The apocalypse is here, in the form of more fires, floods, and storms. Meanwhile, belief that democratic processes can find a solution is fading.
In difficult times like these, an outpouring of stories occurs. Witness the millions (literally) of books inspired by, based on, and discussing the Great War. A terrible experience gave birth to a never-ending strand of stories.
Now there is an explosion of science fiction: dystopian, cli-fi, and post-apocalyptic. Think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and Scott Westerfeld’s The Uglies, among many other examples. Australian Mark Smith’s fabulous Wintertrilogy is right on topic.
Alongside the enthusiasm for such stories, there is a strain of dismissal. Dystopian science fiction is criticised for glorifying hardship, or for giving unrealistically happy endings, or for giving depressingly horrific unhappy endings, and especially for not providing answers. A recent article on the dystopian sub-genre called hopepunk (where continuing to fight for good is an affirmation of humanity) commented that such stories, validating the struggle rather than providing a solution, were simply telling the downtrodden that it’s their place to suffer.
Many of you know that my academic area of interest is Great War literature. War stories, too, have been criticised as glorifying war, revelling in misery, continuing the cultural expectation that life is harder for some than others, and worst – not preventing future war.
I have to ask whether that is the role of war fiction. Isn’t it rather like expecting murder mysteries to solve crimes? Romances to enable real-life happy endings? Fantasies to provide tangible proof of faeries?
I could go on about the role of literature (and I have elsewhere), and I could enter the discussion about the bourgeois nature of fiction (which, after all, is written by the literate for the literate). And I probably will go on a bit more soon. For now, though, let me say:
Don’t blame science fiction for the world’s ills. Science fiction can sound a warning, or point out current issues, or provide role models. Dystopian stories are like the traditional adventurer genre described by the poet Paul Zweig, too*. Such narratives imply action and purpose, and to my mind this is just as valid as feelings of hopelessness. Adventure stories show how to keep living in the face of peril.
This is not a new role for stories. In fact, I would argue that it is one of the original tasks of the storyteller, handed down from the first oral stories and continuing through the earliest written narratives of about 4000 years ago. Ancient stories such as The Odyssey and Gilgamesh reassuringly confirm ‘the possibility that mere [hu]man can survive the storms of the demonic world’ (Zweig 1974, vii); a powerful affirmation for readers in apocalyptic times.
I’ll no doubt write more about this. I see ample opportunities in the difficult future, sadly.
I just wrote a long paragraph about the bushfires that are rampaging across Australia, but I deleted it. Nobody can be unaware. Everyone can see the destruction and count the cost. The better question is: what can we do about it?
An intransigence of climate-change sceptics deny any connection between this disaster and humanity’s actions. It keeps them busy, I guess. I see no hope of winning that argument. Instead of bashing my head against the stoutly defended walls of Big Money, I’m regretfully abandoning them as impossible to save.
In my quest to remain hopeful and positive – because humans do have children who deserve a future – I’m seeking new ways to support the Earth. Plus there are only so many pictures of mummified wallabies I can carry in my heart. Fund raising and physical help (money, goods, offers of accommodation and assistance) will continue years into the future as we strive to recover, so there will be no shortage of actions to take after the event (so big and so new it doesn’t yet have a name). Yet I don’t want to just sit and watch, so…
Here’s a starting list of seven tiny things I can do right now:
Something that I’ve only just heard of: Ecosia, the search engine that plants trees
I interrupt the regular run of Last Word of the Week with an explanatory story about Australian dystopian fiction and bushfires.
Apologies to anyone looking for my Middle Child post – that’s been rescheduled to next week. The national bushfire emergency is too high a priority.
I wish I’d never written that book
As the climate emergency continues, I’m forced to reflect on my writing. One social media post I saw described a bookshop as moving its post-apocalyptic fiction books to the current affairs section.
I feel the same.
The Chronicles of the Pale started with a dream – or nightmare – in which desperate refugees were shut out of a fenced compound, and those of us inside were prevented from bringing them in to safety. This dream arose from Australia’s harsh treatment of refugees, a policy condemned by the UN. Scott Morrison as the Minister for Immigration at the time introduced Operation Sovereign Borders, and his lack of empathy, his inhumanity, his stubborn conviction that he and only he was right, inspired the cruel characters who rule inside my fictional policosmos, the Pale. Jason the Senior Forecaster and Élin the Regent care only for themselves.
If Australia had been a more compassionate country, I would never have written The Pale. I truly wish that was the case – better a world with care for refugees than a world with one more dystopian novel in it. I wish I had never had to write that book.
I can see my rejection of this every time one of my favourite characters acts in a compassionate way, every time they work against discrimination and cruelty. It’s sad to think that my fictional folk – humans and animals – have more heart than many of my fellow Australians. Brettin, the outrageously upright Lady of the Temple, represents all that distresses me about religion and prejudice. And that’s saying something.
Now that the current Federal Government is pushing through its religious ‘tolerance’ bill, allowing many acts of bigotry to flourish unchecked in the spurious name of religious freedom (ie freedom to discriminate against the LGBTI+ community), I’m sad that Book 2 also had to be written. A better world would never have the need for such a story.
Volcanoes destroy the Shaking Land – and yes I did write that before White Island erupted just off the New Zealand coast.
Unchecked fires rage through the Broken Ranges and send smoke across the entire continent, with displaced and starving ursini (bear creatures) invading Broad Plain because their habitat is gone – yes I did write that before Australia burst into unprecedented flame.
In my story, there is even a child – Jasper Valkirrasson – who does his best, at great personal cost, to warn the crusty old misanthropes at the old Settlement about the coming danger. I wrote Jasper’s courage and his big heart before I had even heard of Greta Thunberg, but if I hadn’t , she would certainly have been my model.
The Ruined Land was written at a time when – again and again – Australia turned its back on environmental reform in the name of money, and held the position that Australia had no desire or mandate to be a world leader in this field. True, our overall effect may be comparatively small, but we are also one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. We should care more. Many of us do, and we take the small steps we can, because we can’t keep on pretending that how we live has no effect on the planet.
I hope to never write dystopia again
I would like to live in an Australia that was compassionate, ethical, and environmentally responsible. I would like us to spend our money on resettlement of refugees, on bushfire mitigation strategies and equipment, on sensible use of water, on transitioning away from live export, on responsible waste treatment, on public transport, on the preservation of wildlife habitat, and so much more. People will shout about the cost, but our current policies are just as costly in dollars, and much more costly in long-term damage to the Earth and its inhabitants, of all species.
I have to say that unfortunately I’m planning to have The Chronicles of the Pale #4 ready for late 2021.
This post is, and isn’t, about writing. Writing, for me, can’t be divorced from who I am and what I believe. All the same, the books can simply be read as a story. I’m just so sad that so much of it has come true.
Next week, current affairs permitting, I’ll be back to plain old talk about books!
Today I’m honoured to speak with Myles Ojabo, whose debut novel Black River was published earlier this year. I was very fortunate in being chosen to review Black Riverfor Aurealis magazine, and very appreciative that Myles is able to be with me today to share some of his experiences in researching and writing his splendid novel. I used words like ‘energy and unending relevance’, as well as ‘complex, thoughtful, entertaining and pertinent’ in my review which can be found in Aurealis #123
Welcome, Myles, I’m very pleased to meet you. I thoroughly enjoyed your novel. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
I came to New Zealand from Nigeria in 2011 to study. I completed a Masters of Creative Writing in 2013, which focused on the features and significance of the short story cycle, and the PhD came later on. I met an African American man in my first year in New Zealand and we became friends. Our friendship often got me thinking about the historical impacts of slavery in our contemporary societies. When my African American friend told me about life in America, I saw a different but really fascinating black culture that originated from the continent of Africa. My thoughts often wandered back to days of my childhood, when my mother and father told us stories of some of our forebears who were taken as slaves. I wondered if some of my distant relatives could be living in America, Brazil, Cuba, or the Caribbean. I became interested in American slavery and its impact on black people. And the PhD in Creative Writing explored my own lineage in this regard.
In the course of writing Black River, I carried out an ethnohistorical research on my own ethnicity, that is, of the Idoma people of Nigeria, and on American slave history. I also undertook a psychogeographical trip to America for the sole reason of visiting old slave plantations to confirm some information acquired from my ethnohistorical research. I tried to employ fantastical features when merging the history of my people with that of the African Americans. One legend vital to the novel is that of a forebear believed to have flown from slavery in America back to his village in Africa. Black River became a neo-slave narrative with supernatural elements that fills the literal gap in my family history. The novel has recently been nominated for the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Prize for prose fiction.
Congratulations! That’s so fascinating. What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
My protagonist, Christmas Preacher, sold into slavery as a boy, lives most of his life on American soil. A supernatural mermaid, Oda’nyaa, is bent on having him remain in America. She is irresistible and he often finds himself trapped by her seduction. On the other hand, Orinya, Christmas’s resurrected forebear, wants Christmas to return at a predestined time. Christmas is indecisive all through the novel.
For an African American writing about slavery, home in most cases is freedom. Some never get it. Some get it. The novels The Underground Railway by Colson Whitehead and Grace by Natasha Deon are good examples. Both works, written by African Americans and published in 2016, depict enslaved blacks in America’s South heading North in pursuit of freedom. Africa is the mother continent to most black people around the world. In Black River, freedom is not depicted as home. Africa is home in the novel.
My favourite scene in Black River is that moment when Christmas Preacher realises that he has powerful ability to levitate back to Africa. He leaps into the air and heads for the sky. However, he is captured by the mermaid and her followers in the course of the journey. Christmas is held captive until his Ancestor, the great Alekwuafia, comes to his rescue, allowing him to complete the journey to Africa.
I love that mermaid. She’s pretty much my favourite character. If I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
Black River has two endings, offering readers the liberty to pick one of them. A scene predicts his death in America. And another shows his return to Africa. In the novel, death is not able to end existence. Characters die, but their spirits often continue to communicate with each other, and with the living. In the life beyond death, Oda’nyaa, the mermaid, attempts to convince Christmas that his trip back to the mother continent was a lie, that it never occurred. He laughs and calls her a lying mermaid. Well, I think Christmas would laugh and of course accuse you of lying to his face.
I like the freedom this gives to the reader and I know which is my preferred ending (but no spoilers here!). Can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
The list of writers that inspire me continues to increase over time. The list of my favourite books also changes with time. If we were to look back to the period in which I was writing Black River, I would list these books:
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, a memoir written by himself.
Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, an autobiography written by himself.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, an autobiography written by Harriet Ann Jacobs.
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, an autobiography written by himself.
Their works were the first to inform me in detail about the experiences of the brothers and sisters taken away from the mother continent many centuries ago and enslaved. It was exhilarating for me to see the painting of Frederick Douglass among the great African Americans honoured on the walls of the Freedom Centre when I visited America. He was born enslaved in Maryland and escaped to freedom as a young adult in 1831. He did this by pretending to be a black sailor. The Civil War galvanised Douglass and others who saw that slavery might finally end and they lobbied President Lincoln and other leaders for the recruitment of black soldiers.
Literary works such as Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Grace by Natasha Deon and Kindred by Octavia Butler provided me with an opportunity to elucidate why and how literary genres such as historical fiction, neo-slave narrative, and magical realism can mutate or come together. This equipped me to handle my research and also to tackle its question by being able to draw out themes around the African American slave experience.
Thank you; these are good additions to my wish list. Take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
Be confident. Be proud. Be much more ambitious.
I say this because I have been a victim of spiteful words. You go through a PhD journey only for some people and institutions, I call them strongholds, to use their demoralising words to crush you. There are people who have never read a novel but enjoy telling you what to write about. I would tell my younger self to be ruthless in pursuing his desires amidst these sorts of negative energies.
I used to worry about some of the negative things said to me until my father asked me what I was worrying about. He went on to say, “You are still young. You can make a lot of mistakes. You can make a lot of decisions and you can attain a lot of success.” I would tell my younger self the same thing. I would tell him no one can tell the stories he intends to tell or write about.
What’s next for you in the world of writing?
I dug up some short stories I wrote during my Masters Degree in Creative Writing and have started polishing them. They are all about the experiences of exiles in a psychiatric hospital. The collection of short stories will appear early next year.
I am also working on a play about a Nigerian PhD student living in New Zealand and struggling to maintain relationships with his supervisor and his Kiwi girlfriend.
I like the sound of that play! What would the student’s name be, I wonder…And finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
I would like to be Christmas Preacher’s son, Ijeyi. Christmas, as indicated earlier on, is the protagonist of my novel, Black River.
Ijeyi, born in 1804 to Christmas Preacher on American soil, represents the American experience that I cannot relate to.
My African American friend and I recognise Africa as our mother continent, but we have different outlooks on life. I could relate to my friend’s experiences in life but not fully, since he is the one that has been through life in contemporary America. It is vice versa when it comes to him trying to relate to my experience growing up in contemporary Africa.
Christmas has two sons in Black River. An African American and an African son. I can relate with the African experience. I can relate with the impact of the colonial experience on the continent of Africa. I wish I could be Ijeyi who was born a slave, just because of the desire to fully understand the impact of slavery on the lives of African Americans in contemporary America. Due to this, Ijeyi’s story seems missing in Black River. He is sold off as a child, and not even Christmas ever sees his son attain adulthood.
That’s terribly sad! Maybe a future book about Ijeyi? Thanks so much for speaking with me today, Myles, and congratulations on a wonderful book.
Today my dad would have turned 95, if he had survived this long.
Instead, the ghastly, grotesque illness called Motor Neurone Disease (that’s MND in Australia, and ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease in the US) diminished him to death at the age of 67, twenty-eight years ago. Even back then, in 1990, we were hoping for a cure ‘soon’. While some people live for a long (and extremely difficult) time with MND (notably the brilliant Professor Stephen Hawking), many die much sooner. For my dad, the progress of the disease from diagnosis to death was four short years.
While there has been some progress in the treatment and management of MND, we are all still waiting. This was brought home deeply by the recent Australian Story program, ‘The Enemy Within’, detailing the work and illness of the amazing Justin Yerbury.
I still miss my dad. And although I know that he would have completely supported my writing career, and that he always encouraged me, I really, really regret the fact that he doesn’t know about it, and that I haven’t been able to share this stage of my life with him.
There are so many untold stories. I think one day they will appear. What I’m thinking about now is the last time I saw him, in the hospice, on the day he died. Dad explained that a male nurse, all in white, had visited his room in the night and said that it was time to leave. Dad said, ‘I told him I couldn’t walk, but he said it was time to go.’
I checked with the staff – no male nurse had been on duty the night before. Strange.
But a few hours later, after all his visitors had gone, my dad up and left.
Here is an essay about the difficulty of locating strong women role models in our cultural narrative history. The featured image is a painting of Judith slaying Holofernes by the 17th century Italian Baroque painter Artemesia Gentileschi, the first woman painter to be accepted into the Florence Academy (yes, there have been novels writter about her!).
We’re taught that all narrative conflicts boil down to one of three stories: man versus man, man versus himself, or man versus nature. So what about women?
This week has been quite a difficult one. We discovered that our mother has a brain tumour. While this explains all of the bizarre and inconsistent and unreliable behaviour that we’ve been noticing recently, it’s a bit of a shock.
Did I tell you how Mum was acting more and more strangely and refusing help? Well, one day a couple of weeks ago she took herself off to the doctor in a taxi (at a time when she should have been home for the cleaner – resulting in multiple phone calls with the next step being the police! – because she didn’t tell anyone she was going – but that’s another story). Mum went to ask if she had dementia, so the doctor ordered a CT scan that afternoon. The first I knew about it was a call from Mum saying I had to take her to the hospital for a brain scan. All the way there, she criticised her children as being too managing, too interfering, too nosy, and for sending too many helpers, and making too many phone calls, and ordering the wrong food to be delivered. She was certain that the brain scan would show no dementia and that after the diagnosis we could all just leave her alone, thank us very much. Very Greta Garbo.
The upshot is, after a lengthy scan and a trip back to the GP, that she has a meningioma which is not malignant in itself, but steadily growing and impacting on her brain function. Off we went to the neurosurgeon next day, who ruled out surgery (her bad health and a long recovery time) and any other treatment (tumour too large for radio). And a palliative care team has been allocated to us.
So it’s been an interesting time, negotiating all of us siblings and our diverse opinions. Mum, on the other hand, is very stoic and quite serene, and says she’s much happier now that she knows. She is calling everyone in her address book to tell them she has a brain tumour!