Reviewed: Unlimited Futures, Rafeif Ismail and Ellen van Neervan (eds.), Fremantle Press in partnership with Djed Press
Unlimited Futures, an anthology of ‘speculative, visionary Blak and Black fiction’, is what Laniyuk imagines in her story ‘Guyuggwa’: ‘[a] spark, centuries in the making’. It sits alongside Bla(c)k literary compilations like Fire Front, The Strength Of Us As Women, and Growing Up African in Australia. There are also its contemporaries in genre fiction, most notably the recently released collection This All Come Back Now, which features many of the same authors. Unlimited Futures taps into conversations of Blak and Black relations within the colony, publicly led by scholars such as Gary Foley, Kaiya Aboagye, ">Bryan Mukandi and Chelsea Watego, and the contributors to Transition’s 2018 issue ‘Bla(c)kness in Australia’. The stories in Unlimited Futures are warming as much as they are warnings—contending with the reality of our current moment, what our futures may look like, and how we have and will retain our connections to Country, language, culture, and each other through it all.
While reading this anthology I found myself confronting questions I usually only whisper to myself: ‘What if there was a way we could go back in time and visit our ancestors?’ as Maree McCarthy Yoelu asks in ‘Song of the Nawardina’. Did our ancestors cry for us, living in our present/their future? And, what would it be like to live without the state, which is to say, the colony? These streams of thought—of now, and its before and after—are tangled, both in my mind and in the stories of Unlimited Futures. As editors Rafeif Ismail and Ellen van Neervan write in their introduction, which is structured as a conversation between the two, ‘there’s no distinct time … for us, the past, present and future, are happening simultaneously.’
The more I read, the more the threads between the stories became apparent. Wind whispers in both ‘Song of the Nawardina’ and ‘Night Bird’ (Claire G Coleman); fire births new life in ‘Guyuggwa’ and is embodied in ‘The River’ (Tuesday Atzinger) and ‘The Prime Minister’ (SJ Minniecon). Water flows through every piece, in the form of rivers, oceans, mist, tears, and endless cups of tea. In these stories, as in our lives, water is at the core of everything: it is generous, restorative, and to be respected. Flames of resistance, meanwhile, burn brighter than ever, refusing to be extinguished. Key themes of our Bla(c)k lives—relationships, responsibility, adaptability and care—are laid out on every page. These core parts of our living cultures connect us across continents, much like the waters of the Indian Ocean (Sisonke Msimang’s ‘Mami Wata’) or the rivers Derbarl Yerrigan and Abay (Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes’s ‘I have no country’). Country is at the core of all of our relations, and all of our stories.
Despite these parallels, the differences between stories are stark. Authors play with form, using poems, speeches, newsletters, and the more common short story structure. Language also shifts between pieces, with Arabic, Amharic, Batjamalh, Gamilaraay and Noongar appearing throughout. As the editors acknowledge in their introduction, Bla(c)kness is not monolithic: not our cultures, languages, experiences or creativity. The variety of expressions throughout Unlimited Futures is refreshing, and a result of the nurturance of Bla(c)k editors, publishers and broader community.
After reading Unlimited Futures I revisited Chelsea Watego’s essay ‘fuck hope’ in her book Another Day in the Colony. There, Watego argues that we should give up our reliance on hope, which ‘sedates the logical response of anger and outrage that fuels Black insistence’. To me, Unlimited Futures is this very Bla(c)k insistence: engaging with the reality of Bla(c)k living, in all of its anger, outrage, softness and care, providing sovereign strategies for continuance. According to Ismail, Unlimited Futures is about ‘the hope that we can and we should do better’, not for the colony and its survival, but for us and ours. In response to the question of what it means to ‘do better’, we receive answers in the form of pieces like ‘Guyuggwa’, where Country is returned and children will grow up without ever knowing the experience of being colonised; ‘Dispatch’ (Zena Cumpston) and ‘August 2029’ (Genevieve Grieves), where we return to local decision-making and First Nations governance of education while caring for Country and each other.
There is much more to say about Unlimited Futures, and each of the writers who contributed to it. Ultimately, this book is healing. Reading it made me want to be in the world, not just a body in space but really in it. Halfway through I found myself reminded of the relations and the lineages I hold dear. These connections and conversations are all that matter; they and Country have held us and will hold us through the inevitable changes that are to come. As Lisa Fuller writes in ‘History Repeating’, ‘We’re going to be okay. We’re in this together, no matter what.’ So the books go back on the shelf. And the fire burns.