As a spec fic writer, I’ve so often been told that it’s “unusual” or even “strange” for an Indigenous person to be writing in this genre. Why do you write speculative fiction? Do you think there’s advantages to the genre that aren’t found in other genres?
Yes, the industry must move past the tendency to put creatives in genre boxes as well as to underestimate Native authors and authors of color.
We are not here to exclusively write books about landmark historical events with obvious social studies tie-ins. We can rock those stories, but we can also do so much more and do it spectacularly.
If not, you may want to look into ordering online for international delivery. (Or check out the e-novella, Rose Eagle–should be an easy download.)
As for me, I take the advice we so often give to beginning writers. I write what I know. I write what I love to read. I saw “Star Wars: A New Hope” (before it was called “A New Hope”) 384 times in the theater. Of course I write speculative fiction.
My Tantalize–Feral universe is genre bending, incorporating elements of Gothic fantasy, urban fantasy, mystery, suspense, humor, and science fiction.
The fantastical offers writers the ability to speak to our real world at a slant. At that slant, you can—ironically enough—hit the real-world themes harder.
Let’s say I wrote a realistic novel about a teenage girl who gets involved with an older guy who plies her with red wine, takes over her family’s business, socially segregates her, kidnaps her, imprisons her, assaults her, frames her best friend for murder and kills her best friend’s dog. Yes, his dog. Overkill? (Possibly. I’m still getting distraught reader mail about the dog.)
On the other hand, if he’s a vampire, the reader is far more likely to buy into the story. (And, thankfully, I had the discretion to subvert genre expectations and make it a girl-empowerment story.) With spec fic, we can dig deeper into the theme without seeming heavy handed.
My latest realistic short fiction, “All’s Well,” appeared as a chapter in Shaun David Hutchinson‘s Violent Ends (Simon Pulse, 2015), which is centered on a school shooting.
Coming up, I’ll have a poem written as a child featured in “Dreams to Write” in Our
Story Begins: Children’s Authors and Illustrators Share Fun, Inspiring,
and Occasionally Ridiculous Things They Wrote and Drew as Kids, edited by Elissa Brent Weissman (Atheneum, 2017). I do a little creative nonfiction, too. Basically, I have either great range or a complete lack of focus.
You put time and effort into promoting the work of other writers. Why is this important to you?
When I decided to write full-time rather than practice law (or work as a journalist), it was more of a heart decision than a head decision.
By the time I was eight or nine years old, as an avid reader, I’d learned that I never wanted to open a book with an American Indian on the cover (or any hint of Native content), even if it was by the author of my favorite novel.
While we have far to go, I’ve seen progress and felt the pride in community that comes with it.
Books are where I belong. Story is what has always helped me make sense of the world and find my place in it. And my place in it is informed by media and the law–a longing for justice bolstered by the education and tools to help achieve it.
I want to do what I can to ensure that children’s-YA literature welcomes all kids in a positive, nurturing way. That’s not just about me. It’s about what we do as a community of book creators, publishers, gatekeepers, booksellers, child care givers… The team effort.
Light a candle. If that doesn’t work, light a bonfire.
How did I get here? By the standards of the time, I entered children’s-YA publishing as a very young author.
This was the late 1990s, and I was in my late twenties/early thirties. It’s different now. Debut authors younger than I was then are no longer unusual. But back then, editors weren’t taking many chances on new voices. There weren’t as many younger voices writing either. (Hello, Potter effect.)
Almost everybody I knew was at least 15 years older and had much more experience. People frequently commented to me that I was their children’s age.
My inner fourteen-year-old was–still is–spinning over the moon.
What I did have to offer the community was enthusiasm, a commitment to what then was called “multiculturalism,” and a background in journalism. I embraced the possibilities of the Web and began signal boosting in a big way.
Now, I’ve been in the business nearly 20 years and am finishing my fifteenth book. Though I still have much to learn, I’m honored to share what I do know, especially with Austin and Texas authors, my VCFA family, new voices, diverse voices and of course Native writers and illustrators.
Along the way, I keep believing, signal boosting, mentoring, teaching, writing and cheerleading.
Spreading the word that good books matter.
Does law influence your storytelling in any way?
Definitely. Law gives me an analytical skill-set that is priceless for plotting and world building. If you look, for example, at the Feral trilogy, the legal status of shape-shifters plays a significant role in the story construct.
By that, I don’t mean that my characters are citing case law or pontificating on legal history but rather that the socio-political-legal structure in which they struggle has been thought out and fully integrated.
On a more obvious level, I’ve written lawyer characters—Cousin Elizabeth from Jingle Dancer (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000) and, in my current work in progress, the protagonist’s mother is a law student.
When I write Native stories in particular, that heightened awareness comes into play because of the role of law in our nations’ histories and its ongoing importance to our survival today and beyond.
You’ve written that you felt compelled to write for young readers in the wake of the Oklahoma City Bombing. Why for young readers rather than adults?
I feel that hope, too. That faith. I believe in it enough to invest my life’s work.
It’s not that I don’t think adults can grow and change. Of course we can.
But when I close my eyes and imagine a world of heroes, most of the faces I see are those of elders and the young.
Maybe that’s because I was raised close to my grandparents, my great aunties and uncles. They faced Indian boarding school, the Great Depression, the second World War.
My first heroes were my elders, starting from the time the were young. Their influence is defining.
What’s the story you’re proudest of, and why?
I want to say that I don’t process my books and shorts in terms of
pride, but only moments ago I was telling you about the pride I feel in
the progress we’ve made in children’s-YA literature.
So, okay, I’ll close my eyes and keep typing and resist the urge to edit afterward.
I’m most proud of my novel in progress, tentatively titled “How to End a Date” (Candlewick, fall 2017), by which I mean I’m proud of the protagonist.
How she navigates, less and more successfully, all the crap that’s routinely tossed at Native teens and, for that matter, at girls on a day-to-day basis and how she takes refuge in her sense of humor and her loving family and her community and, most of all, how she fights, true to her heart, even when her biggest obstacle is herself.
And since it’s loosely based on my own adolescence, I guess I have to say that I’m finally proud of my own inner teen.
So there, Cindy Lou. I believe in you.
Author Interview: Joseph Bruchac on Killer of Enemies from Lee & Low. Peek: “…what really helped me begin to develop this story was the combination of seeing the ways in which building technology into people has become more and more of a reality and the idea that then came to me about how those modified people would be affected if electricity (including circuits implanted into human bodies) suddenly stopped working.”
Lately, I’ve been talking to Ambelin Kwaymullina, “an Aboriginal writer and illustrator from the Palyku people” of Australia, about own voices, representation, appropriation and writing across identity elements.
At first glance, when it comes to protagonists and point of view, we may seem to be on opposite ends of a spectrum–her advocating against writing as an outsider and me in favor.
It’s more complicated than that. As we compared notes, we found ourselves agreeing or at least empathizing more than you might assume.
I’m a Muscogee Nation citizen, and I’ve written protagonists who share that identity as well as those who, unlike me, are respectively Chinese American, Mexican American, Italian American, English American, Seminole, and Cherokee. The non-Indians appear in alternating point-of-view novels.
(I’m a Cherokee descendant, not a Cherokee Nation citizen. That translates to shared ancestry and cultural touchstones, but there’s a difference. To clarify: I’m likewise Irish American. However, I am not a citizen of Ireland. I am Muscogee and American, a citizen of both Muscogee Nation and the United States of America. Native identity is about culture and heritage, but it’s also about law and political status.)
More broadly, when it comes to race, religion, culture, gender, age, orientation, body type, and socio-economics, I write inside my personal experience.
Likewise, I write outside my personal experience. I speak on and teach the subject of writing, including writing across identity elements, on a regular basis.
As I’ve mentioned before, the question of writing outside one’s lived knowledge and most immediate stakes with regard to protagonists (or, in the case of nonfiction, focal subjects) is a very personal one.
Today I’m going to share a glimpse into my own, nuanced process for deciding who and what to write and why. Yes, of course your mileage may vary. It may evolve. Mine has evolved.
I’ve committed quality time, scholarship and tuition dollars to Freedom of Speech.
I’m well aware that rights come with opportunities, costs and responsibilities. And I’m well aware that restrictions on speech tend to hit disempowered people first and the hardest.
I’ll restate that:
Restrictions on speech tend to hit disempowered people first and the hardest.
Sometimes I exercise my right to speak. Sometimes I exercise my right not to speak.
As a one-time Native child who couldn’t watch “Super Friends” every Saturday morning without also seeing “Elbow Room”every Saturday morning, I fret the impact of erasure (to a cheery tune) and of the single story (in that case, the “helpful Indian”).
Watch this and, if it’s not your inherent perspective, try to do so–with your writing cap on–from a Native or POC point of view.
(2) The vast majority of children’s-YA authors must, to varying degrees, write outside our own experience—at least with regard to secondary characters and major historical events or societal topics. This is necessary to reflect the full range of our humanity in the past, present and future.
In a sweeping book about the U.S. Civil War or The Great Depression or the Industrial Revolution, I’m looking for inclusion when it comes to the participation of and impact on Native people, people of color, women, etc. Ditto that contemporary realistic chapter book set in a minority-majority nation or that YA dystopian novel.
Ducking that content isn’t a neutral decision. Again, effectively writing Native people off the continent–out of the past, present, and future–isn’t a neutral decision. Over the body of literature, it’s a minimizing one. An erasing one. Silence speaks. It contributes to adverse real-world impact.
After every U.S. election, we actually have to educate the new Congress about our continued existence. Please don’t make it harder for us to protect our nations, our land, our children. Remember, we are still here. And we should be reflected in the pages of children’s-YA literature.
So, to recap: (1) I’m well versed in freedom of speech. (2) Every children’s-YA writer must, to some degree, write outside our immediate frame of reference. Still with me?
Back to protagonists and nonfiction topics. Bookstores vary the titles they stock. Libraries vary their collections. Publishers vary their manuscript acquisitions, and agents vary their clients.
Otherwise their books would compete with each other, and they wouldn’t be able to offer the selection necessary to stay in business.
Choices that heavily favor slender, straight, able-bodied white kids are the norm. Those books are viewed as standard. Viewed as universal. There’s no industry predisposition to limit them.
But every day, other well-written stories are rejected for being “too similar” to an already stocked, purchased, acquired or signed project that’s perceived as similar enough to compete.
Let’s say there’s already one middle grade with an Asian boy protagonist. Will another one be turned down for potentially competing?
“I just acquired an Asian boy middle-grade novel, and, unfortunately….”
Writers get rejection letters to that effect all the time. I’ve read them. Quite a few of them because I teach and mentor and so other writers come to me to discuss such things.
And, granted, stories won’t be rejected just because of common identity elements. It could happen because they’re deemed “too similar” in other ways.
My kitty, Gali-Leo
“I just acquired a novel about soccer, and, unfortunately….”
What is the societal impact of limiting to one book about soccer?
What is the societal impact to limiting to one book about Asian-American boys?
Or one book about Asian Americans–period? Especially since “Asian American” is an umbrella term.
Heaven forbid two Asian-American boy characters in two different stories both happen to play soccer.
Sure, even with mainstream heroes, there are limits:
we’re already publishing a half dozen dystopians…”
Here’s the thing: Writers often panic over new releases that might be “too similar” to our own works in progress, particularly if our own manuscript is well along. We anguish over whether to read the competing title to gauge whether our project is in the clear or not. With nonfiction writers, you’ll often hear talk of “getting there first” in the marketplace.
Remember when I mentioned the right to speak and the right not to?
This is what I personally do with that reality:
Halloween decoration that inspired my novel, Feral Curse
I love cats. I love carousels. I’m intrigued by cryptids.
In the Feral series (Candlewick/Walker), I write about werecats, demons, magic and furry cryptid hominids.
The stories take place in Austin, in a nearby small town, in the suburbs, at a resort, and on a tropical island.
These YA books are heartfelt, funny, action packed and teeny bit sexy (if I do say so myself).
The trilogy metaphorically tackles diversity, social justice, and what it means to be human.
No way would the entire cast look like it had been raised by Carol and Mike Brady. Or be depicted simply as white kids from different social groups a’ la “The Breakfast Club” (remember when that was a diversity ground-breaker?).
The Feral series’ question is: “What does it mean to be human?” My answer isn’t: “Let’s check in with the all-white heroes to find out.” (Although white co-protagonists are certainly included in the mix.)
The series is told in alternating points of view by four co-protagonists, including Kayla, a werecheetah, who presents as Black American, and Yoshi, a werecougar, who presents as a biracial (Japanese-white) American. They’re homo shifters rather than homo sapiens, and they live among us. Within the genre bending, it’s a sci-fi-ish fantastical construct.
Now imagine this. An editor reads my manuscript and says: “Too bad! I just signed a story about a smart, small-town, Black Texas teen–the daughter of the mayor–who’s able to turn into a werecheetah, and is being haunted by her ex-boyfriend’s ghost, which is trapped in a carousel. And, wouldn’t you just know it? Both stories feature a Eurasian co-protagonist/love interest, raised in an antique mall by his homicidal grandmother.…”
Really? If another author also independently came up with that specific idea, we are soulmates.
But only one of us is probably going to sell that oh-so-similar book to that one YA fantasy editor at that house. Or sign with that manuscript to that one genre-bendy and cryptid-loving agent.
Libraries and bookstores will stock one or the other. (Unless there’s a major motion picture involved.)
We’re safe to say the Feral series (Candlewick) is an idiosyncratic, diverse spec-fic YA adventure. This is a benefit of a quirky writing nature (Werearmadillos, for example. I may have invented them. That level of quirky.)
Kayla, as one of four co-protagonists, isn’t going to knock a book with another Black girl hero out of contention for anything. And the lived experience that’s most on point is what it’s like to “pass” or not. On that point, I do have lived experience to bring.
Nifty. Green light.
Now consider this: I love the music of Eartha Kitt. I am fascinated by Eartha Kitt.
I believe that Eartha Kitt was the best Catwoman.
The. Best. Catwoman.
Nobody could purr like Eartha Kitt.
She was inspiring, talented, formidable. For years, I’ve longed to write a biography about Eartha.
She’s not a household name or an automatic tie-in to the Black History Month curriculum.
There might be room for one Earth Kitt biography for kids (or teens). I could see that getting published. I can imagine some bookstores and libraries stocking it.
As much as I love Eartha, I can’t imagine them embracing two or more.
So I’m not writing it. But if I weighed all
that and moved forward, I would talk to Eartha’s family first for
permission and consult with Black author friends, too.
Magazine cover of Eartha in my dining nook
All the while owning that my book could be blocking one by a member of Eartha’s own community.
Would I love that reality? No, but I couldn’t ignore it or dismiss it or explain it away either. And I couldn’t wrap myself in the First Amendment and leave it at that because I have the right not to speak, too.
I would have to hold myself to the highest possible writing standard and expect others, especially those with a closer kinship, to do the same.
What’s more, I’d have to acknowledge that I was starting at a serious deficit. There are writers with so much more to bring to that manuscript–Black writers, especially those with a strong background in singing and acting, who’d have knowledge and insights to illuminate the awesomeness that was Eartha in important ways that I’d never imagine.
I’m not planning to write that biography of Eartha. But up until a year or so ago, I was seriously considering it.
He and I have more in common. We’re both mixed-blood citizens of southeastern Native Nations now based in Oklahoma. I want Native kids to learn about him, to be inspired by his story. I want non-Indian kids to learn about him and rethink the “primitive savage” stereotypes they’re fed.
Still, writing about John would’ve required me to write as an outsider.
I’ve met him in person in Oklahoma!
I’m not Chickasaw. “Native American” and “American Indian”
are umbrella terms. Again, being Muscogee doesn’t make me Chickasaw.
Are there shared ties and history between some Native/First Nations
people and nations? Yes, more so within regions. But we’re not one
in the same.
I hate to say it, but, as with Eartha, there’s probably not room in the market for more than one nonfiction picture book about John Herrington.
Native people are not meaningfully included in the U.S. curriculum. To the extent we’re mentioned, the focus isn’t on our achievements in space exploration. (Cough.)
There’s no way I would’ve put down a word of John’s story without his permission. As a First Amendment student, I know that I have the right to do so. As a Native woman, I believe in cultural property but, more to the point, as a human being, I believe in respect and courtesy.
John’s story is not my mine to take. It’s certainly not mine to take for profit.
Besides, to do a good job with it, I would’ve needed not only John’s blessing but also his assistance because the greatest living authority on John is of course John himself.
And if John thought it was a wonderful idea for me to write the story, I would’ve been honored and proceeded from there. (Yes, I would touch base with Chickasaw children’s writers, too.)
Many of the best books written by outsiders come from a place of deep connection and respect, prioritizing impact on young readers–both those directly reflected by the book and those who’re not.
These titles were born in the wake of the September 11 attacks after Bethany, a 9/11 survivor, heard Arun give a speech and found personal solace and healing in it. Later, they worked together to share Arun’s stories with kids. He chose her as his co-author.
As writers, we succeed when we set aside the self-absorption of intent and entitlement in favor of respect and commitment.
We succeed when we come from a deeply felt place, like Bethany did after 9/11 and like she does every day when she cradles her own Indian-American baby son.
Bottom line: I never actively began writing the manuscript about John Herrington. It was merely an idea. I had other projects to finish first. I hadn’t yet contacted John to discuss it.
But now I’m absolutely delighted that John’s children’s book, Mission to Space, was recently published by Chickasaw Press.
Imagine if bookstores and libraries didn’t pick it up because another children’s writer (like me) had already gotten there first and with a publisher that has a larger, more powerful industry presence.
Ambelin mentioned that she doesn’t want to see outsiders writing first- or deep third-person point of view. She’s told me that she feels that way in part because she hasn’t seen it done well and in part because of the systematic exclusion of Indigenous voices, own voices.
She doesn’t “want anyone occupying that space until there’s something resembling parity of representation of Indigenous writers (and other own voices).”
I’m deeply sympathetic to her perspective and a strong ownvoices advocate myself.
At the same time, when it comes to Native content, I’m more open to outside voices than Ambelin.
It’s a blessing for Native kids, all kids, that books like those are published, and I’m thrilled to champion them whenever I can.
Moreover, as a southeastern American Indian, considering our history and current ties with Black Americans, I particularly long for more of their voices in the related conversation of books, especially with regard to the intersection of Black Indian tribal citizens.
Big picture, being open to outside writers is no small or unqualified leap of faith.
There is a long and damaging history of outsiders telling “Native” stories, having approached us in the guise of ethnographer, of anthropologist, of writer, of friend. A long and damaging and ongoing effort to mislead, gain trust, and then misrepresent Native lives and narratives. Usually for profit, power or both.
When I say “damaging,” that’s not hyperbole. I’m talking about real-world legislation, persecution, and impact on the daily life of every Native person. We are peoples of Nations defined by sometimes hostile law and profoundly affected by that law. Public opinion, education and miseducation affects the making and enforcement of those laws. And then there’s the psychological impact on citizens of our Nations, especially on our children and teens.
If you don’t know enough to understand why we’re skittish, suspicious and/or non-responsive, please step back and do more homework before starting that manuscript. Our feelings, actions and sometimes silence are based on real-world experience and concerns.
Of late, I’ve heard a lot of folks speaking in broad terms about the question of who writes what. We talk too often in broad strokes when brushstrokes apply.
It’s a much bigger, broader conversation than race, though of course that’s a critical component. It’s also persistently framed as primarily about white writers’ fear and failures.
As if no white writers weigh the responsibilities and costs of appropriation and respectfully seek the appropriate permissions
and insights like Debby, working with her husband to share his story.
As if diverse writers can’t stretch to successfully write across identity elements like Rita, who can certainly be trusted to respectfully conceptualize, research, frame and integrate story elements and, for that matter, feedback as needed to revise.
As if diversity conversations should default to focus on white, able-bodied, cis-gender, straight folks. That’s taking the idea that this isn’t all about them and responding with, “But wait, what about them?”
Of course all writers belong in this conversation, but own voices must be prioritized and centered. Meanwhile, the question of “which ideas are right for me?” is something every writer must consider.
By the way, even when you’re writing within identity elements, you still need to do research and engage in thoughtful related conversation. My work in progress is quasi-autobiographical, and I have a three-inch thick (and building) research binder. I’ve consulted with several friends and colleagues about the content and how it rolls out within the context of the story.
When I’ve cited, say, Rita and Debby among my go-to examples with regard to Native content, often the reply is something to the effect that I’m setting the bar sky high. And, yes, that’s true.
The bar is and should be sky high. Maybe we’re not all at Rita and Debby’s level of craft (yet), but we must emulate their gracious humility, their conscientiousness.
We must strive to create the best books for all kids.
We have children’s-YA literature and the law in common. That’s actually a pretty common combination here in the states. Why do you think there are so many people involved in both?
Well, I’ve had some of my law students suggest the law is so horribly dry that it drives people to being creative in order to escape its clutches (these are generally the students who are studying law because their parents thought it was a good idea).
But for me at least, I think the reason I studied law and the reason I write are the same. In both realms, I am seeking justice – and justice, in Aboriginal societies, generally equates to balance, not just between human beings but between all forms of life (and everything lives).
I write speculative fiction because I want to write about the possibility of defeating injustice; to write about the terrible things that were (and are) while imagining what could be.
The oppressive law I wrote about in the Tribe series divides people into three categories: those without an ability (Citizens); those with an ability (Illegals); and those whose ability is considered benign (Exempts).
This is not an invented law. It is based on the Western Australian Natives (Citizenship Rights) Act 1944, a piece of legislation that purported to offer Aboriginal people ‘citizenship’ by exempting us from racially-based restrictions that only applied to my ancestors in the first place because they were Aboriginal.
In the Tribe series, this law is ultimately defeated by an alliance of the marginalised and the privileged, and by a heroine whose power is to identify and sustain the connections between all life.
And in writing of connections, I am writing of something that is central to the law in Aboriginal legal systems where (at its broadest) law is the processes of living in the world that sustain the world.
You clearly articulate the impact of white privilege on writing and writers, noting the negative impact on the work of Native voices and POC voices. What would you say to those Native and POC writers who may find themselves angry, frustrated, hurt or discouraged by these dynamics?
First: it’s not you. Exclusion is not something you are inventing in your head and you are neither unlucky nor unworthy.
It helps in this context to form connections with other Indigenous writers as well as with writers of colour, LGBTI writers, and writers with a disability.
You are likely to hear stories of authors getting similar comments across different contexts (e.g: you’re not writing to the Indigenous experience … this story is too Asian … gay books don’t sell … we’ve already published a ‘disability book’ this year).
It matters to have a network of people with whom to share both the good and bad experiences; and perhaps most importantly, to understand that you are not alone.
Second, never forget how to laugh. Some of the comments I’ve listed above have been part of the experience of other writers that they’ve laughed about with me – not because these comments are not discriminatory and hurtful, but because laughter has always been one of the ways in which marginalised peoples have dealt with pain.
Third, define success in your own terms. We all know what ‘success’ is supposed to be in literary industry terms: book sales and/or critical acclaim (preferably both). I’m not saying we shouldn’t aspire to that. But I also think that if marginalised writers define our success solely in the terms set by an industry that consistently privileges white, straight, cis-gendered people who don’t have a disability, we are also buying into an underlying lie.
The lie is that if we can just prove we are good enough we will be treated equally. But once equality has to be earned, it is no longer equality.
So I think it’s important that each of us define success according to what matters to us – and for me, it’s being a person that my ancestors would be proud of.
Book sales wouldn’t overly interest them. But honouring who they were, and who I am; treating cultural knowledge with respect; helping other Indigenous writers whenever and wherever I can – these are the kinds of things they’d be concerned about.
Fourth: be hopeful. I am. I locate my hope in people, and there are many, many people working towards a world in which all voices have an equal opportunity to speak and all stories are equally heard.
I think change will come, and in the meantime, I’m proud to be a part of a global community of voices, marginalised and privilege alike, that are speaking out for justice.
While you don’t feel it’s appropriate for non-Indigenous writers to reflect your community in first person or deep third, you are open to them writing secondary characters. Why does your opinion differ depending on how centered the character’s perspective is in the story?
I don’t think it’s appropriate for non-Indigenous people to speak as if they are Indigenous, especially given the operation of privilege which means that non-Indigenous voices will be heard in a way that Indigenous voices are not.
For me, writing from an ‘outsider’ perspective (so not in first or deep third) is to respect boundaries; to accept there are limits on what we can know of others and how we should represent others in our own work.
When I write of experiences of marginalisation not my own, I do it from an outsider perspective – reflecting that this is much as I can understand and that understanding may of course be wrong; I am not suggesting that I know what it is to see the world from an ‘insider’ view of a group to which I don’t belong. I think the spaces must be created for everyone to speak to their own worlds, and I want to be part of making those spaces a reality.
What advice do you have for non-Indigenous writers in crafting those secondary characters?
I think something you’ve said is the best place to start – you’ve spoken of the need for writers to read 100 books by Indigenous people before writing about us.
I agree. No one should be writing an Indigenous character without being familiar with Indigenous stories (not the ones told about us but the ones told by us).
It’s also important to ensure that any stories people are reading are ethically published because there is a vast body of Indigenous stories that were taken by anthropologists and others and are now in the public domain without the informed consent (or sometimes even the knowledge) of the Indigenous peoples concerned.
The easiest way to check that a story is appropriately published is to see who holds the copyright; where Indigenous peoples hold copyright in their own stories it is at least some indication that they control the text.
In addition to reading stories, I’d say, become familiar with representation issues. Engage with the online dialogue happening around representation and children’s literature as it relates to Indigenous peoples. There are no shortage of voices speaking in this space.
And finally: words spoken about marginalised peoples have a weight and a cost. But if you are not a member of that group, then it’s a weight that you don’t carry and a cost that you don’t pay.
So don’t measure the impact of your words by how they will be read by people like you. Measure them by how they’ll be read by the people you’re writing about.
How did you learn your craft as a writer and illustrator?
By doing! I have no formal training in writing or illustration. But nor do a lot of Australian Indigenous writers and illustrators, and we have been storytellers for thousands of years.
So to learn craft I look to the work of Indigenous writers and artists, both within Australia and elsewhere, as well as to the ancient teachings of my people.
What inspired you to direct your talents toward creating stories for young readers?
In my YA series, I was writing about a superhero, so it had to be about a teenager. I don’t believe grown ups have it in us to save the world, because we are spectacularly failing to do so.
But in the young I see all the hope for the future – they are more interconnected, quick to embrace new ideas, and passionate about fighting anything they perceive as an injustice.
They’re also more honest, especially the children for whom I write picture books. When they like a book, they write me lovely letters telling me how they sleep with the book under their pillow and begging me to write more. When they don’t like it they’re equally forthright.
People ask sometimes whether its difficult as an author to deal with bad reviews, to which I say: try writing for six-year-olds. Every once in a while, children send me letters about one or the other of my picture books that begin something like this: “My teacher made me read your book. I didn’t like it.”
I’ve had a few of these letters that went on for ten pages or more, and since that length is like War and Peace from a six-year-old, it means I’ve had kids hate my work enough to send me the child equivalent of Tolstoy.
Adverse reviews from grown-ups are nothing in comparison.
What was your initial inspiration for The Tribe series?
My brother Blaze. He came up to me one day and said, “I’ve got an awesome title for a book. It’s called The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf.”
I said, “That’s a pretty good title – what’s the story?’
To which Blaze replied, “Oh, there’s no story. Just the name, and I can’t be bothered writing it so I’m giving to you.”
Having bestowed the title of the novel upon me, he wandered off, leaving me to start thinking about the story. (And for anyone who’s read any of the Tribe series, the character of Jaz is very like my brother Blaze).
What were the challenges—literary, research, psychological and logistical—of bringing the stories to life?
I think the primary challenge is this: in so many ways, I wasn’t writing fiction. A post-apocalyptic world is not a fantasy for Indigenous peoples; the colonial apocalypse has already happened and much of The Tribe series is drawn from Australian colonial history.
Much of it too is drawn from the experiences of my ancestors and that is why hope runs so strongly through the narrative. They held on to hope through hard, cruel times when all their choices were taken away from them.
Indigenous peoples are so often spoken of as victims and I certainly don’t wish to minimise the suffering and the multi-generational trauma inflicted upon us by the colonial project. But the very fact that the Indigenous peoples of the world survived determined efforts to destroy us demonstrates our great strength.
I think the ability to hold onto hope is part of that strength and its something I try to honour.
You’ve created several picture books with Sally Morgan. Could you tell us about your work together?
Ambelin with her creative family
So, Sally is my mum. I’ve also done books with my two brothers, Blaze and Zeke, and the four of us have written together as a family. We’re all authors and artists, and we always give each other an honest opinion – sometimes this results in one of us storming off (usually me or Zeke, we’re both excellent stormers).
Generally, once we’ve had a chance to think about the criticism we come creeping sheepishly back and agree that yes, actually, that particular portion of the narrative (which we were previously so proud of) does indeed need more work.
I think from the outside our working process probably looks chaotic; we all talk at the same time and over each other; generally, the person with the best story gets to hold the floor until they get boring and someone else interrupts. If you want a place in the conversation in my family, you have to be prepared to earn it.
What can your readers look forward to next?
I’m working on three YA novels right now, but the one I’ll finish first is a book I’m writing with my brother Zeke.
It’s a mystery with fantasy elements that’s told from the perspective of three Indigenous female protagonists. It’s been a difficult book to write in places because terrible things happen in it, but its ultimately a story about the power of young Indigenous women and how they find their way home.
Moreover, the same embedded patterns that (for example) consistently privilege White voices over those of Indigenous peoples and Peoples of Colour will also work to privilege outsider voices over insider ones, at least to some degree.
The insider voices, of those fully aware of the great complexities and contradictions of insider existence, will always be more difficult to read and less likely to conform to outsider expectations as to the lives and stories of ‘Others’.
Insider stories can therefore be read as less ‘true’ or trap an insider author in a familiar double-bind – if we write of some of the bleaker aspect of our existence we’re told we’re writing ‘issues’ books; if we don’t we’re accused of inauthenticity.
I would like to think that as an Indigenous woman, I have some insight into marginalisation not my own. I have always thought that any experience of injustice should always increase our empathy and push us towards a greater understanding of injustice in other contexts.
But that does not mean my experiences equate to that of other peoples.
In an Australian context, I have said that I do not believe non-Indigenous authors should be writing Indigenous characters from first person perspective or deep third, because I don’t think a privilege problem can be solved by writers of privilege speaking in the voices of the marginalised.
And I apply the same limitation to myself in relation to experiences and identities not my own.
But between the thought and the action must come the process by which I determine if I am really helping at all.
So I ask myself, is the story mine to tell? The answer is no, of course; their stories are their own and their pain is not my source material.
The only way in which I would write from someone else’s perspective is in equitable partnership with someone from that group (where copyright, royalties and credit are shared).
This would not necessarily mean we each wrote half a novel. The other person may not write a word; their contribution could be in opening a window onto insider existence and correcting the mistakes an outsider inevitably makes.
I’ve had people tell me that this is the job of a sensitivity reader. But I am cautious about the boundaries of that relationship because I think there are cases where the input of an insider advisor infuses the narrative to such a degree that they are really a co-author and should be treated as such.
I don’t think the question is who wrote what words, but whether the story could have been told at all but for the contribution of the insider.
Someone once told me that I was restricting myself as a storyteller. I don’t believe I am.
I am acknowledging boundaries, but boundaries do not necessarily limit or restrict. Boundaries can define a safe operating space, for myself and for others, and respect for individual and collective boundaries is part and parcel of acknowledging the inherent dignity of all human beings.
I have begun co-writing a speculative fiction YA novel that is told from the perspectives of two girls: one Chinese, and one Indigenous. I am writing the Indigenous girl, and Chinese-Australian author Rebecca Lim is writing the Chinese girl.
The original idea for the story was Rebecca’s, but already it is changing as we each negotiate our own identities and experiences.
This is not a story that is restricted by boundaries; it is one that would not exist without them. In the writing of it, Rebecca and I are creating something that is greater than the sum of both of us – and in such stories, I see the future.