do it in a way that you can’t do with straight contemporary fiction or historical fiction. We can imagine how it would be. 

Gina: I think that speculative fiction provides the ability to imagine new futures and get away from the current reality of science-fiction for instance, which is a genre that’s dominated by a white male, middle-class, cis-gendered, heterosexual point of view. Colonization is kind of post-apocalyptic, which places us directly in the narrative found in science-fiction for me, that we are living in a post-apocalyptic dystopia because of the effects of colonization. So, yeah I think we can imagine different futures where we survive and thrive. 

Cassie: Yeah. 

Shay: Yeah, I love that. Speaking of this idea of historical fiction, and even like contemporary fiction and realistic fiction, would you say that if you’re writing something that is fantasy or science-fiction or speculative, how much do you let the premise of your story, or even just the story in general, take you away from these realistic or historical depictions? And would you say there are any risks in doing so? 

Cassie: Ooh, that’s a big one. I guess I don’t write anything from historical so… 

Shay: I also don’t write historical fiction, but…

Cassie: But our history is a way of impacting our present and future, right? 

Shay: Yes. 

Malia: I think in what I’ve done already I didn’t veer very far because I was afraid to. On the first couple, I didn’t want to upset anybody, I tried to stick as close to the stories as I learned them within this brand new story. I’m working on a third middle-grade, just writing a new story, and I’m giving myself permission to veer much farther by setting it on an imaginary island instead of putting it in Hawai’i. And I’ve found that that loosens it up a lot and allows me to strike a balance that’s way more on the fantasy side than on the realism side, that I had been toying that line in my first couple books. So, I’m not sure for me if it’s possible to continue writing stories that are like a contemporary fantasy set in a very realistic place, on an existing island, and veering from the truth as much as I would want. I think it’s easier to separate it, create a new place, and then have at it, create my own world in that way. 

Cassie: It’s definitely easier. 

Gina: I had the same issue when I started to write my second book, which I’m working on now. I had those same sort of thoughts so I’ve set it in a parallel universe, which is parallel to our universe, and I have given myself that license, like you said, to veer off and not upset anybody because there are some similarities to this world but it’s a different world altogether. So, I kind of got around it that way. I just feel that kind of difficulty with trying to represent the world that we’re living in and I don’t want to overstep, so I thought that was a good way around it. 

Cassie: Definitely. You can also kind of pick and choose which elements of our world you want to explore, which can line up with the themes of your story or the story you want to tell. So it does give you more freedom to, like you were saying, tell the story that you want to tell. I had another thought and it disappeared, but I’m not sure if it’s going to come back or not.

Shay: That’s totally okay, don’t worry, this happens all the time. I’m actually going to go against the grain here, I think that it is important to represent cultures accurately. But I also think–something Cassie mentioned–like our own experiences are so unique, and that does shade how we view things in a way. But I do think one of those underlying themes of all Pacific Islanders, of all Indigenous people, is storytelling itself. It’s such a huge thing. Why do we have different versions of the same tale? I think often it’s because it’s at our discretion. Sometimes we need to trust ourselves with taking those creative liberties, because ultimately, at least my personal feeling as a writer is I feel that if I ever go too far, somebody will definitely let me know. And I will be admonished. We’ll get that pull back in and then we can move from there. 

Cassie: Firstly, I think that there’s no way to avoid writing our culture because it’s who we are, and that’s going to find its way into the story, whether it has any bearing on our Indigenous cultures or not. Like, you know, we can be writing something that’s pure fantasy, not related to our cultures, but it will still have elements of that culture in there because it’s just who we are. So, I think it’s impossible not to write something [cultural], even if you’re writing as far away from it as possible. But I also think it’s important to think about the fact that other people, white people, have no problem writing about our culture any way that they want to. So, sometimes we need to take that power back by writing about our cultures in a way that we want to write about our cultures. Other times I’ve been on panels or in groups of people where some middle-aged white guy is barging on about this amazing new book he wrote, pitching multiple things from multiple cultures, and I just wanted to claw his eyeballs out. It’s numerous. Like, it happens all the time. And they just do it with so much confidence, and I don’t have that much confidence because I have respect for my culture, and I love my whānau. There’s so much respect and want, and so much shame about not knowing things, and so much worry about doing it right or doing it well. I think we sometimes need to remind ourselves that we actually have a right to tell these stories in ways that we’re comfortable with. I think that’s really important. Like I wouldn’t write a story that I wasn’t comfortable with, because I’d still need to live with it or live with what my family is going to say about it. But we kind of need to remember that other people will quite happily charge all over or trope all over our culture, and use it any way they want to, so we have a right to it. And so, we should be able to do that, if we’re comfortable with it, in ways that resonate with us and our culture.

Shay: I love that. I feel that, like you said, there’s elements of your own worldview that just come into the writing. That if you’re not from that culture you wouldn’t even think of to write, like you wouldn’t even think of to include because it’s just not your personal experience. So yeah I like that a lot. So on that note, I’m going to move us to another important question that was submitted. What are your opinions on working with consultants? Should writers consult with experts on elements of their world and worldbuilding? For example, meeting with the geologist when forming the geography of one’s world, or other things like that?

Malia: I did. For experts, I wanted to include hōlua (sled) and that kind of race. And I just figured it’d be faster and better if I reached out to somebody who knew it well. And he was awesome. Tom Pōhaku Stone really helped me craft the details of that section well, and I watched a bunch of his videos. And then I called the National Park Service in Volcano and asked them a lot of questions about lava tubes and volcanoes, and the geology, and all of how things are formed there, and where have you seen these features, all of that. And oh can you give me plants that happen in different altitudes and elevations. I did a lot of research. Because again it was my first book and I was scared people were going to destroy it, so it was my way of reassuring myself that I’d done the best that I can to create this world as accurately as I wanted it to be portrayed. I don’t think it’s a necessary thing by any means, but for me and for my own personal… Like, how do I write a story? That consulting with the experts… I also hired a sensitivity reader to help me with all the language pieces that I have in there, because I don’t speak Hawaiian fluently, and that was important. So, yes. I leaned heavily on other people and thanked them profusely in acknowledgments. 

Cassie: The beautiful thing is that most experts love sharing their expertise, don’t they? Like you know if they’re passionate about it and they really like it when people ask them about it because they actually get to talk about it freely. But I think that if you’ve got something and you need more knowledge on it, definitely go consult people. Sensitivity readers are great as well. There’s so many amazing people in the world who know so many things that we just don’t know. And lots of things that you can’t even find on the internet readily. So go to the source where you can. Like, if it’s available to you as an option. For sure. 

Gina: I also think it’s not necessary to do it if you don’t want to, but I did. I think it gave, it helped me give some depth to the writing. I spent some time in the Marshall Islands during the writing of Na Viro and I met with a master waka builder from Bikini Atoll to give me some ideas about what goes into building a waka. He was also a wayfinding expert and I did a lot of research on wayfinding. I did a lot of reading about Indigenous Pacific waka. I went on a waka ride in the harbor with some wayfinding experts. All of that gave me ideas and impressions and inspiration, which fed into my writing. It helps you with details and it just gave me ideas to draw on when I was writing. It gave me confidence that I was writing correctly about these issues and these practices. Because I wanted to get it right. But also I enjoyed it immensely. And I learned heaps while I was doing it. 

Cassie: It’s kind of like the iceberg thing. RIght? You learn all this knowledge. It doesn’t all necessarily make it into the book. But the fact that you know it and you went looking for it kind of builds that depth and richness to a world. 

Gina: Yeah, yeah. It doesn’t necessarily make it into the book like you say, but in some way it influences how you write. 

Cassie: Yeah.

Shay: Yeah, I absolutely understand that like I had mentioned very briefly in my own book. My magic system is completely based off of language. And I am also not a fluent speaker of Hawaiian. So, I had to talk to fluent speakers of Hawaiian. Like, of course it makes sense. I do feel like I toe the line by making my main character also not fluent, which you know, we put our own experiences in the book. I think the general consensus from this group is yes, absolutely. Like, I feel like that makes sense. Another cultural theme. There’s even a Hawaiian ‘ōlelo noʻeau about it. Nānā i ke kumu. Look towards the source. I think itʻs just something that we would do naturally. And it canʻt ever hurt. So, why not?

Okay so weʻre going to move on to a couple of fun questions here. I’m interested about, what is your favorite detail about the world that you created? So, since we’re talking about these tiny details, what is something that you really like that maybe the average person might not know if they were just reading your book, but you just thought it was fun. 

Cassie: It’s funny because I think I can think of more things that were tiny details that didn’t make it into the final book than I can. The things you thought of and then you kind of like added in, but then you didn’t kind of, that didn’t come out in the wash. I’m trying to think of something. That’s a hard one. 

Shay: I can definitely share something since I’m thinking of it at the moment and it’s about language. In my world, the language has to be accurate in order for it to work or the magic doesn't work. One thing that always trips me up in Hawaiian is pronouns. So like, kākou versus lākou versus ʻolua. That kind of thing. So, I specifically included a point where my main character like messes up and it doesnʻt work because she uses the wrong pronoun. And I love that. Itʻs a detail nobody else is really going to get unless you learn Hawaiian and you know how difficult that is. But itʻs something that I really love. Itʻs just a small thing that I know when my people are reading it and they like will get that connection. I hope somebody will chuckle. 

Gina: I think my world in Na Viro is very watery and oceanic. And so, I don’t know. I had a taniwha in the whirlpool and the guns were wave guns and screens were lake screens. And everything is very watery. I had this view of the ocean and space as being mirrors of each other so that the ocean is a metaphor for space and vice versa. There’s a galaxy in the ocean. And so I wanted the spaceships to be sentient entities that would have the same kind of features as fish or sea creatures and so I modeled the spaceships on whales and jellyfish. And they’re able to travel through space like those sea creatures travel through the ocean. So yeah it’s all very kind of ocean based. 

Shay: It makes so much sense when you explain it. I found myself going, “Of course!”

Malia: When I was trying to figure out what the sidekick would be in the story and the hint to Hawai’i’s animals, I really wanted it to be a mammal, because I think mammals are cute and I already have reptiles and bugs and other stuff so I wanted So I wanted a mammal. But I was also working hard at using native species, and endemic and indigenous species, so I went down rabbit holes doing that bit of research. And it turns out Hawai’i only has two native mammals, and only one native land mammal. So, that is how my sidekick became a bat. 

Shay: When you said “native”, I was like— the list shrunk very quickly. I was like okay, was it monk seal and bat, is that it? Malia: Yep! Bat and monk seal. And the monk seal was not about to make it up the volcano, so… The bat it is. 

Cassie: And the theme of animals, we’ll go with birds in Butcherbird, the magpies, they're not native. In Māori culture bars are often messengers, the birds in my books tend to give messages of one kind of another. They’re magpies though, because if you’ve lived in rural New Zealand, you know all about the magpies. They tend to be quite protective of their species and scared of anyone who’s there when they shouldn’t be there. 

Shay: Yeah, I love that. So another fun question: when you’re reading other novels that have world building, do you have any pet peeves? Or even in your own novel. For example, I really dislike in worldbuilding when something is clearly set in the past but they use modern slang. That drives me absolutely nuts. I cannot handle it, I don’t like it at all. It’s just a pet peeve though. 

Gina: I don’t want to read pages and pages of info-dumping about how the world works. I just really want to be immersed in the world through what’s happening to the characters. And I did that. I wrote pages and pages about how the world works and then I had to cut it, and focus on the characters rather than focus on the world. Focus on how the characters operate in the world so that the world is a natural part of the narrative. 

Cassie: Yeah, it was going to be my one too. It annoys me so much like you know, the characters show up in a town and then you learn all about the fishing practices in the village but it has nothing to do with what the characters are doing, and it’s like, “I don’t care, just tell me what’s happening,” you know? If you know it, great, but it doesn’t have to be for 30 pages. 

Malia: For me it’s that book with the food scenes, and it goes on and on about the whole banquet spread, and then they end up eating a lot. Throughout the entire story there are so many banquets. My god, okay they’re eating again, this is what they’re eating. Yes, I usually hate when they’re doing that. 

Cassie: I have to say I feel I’m kind of guilty of that in some ways for books I published years ago. Why are they always drinking coffee and tea? I’m like, Well, in New Zealand if you go to someone’s house, they give you coffee and a snack. People go to different people’s houses and they’re having tea and coffee, or water and a snack, because that’s what you do, it’s courtesy.

Malia: Okay, but it’s the expanding on the teapot that it’s served in and it’s tipping just so and the coils of steam rising and… yeah. Gina: One of my readers said to me, “Why is everybody always running everywhere?” It was too much running, it’s like little kids running everywhere. So I have to sort of pull back on the running. I’m very aware now of whenever one of my characters runs, especially if they’re adult. 

Shay: That’s such a good note, I didn’t even think about that. I definitely described tea, a lot.  

Malia: It’s just a me-thing. Many people love it. It’s really just my pet peeve, it’s okay. Shay: Alright, so another fun question. If you were a character in the world that you created, would you survive? And what would your role be? Gina: I would be a spaceship captain. Shay: I love that. 

Gina: And I would definitely survive. Shay: I think I would struggle. I definitely relate to my main character. In a world where language is magic, if you do not speak anything else fluently, you would probably have a hard time, which would be me. But I think I’d make it work. I would probably be… I don’t know. I would be a teacher again. I loved teaching, I think I would do well at that. Malia: I think I would survive. In the sequel that comes out in June, I introduce a new character who’s local, born and raised from Hawai’i, and she’s pretty annoyed at my main character from Book 1, who disrespected the goddess and got them into this mess in the first place. But I had to have a character do that otherwise there wouldn’t be a story. So, it’s like, I’m sorry, yes she was a fool, no she shouldn’t have done that, but… I would probably be really similar to that annoyed character going, Why didn’t you just listen to your tūtū? Cassie: I would like to think I’d survive. I’m not sure what my role would be though. It’s a very small cast in my book, so I’d probably just be on a neighbor’s farm really. 

Shay: Just hanging out… I remember your book, it is very isolated, it’s just that one family living together, so you’d be observing.

Cassie: Yeah. The neighbor that didn’t hear the scream, that’s me.

Shay: Speaking of that, somebody had asked about what recommendations you have of Pacific fantasy novels that could serve as mentor-texts for world building. Ideally they’re looking for things that are outside of classic novels, especially British ones like the Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, etc. Is there anything that you’d go to, authors or texts that you might recommend?

Gina: Yeah. A book called Turncoat by Tīhema Baker. It’s in the future when earth is being colonized by aliens. It’s about a human who infiltrates the alien government and wants them to honor the founding agreement they entered into with humans. It’s kind of a comment on the trauma that Indigenous people, Indigenous public servants, feel working in a settler colonial government system. There’s of course also Lani Wendt Young’s Telesa series, which is kind of being called Samoan Twilight, but it’s about goddesses and Samoa. I really like that. And I also love Claire Coleman’s writing. She’s an aboriginal woman. Her novel Terra Nullius is set in the future in Australia. It’s a future where Australia is also colonized by aliens. And she’s also written a book called The Old Lie, which is about Earth joining an alien force to defend against another alien force. I like her writing in general, even her non-fiction. She’s written a non-fiction book called Lies, Damned Lies about the colonial experience of Aboriginal people in Australia. Everything I read seems to be about aliens colonizing the Earth. Those are some books I’ve enjoyed.

Cassie: You could check out Pūrākau, Māori Myths Retold by Māori Writers, that was edited by Witi Ihimaera and also Whiti Hereaka. It came out a few years ago. It’s retellings of Māori myths by contemporary writers, that was pretty cool. Some of the stories there are phenomenal. Same as any kind of collection or anthology, you’re gonna love some of them, not gonna love all of them, but there are some really amazing stories in that one. I was also gonna say Turncoat. Steph Matuku has got a few books out, which are cool. Flight of the Fantail, which I really enjoyed, is about a school trip gone wrong with aliens. And she’s got another one coming out shortly, called Migration. I just started to have a read through that. It’s not out yet though, but I’m having a read of it at the moment and it’s pretty cool too. So that’s again aliens. Oh, also something that’s a bit different, Sascha Stronach’s The Dawnhounds, which came out a couple of years ago through Saga Press I think. There’s fungi and lots of Māori cultural stuff in there as well. It’s very different, definitely not Earth, very science-fiction/fantasy. So that was pretty cool, worth checking out as well.

Malia: I didn’t read anything with aliens. I read something that has a magic system and a magic world that I really, really enjoyed. It’s not out yet. Well, depending on when you watch this it might be. It’s coming out on May 14, it’s called Clairboyance by Kristiana Kahakauwila. It’s set in Hawai’i and it’s awesome. This girl wants to know what boys are thinking and she wishes on a family heirloom, and then poof, she can hear what all guys in the school bus and middle school are thinking. And it’s a mess. Nobody actually wants to hear that. So she has to figure out how to navigate that new power and try to solve some issues with her ex best-friend before moving to Arizona, because she’s sick and tired of where she is and she feels lonely. Her dad lives in Arizona and has welcomed her there. But does leaving Hawai’i really solve her problems?

Cassie: It sounds cool.

Malia: Yeah, it’s a good one, so keep an eye out for that. I think it’ll be a great mentor text for folks looking to write that kind of stuff.

Shay: Yeah. It’s funny when you were talking about these alien stories I was like, god there’s actually quite a bit of science fiction in the Pacific Islander author space. I am mostly on the fantasy side, and I was sitting here trying to think. I feel like there is less. Obviously I would recommend Makiia Lucier. I love her work. Isle of Blood and Stone. It’s a Pacific Islander fantasy–actually not even Pacific Islander, I’m not sure that it’s explicitly stated, but I feel like she’s a wonderful high fantasy writer. She has a new one, Dragonfruit, which just came out. I have not read it yet but I’m very excited for my local library to get it. I think, though, unfortunately… There aren’t just that many people who write Pacific Islander, even fantasy and science fiction. I think we often have to look towards other sources. I find myself reading a lot of Indigenous writers. I really enjoyed To Shape a Dragon’s Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose, and then Rebecca Roanhorse’s books. She’s great. I often comp’ed her Trail of Lightning. It was a big inspiration for my own book, which is urban fantasy, and honestly, maybe the only urban fantasy I get to read by an Indigenous person–I might be wrong! I’m sure there’s more, but it is difficult to find. And unfortunately, other than that I feel like other people who’ve written about our area of the world tend to be white writers. I can think of When the Waters Turn Black, but I’m pretty sure that’s not written by…

Cassie: Darcie Little Badger has some good books. She’s Lipan Apache. Her books are contemporary fantasy. I think maybe that comes back to us wanting to be respectful of our cultures and histories, and finding it harder to know where to draw the line when you’re doing something that’s pure fantasy. Even Rebecca Roanhorse had problems with this in the past. Her books are not historical, they’re not just her culture. They do draw from it heavily, but this is not representative of her culture. And it’s like we’re only allowed to write things that are our culture, or people always assume that our culture is in there somewhere. Because realistically we write whatever we want to write. I still believe our culture will always influence that and shape the way that we tell our stories, or what we tell our stories about. I think there’s certainly an expectation that if you’re from a culture, you should be representing that culture. It’s a hard one you know, because I’m very white, very pale. It’s just quite common with Kāi Tahu, but people could just not even know… I could just pass as not being Māori. Although if you’re Māori and you’ve read my books you’ll see it in there anyway. It’s just all the other people who won’t necessarily see it. For a long time I didn’t feel like I could call myself a Māori writer because I didn’t feel like I was enough–like I wasn’t writing the things that were expected of me, or that I should be writing because I’m Māori. I think there’s a whole lot of baggage in there, and that has to be unpacked sometimes.

Shay: I definitely understand that. I feel that if somebody says they are I feel like a lot in our culture is just how it is right? We all know. I know that I don’t look what people would think of. But I feel it’s almost a non-issue within the culture itself because we understand how just mixed everyone is and that’s just life. Why is my brother blonde? I don’t know, it happens. And I think, more to the point, if we’re not writing these stories other people will. As much as I love Makiia and all those other authors, she’s the only person I can think, who is actually Pacific Islander. When the Waters Turn Black was written by Benedict Patrick, who is not from here. I think he did fine, it’s a good story, but I almost feel like you can tell reading it… I didn’t know for sure until I googled it but I was like, I feel like it’s not [Pacific Islander]. There’s things you just don’t know how to put in, because again you don’t know what you don’t know. I’m excited for the future, when we have a lot more authors just taking up space, and readers.

Cassie: There’s hips of them out there. [...] We can leave space for them, open doors for them, and tell them they can do what they’re doing, and just being advocates for that. And champion, cheer them along. There’s so many awesome authors out there. And I think, maybe because there’s not a lot of us, people think that’s not something they should be doing. When actually we just need more of it. We need all of the stories.

Shay: Absolutely. And just as a quick plug for someone else who’s not here, I do know, speaking of Pacific Islanders in space, I know that Makana Yamamoto’s book Hammajang Luck is coming out at the end of this year. I’m very excited to read that. Another space one. All right, that is actually it that I have in terms of questions. 

Books and Authors Mentioned in the Discussion


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