Reflecting on Indigenous superheroes, Indigenous Futurisms and the future of diversity in literature
I cannot count the number of time I’ve been told it’s unusual to be an Indigenous speculative fiction writer who tells a story about an Indigenous superhero. But Indigenous superheroes are nothing new – at least, not to Indigenous peoples. We have always had stories of the Ancestor heroes, and through the long violence of colonialism, we’ve had other heroes too. These heroes include the resistance fighters of the frontier period; the undercover operatives of the protection era where intense government surveillance required Indigenous peoples to engage in a thousand hidden acts of defiance; and the child heroes who survived being members of the Stolen Generations. In Australia and elsewhere, Indigenous peoples have also long been able to interact with the world in ways that the West might label as ‘magic’, but this is because the West often defines the real (and hence the possible) differently to the Indigenous cultures of the earth. There are many aspects of Indigenous realities that might be called ‘speculative’ by the West (such as communicating with animals and time travel). There is also much in Western literature that Indigenous peoples regard as fantasy even though it is labeled as fact, including the numerous negative stereotypes and denigrations of Indigenous peoples and culture contained within settler literature. In this context, speculative fiction has told many a colonial tale whereby Indigenous peoples become the ‘primitive’ populations of alien worlds, overcome by the equivalent of the colonial nation-states enacting their so-called manifest destiny across the stars. Spec fic has also told yet more iterations of the ‘white saviour story’ whereby it is only a white hero (and never an Indigenous one) who can ‘save’ the Indigenous peoples from their terrible plight (a plight that was itself created by white invaders). And it is a genre which has continuously engaged in the appropriation of Indigenous and other non-Western cultures, thereby causing much distress to the marginalised peoples of the earth.
But there is a growing Indigenous presence in speculative fiction. Indigenous Australian Young Adult and Children’s writers who write spec fic include myself, Teagan Chilcott, Tristan Michael Savage, graphic novelist Brenton McKenna, and the group of young Aboriginal people responsible for the NEOMAD comics. In the US, Anishinaabe academic Grace Dillon has coined the term ‘Indigenous Futurisms’ to describe a form of storytelling whereby Indigenous peoples use the speculative fiction genre to challenge colonialism and envision Indigenous futures. Since Indigenous cultures (and peoples) have long been relegated to the past in the mythos of colonial settler states, the very act of imagining Indigenous futures is one of resistance. There is therefore a degree to which being an Indigenous spec fic writer is to be part of what might be called, in Star Wars parlance, a ‘rebel alliance’, and it is an alliance that fights – of course – against the forces of Empire.
Indigenous superheroes are nothing new. Nor are Indigenous stories. But since colonisation began, our voices have been silenced and our knowledges and cultures appropriated. So what is new are the existence of spaces where Indigenous peoples can tell and control our own stories. This is not to say the battle to protect our cultural expressions is over. It most definitely is not, and here in Australia, we don’t yet have what could well be the single most effective measure of protection – a National Indigenous Cultural Authority. But there is a greater awareness of the need to deal respectfully and ethically with Indigenous peoples than once there was. There is also an ever-growing cyber-space presence of many diverse voices who are challenging misrepresentations and drawing attention to the need to read the authors who are writing to their own worlds. In 2015, spec fic author Corinne Duyvis – a writer with autism and one of the founders of Disability in Kidlit – invented the hashtag #OwnVoices, to promote books with a marginalised protagonist written by someone from the same group. Websites such as Disability in Kidlit and, in an Indigenous context, American Indians in Children’s Literature, provide a source of critiques that interrogate (mis)representations in literature in way that is still generally not done by mainstream reviewers and award judges. So do ally websites such as Reading While White, which is run by a group of White librarians to support the struggles of people of colour and Indigenous peoples in literature. There isn’t an equivalent to these websites in Australia … yet. But questions of authority, legitimacy, appropriateness, privilege and power are increasingly being asked of literature and of the Arts more generally.
The way is gradually opening for Indigenous peoples to speak our truths, whether alone or in equitable partnerships with non-Indigenous peoples. We don’t yet live in a world where all voices have an equal opportunity to be heard, and where all voices are heard equally. But we are on our way to it, and therefore on a journey to the stories that will exist when we do.
Welcome to the future.
Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer, illustrator and academic who comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. She works at the Law School at the University of Western Australia and is the author of a number of picture books as well as the YA speculative fiction series, The Tribe.