More like this

Image: Canva.

Always Will Be is a book of inevitabilities: metamorphosis, regeneration and First Nations sovereignty. These processes take place on the scales of atoms and solar systems, but they are never impersonal. In this shining short story collection, Koori/Goori and Lebanese author Mykaela Saunders imagines the many futures of the Tweed community to which she belongs through experiments in philosophy, politics, genre and form.

At the heart of these experiments is a notion once penned by Octavia Butler: ‘The only lasting truth is change.’ Saunders establishes this attitude from the outset. In the introduction she traverses millennia, ‘[rewinding] the clock’ eons, then ‘[playing] time forward again’. With a swipe, she casts this country’s entire colonial existence as ‘a tiny blip in the timeline of history’.

Revolution charges through the book. For a world so entrenched in white colonialism that it rules even one’s perception of time, this process begins with the abolishment of clocks. In the story ‘Taking Our Time’, the Goori community gathers every time-keeping apparatus they can find—wristwatch, hourglass, calendar—and throws them into a river. The objects are infiltrated by crustaceans and ‘muscled apart’ by mangroves, subsumed into the ‘deep time’ of nature. Saunders, who has previously written on the Indigenous concept of ‘everywhen’—a way of thinking beyond capitalist-colonial understandings of linear and unidirectional time—delights in dimensional undoings. Her craft shines when chasing extreme premises. Playing with archetypes, she often achieves the ‘timelessness’ of myth.

Revolution charges through the book.

Transformations also take place on molecular scales. Even death can be an atomic reintegration, as in an unforgettable scene from the Jolley Prize-winning ‘River Story’. Here Saunders describes an ailing mother’s death as a cosmic release:

She pings through stars and molecules and black holes and atoms and bypasses nothing, shooting at phenomenal warp-speed towards the apex of the universe—the point of ultimate singularity where divisions between past, present and future collapse into one preternatural state of fluid existence, and despite fractioning and fracturing infinitesimally, nothing of her is diluted but is restored to a wholeness of spirit by returning home to the repository of collective matter and memory—everything that ever was, is, and will be.

Sometimes, Saunders makes such allegory overt, even scientific, such as when a young man recovering from addiction finds hope in the idea that a human being becomes a completely new cellular organism every seven years (another ‘blip’). And yet, after just fifteen days sober, the young man reflects, ‘The space between who you used to be and who you want to be is so vast that you can’t see how many steps it will take to close the distance.’ Amid recent reminders of Australia’s blatantly racist, imperial face with the cultural and historical violence re-inflicted by the Voice referendum, it’s no wonder this distance seems vast.

But Always Will Be is far from a text of despair; each story is confident about the personal and communal rewards that come from labouring for Country and kin. Midway through the collection, in ‘Fire Bug’, a storm builds over a fire ranger camp. Lightning strikes a eucalyptus tree, flames pour out of its heart. A young camper stands mesmerised by the sight. Outside the camp, he’s branded a pyromaniac. Inside, older Bundjalung rangers notice his spark. ‘You could be a ranger one day,’ they tell him. There is only one catch: ‘You need to learn about fire properly first.’

This is the collection’s law. In Saunders’ worlds, no bounty comes without responsibility, and no responsibility comes without working hard for your people. ‘Whatever we paint we relate to, and whatever we relate to we are responsible for,’ one character is advised by a vision of her elders.

Each story is confident about the personal and communal rewards that come from labouring for Country and kin.

Saunders appears to hold herself to this standard; in her epilogue, after affirming her kinship to the Tweed Gooris, she writes, ‘My cultural responsibilities informed my ethical imperative to write these stories.’ The effort she has put into respectfully gathering community knowledge and extrapolating her own doctoral studies is clear. Sometimes, this manifests as characters engaging in formal dialectics. But these didactic turns are not uncommon in gatherings of politicised peoples. They are a natural consequence of community structures that keep its elders and youths in close contact to facilitate the transmission of vital knowledge and a well-earned reprimand. For example, in ‘Blood and Soil’ youngsters debate sovereignty, electoral politics in the Tweed and impending mining developments while their elders supervise, ‘thrilled to hear these young minds yarning with such nuance’.

Ideological clashes within community keep Saunders’ collection from utopia, a genre explicitly rejected even by the collection’s most idyllic story, ‘Tweed Sanctuary Tour’: ‘We’re not just here to look after you, you’re here to rebuild and work. No, this is not utopia, and we don’t want that.’ The more ethically ambiguous worlds in Always Will Be are also the more intriguing. In one future, Goori resistance orders all local colonisers: ‘Erase yourselves!’ After public hangings, a young resistance leader watches majestically over the new order; meanwhile, his father is ‘turning in his grave’.

In another story, some teens are trapped in a girls’ home reminiscent of a mission school. When it is revealed that their whole entrapment was a virtual reality simulation designed to test leadership skills, the girls protest they have been traumatised. Elders justify every objection, claiming the test was voluntary, but the girls can’t remember agreeing to participate. Like Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, the back-and-forth rings existential, asking ‘Why would we be created to suffer?’

Such elevated inquiry sits alongside textured and rambunctious stories of surfing the waterlogged apocalypse and satire-horror about a white wellness queen luring Blak men into her hive to genetically bolster her offspring. It requires a sense of what Alice Walker described in Zora Neale Hurston’s work as ‘racial health’; Saunders’ stories embody cultural vibrancy, as well as spiritual wealth and imaginative irreverence.

Elevated inquiry sits alongside textured and rambunctious stories.

‘Our Future in the Stars’ is the most stunning story, the acme of Saunders’ formal experiments as well as the book’s main themes. Two lovers—one Blak, one Māori—take a final walk on Country before the climate apocalypse forces a mass exodus of mankind to outer space. The story is displayed as two voices aligned on opposite sides of the page, with a centre-aligned omniscient narrator. Their differences make for sublime union. It also positions them literally against each other on Saunders’ most unsolvable moral dilemma: ‘Exodus is the ultimate betrayal. / Staying is exile, and suicide.’

As the story continues, the dialogue, sense of movement and the scenery make the reading experience akin to theatre or cinema. ‘They respond to the sounds being sent to each other and reciprocate,’ writes Saunders of the couple. In reading this reciprocation, one imagines how the collection as a whole receives and responds to stories from the past/present/future, evoking polyvocal traditions in the vein of the recent First Nations poetry collection Woven, edited by Anne-Marie Te Whiu. In other ways, the story recalls the remarkable intimacy of philosophical epics by Ursula K. Le Guin, a writer whom Saunders has cited as a spec-fic influence.

Clear-sightedness, originality and a refined pen make Mykaela Saunders one of the most interesting writers working in this country. At every turn in this collection, she seems to be remarking, ‘Who are we waiting for? We already know what to do.’ Ultimately, love for Country and community is what charges the book with generosity and makes its hope audacious. This is the gift of Always Will Be: to hold so much confidence in the beauty of First Nations sovereignty, it’s as though this future has already happened.

Always Will Be is our Debut Spotlight book for March. Find an interview with author Mykaela Saunders here.

Debut Spotlight is a paid partnership with Australian publishers designed to promote the critical discussion of new authors’ work to a wide audience. Titles are selected by KYD, and all reviews have editorial independence.