And still the birds sing

This review was originally published in Meanjin, Winter 2019 edition

As some recently published works have shown, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander storytellers are continuing to embrace fiction-writing as a vessel for speaking truth to power. Constantly branching out into new genres — experimenting, fusing, transforming — there’s a noticeable increase in First Peoples speculative fiction being published in Australia.

With each line across the page, the colonial grip on the continent loosens. Fingers unclasp, story by story. Not all of these stories are from deep time — some are reimagined or even newly-born — but they all carry power. Story-trails weave across paper and screen towards a common destination: truth-telling.

Speculative fiction is an umbrella under which sits a broad range of genre fiction that includes fantasy, horror, dystopian, apocalyptic, utopian, science fiction, alternative histories, and supernatural. Writers of speculative fiction ask themselves ‘what if’, altering the rules of reality within the worlds they create.

However, reality is a cultural construct. What if writers don’t all live in the same world to begin with? What if there are no universal laws to determine what is real or possible? Fiction by First Peoples writers often contain fantastical elements, but that doesn’t mean these aspects are not real or possible. Encountering places, characters or events that does not fit the reader’s perception of realism doesn’t make it a work of speculative fiction. It depends on which lens the reader is applying.

In Tony Birch’s latest novel, The White Girl, Odette Brown visits the graveyard every Sunday morning, sometimes stopping at the old mission church. In both these places, she communicates with departed kin.

Odette ran a hand across the back of an imaginary pew. She could see her father sitting alongside a woman, holding her hand in his own. While Odette had no memories of her mother, who’d died on a wooden table after giving birth to her, she had no doubt who the woman was. She’d sensed the presence of her parents in the church many times and was not surprised by, or fearful of, the apparition.

Odette also communicates with birds, and has passed on this knowledge to Sissy, her granddaughter.

Without having to open her eyes and look upward, Odette knew that the bird was a magpie, the same one that had visited the house for two years or more.
‘He’s a friend,’ Odette had explained to her when the bird first arrived in the yard. ‘As long as that magpie is here, we will be safe.’
‘Safe from what?’ Sissy had asked.
‘From everything,’ Odette had said.

For some readers, seeking counsel of ancestors and birds might seem outside the rules of reality, but The White Girl is not speculative fiction. It’s historical fiction, set in postwar Australia. Through Odette’s quest to protect Sissy from the Aborigines Act, Birch illustrates the generational impact of colonisation and fight to reclaim agency.

In her novel Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko, of Bundjalung (NSW) and European heritage, gives spectral ancestors and talking animals an even more prominent place in the narrative. An ancestor leads Kerry Salter, the protagonist, to priceless treasures during a break-in. Then there’s that shark hovering in the background of the story, waiting to claim what is owed:

The family staggered forward to the edge of the island. They gaped down at the bull shark swaying in the water, graceful with the promise of death.
‘Jingeri, wardham nanang,’ said Uncle Richard formally. ‘We remember your clan’s kindness’.
‘Puyarra,’ said The Doctor, with a sharp flick of her tail. ‘I’m pleased to hear it. As the debt is long due.’

Less ominous are the crows that test Kerry when she returns home:

‘Gulganelehla Bundjalung.’ Speak Bundjalung. A test of good character.
‘Bundjalung ngaio yugam baugal,’ she said. My Bundjalung is crap.

Negotiating with a shark or being mocked by birds are elements that could be found in speculative fiction but Too Much Lip is contemporary realist fiction, with a good dose of dark comedy. Set in a fictional country town, the narrative unravels memories of violence, dispossession and other generational impacts of colonisation.

These recent novels by Birch and Lucashenko fit within what is real or possible for the authors; with narratives and storytelling devices grounded in culture, lived experiences, place and history.

Another book that centres legacies of colonisation is Catching Teller Crow, a work of speculative fiction by siblings Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina, who are from the Palyku people of Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

The protagonist, Beth Teller, helps her father solve crimes. It’s unusual for a teenager to be assisting a detective but Beth, whose mother died years ago, chose not to leave her grieving father’s side after dying in a car accident.

The dead not only speak to the living but they express frustration and other emotions. Especially Beth:

When the others spoke of me, they talked about what I’d loved, and what I’d hated, and what had made me laugh. They talked about me even when they were desperately sad. Their memory of me had become the glue that held everyone together, and I loved them for that. […]
Dad was different. He and I were the reverse of each other: I couldn’t remember my death; Dad couldn’t remember my life – at least, not without focusing on how it ended.

Isobel Catching was also involved in a car accident, which claimed the life of her mother. She copes with that trauma, and a later unspeakable horror, by remembering her family: Granny Trudy Catching survived the frontier wars by drawing on strength from her homeland; and never forgetting the power of love and laughter. Nanna Sadie Catching was forcibly removed from her mother but jumped ship and, applying her physical strength, swam home. Grandma Leslie Catching endured institutionalisation by remembering the strength within the ancient rocks of her homeland. Being the keeper of stories is Rhonda’s strength. Rhonda passes on these stories of strong women to her daughter, Isobel; so she can one day realise her own strengths.

The authors combine prose and verse to show how belonging and culture can heal trauma, grief and loss. It’s these strengths that empowers Beth to let go, and Isobel and Crow to be free. Isobel’s re-telling of what occurred at the crime scene, and her collaboration with Crow, contain what appears to be supernatural elements but it’s revealed that some events are too real to speak of without allegory.

Crow leaves her corner.
Her skin and eyes are brown.
Her hair and dress are black.
Her shadow on the wall is a thing of wing and claw and bite.

In Catching Teller Crow, the speculative fiction approach softens references of white men’s violence towards Aboriginal girls. As the book is aimed at teens, what is hidden in verse won’t be understood under the reader is ready. This form of storytelling is similar to how oral storytelling cultures pass on knowledge: each time a person listens to a familiar story, another layer is uncovered, with more and more information revealed as the listener matures.

In her debut novel Terra Nullius, Claire G Coleman, from the south coast WA Noongar people, rips off the layers after first showing what appears to be uncomfortably familiar.

Sister Bagra paced the oppressively dark, comfortably stuffy halls of her mission in silent, solitary contemplation. She was dedicated to her duty, to bring faith to these people, if they could be called people; to bring religion, to bring education to these savages. An almost completely thankless task, a seemingly pointless, useless task.

Turning the pages, readers begin to realise this is not their known world, and their perceptions of Native and Settler are shattered. Coleman has created an Indigenist eco-dystopia fusion, with a closely guarded plot twist, to demonstrate the violence and destruction of colonisation. Despite the misery of this apocalyptic Australia, there are still birds:

Out in the desert the Settler animals had not yet displaced them, or hunted them extinct. Waterbirds, living closer to the waterways that the Settlers frequented, suffered the worst. The animals brought in by the Settlers, farm animals and pets that went feral, had taken care of the few waterbirds that the Settlers hadn’t eaten. It was nice to see waterbirds, to see wading birds, even ducks. She had seen ducks in books, in a bombed but not burned library, yet before they had arrived in that camp she had thought them a myth, or extinct at least.

Coleman has re-painted Terra Nullius grey, but leaves readers with hope – creativity can be used to build a brave new world.

You think you are smarter than us, you think your brains are bigger, you think we can’t learn. We know more that you, we have stories and songs, we have art and culture. What do you have? You have guns and fury and hate. The war has so far been about guns and death. When you think we are defeated the war will change.
The next war will be about resilience and survival, culture and art. When that war begins you will discover you are not well armed. You have no art, your stories have no power.

Stories have power. Since long before invasion, the power of story has weaved across land, waters and skies. These Songlines are still there. The new stories travel different paths and weld different power.

Writing works with themes of belonging, identity and impact of colonisation, I’ll often dip into magic realism. Magic realism is the cousin that few can figure out how to fit on the family tree: is it speculative or literary fiction? It bridges both. In magic realism, it’s realism that grounds the narrative. The tiny snippets of ‘magic’ are allegory; used sparingly across the pages, like one would use a favourite highlighter pen.

Originating in Europe, magic realism became a literary force in Latin American through the influence of writers such as Alejo Carpentier, Isabelle Allende, Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez. These literary works of magic realism then inspired other writers in other nations, who fused this writing style with their storytelling traditions, to retell lived and familial experiences of the inhumanity of humanity.

Magic realism, combined with other styles of speculative fiction, are evident in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (1987, US), Marlon James’ John Crow’s Devil (2005, Jamaica), Ben Okri’s Starbook (2007, Nigeria), and Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound (2015, Indonesia). In Australia, First Peoples writers have also taken magic realism in new directions, such as Sam Watson (The Kadaitcha Sung, 1990), Kim Scott (Benang, 1999) and Alexis Wright (Carpentaria, 2006 and The Swan Book, 2013).

Whether it’s realist or speculative fiction, the world presented within the pages of First Peoples’ novels will not always be recognisable to non-Indigenous readers. Tony Birch, Melissa Lucashenko, Claire G Coleman, Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina have subtly used elements of Aboriginal knowledge traditions to show a more expanded realism in their novels. How powerful the use of speculative elements can be in these narratives depends on how receptive the reader is. If read through a white lens, these stories will contain elements that appear unrealistic. Change the lens, and the unfamiliar becomes more familiar.

These four novels are innovative, each in their own way, and some readers may find them unexpectedly powerful. The authors, like many other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers, draw on the strengths of Country, culture, and resilience to create new ways of telling story. Their books speak hard truths, with political messaging weaving through the narrative, but fused with hope. Always hope.

Songlines still snake across Country, water and skyscapes. Words snake across page. Colonisation has altered our stories, but still the birds sing.