New Aboriginal Speculative Fiction: An Interview with Mykaela Saunders

This All Come Back Now is a world-first collection of ‘blackfella’ speculative fiction from well-known and emerging First Nations only writers. The Aboriginal English title of the collection is taken from the opening story by Evelyn Araluen, “Muyum, a Transgression.”  The stories vary in structure from stand-alone short stories or extracts from novellas and novels. Themes include: Family; old people (elders) and ancestor; government intervention in First Nations people’s lives; corporate greed; destruction of land and water; technology; language; law; ghosts and hauntings; belonging; alienation; reclaiming of sovereignty; timelessness of cultures and traditions (such that they can be revived and relearned in the process of decolonisation).

The collection of 22 stories is edited by Mykaela Saunders, a Koori and Lebanese writer, teacher, community researcher, has won numerous prizes for her fiction and poetry. Her story, “Terranora,” is included in the volume. Of Dharug descent, and working-class and queer, Mykaela belongs to the Tweed Goori community.

In the Overture to the collection, Saunders writes that “Short story anthologies are like mixtapes, and I want you to think of this book as a burnt CD from me to you, a way for you to sample new worlds, a mishmash of styles gathered together that speak to similar themes, and an opportunity to find exciting writers you might not have otherwise come across.” In her choices she went with the eclectic: “I always leant more toward the experimental, outlandish, surreal and satirical, rather than the traditional, predictable, conventional and solemn.”  Of First Nations people, she asserts that “We are post-apocalyptic and not yet post-colonial, so all those violent histories of invasion and colonisation must be read as apocalyptic by any standard” There’s an elegant symmetry to the mixing. Saunders has the stories talking to one another “like neighbors.”

 This interview took place by Zoom on November 17, 2022.

Hawkins: What are the First Nations?  With which do you identify?

Saunders: Okay. So, when we talk about First Nations on the Australian continent, we’re talking about anywhere from 300 to 500 separate cultural or language groups, depending on how you define culture and language. But yeah, we say around 300. So, there’s a lot of cultural diversity, linguistic diversity on this continent. Through my mother’s side, I am Dharug, which is what is now known as the Sydney area, through my grandmother and great grandmother. But they were both part of the Stolen Generations and I never got to meet them. So, I don’t belong to the community and I didn’t grow up there. But I belong to the Bundjalung community through my stepdad and other family. And the Bundjalung area is like the northern rivers of New South Wales, extending up into south east Queensland. And that’s where I grew up.

Hawkins: What are the Stolen Generations?

Saunders:  The Stolen Generations are a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were forcibly removed from their families under government protection or welfare policies from the 1800s ride off into up into the 1970s. So officially, those policies have stopped, but the damage they left behind, and continue to do, are still really damaging for our people, you know, and our families.

Hawkins: Where and how long have the First Nations been around?

Saunders: Well, if you ask any Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander person, we’ll tell you we’ve been here since the beginning of time. We became human in these places, in these countries. If you want to look to a more Western scientific materialist paradigm, you would look at archaeology, and other scientific ways of dating human activity in this continent, then we can be placed here at least 100,000 years. So, far longer than any other culture on earth.

Hawkins: Most Americans folks have only vaguely heard of Aboriginal people, and probably have a picture, say, from the film, The Last Wave, or the kid from Mad Max.

Saunders: It’s actually a pretty apt picture because the kid from Mad Max isn’t actually Aboriginal. He’s just coded as Aboriginal because he uses the boomerang and he’s the feral kid. But the actor who played him is white.

Hawkins: No.

Saunders: There aren’t actually living Aboriginal characters in any of the four Mad Max movies. There’s one Aboriginal character, but he’s a ghost, so he’s dead. And he accuses Mad Max in his delirium dream. In the last movie, Fury Road, he says, you let us die, too, Mad Max. And I think that’s a really apt metaphor for how Aboriginal people are represented in post-apocalyptic Australia. You know, we’re not there, we’ve been genocided and people haven’t written us into the future and that’s why we’re doing it ourselves.

Hawkins: When people of the Aboriginal community read about the George Floyd happening in America, what kind of response is there?

Saunders: Look, it’s been happening to us ever since Europeans came here, but particularly in recent years. I remember when that happened to George Floyd, there was a kind of global consciousness raising around that event. And I think a lot of black people or people of color around the world were able to identify, but also not just identify with that, but also draw attention to the police brutality in our own countries and communities. And that’s certainly happened here. There was a huge movement, but it must be said, it didn’t come out of nowhere. You know, our people have been fighting these same battles for such a long time. It was just that we had this global kind of energy to maybe bolster our own concerns, which was good. But, of course, you know, that was a few years ago. And this year we’ve still got cops getting away with murder. And yeah, it’s absolutely atrocious and heartbreaking for our people.

Hawkins: Well, it’s a lot of time to be heartbroken.

I was thinking about how Americans might try to compare Australian Aboriginal cultures to Native Americans. Slavery comes to mind. African-Americans endured slavery. But Aboriginal people were not slaves brought to this country. I mean, this is your place, this is your Country.

Saunders:  Well, there was slavery on this continent. There’s been huge class action lawsuits, particularly in Queensland, around stolen wages. So, a lot of Aboriginal children and even adults were forced to work on stations and in different places in people’s homes and their wages were held, you know, which means they never got paid and that is slavery; they didn’t have the freedom to go. But you know, of course, by that time slavery was out of fashion, right? Because you guys [Americans] fought a war to end it. So, it was performed [here] in these sneakier ways. And of course, when a lot of Aboriginal people refused to work for free on our own lands, what the English or Australian people did was they enslaved South Sea Islander people from nearby islands, brought them over to work the cane fields. And yeah, so there was absolutely slavery in Australia.

Hawkins: Dreamtime. What is it? And how come it sounds like a white man’s origin theory?

Saunders:  Well, that’s because it is a white word.  It kind of encompasses a lot of things. And keep in mind that each one of our 300 different language groups had a different word for this. You know, it’s simultaneously a period of creation that is eternal. It didn’t just happen in the past. It’s still ongoing. It is a code of ethics and laws to live by. It is spiritual energy that creates life and also where life returns. It’s a very big concept. We actually know the word dreamtime kind of denotes something that happened long ago in the past. So we prefer to use the word dreaming now. So, like the verb, not the noun, because in our understandings, our philosophies, this is eternal. It’s ongoing. It didn’t just stop, you know, it’s still happening. And we still respect and engage with it.

Hawkins: I just read and reviewed a book by a black physicist from Brown University who makes connections between jazz and cosmology. He’s been inspired by jazz to sort of understand things intuitively and with improvisation rather than a rigid scientific way, which he thinks is largely white language-driven, rather than intuitive and understanding derived through emotions and other kinds of ways of understanding.

Saunders: So yeah, I love that there’s all these different kinds of ways of understanding the universe through these different modes, or artistic expressions like jazz, or even astronomy, philosophy, whatever. The universe is so vast and it encompasses everything, so anything can be used to understand it in some lens or another.


Hawkins: How did so-called ‘blackfellas’ take Kevin Rudd’s 2008 nationally televised apology?

Saunders: Yeah, I think he was sincere. You’ve got to understand that. So that was in 2008. Now in 1998, there was a report called the Bringing Them Home Report which investigated the actions of previous governments and their policies, and how they stole all these children. We just spoke about the Stolen Generations. That’s what it was about. And they had a bunch of recommendations at the end. And the government at that time very right wing neo-liberal government. John Howard. They repealed so many of the rights that our people had fought for for years, our grassroots people. And anyway, so one of the recommendations in the Bringing Home report was that the Government take responsibility and apologise for not only what they did, but also their role in benefiting from child labour, stolen labour, all the things that the reasons why they stole our kids in the first place. Yeah, but John Howard famously refused to apologise, you know, saying that they weren’t personally responsible, we have to move on, etc.

But in our cultures sorry has a different meaning. You know, we have a thing called ‘sorry business’. So, what people would normally, in Western cultures, call grieving or mourning business, we call it sorry business. So, the word sorry has this different meaning. But he was taking it literally. Probably he was being intellectually dishonest in that way.

But anyway, so let’s go ten years forward. Kevin Rudd is the Prime Minister and his first action in as a Prime Minister was to apologise to our people. Look. is it an empty gesture? Is it just symbolic? Some people say yes, but I can speak to my own family, people in my family and community who gathered at the local museum to watch the apology. They had a morning tea and it was very moving and meaningful for people. It’s not to say it healed anything or changed anything. It doesn’t. But to have your hurts acknowledged is actually really important, especially in our culture. So yeah.

Hawkins: Where does This All Come Back Now fit in with the general scope of speculative fiction? How are its Indigenous concerns different from non-Indigenous? What does the title mean?

Saunders: Well, look, what’s called speculative fiction in the Western literary canon isn’t anything new to us. Our cultural stories have dealt with the devices and tropes of speculative fiction for millennia. So when you think about time warps, demons and devils, ghosts, creatures, monsters, spirits, you know the impact of technology on society. These are stories that our cultural stories have been talking about for millennia. So, it’s not new for us. But how would it differ in a modern sense, a contemporary sense? Well, as you probably know, speculative fiction, science fiction has a very racist and problematic history. So many of the first science fiction stories in the West were stories of exploration and first contact and colonisation. Now, to us, these are these aren’t speculative. These are our reality. These are our pasts. These are our history. There’s nothing speculative about that.

So, to us, I think one thing I have noticed with from studying Aboriginal speculative fiction over the last few years is that while we use the devices and the tropes of standard speculative fiction, we use them in ways that are more respectful to our culture to talk about our own lived realities. So we’re not going off to colonize other planets. Why would we do that? We know how that feels. We’re not going to exploit or enslave or commit ecocide. Rather, we’re using these devices to think about alternate pasts, alternate futures. We’re thinking about the ways, you know, our spiritual beliefs kind of seep into our everyday life. But we’re using it in a creative, literary-licensed way. Yeah. So, we’re still using them, but we’re just using them in a different cultural context is what I would say.

Hawkins: In the Overture of This All Come Back Now you discuss getting around childhood poverty and being unable to purchase many music albums outright by putting together mixtapes and compilations.  You use that mixtape metaphor to describe this collection. Can you say more?

Saunders: Yeah. Yeah. Also know another way I got around it was by stealing stuff. But yes, I mostly got around it by mixtapes. Yeah. Look, I mean, I don’t think this is, like, confined to people who grew up poor. I think there’s just a real joy in swapping mixtapes with people and learning about music that way. I felt such joy in doing it. I loved receiving mixtapes from people who I knew. Open my world up, you know? And I like doing it to others, too. And that’s why I liken this anthology to a mixtape, because, through reading anthologies and short story collections, I’ve found so many writers that I love that way that I would have maybe never come across. Yeah. You’re not going to vibe with all of them, you’re not going to love them all, but it opens your world up. I guess as an Aboriginal person, I really love the collective and communal nature of an anthology. You know, this book isn’t all about me. Certainly, I chose the stories and I put them together. But the stories are what it’s all about. And that’s exciting for me — to be an editor on this project, because I got to work with all these different creative people and see how their minds work and their creativity.

Hawkins: Yeah, it’s just a great collection. In the Overture, you write:

Australian and global spec fic writers have, too, been historically averse to actual First Nations writers but welcoming of non-Indigenous writers who win awards for biting our style and flogging our experiences for their storylines…And I say this loud and clear: the vast majority of this characterisation is no good, whether they’re infantilising or fetishising or assimilating or demonising us, or some combination of these.

 Is it colonisation, empathy or capitalism?

Saunders: Well, there are stories. There are stories out there that kind of treat us as childlike, noble savages that don’t have any intelligence. We don’t have any concept of time or pain or whatever, you know, just of those really classic racist tropes. And these come through in these stories. So when I say infantilizing, that’s what I mean. And we’re people — just as loving and, you know, abusive and violent and ambitious as any other people on earth. We are full and complex people. So we’re treated as characters, as purely good children of God that don’t have any kind of motivations or ambitions, and that’s really flattening.

And sometimes other Aboriginal writers are actually guilty of this. You know, they paint the Aboriginal characters as good and white is bad. And we know that’s not what a good story is for starters, but it’s also not what real life is either. So I find those stories really boring.

Hawkins: You write that:

Traditionally, Australian speculative fiction publishers have preferred fake, palatable versions of our stories over the real deal, but this is no surprise as it mirrors the same proclivities of mainstream literature, which of course is just a microcosm of this country at large. They want the nice stuff: the ochre, the opals, the stoicism, the spiritual purity, the creatures, the cosmology, the mystical shamans and evil sorcerers, the magical properties in our blood, the portals in our scared sites. But nobody wants to reckon with the effects of state-sanctioned violence, of ecocidal policy, of genocide, of eugenics.

How does this dichotomy relate to the collection?

Saunders: Well, I think the stories in [the anthology] really show us in the fullness of our being. You know, we don’t have these purely good and purely bad characters. They’re all pretty complex. I don’t I hesitate to say that Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander writers in this collection are writing back against that, because I’m not even sure all the writers are super aware of the history of racist speculative fiction in Australia. But certainly as Indigenous people, they would be very, very well-versed in the racism of everyday life and society at large. So there would be an element of writing back against that.

But when I say that Australia prefers a certain version of our stories, if you look at public publishing history and not just spec fic but any literary publishing, most of the Aboriginal stories that have been published in the last few decades are either a kind of feel good memoir or a kind of trauma porn consumption for the white gaze. There’s not been a lot of Aboriginal speculative fiction, these weird stories that don’t quite fit in anywhere in the literary mainstream, but they also don’t really fit in with the Australian speculative fiction stuff either because they haven’t been publishing it.

So yeah, I don’t know. When I see white writers writing Aboriginal characters, they are often really fascinated by the beauty of our culture. And don’t get me wrong. Very beautiful culture, very respectful and you know, people and place conscious culture. We wouldn’t have survived this long if it wasn’t the case, you know, if we were exploitative or abusive to each other. But so they see all that beauty and they want to write about it, and they want to, but they don’t want to reckon with the horrible stuff that we’ve just been talking — assimilation, policies, police brutality, all the things that we’re living through today. You know, we can’t separate them. You can’t have one without the other. And I think if white writers want to write about us or write our characters, then they have to keep this stuff in mind as well if they want to do it well.

Hawkins: You’re the editor, so you want to be even-handed, but are there one or two stories that connect with you more than some of the others? Why?

Saunders: I find it hard to answer this, but do you have any that you can look to?

Hawkins: “Five Minutes.”

Saunders:  Oh, yeah. Oh, my God. What a brilliant writer John Morrissey is. He’s got a short story collection coming out in the next year or the year after, and I just can’t wait. He’s a brilliant writer.

Hawkins:  You discuss time travel in the Overture and say:

For example: time travel isn’t such a big deal when you belong to a culture that experiences all-times simultaneously, not in a progressive straight line like Western cultures do.

Not in a straight line what does that mean?

Saunders: Okay. Well, in 1953, the good white anthropologist W.E.H. Stenner was–and when I say good white anthropologists, there’s been some really terrible exploitative ones –one of the good ones, and he still holds up to this day. So he went and worked with our people in the central desert, and he was really respectful and really good at learning from the community. And he found out some really great stuff and he was able to translate it for a Western audience. So he came up with this word: Everywhen. So, similar to everywhere, but everywhen, because he couldn’t find a word that for the Anangu people [that] meant history or the past. He couldn’t get a sense of this linear progression of time that he was used to. So he coined this term everywhen, which was a translation of these concepts that all Aboriginal cultures have. But he just went to this particular place.

So when I say when we experience time simultaneously, that’s what I’m talking about, this everywhen concept, that everything that has happened is happening now. Everything that is going to happen, you know, it’s all connected. There’s no, you know, pre-colonial, colonial, post-colonial to us. It’s all one continuum of time. And yeah, and I mean, I notice this in ways that Aboriginal versus white Australian people think about the past. You know, Australians tend to think the past happened a long time ago, that their ancestors are long dead, that humanity is becoming more improved and better and all that stuff. But for Aboriginal people, you know, our ancestors are with us. We think about our traditions and our history a lot. As much as we think about the future, we don’t try and separate ourselves from older versions of us. We know that we’re all human and we’re not really evolving in this linear progression [and] that evolution isn’t necessarily getting better all the time.

Hawkins: Humanity is dealing with Climate Crisis. How do First Nations people address it?

Saunders: Look, I think when we talk about human-centered or human-centric climate change or ecocide, our people have been dealing with this since 1788 when the First Fleet landed on what is now Sydney and began cutting down swathes of forest to build their houses and polluting streams and taking Aboriginal people, kidnapping them to use as guides. And you know, to us the racial desecration and the environmental desecration goes hand in hand. And I think that’s the same everywhere in the world. So our people have been fighting for our countries and our environments since then, and we’ve been collectively mourning and grieving the losses. I think what we’re seeing in the last few years or decades is more of a global effect of these localized things that were happening over the last few hundred years. But we’ve been fighting for this stuff for a long time. And I think the difference now is that it’s not just impacting Aboriginal communities, it’s impacting everyone. Not everyone, but a lot of people are waking up to it, and are also grieving and feeling these losses that our people have been feeling for a long time.

Saunders: You know, when our sacred sites are desecrated, and our waterholes are polluted, and when caves are blown up because of mining, these are things that we have been dealing with for a long time. And our response has always been to fight. And it has to be the only response. I think it was one of your people, Mike Davis, who passed away recently, who said, you know, fight with hope or fight without hope. It doesn’t matter. Just fight. Absolutely. And I think that’s what our people have always done in varying degrees. But yeah, it is it is a very it’s a traumatic time for everyone I like. To joke and say, look, we’ve already had our apocalypse, you know, we’ve already survived our apocalypse. Now that everyone’s having an apocalypse, we can all share this one this time, rather than just white people inflicting it on us. We all get to share in the end of the world together. But I don’t know, is it the end of the world? Who knows? But hopefully the end of a world that needs to end.

Hawkins: ‘Protocols of Transference’ describes the intersection of Aboriginal life with Artificial Intelligence.  Are First Nations people somehow better prepared for a future of engagement with AIs and quantum and, perhaps, a panpsychic understanding of existence?

Saunders:  Yeah. Look, that story is written by Katherine Gledhill Tucker, and she is an incredible technology digital rights activist.  ‘Protocols of Transference’ is the first story she ever wrote and published, which is incredible. She wanted to think about the ways that we as Aboriginal people engage with the technology versus how other or dominant cultural ways will do so. And so she’s got this story where the narrator is talking to an artificial intelligence sometime in the future. It seems to be a post-human future to me. And it really outlines the ways that, I guess, technology has all this potential to be so great and to really benefit all of humanity, but in the wrong hands, it can all be disastrous.

Hawkins: I note that the publisher’s media package includes instructions on how to set up classroom lessons and activities around the book.  How does that work?

Saunders: Well, so I don’t know how it works over there, but sometimes when books come out, the publisher will contract another teacher to write a series of teacher’s notes because they want the book to be out there in the schools. And certainly, when I was growing up, there were no Aboriginal books being taught in schools. We had to read all these English novels about lords and ladies who I had no connection with. So, these teacher’s notes are a way for teachers, most probably mostly white teachers who want to use Aboriginal stories to teach lessons, but they’re not sure how because they don’t know much about other cultures or they don’t know much about how to read these stories in a proper cultural way. So these teacher notes are really good for them to be able to like come up with little lesson plans or activities for their students. I think they’re really great.

American Note: The Rudd Apology begrudgingly inspired a similar half-hearted apology to Native Americans – it was “buried in buried in a defense spending bill and signed into law in 2010.”  No direct apology from the head of government to the Nations – i.e., Obama –was ever made. {A token apology for the Jim Crow years – a nonbinding resolution —  to African-Americans had been made on July 29, 2008]


Here is an excellent article on Dreamtime published at The Conversation.

The University of Queensland Press in Australia has made available Teachers Notes that describe how the collection could be used in classroom instruction.  They are available at the Internet Archive.

In addition, there are a number of valuable articles and stories available at the UQP website for sampling and at the editor’s personal website, .


Rabbit Proof Fence (2002)

Last Wave (1977)

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.