The below is an abridged and edited version of Ambelin Kwaymullina’s Guest of Honour Speech delivered on the 8th June at Continuum X, Melbourne, 2014
I would like to pay my respects to the Wurundjeri people and their Country, and the elders and ancient spirits of this land.
I am going to begin this speech today by telling you three things that will sound as if they are not true:
1. I do not stand in front of this audience alone.
2. I do not write speculative fiction.
3. I am not a Guest of Honour at Continuum X.
The reason these things will sound untrue is that is although we are sharing the same space we are viewing it from different perspectives.
Part of what shapes my perspective is my family and my Country, and in Aboriginal systems, familial relationships extend beyond human beings to all life in the world.
My people come from the north-west of Western Australia. There was once a colonial explorer in the north-west who painted a circle in whitewash around his homestead and then another around the nearby camp of the local Aboriginal people, with the idea that both peoples would forever stay within their respective circles. My mother told that story to one of my Aboriginal grandfathers, who said, “If he wanted to paint those … circles, he should’ve made them cross each other. Then there’d be a bit of ground in the middle where [people] could come together and talk if they felt like it.”(1)
My grandfather was a farseeing man. The beauty of the circles is that neither dominates nor subsumes the other; there is just this shared space where different peoples can come together and talk of things that matter to them both. I hope today that this room can become one of those shared spaces.
I do not stand on this stage alone
Indigenous peoples are the first peoples of the earth who now live within territories that were colonised, and continued to be dominated by, others:
As empire building and colonial settlement proceeded from the sixteenth century onward, those who already inhabited the encroached-upon lands and who were subjected to oppressive forces became known as indigenous, native, or aboriginal. Such designations have continued to apply to people by virtue of their place and condition within the life-altering human encounter set in motion by colonialism … The diverse surviving Indian communities and nations of the Western Hemisphere, the Inuit and Aleut of the Arctic, the Aboriginal people of Australia, the Maori of Aotearoa (New Zealand), Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, the Saami of the European far North, and many of the minority and non-dominant tribal peoples of Africa and Asia are generally regarded, and regard themselves, as [I]ndigenous.(2)
The Indigenous peoples of this world are not a single homogenous group. We share commonalities in terms of our worldviews and relationships to land; our experiences of colonialism; and our present day disadvantage. But we are different peoples. We are none of us Indigenous in general or in the abstract; and in so many ways, where we come from shapes who we are. Aboriginal people of Australia call our homelands our Countries, and for us, Country is much more than a place. It is an ever moving, every shifting, ever changing network of relationships; a pattern comprised of other patterns in which everything is interrelated and interdependent. Country is both alive and conscious and the source of all of consciousness. It is the web of relationships that is the world. Gumilaroi man Bob Morgan once wrote “I am my Country.”(3) And just as are homelands are diverse so too are the cultures and perspectives of Aboriginal peoples in Australia and Indigenous peoples elsewhere.
There are an estimated 370 million Indigenous peoples in the world, spread across 90 nation-states.(4) We are approximately 5% of the world’s population but 15% of the world’s poor, and one-third of the worlds extremely poor 900 million rural people.(5) Of the 7000 languages estimated to exist, Indigenous peoples speak 4000, and most of those languages are in danger of becoming extinct.(6) There are as many as 5000 different Indigenous cultures, and the areas we inhabit are often highly biodiverse.(7) This means that Indigenous peoples are in the unenviable position of being at once highly vulnerable and in possession of commercially exploitable resources. Our knowledges, our cultures, our stories have been, and are, taken by others. And whatever they are worth to other people, they are priceless to us. Laguna Pueblo author Leslie Marmon Silko once wrote: “I will tell you something about stories … They aren’t just entertain-ment…They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death … You don’t have anything if you don’t have the stories.”(8) And Sami academic Rauna Kuokkenan has warned that if Indigenous people do not have our stories we will become what we have been (mis)represented by others.(9)
The reason I do not stand here alone is because I stand here as part of my family, my culture, my Country, my people, and other Aboriginal peoples of Australia, and the other Indigenous peoples of the globe. I stand here as a small part of many greater collectives. This includes being one of many Indigenous speculative fiction writers in the world.
Multi-award winning winning writer Nalo Hopkinson, herself descended from the first people of Jamaica, the Taino/Arawak people, once famously said of science fiction that it “speaks so much about the experience of being alienated but contains so little writing by alienated people themselves.” That is changing. But anyone who pays any attention at all to discussions around diversity and speculative fiction knows that there are many who are finding the increasing presence of diverse voices to be a challenge. To be met with varying degrees of anxiety, discomfort, or outright hostility is, of course not an experience that is new to Indigenous people nor, I imagine, to any other marginalised peoples of this earth. Encountering Indigenous stories for the first time can come as a shock to those who have never heard our voices before. Wiradjuri writer and educator Jeanine Leane writes of this in the context of teaching Aboriginal texts to non-Aboriginal students:
Aboriginal writing is confronting for non-Aboriginal students when it disrupts more familiar representations of Aboriginal experience and characterisation and, most particularly, when accretions of students’ prior reading of Australian literature, history, contemporary social analysis and popular commentary contradict many of the images now encountered from Aboriginal writers and educators. Non-Aboriginal higher education students come to read an Aboriginal text against their understanding of what it means to be an Aboriginal Australian…(10)
But conversations about representing, or not representing, other peoples – about who speaks for whom; about when and why space must be specifically accorded to voices that have in the past been ignored, particularly Indigenous voices – these discussions are not new. Because of this, guidance exists for non-Indigenous peoples wishing to inform themselves about these issues, and a good starting point are the papers produced by Aboriginal people for the Australia Council for the Arts (Protocols for Producing Indigenous Writing)(11) and the Australian Society of Authors (Writing About Indigenous Australia and Australian Copyright vs Indigenous Intellectual and Cultural Property).(12)
I am not a speculative fiction writer
I should say from the outset that I have no objection to being described as a spec fic writer; it is a genre that I love and I set out to write within it. My point is that Eurocentric genre categories are difficult to apply to works that were not created out of a Eurocentric worldview, because the very notion of what is speculative and what is not relies on assumptions about the real. Aninishaabe academic and poet Kimberley Blaeser comments that the work of Indigenous authors:
often rewrites, writes over, writes through, writes differently, writes itself against the Western literary tradition. Native writers often tell a different story, tell it from a different perspective, a different worldview. They challenge the reigning literary conventions and the enshrined styles of writing both in principle and in practice.(13)
And Cherokee author Celu Amberstone says of Indigenous speculative fiction that: “our fiction is alive with new possibilities inspired by our cultural heritage, fiction that can offer new insights to our troubled world. As Indigenous peoples, we understand that the spectres of colonialism and corporate greed still haunt Earth’s future. It is our responsibility to offer humanity a new vision of the universe.”(14)
There are also some stories very common to speculative fiction that I will not tell. As Nalo Hopkinson writes “[a]rguably, one of the most familiar memes of science fiction is that of going to foreign countries and colonizing the natives…for many of us, that’s not a thrilling adventure story; it’s non-fiction, and we are on the wrong side of the strange looking ship that appears out of nowhere.”(15) Indigenous peoples, along with other colonised peoples of the world, are the world’s foremost experts in tales of ships that land on alien shores. We have lived those stories, and we know how they end. In the words of Anishinaabe scholar Grace Dillon: “it is almost commonplace to think that the Native Apocalypse, if contemplated seriously, has already taken place.”(16)
Indigenous peoples also know well those works of fantasy that portrayed us as ‘primitive savages’ or unresisting victims. There is a point in one of my books when my character, Ashala Wolf, thinks “I walk among my enemies. But I carry my friends with me.” The reason I knew Ashala needed to do that is because that is what generations of Aboriginal people did. Often the thousand small acts of defiance that made possible the continuance of Indigenous peoples and culture went unnoticed by the colonisers. That was, after all, the point – a successful resistance strategy was generally an undetectable one. The spirit and courage of the Indigenous peoples of this earth is so often not contained within, or even grasped by, the stories that have been told of us.
I am not the Guest of Honour
It matters to know what is important, and who is important. Not least because each of us will tend to take care of those we believe to be in some way significant; we are solicitious of their well-being; we notice when they are affected adversely and endeavor to do something about it. But the most important people in any room are sometimes the people who may not be in the room at all, especially if that room is a centre of power. Eualeyai and Kamillaroi academic and author Larissa Behrendt once suggested that Indigenous peoples are the benchmark against which Australian society should be judged, because “[t]he way to measure the effectiveness and fairness of our laws is to test them against the way in which they work for the poor, the marginalised and the culturally distinct. It is not enough that they work well for the rich, well-educated and culturally dominant.”(17)
The most important are always those who are the most powerless, the most vulnerable, the most disadvantaged. That will often be the very people who I write for – the children and the teenagers of this planet. They are the guests of honour. And I think of them when I gaze into the possible futures of this earth.
Grace Dillon says of Indigenous speculative fiction that “all forms of Indigenous futurisms are narratives of biskaabiiyang, an Anishinaabemowin word connoting the process of “returning to ourselves”.”(18) I would add that in so doing Indigenous writers are also returning our voices and our perspectives to the world. And when space is created for Indigenous people to speak, and the voices of other marginalised peoples to speak; when different perspectives are listened to respectfully and with understanding, we generate possibilities that did not exist before. Most of all we create the potential for balance – of perspectives, of peoples, of cultures, of life itself. We are so ingenious, we human beings. What marvels might we create if we could only be informed by other worldviews without subsuming them; if we could learn to relate to each other, and to other shapes of life, through interlocking circles?
I began this speech by making three statements that seemed untrue. I am going to end it with one more, and it is this: I have met everyone in this room before today. We have met before this week, and before this convention. The reason I know this is because I know that we like the same stories. That means that, at one time or another, we have occupied the same narrative space, and together seen impossible things. We have marveled at space ships. Fought for the liberation of other worlds. Wielded magic. Befriended dragons and aliens. Travelled the stars. And we have seen things even more impossible than these. We have seen an end to poverty, to war, to hunger. We have seen small, determined groups of people change their worlds for the better. We have seen the possibility of a just future.
We are, each of us – along with other speculative fiction fans elsewhere in the world – the people who know. We understand the great promise and the great flaws of humanity; we have seen both writ large across magical kingdoms and alternate realities and far off planets. So the question for us is not what the future will hold, because we’ve already seen a thousand variations of it. The question for us is, how do we create the futures of our dreams and not our nightmares? And like other spec fic writers before me, I believe humanity is now living in the times that will define what is to come for our species.
So before I leave this stage today I would like for you all to ask yourself three questions.
The first is this: what is your dream? What is the one thing that you truly wish to do in this life? Perhaps it is something you already do, or perhaps it is a secret dream that you hold deep within your heart.
Here is the second question: what is your dream for the world? If you could change one thing about this imperfect planet, what would it be?
And finally: if you never had any more resources than you have right at this moment, if you never had any more power than you have right at this moment, what would you do to make your dream for yourself and the world come true? Not next month, or next year, but what would you do today, and tomorrow, and the next day?
Because every day, in a thousand tiny interactions with each other and with the earth, we are creating the future.
And we’re the people who should know it.
(1) Sally Morgan, Don’t Cage Me In, in Sally Morgan, Tjalaminu Mia and Blaze Kwaymullina, Speaking from the Heart: Stories of Life, Family and Country, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2007, p 180 – 192 at 186
(2) James Anaya, Indigenous Peoples in International Law (2nd ed), Oxford University Press, p 3
(3) Bob Morgan, Country – A Journey to Cultural and Spiritual Healing, in Sally Morgan et al, Heartsick for Country: Stories of Love, Spirit and Creation, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2008, p 202 -220 at 204
(4) UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, 14 January 2010, ST/ESA/328, p 1 available at: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/SOWIP_web.pdf [accessed 1 June 2014]
(5) ibid, p 21
(6) ibid, p 1
(7) ibid, p 84
(8) Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony, Viking Press, New York, 1977, p 2.
(9) Rauna Kuokkanen, ‘Border crossings, pathfinders and new visions: The role of Sami literature in contemporary society’, Nordlit: Tidsskrift i litteratur og kultur 15: 100
(10) Jeanine Leane, Aboriginal Representation: Conflict or Dialogue in the Academy, in The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, Vol 39, 2010, p 32 – 39 at 33
(11) available online at: http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/resources/reports_and_publications/artforms/literature/writing_protocols_for_producing_indigenous_australian_writing
(12) available online at: https://www.asauthors.org/writing-about-indigenous-australia
(13) Kimberly M Blaeser, Writing Voices Speaking: Native authors and an oral aesthetic, in Laura Murray et al, Talking on the Page: Editing Aboriginal Oral Texts: Papers given at the thirty-second annual conference on editorial problems, University of Toronto, 14 – 16 November 1996, p 53 – 68 at 59 – 60
(14) Celu Amberstone quoted in Grace Dillon (ed), Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, University of Arizona Press, 2012, p 63 – 64
(15) Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan (eds), So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy, Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 2004
(16) op cit at n 14, p 8
(17) Larissa Behrendt, 2004 Clare Burton Memorial Lecture, Redress, August 2005 p 30 – 37 at 37
(18) op cit at n 14, p 10