Returning to Our Futures
This All Come Back Now: An Anthology of First Nations Speculative Fiction
by Mykaela Saunders (ed.)
Published May 2022
In the Overture to This All Come Back Now, Goori editor and contributor Mykaela Saunders likens the gathering of stories within to a mixtape. Saunders recalls being a teenager in a pre-internet age when mixtapes and compilation CDs were their gateways to finding new and different music that moved and excited them:
Short story anthologies are like mixtapes, and I want you to think of this book as a burnt CD from me to you, a way for you to sample new worlds, a mishmash of styles gathered together that speak to similar themes, and an opportunity to find exciting writers you might not have otherwise come across.
This All Come Back Now is a new anthology of First Nations spec fic featuring twenty-two stories by new, emerging and already established First Nations writers from across Australia. Like all things First Nations, the stories in Saunders’ mix are not new ways of being, believing, doing, and telling. Their more recent appearance in print, along with the works of First Nations writers from Turtle Island, are the material manifestations of ways of being, knowing and doing that have always been here.
Literary definitions of speculative fiction as a genre are nebulous and mainly Euro-centric in their terminologies and understandings of temporality. Spec fic is generally defined as a broad category of fiction encompassing genres with elements considered not to exist within consensus reality, such as recorded history, the visual field of nature, or the present universe as defined by and centring the west. The genres under this umbrella category include, but are not limited to, science fiction, fantasy, horror, superhero fiction, alternate history, utopian and dystopian fiction, and supernatural fiction, as well as combinations of these. Such works and their various themes are positioned in this context as supernatural, futuristic, as somehow springing from other imaginative realms. This definition relies on a temporal compartmentalisation that conflates speculation and futurism with linear temporal movement rather than considering alternative and simultaneous planes of beings, one of the central tenets of First Nations’ cosmology.
This All Come Back Now breaks from the temporal and geographical confinement of the standard definition of spec fic through collating a selection of works that evidence the deeper origins of this type of story and mode of storying place/s in pre-invasion cultures of First Nations peoples. This collection is ambitious in its scope, featuring a diverse range of First Nations storytellers from across the nation; and characters through whom complex relationships, inside and across country, community and culture are explored. The writing in this collection speculates and projects beyond technology, beyond the confines of consensus time/s and reality/realities to produce stories that know all times are cyclic, and that all times and presences are accumulative of the gathering and growing of all things that remain. In this way these stories challenge the conventional definition of speculative as that which is based on feeling not knowledge – impulse and intuition rather than accumulated knowledges, to one that is grounded in times and places that are both accumulative and interlinked like interlocking cycles.
The worlds built within First Nations spec fic are other and otherwise; they’re outside the bounds of the everyday and mundane, unpredictable at times, not necessarily alien, foreign or dangerous – but not necessarily familiar, comforting, and safe, either. They remind us that other worlds exist; other realities abide and coincide alongside and within our own.
In the Overture, Saunders points to the irony that while the stories in this collection draw on older, deeper knowledges and ways of knowing; ‘For most of its history the Australian spec fic industry has been hostile to our stories and indeed our presence, while mining our cultures and pillaging our spirituality to trade in tired themes and tropes.’ Saunders goes on:
…the rare times you see your people written into the genre (spec fic) it is mostly by non-Indigenous authors, most of who use us and our stories as plot devices or to play out their own colonial Dreamtime fantasies.
In a 2018 essay for Westerly, Palyku law scholar and spec fic author Ambelin Kwaymullina observed the fraught historical relationship between First Nations peoples and western versions of spec fic:
I despair at the multiplicity of ways in which spec fic replicates and promulgates colonialism. It is a genre rife with stories of white saviours rescuing ‘primitive’ peoples; of alien (Indigenous) savages whose territory is rightfully seized by ‘civilised’ (usually white) human invaders; of offensive stereotypes of Indigenous and other non-white peoples; and of ‘exotic’ cultures that are appropriated from the Indigenous and non-Western peoples of this Earth. Speculative fiction has both sustained the oppression of Indigenous peoples (through the telling of stories that support the assumed superiority of Western life-ways over all others) and has itself been an oppressor through, for example, the appropriation of Indigenous cultures, knowledges, and identities. For a genre which, at least in part, purports to be about the future, spec fic has consistently and pervasively replicated the colonial past. (Kwaymullina’s emphasis)
Since settler colonialism operates through a process of elimination, replacement, and over-layering of stories of place; and the logic of settler colonialism is the establishment of ongoing settler, survival, and dominance in the place where the invasion occurred, laying possessive claim to the future of that place, underpins settler structures of colonialism. Literature, speculative fiction, in this case as Kwaymullina and Saunders both note, has played and still does play a major role as a tool of settler colonial futurity that attempts to monopolise the material and political futures of the space it occupies. In this permanent virtuality of the settler on stolen lands, settler futurity attempts to render First Nations peoples as knowable and containable within the geo-political state and within the state of the settler imagination.
First Nations spec fic writers, such as Anishinaabe scholar and writer Grace Dillion, Ojibwe writer Sierra Adare – as well as Ambelin Kwaymullina – write in a way that breaks through the structures of containment of settler futurity to centre First Nations values. They write towards a decolonial project that unwrites settler ‘control and knowing of the future’ and the present and the past and re-establishes our own ways of knowing, being and telling. As Saunders points out in the Overture,
Spec fic as a Western genre, employs devices that our cultural stories have dealt with for millennia – the difference is, to us these stories aren’t always parsed out into fiction or fantasy, as they are often just ways we experience life. For example: time travel isn’t such a big deal when you belong to a culture that experiences all times simultaneously, not in a progressive straight line like Western cultures do.
Saunders goes on to note that so many common spec fic themes are ‘just stone-cold reality for us’. Contemporary Australia for First Nations peoples is a post-apocalyptic nation that is not even close to the over-used settler platitude of ‘post-colonial’. A place where ecocide has been enacted together with attempted genocide of First Nations peoples. All our stories are now told and written on stolen lands never ceded. First Nations writers do not have to invent dystopian, climate-crisis scenarios to write into. This is colonial reality. Writers and editors such as Saunders write and select stories that write away from colonial futurity and its expectations of rational materialism to stories grounded in the specificity of peoples and their abilities to experience all times simultaneously through embodied experiences. They make space for meaningful engagements and encounters dismissed by colonial authorities but that are central to cultural resurgence and recovery of other ways of knowing, being, and abiding.
How, then, does First Nations spec fic and futurism as redefined and reclaimed by First Nations writers like those represented in this collection build and write the decolonial space that is beyond, above and below the confines of state futurity? The term Indigenous futurism was coined by Anishinaabe academic Grace Dillon to describe a form of storytelling whereby Indigenous authors use the speculative fiction genre to challenge colonialism and imagine Indigenous futures. Dillon sees Indigenous Futurism as a distinct practice that represents the continuation of Indigenous storytelling and value systems and weds Indigenous intellectualism, scientific and technological literacy, and understandings of time, space, and non-human agency. ‘Indigenous Futurism’, Dillon argues, is ‘not new, just overlooked’. Ambelin Kwaymullina defines Indigenous Futurism as an expression of Indigenous standpoints that can relativise and reconfigure the entrapment of a singular colonial reality and future. Brian Kamaoli Kuwada (Kānaka Maoli) and Aiko Yamashiro (Japanese/Okinawan/Chamorro) remind us that:
The act of bringing new life to or Indigenous stories reawakens our lands and peoples to remember the power we have always had, to feed our families and strangers, to care for the past the future. Hope is fed by our ability to apprehend and trust storied connections, by the rush of unexplainable movement, by the unruly growing of our love and gratitude for strange and marvellous ways we live on.
Ojibwe writer Sierra Adare describes spec fic, as a space of the ‘perfect paradox’ for study regarding its effects on Indigenous people. Saunders defines First Nations spec fic in this way:
…a big and porous basket that holds all the slippery types of stories together, including science fiction, climate fiction, alternate history, futurism, post/apocalyptic fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, fantasy, horror, gothic fiction, surrealism, magic realism, slipstream fiction.
Use of the word slippery is a key to the way First Nations spec fic reclaims space and asserts a textual sovereignty outside of settler futurity. At its most literal level, something slippery is difficult to hold, or to stand on, or grip hold of. On a more abstract level it is that which is evasive, unpredictable, and elusive. The word slippery also conjures fluidity, and the capacity to change shape and direction or shape-shift in forms that do not always immediately meet the naked eye.
Saunders draws on the analogy of a mixtape to articulate their process and method of selecting and compiling pieces for this collection. They speak of their real ‘pride and joy’ in both making or receiving a mixtape as a teenager, as ‘mixtapes and compilation CDs’ were their gateway to finding new music that excited and moved them. They speak too of the sheer pleasure of being exposed to new genres that you have not otherwise have encountered.
Saunders’ first exposure to First Nations spec fic and futurism was through anthologies and collections of writers from outside of Australia. In 2016, Jamaican born spec fic writer Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan’s 2004 edited anthology So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial science fiction and fantasy; and Dillon’s 2012 edited collection Walking the Clouds: An anthology of Indigenous science fiction came to Saunders’ attention. They read both with much excitement and acknowledge these two works as the catalyst for them to begin researching and writing their own spec fic, critically and creatively.
With few exceptions which Saunders’ describes as ‘un-Australian futurism’ anthologies – meaning those that do not re-establish a settler future, or write difference as deficit, such as After Australia (edited by Michael Mohammad Ahmad, 2020), and Collisions: Fictions of the future (edited by Leah Jing McIntosh, Cher Tan, Adalya Nash Hussein and Hassan Abul, 2020), the landscape here is sparse for diverse spec fic and futurism that interrupts and or writes against the grain of national narratives of homogeneity and heteronormativity. Undaunted by the glaring dearth of visibly published First Nations spec fic in Australia, Saunders set out to gather and collate stories from a growing number of First Nations writers who write into this ‘broad-sweep’, mishmash, eclectic ‘basket’ that Saunders refers to. They sought works that will speak back to white Australia’s literal and literary territorialism over past present and future with a multiplicity of fresh voices.
Saunders encouraged blackfellas to submit stories whether they were emerging or established writers, unpublished or widely read, whether they had written spec fic before or were writing it for the very first time. Their aim was to let the collection take shape according to the stories submitted rather than forcing the offerings into a preconceived paradigm.
This All Come Back Now takes its title from the opening story, ‘Muyum, a Transgression’ by Bunjalung writer Evelyn Araluen. The title holds much resonance for the basket of offerings the collection contains; and, in the lives of First Nations peoples. As Saunders explains ‘this all come back now’ for First Nations people means many things. It is all that has been taken from us, all that we collectively mourn, that which we attempt to recover and revive, and things that return to haunt and hound us that we thought we gotten rid of. People and things return and are returned in some of these stories, and there are threads and themes that surface and resurface. Above all, ‘this all come back now’ is the cyclic cosmology of First Nations ways of knowing and being in places where all times and multiple realities can be experienced contemporaneously. In Walking the Clouds, a work which Saunders acknowledges they are both indebted to and inspired by, Grace Dillon describes this cyclic cosmology as ‘Biskaabiiyang – Returning to Ourselves’ – meaning all-times at once.
‘Muyum, a Transgression’ subverts the tired Australian gothic narrative where Aboriginal Countries are reduced to a setting of the generic ‘Australian bush’ – a place of lurking danger in which white children are stolen by banksia-men and bunyips; and other ‘unknown horrors’ lie in wait for industrious settlers. In Araluen’s story the horror arises from what has been done to land in the name of progress and through colonial institutions like galleries, libraries, archives, and museums. The protagonist walks with spirit Jirrajirra through the homestead Muyum at hill Slaughter.
We pass bedless bedrooms on our way to the museum. Oh, the smell. The hot heavy haze of old brown. Here the dead have been assembled in cabinets, stacked so high the walls are heaving in on us.
Many stories in this collection slip between visual consensus reality and alternative planes of being and knowing simultaneously. Karen Wyld’s story ‘Clatter Tongue’ is one such piece. Set in Australian suburbia, protagonist Treanna’s anxiety invokes the dis-ease First Nations people experience in settler society in confined colonial spaces. Another such story is an excerpt of Uncle Sam Watson’s Kadaitcha Sung. Characters in these stories slip in and out, underneath, above, and in between the cracks of colonialism crossing temporal and spatial zones seamlessly like Tommy in ‘The Kadaitcha Sung’. Tommy moves from the urban setting of a pub to attend sacred rituals and duties in alternate realms and realities before arriving back to ‘now-time’ at Fingal mish for a tongue-lashing by a fierce Aunty. There is no magic in these stories. These are the alternative realities of First Nations peoples.
Several stories in the collection speak to and of the spectral and the spectrality of beings that exist in First Nations realities. Samuel Wagan Watson’s story ‘Closing Time’, Kalem Murray’s ‘In His Father’s Footsteps’, and Jasmin McGaughey’s ‘Jacaranda Street’ are three such stories that slip between hauntings, and where the textures of past and present intertwined are beautifully rendered. Murray’s story takes us on a journey into mangroves. A father in danger of losing his son to western scepticism narrowly manages to claw him back from being ‘yanked and rent and ripped’ like a ‘fish on a hook’ into another world when he fails to heed warnings about treading carefully on country. Wagan Watson sees the adult son of an elderly man recalling a law professor speaking of fact and doubt – it’s not what you know it’s what you can prove – as he watches the entity of his elderly father carried off with the ‘end of a wasted cigarette’.
In the remains of the day another ghost chasing ghosts. Darkness and uncertainty engulfing everything.
In ‘Jacaranda St’ Tam is chugging along uneven bitumen at night, as seeping darkness creeps over the blooming jacarandas when an old woman appears.
From the gnarled trunk of a tree she stepped out, and the beam of my headlights cast her yellow. Her skin was beautiful dark, darker than mine, and her hair a deep grey that fell to her waist.
The mysterious woman flags Tam down and asks to be ‘taken home.’
‘Right’ I said, after a moment, because who was I to say we didn’t know each other or I had no clue where her home was?
Lisa Fuller’s story ‘Myth This’, revolving around a Murri family’s camping trip, subverts the ‘settler bush horror trope’ in a similar vein to Araluen’s story, but with a shift in emphasis to the presence/s of family across temporal zones, also a theme of Laniyuk’s transgenerational story, ‘Nimeybirra’. Cross-generational call-backs give seamless form to these stories to show the perpetuum of First Nations ancestors and descendants in conversation, connected through story. Laniyuk’s story also offers insight into what First Nations trans-Tasman solidarity could look like.
Many stories in This All Come Back Now are initially set in urban spaces or in angular, inside spaces which at first place each piece and their character in the ‘colonial now’. Few however remain in such confined spaces of time or place or accept the restrictions and constraint they seek to impose. ‘Snake of Light’ by Loki Liddle is set in the stultifying interior of a small-town pub, as is Adam Thompson’s ‘Your Own Aborigine; John Morrissey’s ‘Five Minutes’, revolves around a public servant; Merryana Salem’s ‘When From’ explores a corporate dystopia; Alison Whittaker’s story ‘The Centre’ is set in urban Redfern; and Timmah Ball’s stirring story ‘An Invitation’ interrogates the epicentre of visible colonialism – the ‘built environment’ through architecture.
Yet all these writers refuse the containment of the opening ‘spaces of colonialism’. Liddle takes the small-town prejudices and bigotries into the realm of ‘pay-back’ and justice to unfold a refreshing story of retribution. Thompson’s ‘Your Own Aborigine’ echoes colonial government polices of paternalism and the repealing of 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act into a close-future scenario that is humorous and cheeky, but which also cautions against what could all too easily become a paternalistically controlled future. Morrissey’s protagonist is rendered through a nuanced layering of alternative realities as they project their challenges from within a government department onto the page. Salem makes use of the recent pandemic and the insatiable international appetite for films that are ‘uniquely Australian’ combined with time travel and humour to build the world of a corporate dystopia that is not too far from the present reality of Australian capitalism and exploitation of environment and people.
Alison Whittaker’s story ‘The Centre’ brings a not-too-distant climate-altered future into focus. This is a place where contradictory slogans of Orwellian proportions are freakishly resonant with current government tokenism and duplicity of language and practice towards First Nations peoples.
The Centre was a place of contradictions. It brutalised and sustained everything.
In ‘An Invitation’, Timmah Ball’s protagonist, middle aged urban-planner Nell ponders the reality that permeates western cities ‘carving sadness into the land through slick metallic forms’. In a post-urban environment where buildings have disappeared and where cities helped create the climate catastrophe, Nell reflects on the words of Anishinaabe/Zhaaganaash architect Elsa Hoover,
Architecture enacts violence against the land and bodies both directly through its physical presence and proximity to major Indigenous communities and diffusely through its existence as a node in a larger network that mobilises violence on the ground.
Ellen van Neerven, Archie Weller, Jack Latimore, Alexis Wright, Krystal Hurst, and Mykaela Saunders take us to the precipice where present consumerism and environmental disregard and destruction collapse into a climate future of rising tides, changing shorelines, climate refugees, islanding, searing heat and twister-like dust cycles. These stories describe in visceral, sometimes savage prose a continent of discontent in which the past and present inability of settlers to care for the future generates unwellness, disease and dis-ease.
‘Water’ by Ellen van Neerven and ‘Dust Cycle’, an excerpt from Alexis Wright’s Swan Book, parallel political and environmental conspiracies and terrorisms against First Nations by successive federal governments. ‘Water’ brings the appalling treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in post-Howard Australia into sharp focus through the relationship between the human, Kaden and plantperson Larapinta in a landscape where the sea is being mined just off the coast of Canaipa (Russell Island) to create a separate segregated state for Aboriginal people.
Alexis Wright’s ‘Dust Cycle’ crafts a worryingly plausible climate-changed world where Aboriginal people are living in an army-controlled compound – not too far removed from the reality of the Northern Territory Intervention. Wright shifts the discourse of deficit and dysfunctionality, so commonly assigned by media to First Nations peoples, back to the absurdity of government policies dictated from the remote community of Canberra. Dysfunctionality is not configured as an innate ‘problem’ of First Nations people as it all too often is in national discourse. Dysfunctionality is reconfigured as a symptom of colonial disease in a landscape where blackfellas and all living creatures can become infected with colonial diseases and afflictions like country itself. Wright describes the mounting eyesore of colonial rubbish and waste that the Aboriginal climate refugees live with as,
…foreign history sinking there that could not be allowed to rot into the sacredness of the ground. Their conscience flatly refused to have junk buried among the ancestral spirits.
Jack Latimore takes up the theme of colonial excess and waste in ‘Old Uncle Sir’. A post -apocalyptic future is governed politically, socially, and economically in a feudalist medievalist time warp kingdom built from the rubbish of capitalist consumerism. Time spins in chaotic circles in this trash-landscape as Latimore jibes through a Hamlet-style plot at notions of western linearity, progress, and misplaced notions that western history can know the past and that western science and technology can control the future.
‘Purple Plains’, an excerpt from Archie Weller’s novel The Land of the Golden Clouds, takes us to the globally warmed future of Australia. In a sparse seething climate, the remaining population of the continent live in distinct cultural clans. Weller’s post-apocalyptic, climate altered future is not without hope as one group of climate refugees – the Aboriginal Keepers of the Trees – live far into the future, continuing the traditions of the ancestors. Krystal Hurst’s moving story ‘Lake Mindi’, also focusing on climate refugees, follows a family across a moonscape country seeking Lake Mindi – a place of renewal and rebirth. Hurst offers us hope beyond the apocalypse as the family draws on ancient knowledges to walk into the future as they draw closer to the inland lake where Yuulanga’s spirit rests and watches over ‘this place and now us too’.
Mykaela Saunders wades us into the rising waters of the future lapping at our shores in their story ‘Terranora’. A place that Aunty Jack explains to a group of climate refugees called ‘ocean bikies’ means little water in the local language. A place whitefellas used to call South Tweed Heads. Nan Jack tells the newcomers:
Our people have always been here.
We’re a multicultural success story with everyone knowing their rights and responsibilities within our Law. These Laws are recorded in our stories, which show us how to look after each other and this place.
Closing the collection at the same time as bringing us back to where we started – in a revolving cycle of all times ever-present and all times unresolved are Hannah Donnelly and Kathryn Geldhill-Tucker. In ‘After the End of their World’ Donnelly takes us to a post-human environment where non-human custodians return to perform cultural burns on country. Yandmula and her sisters communicate through thermal signals and windsurf dust storms over desert places tracking the vegetation map back to tussock grasslands. ‘Protocols of Transference’ by Gledhill-Tucker too, takes us across an ever-shrinking threshold to a world where the narrator yarns to Artificial Intelligence with nuance, emotion, and sadness in a now unpeopled environment.
After reading the gatherings of First Nations’ futurism that Saunders has collated and curated it is poignant to ask: Are the stories in this collection speculation or accumulation of all times? How hard do we have to speculate to get to the scenarios these writers present within the ever-present worlds they build for us in these stories? These are not distant imagined futures. This is the horizon for a nation that keeps consuming its future through environmental terrorism and ignoring the older deeper knowledges and stories it is built over.
All these stories write away from what First Nations writers like Kwaymullina, Dillon, and Adare despaired of and rallied against – a replication and a promulgation of colonialism that writes us as deficit and vanishing into a settler-controlled future. There are no white saviours, rescuing ‘primitive peoples’ from themselves in territories seized by Euro-like invaders. There are no tired offensive stereotypes of First Nations and/or culturally and linguistically diverse peoples. There are no ‘exotic’ and/or ‘mystical, magical’ cultures of naïve ‘childlike yet doomed’ peoples to be exploited. Western notions of objectivity, rationalism, superiority, and linearity are relativised and ridiculed within broader systems of time, space, place, and knowledges. What the First Nations writers in This All Come Back Now reveal is that the only civilization in need of saving is the present western capitalist one – for its capacity to self-destruct and for its inability to listen.
First Nations spec fic writers in this collection make space for meaningful engagements and encounters dismissed by colonial authorities that are central to cultural resurgence and recovery of other ways of knowing, being, and abiding. These works remind us that there are other ways of being in the world than those we’ve been trained to accept as normal. They offer us hopeful alternatives to the oppressive structures and conditions we’re continually told are inevitable material reality. These stories slip and weave in trans-experiential, trans-temporal arcs that transcend and elude the containment of colonial futurity to assert textual sovereignty. They centre possibilities within First Nations’ value systems, toward First Nations’ decolonial purposes and spaces that are coterminous within our cosmos and asynchronous with western time, history and place making. When the parameters of reality and normality are framed by social presumptions that naturalize colonialism and its effects and to presume ongoing First Nations deficit, our futures are compromised, controlled, and contained. Our futures can only be realised if we imagine ourselves otherwise and write ourselves otherwise to the reality colonialism assigns.
This All Come Back Now is an act of radical subversion and intellectual sovereignty. The limits of Western rationalism, claims to objectivity, universalism, and the singularity of binaries are savaged and dismantled through the power of local knowledges, parallel existences, life forms other than human and alternative planes of being. In this collection First Nations writers transform and reclaim a genre that has defined Western attitudes towards race, colonialism, and technology into a vehicle of First Nations continuance, resilience, and resistance. Saunders signs off the Overture to This All Come Back Now with an expression of pride and joy in bringing us the world’s first anthology of Blackfella speculative fiction. They deserve to be proud. They bring us a love-letter to country, to family, to ancestors, to all-times simultaneously and to writing the future.
Sierra Adare, 2005, Indian Stereotypes in TV Science Fiction: First Nations’ Voices Speak Out University of Texas Press, pp.1-2
Grace Dillon, 2012, Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction University of Arizona Press, pp. 1–3.
Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada and Aiko Yamashiro, ‘Rooted in Wonder: Tales of Indigenous Activism and Community Organizing,’ Marvels & Tales (30.1, 2016), pp. 20-21.
Ambelin Kwaymullina, 2018, ‘Literature, Resistance, and First Nations Futures: storytelling from an Australian Indigenous women’s standpoint in the twenty-first century and beyond’ Westerly Volume 63 Number 2, 2018 pp. 140-153.