I was in a small room recently where a crowd of writers was questioning a panel of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writing experts. It felt as if there was no oxygen, not only because of the number of people and the lowness of the ceiling, but also because of the intensity of demand targeted at the panel.
“How can we tell stories about your culture?” the three were asked. “How can we tell our stories, if you’re going to insist on ownership?”
Over and over again the experts explained, first, “It’s not a single culture. It’s many.” Second, “There are ways of approaching and ways of writing. Let’s start at the beginning.”
When Australian speculative fiction writers interpret Indigenous cultures the focus is often on the land. The relationship between the land and the people is at the heart of the interpretation, because of the role the land plays in Australian culture and because of our cultural beliefs concerning the relationship between Indigenous Australians and the land.
One of the best known writers to venture into this territory is Terry Dowling. Terry Dowling’s post-apocalyptic world in his Tom Tyson/Tom Rynosseros stories has at its heart the land, which appears almost as a character in its own right and where living spaces are split according to race. There is a dominant race called “Ab’O” who control much of the technology and access to the country as a whole – most other Australians live in coastal cities. This living pattern extrapolates from the popular demographics of current Australia (where most of the population does indeed live on the coast), and the apostrophe in ‘Ab’O’ points to a mythicisation.
Much of the critical commentary on Dowling relates to the lyrical and mythic-realist nature of his work: only a small portion relates to the people he transforms into mythic Australians and how Dowling’s interpretation of their relationship with the land relates to the actual relationship with the land of those he uses as inspiration. Van Ikin, Leigh Blackmore and others have discussed the politicisation aspect of this and suggest that it’s a power inversion extrapolated from current Australia. Blackmore states (2009, 16), “Contextually, Dowling’s treatment of indigeneity in these stories is sensitive and insightful, his tales unafraid of confronting troubling issues around racial protocols, encouraging the reader to remain highly sensitive to cultural and racial difference.”
Dowling however, in his search for myth and meaning, may have fallen into the same trap as the writers at the meeting I attended and extrapolated a relatively monolithic culture. We don’t see Europeans as sharing a uniform culture, so why Indigenous Australians? Ikin has argued otherwise, but none of the scholarship on this matter has, as yet, been by specialists in Indigenous Australia. Eurocentric Australia interprets Dowling’s Ab’Os and the land in Dowling’s work as respectful and complex. I would like to agree with Van Ikin and Leigh Blackmore, but I too am a European-Australian and lack the specialist knowledge to make such an assessment.
Part of the problem is that non-Indigenous Australia has several means of judging cultural integrity. One of those means is that Indigenous Australians are seen as having a special link with the land. The whole Rynosseros cycle is based on this assumption. It’s a key element in the work of many writers: Dowling is not alone.
The underlying assumption is that Australia is ancient, Indigenous cultures are ancient, and therefore these elements can be drawn on by authors without too much trouble. Of course, they are living cultures, which is why these assumptions are problematic. This was a sub-text in some of the questions that night, and it’s a similar sub-text to the one underlying Dowling’s invented Australia.
The bottom line is that the land is an important element of Australian culture, and our understanding of Indigenous Australians and their relationship with the land is equally important. Australian writers from all backgrounds will bring those elements of culture into a wide range of speculative fiction tales. For instance, in Jack Dann and Janeen Webb’s Dreaming Down Under the land plays a consistent role across a number of stories.There is another key aspect to the set of questions. Writers don’t just want to use Indigenous cultural traditions in their work (and that night they were looking for legitimate ways of doing so) – some want ways of giving legitimacy to their interpretations of stories about the land.
Two writers didn’t accept that they couldn’t just demand a specific permission on the spot. These two returned over and over again to the concepts they had for their stories. “I want to write this particular story” was the construct they were working with, “And this particular story requires these precise elements from your culture.” This was a demand for cultural dominance: my interpretation is more valid than yours, but I appreciate that I should ask permission.
Neither of these particular authors wanted to know how good their understanding was of any of these elements from the perspective of any Indigenous Australian, much less the ones who had the precise ownership they needed: the writers had already decided what they wanted and were seeking ways of making it ‘legal’. It was their story, the land was already interpreted, and they had ownership and just wanted clearance.
I suspect this comes down to the fact that, for some writers, the daring of writing speculative fiction is enough to give them a special permission to take stories from anywhere and to use them in the way they see best. In their mind, the right of the writer to tell stories trumps the right of the cultural owner to keep their culture intact.
Ambelin Kwaymullina explains (Kwaymullina, 2014, Edges, Centres and Futures, 2) how she sees the consequences of cultural owners being deprived of those rights: “I am conscious, always, of the many ways in which the Indigenous peoples of this planet continue to be pushed to the edges, those dangerous places where it is easy to fall out of the world.” It’s worrying that those doing the pushing might be doing it as part of creating something, and that their right to create trumps someone else’s right to stay out of dangerous places.
This is not the first time I’ve seen that set of questions and answers, nor that set of breathtaking assumptions. It won’t be the last. My least favourite occasion was at Aussiecon4, where an audience member told a panel on cultural appropriation, “I will write any story I want. I am entitled.” Cultural ownership belongs to the SF writer according to this approach. Obviously, I find this approach disturbing.
I find it particularly disturbing in light of the fact that it ought to be possible to write non-destructive fiction using Indigenous understanding. Patricia Wrightson was early in seeking permission and trying to understand the complex relationships and knowledge when she worked on The Nargun and the Stars, a fact that was referenced by the panel at that interesting meeting.
For some cultural elements, however, regardless of how key they are to story lines in a piece of fiction, the answer to “Can I use this in this way?” will still be “No.” The question of the relationship with the land is the perfect test case for what can be told and what can’t, for it is so important to the Indigenous Australian cultures I’ve encountered that losing ownership of the stories regarding it could well be one of those elements that, as Kwaymullina says makes it easy “to fall out of the world”. It’s not a question of who owns the rights to interpret and tell stories about the sunburnt country, it’s how those sweeping plains and ragged mountain ranges fit into a highly sensitive element of cultural ownership.
The problem with the writers in that cramped room is that most of them were focussed on preconceived stories.
We’re taught that the key element of a speculative fiction story is its “what if?” factor, or its horror, or its fantastical component. This means that some writers will fix the story quite solidly in their mind before they query concerning cultural elements. If they don’t have a strong understanding of the culture before they begin, they start, as some of the questioners did, from a potentially appropriative position. This is aggravated by the fact that Eurocentric writers are privileged enough in their culture that somewhere inside they cannot understand the possibility of destruction, nor what that destruction means.
The positive change is that there are more and more meetings like this and that more writers from Indigenous backgrounds are out there and being seen. Ambelin Kwaymullina is the obvious example of a speculative fiction writer who uses her own background to develop core aspects of her fiction, but there are others. They aren’t all classified as speculative fiction writers (Alexis Wright and Melissa Lukashenko are known as literary writers, for instance, but their view of the land is so very different to Dowling’s, and Wright’s work is also both mythic and poetic) but their work can be seen as magic realism, or liminal, or alternate world. It can be interpreted in so many ways, because it uses unfamiliar cultural constructs to inform the heart of the novel.
It’s amazing, and it’s wonderful, and it means that other speculative fiction writers now have models for what it can mean to use quite differently-shaped realities in one’s fiction. After reading Alexis Wright, I cannot look at speculative fiction set in Australia in the same way. It changes the way I see the land and it changes the stories I can tell using that particular country.
Speculative fiction, at its best, is transformative. I find it concerning that a group of speculative fiction writers, in this case, are the ones who cannot see the transformation, but I find it wonderful that there are writers working now who will enable that change within other writers.
Right across the Australian continent, tales are core to how Indigenous Australians shape and protect cultures. The land is a key component in them, in ways that European-origin outsiders such as myself can’t understand without doing the work. When we change those tales or when we appropriate those tales, we’re saying that we are more important than those specific cultures. We don’t intend to. Our hearts are in the right place. But, hearts are not enough. The land is not a neutral backdrop for stories. It’s no use mourning once the culture is destroyed.
The bottom line is who we speak for when we write. We don’t always know, and we need to.
Gillian's latest novel, Language[dot]doc 1305 is out now:
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