I come from a storytelling culture, and stories are the glue that hold my Goori community together, across time, anchoring us in Bundjalung country. Our stories instruct, they provoke and they entertain. Yet our stories have been marginalised through colonial subjugation, or otherwise appropriated and tacked on to the stories of others.
Over the last few years, I’ve tapped into my cultural inheritance – my imagination, my knowledge of how our people are affected by colonial violence and the resilience in us all – to conjure up some futures where we are not dead or dying. Instead of breathing more life into the restricting narrative that likes to see us downtrodden and poor, I have written with more sovereign-minded thinking.
In 2017, I started working on a hybrid creative and critical project for a doctoral degree at the University of Sydney. For this project, I created a new genre of speculative fiction (spec fic) called Goori Futurism.
This was a huge change in discipline for me. Three years earlier, for my Master of Education thesis, Yarning with Minjungbal Women, I researched trans-generational trauma and healing in my community, and the way historical traumas resulting from past government policies have moved into the present day – policies that, in some way or another, attempted to bring about our genocide. But, if genocide is the attempt to extinguish our presence from the future, then our survival today is proof that our ancestors’ resistance worked. What better way to honour them, than to write stories envisioning our own descendants thriving into the future too?
The year before I started my doctoral project, I read and watched a lot of science fiction, including Australian futurism, and I found most of the latter sorely lacking. In the Australian stories, we Aboriginal people were either living under oppressive futures, or we were not there at all – a form of artistic genocide.
But all hope was not lost. In this year I also read three North American spec fic anthologies that excited me so much they made me to want to write my own spec fic. I wanted to write us into the future, not just for myself, but so our young people could see some hope for their futures. I wanted to speak back to Australian futurism’s absences of us, and their forecast dystopias for us.
The three anthologies were So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan (2004); Walking the Clouds: an anthology of indigenous science fiction edited by Grace L Dillon (2012); and Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha (2015). They are part of the recent groundswell of indigenous futurism, building on a renaissance in mainstream indigenous literary fiction as well as being inspired by the art and philosophy of Afro-futurism and other indigenous spec fic writing.
Goori Futurism is a descendent of these movements, a project that imagines who and how we might be in the future. My goal was to envision creative, sustainable ways of living with climate change, and at the same time to produce original, entertaining stories that imagine more liberating paradigms than the current state of affairs – stories that celebrate our ways of being, knowing, doing, and becoming.
I devised six strategies to achieve these goals in my writing. First, I asserted sovereignty; secondly, I made blueprints for the future; third, I used Black Rage; next, I used mirrors for scrying; then, I was responsible to Aboriginal readers; and finally, I imagined futures outside of the dystopian-utopian binary. Let me take you through these strategies.
For the creative component of my thesis, I wrote a short story collection called ALWAYS WILL BE: stories of sovereignty and survivance from the future(s) of the Tweed (to be published by UQP in 2024). The title of this collection comes from the popular land rights slogan ‘Always Was, Always Will Be Aboriginal Land’, which originated in the 1980s with the grassroots Aboriginal Land Rights movement in far-western New South Wales. The phrase is attributed to Barkindji land rights activist William Bates’ father, Uncle Jim Bates. Laura McBride (Wailwan, Kooma) writes:
On one of the many trips out on Country during this land rights campaign, Uncle William’s father, Uncle Jim Bates, became excited and started telling stories of his Country and land. Uncle William said, ‘Dad, it’s not your land anymore, whitefellas own it’, and Uncle Jim replied, ‘No, they only borrowed it; it always was, and always will be Aboriginal land’.
McBride says the slogan:
…is an important statement within First Nations communities as it reasserts that the very first footprints on this continent were those belonging to First Nations peoples, and that their sovereignty of this Country has never been ceded. It is a clear declaration that First Nations people are still here and are never leaving. [It is] a statement of resilience, survival, deep connection and celebration.
I wanted to honour Uncle Jim Bates’ futurist thinking by adapting his slogan for my collection of stories that never cede sovereignty or ownership, in any kind of future.
Blueprints for the future
My second strategy can be described as ‘build it and they will come’. In line with the land rights slogan, the purpose of ALWAYS WILL BE is to imagine the potential ways Gooris might live in the future after reasserting our sovereignty. I propose that these stories could inspire blackfellas (and others) to imagine the possibilities these worlds could offer and in imagining, perhaps invoke a desire to move toward similar societies. I wanted the stories to be inspirational and educational – maybe even a set of blueprints for the future. I wanted to investigate the opportunities and challenges different futures present, because if we know what the destination looks like we might be able to map out the steps to get there. By performing these philosophies in ALWAYS WILL BE, I aimed to show that a better world, as Arundhati Roy has said, ‘is not only possible, she is on her way’.
Black American writer Audre Lorde’s much-loved observation that ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’ can be applied in many different ways. In editing her anthology, Nalo Hopkinson wanted to see what would happen if she handed out ‘massa’s tools’ and said, ‘Go on; let’s see what you build’. To belabour the metaphor, I wanted to reclaim and sharpen the tools that were stolen off us, so we can renovate our ancient dwellings, and also so we can build entirely new homes – the stolen tools being our own storytelling traditions, from which our contemporary literary movement has emerged.
Using Black Rage
Black American writer bell hooks says it is Black Rage that will bring an end to white supremacy. All of our grassroots movements (including the Land Rights movement) have begun from Black Rage, which is a clarifying and fortifying force, and a protective energy that defends our countries and communities and keeps us safe from white supremacy’s destructive drives. In an ideal world we would not need Black Rage because our places and people would not need protecting, but here we are. Professor Chelsea Watego (Mununjali, South Sea Islander) says, in her essay ‘Always Bet on Black (Power)’:
The radicalism of Black power in its rage is its love for Black people, a love that extends beyond the self, yet centres a collective Black self-love, unconditional and unwavering. Thus at the heart of the fight against race are not individual grievances, wins or wealth… It is not a fight for an alternative subjugation, for revenge or retribution, but a call for a different society to be born; one that is no longer structured according to race, but a genuinely shared humanity that, in reckoning with sovereignty, abandons the hierarchies that sustain white supremacy.
Goori Futurism is concerned with our futures and I leapt into this project off the springboard of my own Black Rage. I’m angry at Australia’s climate apathy and the normalisation of white supremacy and what that might mean for our descendants. And, after reading so much Australian spec fic, I’m angry at writers who don’t include us in the future and who won’t give us any hope – even other Aboriginal writers. I’m angry at those who do include us, though in marginalised or oppressed or last-of-their-race ways.
I don’t mind my Black Rage burning brightly, but I won’t let it turn into despair. That’s why I created Goori Futurism – to find ways through and ways out of dire situations, and so transfiguration of anger into art is a healing and healthy thing, not just for me, but also for the people I write for. In honouring her own Black Rage, bell hooks was motivated ‘to take pen in hand and write in the heat of that moment,’ and my Black Rage inspired me to do the same.
Using mirrors for scrying
The importance of decent representation for our people cannot be overstated. Fictional representation doesn’t just provide mirrors for us to understand ourselves in different contexts, it can also show us ways our reflections are distorted, for better or worse.
The problem is that blackfellas have mostly not had any such mirrors at all, unless they’ve been given to us by others. In his 1994 Wentworth lecture, Yaruwu barrister Mick Dodson spoke of the warped, colonial mirrors that had been determining our identities and implored blackfellas to ‘throw away the mirror and subvert the hegemony over our own representations, and allow our visions to create the world of meaning in which we relate to ourselves, to each other, and to non-Indigenous peoples’. If, as Dodson says throughout his lecture, a lack of decent representation is partly responsible for the racism we’ve endured and still have to deal with today, it’s a matter of urgency to offer representations of First Nations peoples that centre our worldviews, laws, values, morals, ethics and relationships.
It is one job of the artist to hold up a mirror to society, to help society search its soul and examine its condition, and to reflect on whether we’re doing the best we can. I believe my job as a Goori Futurist is, not only to examine ourselves in the here and now, but to extend our potential, to open the gates of the present and roll out a red carpet for our communities into a future where peace, wellbeing and justice are not just stories in fiction. Answering Dodson as a First Nations writer has motivated me to create my own mirrors that reflect different images of our sovereignty, and to use these mirrors to see around corners into the future. I hope that, by looking into these mirrors, readers might be better able to imagine, and then start to embody, more empowering possibilities.
Being responsible to Aboriginal readers
I always have two audiences in mind when writing – foremost is my ideal audience, which is who I write for, and then there is the likely audience, who are those I know will be listening in. For minority or marginalised writers, writing for our likely audience can be linked to what American-Ghanaian sociologist WEB Du Bois theorised as the ‘double consciousness’ of performing to the white gaze from within. Instead of attempting to escape the white gaze of my likely audience, I wanted to play with its scrutiny to my advantage. I tipped my hat to my likely readership of spec fic fans by conforming to some of the expectations of Australian futurism, while at the same time I was also subverting and extending other genre conventions. I aimed to unsettle any likely readers’ assumptions about what sovereignty looks like – who it includes and excludes, and what future Goori cultures could flow out of this. Some of the stories might be difficult for those readers to digest because they would need to imagine their own power shifting significantly in realistic future worlds where we have reasserted our sovereignty.
My ideal audience is of course the Tweed Goori community, and then all other blackfellas, as well as other readers who are interested in seeing First Nations characters centred, not just represented, and want to see literary renditions of how sovereignty might be enacted. I wanted to honour my moral contract with Aboriginal readers to provide nuanced and diverse fictional representation within the spec fic genre. I wanted to showcase vibrant, self-determining Goori characters, and centre and celebrate their complex relationships inside and across thriving country, community and culture. I also wanted to offer pragmatic hope to all my readers among all the climate doomerism.
Imagining beyond the dystopian-utopian spectrum
The other way I upheld my commitment to Aboriginal readers was by navigating a path between the deceptive hope of utopia and suffocating dystopian doom. We will most likely end up somewhere in the middle of the two polarities anyway, as we always have, so Goori Futurism intentionally works outside the dystopian-utopian binary.
Dystopias read as horrifying to people who haven’t been colonised because it is unimaginable to them that such worlds could exist. But these worlds are horrifying precisely because they are often almost true, give or take a few details. Many fictional dystopias are either replications of our pasts or creative renderings of our lived realities today. I too have found it tempting to write dystopian futures for First Nations peoples, as many other writers have done. It feels logical, requiring little stretch of the imagination as to how our lives at this moment could degrade into more poverty, more police brutality, more carceral strangleholds, to being segregated into totalitarian concentration camps, or to being the last of a dying race. These storylines are based on facts drawn from the past and the present. However, in this project I was not interested in creating new dystopias or replicating old ones. We are already saturated with dystopian images and narratives through conventional and social media. You only need to open an app, turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper to be flooded with a myriad of dystopian storylines from the present, real world.
I also found it attractive to write future worlds that replicate our pre-invasion ancestors’ societies, but there are too many insurmountable issues that render this an uncritical exercise, or a fairy-tale. Many of us do not know how to go back, and some have no desire to go back, but the most salient truth is that we cannot go back. In a similar vein, it would be so easy to write stories where Aboriginal people are good and white people are bad, as though our ills are caused by race and not by racism or, in other words, by power and its abuse. I do want my stories to strive towards utopia according to my cultural values, but I can’t really categorise them either way. Different audiences will read the stories in ALWAYS WILL BE as utopian or dystopian, but their readings will always be a mirror of their own hopes and fears for the future rather than a register of my intentions.
‘Fuck hope,’ says Chelsea Watego in her book Another Day in The Colony. Hope, she says, creates a false sense of security in a moment where there is so much work to be done for our safety and dignity. But in the complete absence of hope there can only be despair. Angela Davis’ advice from her 2014 talk, ‘Civil Rights in America’, is that we must act as though it’s ‘possible to radically transform the world’, and so I have tried for a pragmatic type of hope that avoids the deceitful and empty promises of utopia. The hope in my stories is not that governments and corporations will give us their grace out of the goodness of their hearts. The hope is that all our activism will eventually work, and that we will some day get all that we have been fighting for.
Goori Futurism, in form and intent, is about sovereignty and, in keeping with the themes of my stories, our future lies in our past too. In Walking the Clouds, Grace L Dillon says:
It might go without saying that all forms of Indigenous futurisms are narratives of biskaabiiyang, an Anishinaabemowin word connoting the process of ‘returning to ourselves’, which involves discovering how personally one is affected by colonisation, discarding the emotional and psychological baggage carried from its impact, and recovering ancestral traditions in order to adapt in our post-Native Apocalypse world.
For Indigenous peoples, our stories contain the keys to our ongoing survival. The answers are in our exceptionally long and peaceful history, in our cultural ways that have us living gently, yet deeply, with each other and with country in complex systems of kinship that determine relationships of responsibility and respect. We’ve already survived one genocidal apocalypse – yet we continue to live well, in our culture, under oppressive policies, through ongoing ecocide, within a destructive and unsustainable economic system. We continue to take inspiration from the strength and resilience of our old people, from our community histories and from grassroots political organising, all of which is structured on our beautiful worldview and philosophies.
Our cultural wisdom is urgently needed, not just for our young people, but for people from other cultures who might soon be facing their own version of apocalypse, as our old people did. We have millennia of expertise in living with climate change, in population stability and resource management, and in politics based on power sharing and conflict resolution. We’ve always drawn on our cultural wisdom to survive, and we always will. Wider society has a lot to learn from us.
In her powerful acceptance speech for her 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American letters, Ursula K Le Guin said:
Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.
Le Guin might as well have been explicitly talking about Indigenous peoples, given that we have never assimilated into the fear-stricken society that colonised us.
In these abject and uncertain times, it’s important for all people to see themselves enduring into the future, but for colonised people whose ancestors survived attempted genocide, its especially important that our descendants will get to enjoy the legacies that we are trying to build for them. After all, our worldviews and philosophies are as relevant today as they have been for countless millennia, and our stories contain the secrets of tens of thousands of years of survival – a feat no other people on earth can boast.
We must continue to imagine ourselves into pragmatically hopeful futures and work toward the kind of world we dream of. It’s a matter of ethics and cultural responsibility that our children see hope and good living in their futures too. We can model this with spec fic representation that centres and celebrates us: with three-dimensional, thriving characters, who live in healthy, creative, well-connected communities, who practise resilient, living cultures, all grounded in strong connections to country.
I grew up reading futurism whose authors had either assimilated or annihilated people who thought and related the way I do. I never read any stories that centred us in our sovereign ways. I wanted to remedy this, so I wrote the stories I wanted to read – stories where we are not just background characters in a colonial Dreamtime fantasy or lone wolves on a journey of self-focused questing, but as a community of heroes, just like our people have always been part of, and deserve to see ourselves reflected in.
Dr Mykaela Saunders is a Koori/Goori and Lebanese writer and teacher, and the editor of THIS ALL COME BACK NOW, the world’s first anthology of Blackfella speculative fiction (UQP, 2022). Mykaela won the 2022 David Unaipon Award for her manuscript ALWAYS WILL BE: stories of Goori sovereignty from the future(s) of the Tweed, forthcoming with UQP in 2024. Her novel LAST RITES OF SPRING was also shortlisted for the Unaipon Award in 2020, and received a Next Chapter Fellowship in 2021. Mykaela has won prizes for short fiction, poetry, life writing and research, including the Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize and the Oodgeroo Noonuccal Indigenous Poetry Prize.