Walking Many Worlds: Aboriginal Storytelling and Writing for the Young
Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer and illustrator; she has published both picture books and a YA dystopian series, The Tribe. In this engrossing essay, which doubles as a call to arms, she describes what it’s like to be an Indigenous writer, the importance of ‘laughter-stories’ even (or especially) about terrible things, and why writing for young people demands an ‘impossibly high’ standard.
She argues for the importance of diverse books for young people: so that all young people can access stories that are written by and about someone like them. ‘Be aware,’ she urges - we should all ask that bookshops and libraries, writers festivals and events, stock books and program writers that allow children and teenagers to find themselves in the faces on the covers and the names of the authors.
I come from generations of storytellers who told tales in words, painted them in art, and sung and danced them in rhythm with the seasons and the sun and the stars. The people were one with the stories and the stories one with the people, and every tale both embodied and sustained the whole. The Indigenous peoples of the globe have always understood the universe to be a continually enfolding and unfolding place where everything holds everything else. We had no fractured stories, until the colonisers arrived, bringing with them tales that divided people from people and people from the earth. Indigenous peoples learned to navigate these stories too; we had to if we wanted to survive. And today, I am merely one of the many millions of Indigenous people who walk in many worlds.
My perspective is shaped by the culture and Country of the Palyku people from whom I come; by individual and collective Indigenous experiences of colonisation; and by my family and my ancestors. But I speak only for myself. The many Aboriginal nations of Australia, and Indigenous peoples elsewhere, are diverse peoples with diverse perspectives. We share much in common, but we are also different individuals from different nations, and our cultures are and always have been pluralist in nature. As such, we do not hold a single, static view between us all.
The worlds in which I walk are sometimes disparate but not disconnected. Each one is shaped by stories, including the worlds of the things that have been and those of the things that are yet to be. As Cherokee author Thomas King writes: ‘Most of us think history is the past. It’s not. History is the stories we tell about the past.’ (1) And Indigenous people are well aware of the many ways in which stories of the past continue to shape our future. We deal daily with the ongoing and intergenerational consequences of colonialism; with the negative stereotypes; and with the mistaken assumptions about us upon which law and policy is so often based.
I often think of a tale told by Yuin elder Eileen Morgan in her memoir The Calling of the Spirits. She writes of a hidden valley of Aboriginal people who live naked as our ancestors did, and have a single set of clothes to be worn if ever one of them ventures out of the valley. It seems to me that Indigenous people send out our stories in much the same way. We clothe them in forms which non-Indigenous hearts and minds will recognise so that they might understand us. Except we use those forms differently, and Indigenous work is sometimes criticised for failing to comply with genre expectations or scholarly conventions that were never ours to begin with. We are aware also of the dangers of becoming too comfortable in Eurocentric forms and writing ourselves out of our own stories. In the words of Plains Cree Metis poet and author Dr Emma LaRocque, reflecting on the academic world:
I’ve walked these hallways
For a long time now
Hallways without windows
No way to feel the wind
No way to touch the earth
No way to see
I do my footnotes so well
Nobody knows where I come from (2)
Indigenous peoples are unlikely to ever use the written word in the same way as those to whom the English language belongs; we reinterpret and subvert to make someone else’s form communicate our substance. In the end, we are not writing. We are speaking, singing, laughing, crying. And we know it is desperately important to be heard. We know because we are ones who bear the cost of the silence that causes us to vanish from national consciousness and allows harmful distortions of our cultures and histories to pass unchallenged. Beyond that, this planet has always needed a diversity of voices to sustain its diversity of environments (and therefore life on earth). In the words of Arrente elder Margaret Kemarre Turner: ‘The Land must have people through whom it can talk.’ (3)
One commonality shared by many Indigenous peoples of the globe is our use of humour. We sometimes laugh at terrible things; it is an aspect of Indigenous storytelling that is often misconstrued. It does not in any way mean the terrible things were not terrible, or that we take them lightly. But our ancestors taught us that making light of them can make them a little easier to bear. Laughter is a gift; and anyone who has ever survived something terrible knows its value and its grace.
Laughter-stories are much needed now, along with all the other stories, and they are most especially needed by those to whom my books speak. Because I write novels for young adults and picture books for children. And of all the worlds in which I walk, it is the world of the young which is closest to my heart.
I am aware, of course, that there are those who believe that writing for children or teenagers is not as difficult or as worthy as writing for adults. It’s becoming a semi-regular event for someone to make the allegation that YA/children’s literature is not ‘real literature’. This does not bother me so much on my own behalf – in fact, if anyone ever did think my books were ‘real literature’ I’d just as soon they never said so, at least not where any child or teenager likely to read my books could hear them. It’s perilously close to saying my books are educational, and the only people who think that’s an attractive quality in a YA/children’s books are adults. But such allegations do bother me on behalf of the people I write for, because it implies that (a) the standard is lower and (b) the young won’t notice. I think the opposite is true. I think the standard is and should be impossibly high; children and teenagers deserve and demand more. And of course they notice when a story is not well told. Failing to perceive the blindingly obvious is an ability we only develop as we grow older.
The world of the young is a place that abounds with infinite possibilities and infinite terrors. Every horror that can be visited on the grown ups of this world exists too in the lives of the young, only they must cope with their realities with less experience and less resources. And the stories that shape and inspire and comfort the diverse children and teenagers of this world are not the stories they’ll read when they’re all grown up. It’s the stories that speak to who they are now. That is why it is so important to ensure not only that the young have access to stories, but that at least some of those stories are written by and about someone like them.
There is a campaign in the United States called ‘We need diverse books’; as part of it, people posted pictures of signs that finished the sentence ‘we need diverse books because…’ One of the images that has stayed with me is a sign sitting in front of Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian author Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. The sign reads: ‘We need diverse books because everyone’s story deserves to be told’.
I am often asked if there are any limits on what I would write for the young. I accept at least one limit, and it is this: I will never tell a story without hope. It is perhaps why I enjoy YA literature so much; I want to see good triumph over evil and it generally does in my genre, although not without hardship and sacrifice. Good triumphs because that is exactly what should happen in a world of infinite possibility (including the possibility of justice). And if some adults are inclined to think that narratives of unremitting bleakness are more realistic, then that is surely an indictment on the world we create for the young and not the one they would create for themselves, were they ever given the choice.
The first story I ever published and illustrated is a book called Crow and the Waterhole. That story came to me in a dream. I saw a crow who gazes down at her reflection in the waterhole below her tree. She believes she is seeing another crow, one far more wonderful than she is. So she goes out in the world to seek her destiny, but she keeps seeing other crows – in a river, a lake, and a puddle. Each new Crow is more wonderful than the last, and Crow despairs. Finally, a clever kookaburra explains that she is staring at her own image. So Crow flies back to her tree, and from that time on, whenever she meets someone seeking their destiny, she says to them: ‘Your destiny lies within you. All you have to do is learn how to see it.’
I believe the tale was a gift given to me by my ancestors. They knew I was at a stage in my life when I needed to hear that story. And it is still my dream, but no longer for myself. It is what I want for all the children and all the teenagers of this earth – to be able to find their own image in the world around them and recognise their own value. That value then multiples ten-thousandfold because those who have travelled through doubt and fear to be able to nurture themselves are also the ones who will be the most nurturing of others. The reverse is also true; we all understand that a lack of self-worth leads to destructive cycles of behavior. The effects of our actions are always exponential, which means we can be more powerful than we know.
I am going to assume that anyone who loves stories thinks that more stories (and more perspectives) are better than less. So to all the book lovers, I say this: be aware.
When you go into a bookstore or shop online, start paying attention to the faces on the covers and the names of authors. Are you seeing the complexity and diversity of the world looking back at you? This is important for adult readers, of course, but it is more important for the young. Where are the stories in which they are the heroes, the ones written by and about people like them? And if these books are not present, don’t let anyone tell you they don’t exist, at least, not without investigating that claim.
Certainly in Australia there is a wealth of Indigenous narratives across all genres, largely (but not exclusively) due to the amazing work of Aboriginal publishers – IAD Press, Aboriginal Studies Press, and Magabala Books. Many non-Indigenous publishing houses are also producing stories written and/or illustrated by Indigenous people (including Allen & Unwin, Little Hare Books, Random House, Penguin, Omnibus Books, Fremantle Press, Spinifex Press, University of Queensland Press, Giramondo Publishing, Walker Books and many others).
If you find a lack of stories, ask that bookstores and libraries stock the books that allow children and teenagers to find themselves in the faces on the covers and the names of the authors. Ask that writers’ festivals and events do too. And if there is a lack of monetary resources, make some noise about that as well. The likelihood is that the critically under-resourced schools and libraries will be those located in disadvantaged areas (in other words, the very places where the young need stories the most).
So let’s do what we can to help create the world the young would choose for themselves, the one where they are valued. And then watch as different cultures and perspectives interact in narrative space, affirming their understanding of themselves and gaining a better understanding of each other.
The world of the young is one of limitless possibilities – give them enough support, and they will expand the boundaries of all worlds into infinity.
Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer, illustrator and law academic. She comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. She has published a number of picture books as well as a dystopian series - The Tribe - for young adults. Find out more about Ambelin at her website: www.ambelin-kwaymullina.com.au
(1) Thomas King, An Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2012, p3
(2) Emma LaRocque, ‘Long Way From Home’ in Socialist Studies, Vol 9(1) Spring 2013 pp22 – 26 at 23
(3) Margaret Kemarre Turner, Iwenhe Tyerrtye: What it means to be an Aboriginal person, IAD Press, Alice Springs, 2010, p33