Review: After Australia (edited by Michael Mohammed Ahmad)

The death of George Floyd and ensuing #blacklivesmatter protests have sparked a broader conversation about racism and representation. In Australia, writers and journalists like Eileen Chong, Allan Clarke, Kodie Bedford and many more have decried the lack of diversity in Australian arts and media, particularly among gatekeepers (the editors and decision-makers in organisations and newsrooms). Whether it’s mis-spelling and mispronouncing names or advocating a return to the Stolen Generations, it’s clear that the white-dominated media landscape has major problems with representing Indigenous Australians and people of colour.

Into this conversation comes After Australia, a collection of 11 pieces from Indigenous writers and writers of colour: short fiction, memoir and poetry, framed by short essays by Wiradjuri writer Hannah Donnelly. Framing is key to this anthology. Writers such as these have been often been framed by white cultural gatekeepers. After Australia, sponsored by Diversity Arts Australia, shifts that frame, with startling results. It is a collection thrilling in the richness of its voices, revealing the fault lines in Australia’s foundations and offering a vision of possible futures, some terrifying, others hopeful.

“Australia is just a glitch,” Donnelly proclaims. Reflecting on her love of science fiction movies, she notes, “Australia doesn’t exist. It is science fiction already.” These are telling lines in an anthology of “speculative fiction” – a genre often associated with remote, dystopian futures and societal collapse. Dystopian for whom? Any glance at Australia past and present will show society always collapsing for someone, somewhere: in detention and incarceration, on the colonial frontier, for people displaced by war and weather. “The Arab world was forever ending,” Omar Sakr writes in White Flu.

“Settler colonialism,” Ambelin Kwaymullina writes, is “the originating hate”, and the violence of British invasion pervades these works, even when it is unspoken. But first it is brought out into the open, in Karen Wyld’s genealogy of the Barton family, we live on, in story, in which descendants struggle to reconcile their white and Black ancestry – their Aboriginal inheritance with that of the white settlers who dispossessed and massacred them. Donnelly, in Miscegenation, describes the genealogical war waged by settlers like Aboriginal protector AO Neville who tried to “breed out our Aboriginalness”. In Wyld’s story, the war rages within bodies. Later in the collection, Sarah Ross wrestles with similar problems in Stitches through time, as she retraces her ancestors’ migration from India to Perth. “My white ancestors were our ticket to the colonial frontier,” she writes, “My brown ancestors … were the ones who linger behind me.”

Free movement and its counterpoint, incarceration, appears throughout the collection, in Michelle Law’s Bu Liao Qing, in which the narrator prepares to escape what’s left of Sydney; the Fijian family seeking asylum in Zoya Patel’s Displaced; the person rendered “stateless” and detained for being a “person of bad character” in Claire G. Coleman’s Ostraka.; the Exclusion Act that haunts the surreal normality of Khalid Warsame’s List of known remedies. Always racism lurks behind these acts of exclusion. “Your skin is the only cloth you cannot wash,” an Algerian taxi driver tells a Congolese man in the story of the same name by Future D. Fidel.

Many of these stories reveal the anxiety of migrants, of straddling two worlds, of leaving homelands and making uncertain purchase on foreign soils. Which poses the question, why do white people so rarely express the same anxieties, when we are just as much strangers on this continent? No doubt it has something to do with that time that Australia decided to barricade the borders to anyone who wasn’t white for nearly seven decades.

Climate change is a natural preoccupation of speculative fiction – what need for intergalactic setting when our own planet is becoming so strange to us? Cities flood, Pacific Islands are abandoned, and Australia builds a wall to hold back the sea in the various climate-changed versions of the future in this collection. “There are no stories left. It is all ocean now,” Zoya Patel writes in Displaced. In others, it is scorching heat that threatens, forcing workers to don protective suits in Michelle Law’s Bu Liao Qing. On Claire G. Coleman’s island prison it is so hot that “any way of moving, other than slinking, is difficult”. The land is on fire in Khalid Warsame’s story of a poet helping his best friend take a sick dog to the vet in West Footscray, “the continent’s forest cover being turned to particles that shred the membranes of our lungs”.

These a grim visions, but do they have to be so? Kaya Ortiz’s poem cycle Buto attempts to reconcile her Filipino ancestry with living on stolen land in Tasmania. She concludes, “a body is history made visceral/a reversal – the ancient made new,” lines containing the possibility of renegotiating our relationship to history and the continent.

And if Australia is founded on fiction, why not reimagine the past, as Roanna Gonsalves does in The East Australia Company Mango Bridge, an alternative version of colonisation in which two women entrepreneurs cross cultures and waterways.

Ambelin Kwaymellina goes further in Message from the Ngurra Palya, framed as a message from a future spaceship “designed by Indigenous scientific literacies/and built with Western technologies.” But in her poem, Indigenous scientists reach back from future, charged with the “winding and unwinding/of all that was/is/will be.”

“The change in the wold,” she concludes, “is coming and cannot be stopped/It is a knot in spacetime/that no one can undo”. This collection – by turns angry, hopeful, funny and sad – makes you believe it might be possible.

Gay rating: 4/5 for very gay writings by Omar Sakr and Kaya Ortiz, and minor queer characters throughout. 

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