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Always Will Be by Mykaela Saunders

27/02/2024
Always Will Be by Mykaela Saunders

Mykaela Saunders won an Aurealis award for her exciting and thought-provoking anthology of First Nations speculative fiction This All Come Back Now. In the same year her own collection of speculative short stories, Always Will Be, won the David Unaipon Award for an Emerging Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander writer. While This All Come Back now ranged across genres and location, Always Will Be is more constrained, which allows it to go deeper. In it Saunders explores a range of possible futures for the land on which she lives, and in particular the role of the traditional owners of that land in those futures.

The land that these stories relate to is the Tweed Valley, introduced in the first story, ‘Jingi Wallah’:

a beautiful beloved country looked after by a few small clans of Minjungbal-Nganduwal Gooris, such as Goodjinburra, Tulgi-gin and Moorung-moobah people … The Tweed Valley is an ancient caldera of a dormant volcano, bordered by the ocean to the east and ringed by mountains all around.

Following this introduction, Saunders starts to take readers through a series of possible futures. As with This All Come Back Now, while the stories are alternative views of the future (although many of them could exist in the same reality), they connect thematically. The first few stories deal with the very near future, one of overdevelopment and an increasingly difficult climate. In ‘No Country for Old Women’, the narrator describes a Tweed impacted by development that has spread down the coast from Queensland to become ‘Australia’s fastest growing city’, but in the end her salvation is technology. The next stories – ‘River Story’ and ‘Fire Bug’ – are about passing on cultural knowledge to help manage the land and its resources.

In ‘River Story’, Gracey returns home and reconnects with her community:

Underneath the barriers that time and distance have created she’s still a cultural woman. With her community she dances a new iteration of a ceremony that has been passed down for millennia.

And in ‘Fire Bug’, a young man obsessed with fire in a bushfire-affected future is taken under the wing of an elder in order to find his purpose:

His love of fire was no longer stifled or made to burn inside him with dangerous simmering rage. He used it as a tool, applied it as a technology and practised it through culture.

This flows into two alternative visions of the future. In ‘Blood and Soil’ the local people rise up to erase the colonisers. ‘Tweed Sanctuary Tour’ delivers an almost utopian future in which the whole of the Tweed has become a natural sanctuary where outsiders come to learn how to live in harmony with the land.

Following these, Saunders goes in another direction with stories that involve augmented reality as a tool for learning culture or understanding the trials of previous generations. In ‘The Girls Home’, a group of girls have trouble remembering their own pasts and find themselves in a boarding school experiencing the lives of their ancestors:

‘…this place reminds me of the places Nan and Gran used to be in. I remember them telling me yarns.’ …

There’s no room for joy or rest in this place.

After these stories, Saunders moves to the more Mad Max-style post-climate change corner of futurism. ‘The Fisherman’s Story’ deals with a strange divided community in which people are taken for breeding, and is followed by ‘Terranora’, which begins with the evocative call:

‘Wake up, everyone! Wake up! The ocean bikies are coming.’

The ocean bikies return in ‘Cyclone Season’, a story about a group of surfers conquering massive climate-driven waves that break over the tops of the ancient buildings on the coast.

Each surfer rides a perfect, glassy barrel for almost a kilometre before the momentum slows and fizzles out beneath their boards … As the cyclones grow ever closer, the swell rises, and visibility becomes poorer as the rain starts, moving through the air this way and that.

And then Saunders goes further – in ‘Our Future in the Stars’, two characters, one Maori and one Aboriginal, consider whether they should join the colony ships and leave an Earth ground down by capitalism:

‘… an apocalypse that grew from the destruction of our sovereignty and our ways of living into an age of human-centric hierarchies that became about certain people and their ways of doing things.’

In this story Saunders also manages to have a dig at the Western science fiction tradition:

‘You know, some of that sci-fi used to really scare me. Some of those stories felt more like horror stories to me – especially the ones where humans go off to explore distant galaxies far from the sun …’

‘Yeah, I get it. Most of those missions were imperialist forays of extraction disguised as exploration, carried out by pākehā and sponsored by transnational corporations – like we’ve never seen that before … People like us were never in those stories.’

Saunders brings this section full circle with ‘Prodigal Return’, in which a young Aboriginal woman escapes from an orbital colony to return to Earth with only the cultural knowledge she has gained online. Even here, Saunders is keen to reflect culture and the value of story in that culture:

Until now, Evie had only ever seen pictures and videos of this country from the mothership’s cultural archive. Still, the stories she’d heard or read in books were far more vivid than any of the footage she’d seen. Evie’s old people were talented and attentive storytellers. A video might teach the eyes a thing or two, but a skilled local storyteller who knows a place intimately can evoke that place within another mind across vast times and spaces.

The collection ends with the celebratory ‘Kinship Festival’, in which Saunders makes an argument for all of her disparate futures merging together. And this idea reflects the impact of this collection as a whole. Because while these stories imagine slightly different views of the future, there is a constant underpinning them all: the cultural engagement with and understanding of the land and waterways.

‘Always was, always will be Aboriginal land’ is a slogan that came out of the 1980s land rights movement. In Always Will Be Mykaela Saunders adapts this slogan using the tropes of science fiction and creates a series of futures in which sovereignty and ownership are never ceded and in fact come to the fore. These are not all utopian views of the future  – not everyone is benevolent and caring, and not everything is rosy. But they are views of a future in which culture, community and living in harmony with the land are crucial.

This review first appeared in Newtown Review of Books.

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Always Will Be by Mykaela Saunders

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