Here’s a special Mother of Invention preview: an essay by Ambelin Kwaymullina.  Ambelin is an Aboriginal writer and illustrator from the Palyku people. The homeland of her people is located in the dry, vivid beauty of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Ambelin has written and illustrated a number of award-winning picture books as well as writing a dystopian series – The Tribe – for young adults. When not writing or illustrating, Ambelin teaches law and spends time with her family and her dogs. 

I am a Palyku author of Indigenous Futurisms, a term coined by Anishinaabe academic Grace Dillon to describe a form of storytelling whereby Indigenous peoples use the speculative fiction genre to challenge colonialism and imagine Indigenous futures.[1] Indigenous Futurist writers draw from worldviews shaped by our ancient cultures, from our inheritance of the multigenerational trauma of colonialism, and from the sophisticated understandings of systems of oppression that are part of the knowledge base of all oppressed peoples. Because of this, we share similarities that shape our works and provide a fruitful base for cross-textual analysis.[2] But because we are many individuals from many Indigenous nations, each with our own homelands, cultures, and identities, there is also great diversity between us all. As such, my viewpoint is one among many Indigenous viewpoints.

On Indigenous Futurisms

I have a conflicted relationship with speculative fiction that will be familiar to many an Indigenerd. I am filled with hope by dreams of future possibilities and by explorations of the potential of humanity. But 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.

How, then, am I to locate myself in relation to a storytelling form which is itself complicit in my continued oppression? How am I to speak of Indigenous futures within a genre that has too-often fallen for the setter mythos of Indigenous cultures as being ‘pre-history’, ‘pre-literate’, pre-everything that Western thought has historically associated with human ‘advancement’? As settler academic David Gaertner has written, in critiquing problematic reactions to the notion of Indigenous SF: “What’s a story like you doing in a genre like this?”[3] I sometimes feel that I don’t know what I’m doing here. I sense this most keenly when I am the only Indigenous person in an audience at a book reading or film; while others around me cheer on the journeys of humans through the stars I find myself wanting to cry out a warning to the alien inhabitants of far-off worlds. Indigenous peoples know too well the apocalypse the arrivals of strangers can herald, and the dystopia that follows the cataclysm.

Except I do know what I’m doing here. Because this is Indigenous land. It’s all Indigenous land, those vast territories claimed by the colonising nation-states under various iterations of the discovery lie (the notion that land belongs not to its inhabitants but to the first Western Christian nation to claim it, and to sustain that claim through cycles of genocidal violence). The Indigenous peoples of the globe have a rich history of earth-based literacies, including our scientific literacies. And much of what Western literature often casts as ‘speculative’ is part of the Indigenous everyday. Notions of non-linear time; of communication with non-human species; of the underlying connections that map the world – so what? These are things my grandmother knew, and all the many generations before her. Grace Dillon has described all Indigenous Futurisms as narratives of “returning to ourselves”,[4] and I would add that in so doing, we also return ourselves to the world. In this regard, Indigenous Futurists, like all Indigenous writers, are part of what Cherokee speculative fiction author and academic Daniel Heath Justice has characterised as ‘imagining otherwise’. In his words:

the possibility inherent in Indigenous literature … [is] of … considering different ways of abiding in and with the world that are about Indigenous presence, not absence, Indigenous wholeness, not fragmentation, Indigenous complexity, not one-dimensionality. When Indigenous writers take up pen or keyboard or carving knife or bead and sinew, they bring their talents and visionary capacity to the work, and in so doing help to create a different world for themselves, for their communities, and for their neighbours (friend, foe, and unaffiliated alike).[5]

On Artificial Intelligence

I am the author of a young adult speculative fiction trilogy, The Tribe, which follows an Indigenous protagonist on an Earth of the future. One of the matters I had to consider in writing this series was the nature of artificial intelligence – and particularly, the humanity (or otherwise) of a synthetic lifeform – from the perspective of my Indigenous character.

My first thought was, what is the relevance of whether someone is considered human or not? This is a thing that has meaning in Western systems. But Indigenous systems generally do not contain a hierarchy that privileges human life above all other life. The creative Ancestors who made the Indigenous homelands of Australia themselves took many (non-human) forms, such as the Seven Sisters who became stars, and the mighty rainbow serpents. And the Palyku kinship system, like the kin systems of other Aboriginal nations, recognises connections between all life. The fact that a lifeform is not human doesn’t mean they are not my also brother, sister, mother, father, grandmother, or grandfather. Further, ‘human’ is not a fixed category across greater cycles of existence. In some Aboriginal systems, those with an affiliation with a particular shape of life may have been that shape before and will be again when they pass out of this cycle and into the next.

In such a context, whether a lifeform is human isn’t determinative of the respect with which that lifeform should be treated. But the lifeform I was writing of identified as human and wished to be considered as such. Was there anything in their synthetic nature that would prevent this?

My response was to remember. I remembered the long struggles of my ancestors who suffered under laws and policies that were founded in a characterisation of Indigenous peoples as ‘less than’. I remembered, too, that I know what discrimination feels like. Not to the degree my ancestors did, of course. But my life is not free from moments when everything I think, believe, hope and dream doesn’t matter. When I am just another Indigenous woman in the eyes of an individual – or an institution – to whom Indigenous women are ‘less than’. In these moments, I feel as if I am falling, just dropping off the edge of the world. And I know that this is how it is possible for so many Indigenous women to actually drop off the edge of the world – we could not be lost in such numbers if our lives mattered to the same degree as the lives of others. This knowledge brings with it a strange mixture of anger and vulnerability. Anger at the injustice. Vulnerability, because I know myself to be powerless insofar that there is no achievement I can attain that will ever convince anyone who believes that I am ‘less than’ that I am not. Once equality has to be earned, it is no longer equality. And as I wrote into one of my novels, a belief that any person is less than human is evidence of the inhumanity of those who hold the belief, not those who are subjected to it.[6] This led me to the view that, as a person who knows the viciousness to which a denial of humanity leads, I could not and should not deny the humanity of others.

I was aware that in considering the nature of the synthetic, I was dealing with a category that does not exist in Indigenous systems; or at least, not in the way it is usually understood in the West. The Indigenous peoples of the globe are certainly familiar with artificial contexts – colonialism, for example, is an artificial context that has privileged the life-ways of Western Europe and resulted in false (artificial) dominance of a single way of knowing, doing and being. But Indigenous systems generally do not contain a hard and fast distinction between the natural (in terms of that which is part of, or created by, nature) and the artificial (in terms of that which is not). This distinction is itself a reductive binary, and Indigenous knowledge-ways are holistic in nature.

I have previously described holism, in relation to the systems of the Aboriginal nations of Australia, as meaning that the whole is more than its parts and the whole is in all its parts. The reality that the creative Ancestors forged can be thought of as a multidimensional pattern that is grounded in the homelands of individual Aboriginal nations. It is a pattern of many threads in which every thread is connected to – and therefore has a relationship with – all of the others. These individual threads are every shape of life, consisting of human, rock, crow, wind, rain, tree, sun, moon and all other life in Country. The pattern made by the whole is in each thread, and all the threads together make the whole. And this web of connections repeats again in the processes by which the pattern itself is sustained; the many daily interactions through which life is ‘held up’.[7]

There is thus nothing artificial in the sense of there being anything that exists in isolation from the connections that are the world. Artificiality is only created when these connections are denied, leading to the belief that it is possible to sit ‘outside’ or ‘above’ life, and that actions do not have consequences that ripple out across the whole of creation. Moreover, because the whole is more than its parts, Indigenous systems always allow for the unknowable, since the ‘whole’ of a lifeform – whether organic or synthetic in nature – cannot be deduced from the components alone. In addition, our individual perspectives are tied to our place within the system; it is not possible, for example, for human to fully understand what it is to be kangaroo. We cannot know everything; but that does not mean that there is nothing more to be known.

So, at the end of my journey, I reached the conclusion that I ultimately expressed in narrative:

Whether we are organic or synthetic, whether we walk on two legs or four, whether we are creatures of claw or hoof or wing or feet – it matters not. Composition does not determine character. Or greatness of soul.[8]

Conclusion

I end where I began, with my hope and despair at the speculative fiction genre. Except I would like my despair to belong to the stories of the past, and my hope to belong to the tales yet to be told – and I have some reason to believe that this might be so. There are increasing numbers of Indigenous voices speaking our truths into speculative fiction spaces. There are also increasing numbers of non-Indigenous peoples challenging the artificial context of colonialism across all forms of literature.

Colonisation, like any form of oppression, limits the visions of oppressor and oppressed. As an Indigenous storyteller, my pathway to freeing my imagination is to reject all manifestations of internalised colonisation; to battle against the continuing oppression of Indigenous peoples and all other marginalised peoples; and to imagine the trajectory of Indigenous futures uninterrupted by colonial domination. For non-Indigenous storytellers with an interest in contributing to the decolonisation of speculative fiction, there is a different path. It involves understanding settler privilege (and being willing to continually challenge it); interrogating your own experiences, cultures and traditions for your story inspirations rather than appropriating those of Indigenous and other marginalised peoples; and meaningfully acknowledging Indigenous sovereignty, including through yielding story spaces to Indigenous peoples. We none of us yet know all the tales that will be born out of a speculative fiction genre that truly looks to the future rather than the colonial past.

But they are stories I would like to hear.

Footnotes

[1] Grace Dillon (ed), Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction (University of Arizona Press 2012) 10–12.

[2] See for example the special edition of Extrapolation, an academic journal of speculative fiction, which was devoted to Indigenous Futurisms: Extrapolation (2016) 57:1-2.

[3] David Gaertner, What’s a story like you doing in a place like this? Cyberspace and Indigenous Futurism, on Novel Alliances: Allied perspectives on literature, art and new media (originally posted 23 March 23 2015; accessed 26 June 2017).

[4] Above n1, 10.

[5] Daniel Heath Justice, Why Indigenous Literatures Matter (originally posted 31 March 2012; accessed 2 July 2017).

[6] The Foretelling of Georgie Spider (Walker Books 2015) 134-135.

[7] For some discussions of the relationships between Australian Indigenous peoples and our homelands, see Vicki Grieves, Aboriginal spirituality Aboriginal philosophy: the basis of Aboriginal Social and Emotional Wellbeing, (2009) Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health; Mary Graham, Some Thoughts about the Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal Worldviews, (2008) 45 Australian Humanities Review; Kerry Arabena, Indigenous epistemology and well-being: Universe Referent Citizenship, (2008) Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Research Discussion Paper 22.

[8] The Disappearance of Ember Crow (Walker Books 2013) 318.