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Image: Horia Varlan, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

My phone rings. ‘Daughter, you’ve got a new review!’ It’s Mum, a.k.a. stalker of all content about my debut novel, Ghost Bird. ‘It’s lovely,’ she says. ‘We’ll just ignore those bits.’

I know without asking what she’s talking about. I pull it up and have a read, showing my white partner, who will groan before finding the positives as well.

‘That’s super complimentary! It’s a shame they used those words, but hey, they liked it!’

There are a selection of words and phrases we’re talking about here, but the main ones are ‘Indigenous’, ‘myths’ and ‘legends’.

It’s a weird space to sit in. In truth, I’ve been incredibly lucky with the reaction to my book.

I’ve spoken with some amazing interviewers, both First Nations and not. Rhianna Patrick and I bonded over mutual terror of shared cultural beliefs (she may not want to read the sequel, it’s got curlews! ). Aimée Lindorff dove into the details with me, sharing our experiences growing up in rural Queensland in the 90s. And I had a blast talking to Amie Kaufman for the digital Melbourne Writers Festival.

I’m grateful for any review. Even the one-stars. Though they can sting a bit, no book can please everyone. Most reviews have been genuinely nice, and I’m grateful that they enjoyed it enough to share their thoughts. But it’s been…interesting, reading what some people see in my book.

The structural racism and ways my mob have been viewed by the majority of Australia bleeds through into every day language. I’ve even caught myself doing things that I know are wrong, that’s how insidious it is.

Nowhere in Ghost Bird do I use the word ‘Indigenous’. I dislike it intensely. But it appears in the majority of reviews. All due to some decision by governments best forgotten to stick us with another homogenising label. Another name we didn’t choose, foisted on us without consultation or consent. I’m left wondering how in hell this word has become the ‘polite’ way to refer to First Nations Australian peoples.

Even ‘Aboriginal’ is questionable. I use it only twice in the book—once when speaking about the Eidsvold Aboriginal Housing Society, and the other time referencing someone’s Aboriginal–Italian heritage. There is no ‘Aboriginal culture’ or ‘Aboriginal language’ in my book because there’s no such thing. Anymore than there is one ‘African culture’ or ‘language’.

I use ‘Aboriginal’ in reference to myself only when I’m speaking with a non-Indigenous person I don’t know. I prefer Eidsvold Murri. But living in Canberra for over a decade has taught me that few know what it means. So I’ll accept ‘Aboriginal’ as a shortcut. I don’t always have the time or energy to explain and educate.

This is the same for all my characters. Yet still those words appear, and I feel like I’m losing a battle every time.

But none of that makes me cringe as much as ‘myth’ and ‘legends’.

When I wrote the book I questioned using our beliefs. Even now I have doubts. But I thought I’d explained things in the Author’s Note. I don’t want to give spoilers, but I talk about how these are beings we believe in. For us, their existence is fact. Not some imaginery, made up thing.

I admit Ghost Bird ended up as this weird amalgamation of genres. No one seems 100 per cent sure what it is. My publisher called it a thriller, although I wonder if part of that was because I flinched when ‘speculative fiction’ was mentioned. Maybe the confusion is my own doing? I’ve heard coming of age, rural noir, horror, with a splash of romance. I’m thinking of starting a list to collect them all.

When the manuscript won the David Unaipon back in 2017, the judges referred to it as ‘magic realism’. I thought about it long and hard, talking it out with my family. Truthfully, the spiritual beliefs at the heart of the story are mostly ours, but the darkness at the centre is more of a ‘based on’ element. I tweaked and played with it, and never name it, because it’s not truly that thing anymore.

I had to think about it from a bigger picture. Most people reading it would be non-Indigenous, and it would be magic realism for them. So, real for us, speculative fiction for most. Like I said, weird space to sit in.

But when people refer to the spiritual elements within the book as ‘myths and legends’ I baulk, hard. You don’t have to believe what I do, or even understand my beliefs, but is it really that difficult to be respectful of them?

When people refer to the spiritual elements within my book as ‘myths and legends’ I baulk, hard. You don’t have to believe what I do, or even understand my beliefs, but is it really that difficult to be respectful of them?

In using those words people are essentially labelling my beliefs ‘fairy tales’. I’ve had this conversation multiple times. If they don’t get it, I start asking how that ‘Jesus myth’ is working for them, or that ‘Buddha legend’. That usually gets my point across.

In some ways I understand the impulse. When I was young, I loved reading about ‘myths’ and ‘legends’. Then I walked out into mainstream Australia, and realised people were shoving my beliefs under these same labels. Now I have to question everything—when I was enjoying ‘Ancient Greek myths’, was I contributing to belittling someone else’s beliefs? I don’t know, but it’d be interesting to find out.

I’ve been writing fantasy stories for my niblings, and I’ve become paranoid about usurping someone else’s beliefs. Those accidental appropriations, where the concept has saturated the mainstream culture in such a way that the origins are now obscured. No one blinks, because they don’t realise that those ‘stories’ started off as someone’s beliefs.

And no, adapting Christian beliefs or other major religions is not the same thing, and never will be. People understand mainstream belief systems since they are part of the dominant culture. We all have at least a basic understanding of them. As a reader, we can pick up an urban fantasy about angels and demons, and know instantly where the author has made changes. What boundaries or rules they’ve broken. Not so for those that are marginalised, and in more danger of stereotyping.

I once had a weird standoff with another writer who challenged my statement that I believe in bunyips. It’s been so widely appropriated they just couldn’t fathom it. They looked at me like I’d declared myself an avid follower of the Easter Bunny. When I told them straight, their reaction was one of arrogant denial, ‘yeah sure’ or something like it. It’s always hard to address your own ignorance.

As an aspiring speculative fiction writer, I expect to make mistakes. The idea appals me, and I will do all I can to ensure that I protect my family and not tread on others beliefs, but I’m human too. Rather than get defensive about it, I hope I’ll be able to make amends and learn from it. And really, I can create whatever kind of creature I want, so why does it have to be stolen?

These days I comb through speculative fiction novels, questioning if the author has appropriated another culture’s beliefs. Not that I’m the ultimate arbiter of other peoples cultures, but surely it’s not a hard question to ask or answer? In this day and age, shouldn’t all us writers be asking these questions of ourselves anyway?

I’ve emailed a few authors, inquiring about what research and/or permissions processes they undertook. I haven’t received a single reply. With remorse, I’m forced to donate their books. I don’t want to. Maybe if they’d replied we could’ve had a discussion. People make mistakes, times change, hell, I own some Enid Blyton. The only thing I can’t stand is silence. That’s privilege at work, essentially shitting all over people who have no power or ability to redress the injustice.

This year people have been going nuts over JK Rowling’s transphobic posts. And I agree, it’s disgusting. Although I am surprised by people’s surprise. This is far from the first time she’s been problematic.

Where was the outrage when she culturally appropriated Native American beliefs? If you have no idea what I’m talking about I’m not shocked, but isn’t that just as telling? Check out the blog of Dr Adrienne Keen which details the harm Rowling is committing by ‘completely re-writing these traditions. Traditions that come from a particular context, place, understanding, and truth.’ In the words of Dr Keen: ‘We fight so hard every single day as Native peoples to be seen as contemporary, real, full, and complete human beings and to push away from the stereotypes that restrict us… Colonization erases our humanity, tells us that we are less than, that our beliefs and religions are ‘uncivilized’, that our existence is incongruent with modernity. This is not ancient history, this is not ‘the past’.’

The idea of a mainstream writer taking on a marginalised group’s beliefs, writing from a position of power, influence and ignorance, and the potential for hurt is immeasurable.

The deafening silence from Rowling is telling for a woman who is so active on social media.

Not so for Dr Keen, who dared ask a few questions of a white author’s right to use her culture as capital:

‘My twitter mentions have been exploding non-stop all day, with the typical accusations of my oversensitivity and asking if I understand that Harry Potter is fictional, and more directed hate telling me my doctorate is being misused and I’m an idiot. In addition are the crew who ‘would love to know the real history’ of these concepts (again, not for you to know), or are so grateful that JK Rowling is introducing them to these ideas for the first time. This is not the way to learn about or be introduced to contemporary and living Native cultures. Not at all.’

With any marginalised belief system, the reader picks it up and thinks it’s real. It doesn’t matter if you shove a fiction label on it. That book may well be one of their only exposures to a particular culture or religion. And whether they’re conscious of it or not, and regardless of the author’s intent, they will assume it’s correct. That is the power of the authorial voice. People trust it.

Add in the idea of a mainstream writer taking on a marginalised group’s beliefs, writing from a position of power, influence and ignorance, and the potential for hurt is immeasurable. The damage done to the people and beliefs involved is devastating.

The work of people like Rowling perpetuate this. As an avid fan of speculative fiction, it pains me to point out how a lot of works appropriate beliefs, and are allowed to get away with it.

In my latest manuscript, ‘Washpool’, the fantasy world I weave for my niblings contains nothing of our spiritual beliefs. The work is embedded in our culture, yes. Because that is what my babies experience every day, and seeing themselves in texts is priceless. But I was clear to my editors—nothing in the fantasy world is our beliefs. Because our beliefs aren’t fantasy.

Telling people that you believe in bunyips is a ticket to condescension in this country. But where do you think the bunyips came from? Same place as your Bible, but it’s millennia older. And every time a news article declares that scientists have ‘discovered’ that a First Nations community was right all along, I can feel the sighs and eye rolls across the country.

Headings like ‘Revealed: how Indigenous Australian storytelling accurately records sea level rises 7,000 years ago’. Or worse. The ones where scientists could learn from us, ‘But the loss of [I]ndigenous languages could mean it is too late to learn from them.’ So… we’re finally acknowledged, but whoops, too late! You’re not ‘real’ Blaks who speak a ‘traditional’ language, and that’s your fault, so what the hell could we learn from you?

And…breathe.

We filter everything through our own lens, and people will always read things into a book that the author didn’t intend. Shifting your lens is the only way forward.

There are reviews that speak of being terrified by reading Ghost Bird, acknowledging our connection to this land that stretches back to the dawn of civilisation, a small doubt that maybe we know more (not in some ‘magical’ way), and I smile. Partly in sadistic happiness at having made an adult sleep with the lights on. Partly because when I was younger, I never could have imagined non-Indigenous people being open-minded enough to recognise those things.

I’ve been hesitant to raise these issues outside of my safe circle. I know what will happen if I do. What has always happened my whole life when I dare call out racist or belittling language use. People get tense and defensive, they think I’m having a go at them personally.

I get the education system here sucks, I grew up in it! The whitewashed systems in place, not a single story in books, tvs or movies with a Blak character visible. The few that did exist were horrifying caricatures. In high school we read not one book written by a Blak writer, even though people like Melissa Lucashenko were already out there publishing and winning awards. What I wouldn’t have given to have known about them. To be able to see myself and my mob in their words would have meant everything to a young, confused teen.

Structural racism has worked its way into all facets of our lives. But the only way it’ll change is if we all take personal responsibility for it. We filter everything through our own lens, and people will always read things into a book that the author didn’t intend. Shifting your lens is the only way forward. And that means taking responsibility for your own education. Change starts with each individual person.

I read the reviews and accept it as ‘just the way things are’. But maybe, one day, this won’t be the case. Those shining reviews, the ones that show a depth of understanding of cultural difference and an awareness of their language use, are the exception today. I live in hope that they will become the rule.

I wrote Ghost Bird for my family. In the hope that my niblings and cousins will see us in the words and take heart. The use of our dialect of Aboriginal English was very deliberate—‘See,’ I tell them, pointing at the dialogue, ‘that’s our way. Nuthin “bad” or “wrong” bout it.’ Because despite what we’ve been made to believe and feel, our way is not inferior, and never has been.

I have so much hope as I watch many amazing Blak writers finally be acknowledged. Our books are winning the highest awards in the country and internationally. Our words, at last, are being accepted into curriculums and school libraries. Regardless of if I know the author, I cheer every single time.

It whispers gently of change to me. Like the scent of rain, the potential is there. I ache for it. Because it means, maybe, that my niblings (or maybe their children) will grow to find a world more accepting of difference. Where First Nations cultures and beliefs, that have survived multiple waves of attempted genocide, are no longer so casually berated and minimised in every day language, but celebrated for the powerful systems they are.

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Ghost Bird is available now at your local independent bookseller.

​​This piece was commissioned and edited by Jasmin McGaughey, KYD’s First Nations Editor-in-Residence, in partnership with State Library of Queensland’s black&write! Indigenous Writing and Editing project.

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander writers can submit pitches to Jasmin here