Review: This All Come Back Now (edited by Mykaela Saunders)

In her overture to this collection of 22 works of First Nations speculative fiction, Mykaela Saunders, whose glittering story Terranora is republished here from the anthology Collisions, queries the idea at the heart of the collection. Spec fic, she writes:

employs devices that our cultural stories have dealt in for millennia … time travel isn’t such a big deal when you belong to a culture that experiences all-times simultaneously … talk to any Aboriginal kids, from any community anywhere on this continent, about gussies and ghosts, and you will find a captive audience of experts.

And this collection is full of both time travel and ghosts, and spirits, and devils, and other beings. Many are republished from journals and other collections such as Adam Thompson’s Your Own Aborigine from Born Into This or Alison Whittaker’s The Centre from Blakwork; eight are published here for the first time. Four are extracts from longer works, and it’s a thrill to be introduced to the novels of Samuel William Watson and Archie Weller, and reminded of the warm luminescence of Ellen Van Neerven‘s writing or the swirling all times of Alexis Wright. Jeanine Leane on the Sydney Review Of Books has summarised how spec fic works in an Aboriginal context.

Saunders has arranged the collection loosely from writing the looks back to writing that looks forward, beginning with Evelyn Araluen‘s Muyum, A Transgression, which features a disembodied person crossing over into — what? The spirit world? The past? — to search for belonging:

my father wanted to gives us everything: daemons and dreaming, sprites and spirits. I grew up in worlds that crisscrossed and bled and were flown between.

More criss-crossings and bleedings between follow. A highlight of these early stories is Kalem Murray’s In His Father’s Footsteps, which sees a son and estranged father go hunting for crabs in the mangroves. The relationship is tentative but tender, and is tested by truly terrifying events. Another is Loki Liddle’s Snake Of Light, a fantastically bloodthirsty queer revenge fable. Lisa Fuller’s Myth This! toys with a creature like the bunyip, a trope of settler writing, “abstracted from country and its meaning dulled” as Kathryn Gledhill-Tucker writes later, but returns it to the specificity of her characters’ land.

Towards the middle of the collection stories gather around the present, including Thompson’s satire of government policies to “close the gap”. John Morrissey’s Five Minutes follows a public servant with ambitions of being a spec fic writer. It alternates between the grim drudgery of Michael’s work (“I’ve even started saving money without meaning to,” he deadpans, “I watch it accumulate sadly like mould in my bank account”) and the end-of-the-world thriller he’s working on. Neither reality seems particularly appealing, although in one of them at least he has a semblance of control: the catch-22 of labouring through the next apocalypse.

The present bleeds effortlessly into other realities, or the near future. Similarly satirising the vast gap between settler and Aboriginal worldviews, in Timmah Bell’s An Invitation buildings are disappearing prompting an arts organisation to reach out Nell, an urban planner type, to get her perspective on the interesting times. You can feel the panic, thinly disguised in apologies for the gig being unpaid, as the nation thrashes around for rhyme, reason and reassurance. “They were aware of the grief they walked over but were unable to verbalise it,” Nell observes, “Most people still didn’t understand that this was freedom”.

This story marks the departure, with the remainder shooting into the near and far futures, as Aboriginal people shrug off colonisation, aided or abetted by climate and environmental apocalypse, and begin to rebuild. These stories are full of hope and possibility for the recovery of the land following centuries of decline and deprivation, although they also count the toll, the wars fought in Laniyuk’s Nimeyburra, or the struggle to salvage community and culture in Saunders’s Terranora and Weller’s The Purple Plains.

The collection ends with three exquisite, very short works, each of which upends a trope of spec fic. Krystal Hurst’s Lake Mindi sees a group of three trudge through a ruined landscape to find water and food; they find it, but perhaps not in this life. Hannah Donnelly and Kathryn Gledhill-Tucker both create artificial beings that are restoring country and culture, but never have machines felt so human and alive. Literally in Gledhill-Tucker’s Protocols Of Transferrence, which lingers over the heat generated by circuitry:

as your brain murmured into being your chassis felt hot to the touch … lukewarm at first, then crisp like a campfire. The earth around you started to char, producing its own smoke in ceremony of your first breath.

Her android, or AI, or whatever it is, is as of the land as all the other beings:

You already contained components of country. Rare earth metal powered your new brain stripped from the ground and refined by machines, given names like platinum, palladium, neodymium, and given new purpose storing data and creating movement from magnets. You took the power of the earth and turned it into knowing.

Taken together, the huge history of these stories portrays the continuity of Aboriginal existence, but also the unresolved rent created by colonisation. It’s in the details that pathways through time are forged and reforged, like the stories passed on from parents to children in Myth This! and In His Father’s Foosteps, or the reinstating of ceremony in Terranora. For a settler reader, there’s a certain amount of not-knowing that comes with these stories, the unnerving feeling of being unsettled, but there’s also the offer of a better way of living with the land. “Some say that spec fic deals in the ‘not real’,” Saunders writes, “but what of the absolute fantasy of continuous consumption on a finite planet?”

This collection pushes writing to its limits, bending and fusing it to the demands of the story. It can lead to a feeling of opacity — that not-knowing again — as in Araluen’s or Wright’s writing, or Jack Latimore’s Shakespeare under a bridge. It’s hard to pin down the shape and form of the beings in Hannah Donnelly’s After The End Of Their World, with their “silicone coating”, their actions slightly more clear, their purpose and relationship to each other clearest of all. But this opacity is present in all these stories to some degree. Part of it is lacking the cultural knowledge, or cultural maturity. Another is that maybe in Western stories we’re unused to the kind that are loosened from the boundedness of discrete, inert objects, that privilege extraction over relation.

Gay rating: 3/5 for stories with queer characters and themes.


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