Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer and illustrator from the Palyku people. The homeland of her people is located in the dry, vivid beauty of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Ambelin has written and illustrated a number of award winning picture books as well as writing a dystopian series – ‘the Tribe’ – for Young Adults. When not writing or illustrating, Ambelin teaches law and spends time with her family and her dogs.
You are halfway though a Young Adult series (the Tribe) that mixes dystopian and post apocalyptic themes with social commentary, to critical acclaim. What is it that attracted you to YA? Do you think that there are themes or concepts that YA can explore differently than other genres?
Why do I write for the young? We owe them something, those of us who are older – at the very least, we owe them a world that is a little better than the one we inherited. And it only takes the briefest glance at the situations in which many young people across the globe are living to know that we adults are collectively doing a very poor job of providing such a place. I’ve said before that I don’t invent worlds where the young are at risk; I just write about how to defy that reality. And YA explores those issues differently because it does so from the perspective of the young and not the old. I think we become far too accepting of the many injustices of this planet as we grow older; we can even come to believe that great inequities are inevitabilities rather than things created and perpetuated by human beings and human societies. But what we as a species have done we can also challenge, defy and undo – and the young understand this far better than the old.
Recently, you were the Guest of Honour at the Australian National Convention, Continuum X, which I believe was your first time as a GOH. How did you find the experience? Was it what you expected?
I loved it! And I did approach it with a degree of trepidation because I knew I would be speaking to issues that some people find confronting, including the appropriation of Indigenous culture. And, okay, yes, a few people did come up to me and say things that were not very nice. But the vast majority came seeking to improve their understanding and to engage with what I was talking about. In the end, I think what I had fulfilled at Continuum X was not an expectation but a hope – because I hoped, at a spec fic convention, to find people who seemed like they came from a better time and place. I hoped to meet people who valued the great diversity of human existence and who were doing their level best to make their corner of the world just a little bit brighter for those around them. And I did.
While at Continuum, you continued the tradition of marvellous GoH speeches (you can read an abridged and edited version of the speech here), and it has attracted a great deal of comment on the internet. Were you surprised by the reception your speech received? What results or changes would you like to see come out of your speech?
I was surprised, in a good way, at the level of attention the speech received. And if there is a change I’d like to see people make, it’s this: pay attention. Start noticing when small acts of exclusion occur around you. And start speaking out or intervening (if it is safe to do so, and get help if it isn’t). I think people are too often susceptible to believing it’s big, grand gestures that truly matter. But like water running over rock, it is our everyday behaviour that shapes who we are and the world in which we live. Besides which, as someone who has had the ugliness of racism and sexism directed at them, I can tell you this: for someone else to speak up is a grand gesture, and a profoundly important one. We are all more powerful together than alone.
What Australian works have you loved recently?
I’ve been revisiting Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn series recently. This was one of the first spec fic series I ever read, and it retains its magic for me through many re-readings; I never get tired of it.
Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?
I try to write the best story I can; I can’t say I pay that much attention to changes in the industry (aside from anything else I just don’t have the time to keep up, any ‘spare’ time is devoted to writing). I do pay attention to writers, and I read as much as I can, most especially Indigenous writers both from Australia and elsewhere. And I will, of course, perpetually be reading and writing speculative fiction. I have a new three book series in my head right now, and a different, longer series after that. I’m not short on material. Just time.