*This interview is part of a series of reviews #weneeddiversebooksAU. It is one of several interviews with authors who offer diverse YA perspectives.
Ambelin Kwaymullina is the author of the series The Tribe. The most recent book, the third in this series: The Foretelling of Georgie Spider, is out now.
Do you approach your books with an awareness of where you as an author stand politically? How does this influence the way you write?
I don’t consider myself to be particularly political – in fact, I spent almost a decade working for the government and have the deep seated political cynicism common to many former public servants. But I can’t escape politics for two reasons. The first is that part of being Indigenous is that the personal becomes political, or at least becomes interpreted as such. For example, for me the statement that two generations of my family were removed as part of the Stolen Generations is a personal one – but there will be those who will interpret this as some kind of political assertion and want to debate with me on that basis. The second reason I cannot escape politics is because I have a strong commitment to social justice. I think it is impossible not to when it is your own people who suffer the effects of injustice. I was born into a fight that began long before my birth and that, sadly, is likely to continue long after I am gone: the fight for a just world. And so the stories I tell will perhaps always consider larger questions about right and wrong and the spaces in between.
From a cultural perspective, what elements are most important to you to get across as readers?
What’s most important to me is accuracy – and in trying to accurately represent my culture I face some challenges. One of them is that I am writing in English, and while I don’t speak my language, my worldview is an Indigenous one. And English is a poor fit for conveying Indigenous perspectives, for two reasons. Firstly, English has an entire vocabulary of denigration of Indigenous peoples and cultures that has been built up over hundreds of years of colonisation. Secondly, English reflects a particular worldview that is often far removed from those of Indigenous people. Compared to Indigenous languages, English lacks verbs (Indigenous cultures are process-focused and therefore have a greater number of words for things in process); English forces me to write in a linear framework (English has a past, present and future tense; many Indigenous languages have only a present tense because generally Indigenous cultures do not have a concept of linear time); English is inclined to use the singular where Indigenous peoples would use the plural (because Indigenous cultures are pluralist); and finally, English is restrictive in its use of ‘he’ and ‘she’ (from an Indigenous perspective, pretty much everything is animate and therefore pretty much everything is a ‘he’ or ‘she’, not an ‘it’).
The other challenge I face in accurately representing my culture is the vast amount of misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples and cultures which has occurred throughout the colonial project and which continues to the present day. This means that non-Indigenous people can read and interpret my words – and indeed the words of any Indigenous person – in a false context informed by inaccurate and/or prejudiced representations of who Indigenous peoples are.
So, as a writer, I am extraordinarily aware of context and choose my words with enormous care.
Given the perceived ‘lack’ (although of course part of this is just that they’re not being promoted as heavily or widely) of diverse voices in YA literature, did you feel pressure to represent a particular narrative?
Not so much pressure – but I do believe I have a responsibility, because I have had some opportunities to speak. And in speaking, I owe something to the silenced voices of my ancestors. I also owe something to the voices that are still being silenced, the ones being denied any opportunity (whether they are Indigenous or not). This means I have an obligation to speak out against intolerance, and I try to know enough about the issues affecting all marginalised groups that I don’t miss instances of prejudice or ignorance, or let a micro-aggression go past me. Because these things can be missed; they can come clothed in fancy words; and when they form part of an underlying body of assumptions about how things work, they can be almost invisible unless you’re looking for them.
My responsibility also means that I cannot always act to my own commercial advantage. I recently turned down a film offer for the Tribe series. It was a good offer from an Australian company and I liked the people who made it; I think they would have made a good film. But I had to sign over the remake rights which meant that in the event that a US company wanted to remake the Aussie film, I had no way to prevent them replacing all the diverse people in my book – including my Indigenous protagonist – with Caucasians. Nor would I have had any control over how the Indigenous culture in the book was represented. It was of course highly unlikely that any US company would have any interest in remaking the film. But unlikely is not the same as impossible and I had to consider whether I could live with the result if it did happen and all diversity was removed from my book. My conclusion was that I couldn’t.
What stereotypes have you faced as a ‘diverse author’?
I think Indigenous authors and artists alike still struggle with stereotypes about what an Indigenous story is (or what an Indigenous picture looks like). Too many people still cling to essentialist notions of Indigenous identity (that we must be one thing and to the extent that we are not we are not really ‘Indigenous’). Too many people want our narratives to fit their expectations of who they think we should be. And this extends far beyond literature into everyday existence. People I have never met before assume they know many things about me, because they transfer everything they think they know about Indigenous people onto my shoulders (and then get angry with me when I fail to meet their expectations). And it is so frustrating and disempowering, and makes being a writer – already a hard task – that much harder. And like probably every other diverse writer on the face of the planet, I want a world where all voices have equal opportunity to be heard – and all voices are heard equally. I wish we were closer to it than we are.
How would you suggest reviewers approach culturally diverse work to ensure the kind of critical discourse that drives excellence, without being disparaging to those emerging voices that we need, or being culturally insensitive of different types of storytelling?
I think this is a difficult one and we’re in the infancy of developing this kind of discourse. Author Malindo Lo, one of the founders of the US We Need Diverse Books campaign, has written an extended post about some of the issues in reviewing diverse books and I’d recommend any reviewer read that post. I’ve also written about reviews in the course of a post on what literary/review publications can do to support Indigenous books. Beyond that, I’ve talked about this issue before in other places and I’ll try to capture what I’ve said here:
- I don’t believe any non-Indigenous reviewer should be reviewing books by how culturally ‘authentic’ the books are – how would they know, and who are they to judge? (I’ve previously written of this in the course of an article that can be found here)
- When reviewing diverse books I’d suggest that knowledge of the Western literary canon can be unhelpful since Indigenous peoples (and other diverse peoples) have been largely excluded from that canon or represented in ways that are inaccurate or racist. Instead, I think it would be great if reviewers developed an understanding of the Indigenous literary canon – which is to say, the many published narratives by Indigenous people and the cultures, histories and knowledges that shape the words;
- I’de also like to see reviewers have a more nuanced grasp of the often subversive ways in which Indigenous peoples use English and Western forms to tell Indigenous stories (I’ve previously written of some of the difficulties that Indigenous writers can encounter using Western forms here).
Finally, I’d like to reviewers to give space and attention to insider narratives (the ones written or co-written by Indigenous people rather than the ones written about us). Time and time again I have people asking me for recommendations about Indigenous books, and time and time again they are astonished when I start rattling off the names of authors who they never knew existed. We have an extraordinary range of Indigenous narratives in Australia, most of them published by Indigenous publishers – and I wish more people knew about the stories that are out there.
What books would you recommend to readers looking for diversity on their shelves?
First, I’d suggest people think about what kind of books they like to read – what genre are they into? Then go find the books by diverse authors in that genre. Readers are always hungry for more books and never more so than in the genre closes to our hearts (for me it’s speculative fiction and detective novels). And I promise you there are stories out there in the genre you love that you never knew existed.
[Thanks so much Ambelin for taking the time to give such thoughtful responses to these questions.
I have a number of authors from a variety of backgrounds answering the same questions, so stay tuned for further interviews in this series.]