Dr Mykaela Saunders at Glenfern mansion, 2019.

In conversation with Always Will Be author Dr Mykaela Saunders

Across 17 tales that are often connected in surprising ways, Always Will Be explores a vast number of futures that run the emotional gamut from harmonious to terrifying.

As a voracious bookworm, an author myself, and now, the host of a podcast all about books, I read a lot. I read all sorts of genres and sometimes I have multiple books on the go at once. As a kid, it would drive the adults in my life slightly crazy that I could so easily float and pivot between two or three wildly different stories at a time.

I like to think I’ve sampled most genres at least once and haven’t met too many that I don’t know. But then I found myself reading the vivid short story collection Always Will Be by Dr. Mykaela Saunders, a proud Goori/Koori and Lebanese writer, teacher and researcher. It’s marketed as "speculative fiction", a genre I hadn’t heard of before, but as the name suggests, is a space where authors speculate a lot about the future. Science fiction and other futuristic stories also land under this umbrella. In exploring the future, speculative fiction covers myriad possibilities – good or bad – offering imaginative and often supernatural versions of what might come to pass. Although new to me, it turns out Indigenous writers specifically have been writing this way since at least the 1990’s.

As a short story collection, across 17 tales that are often connected in surprising ways, Always Will Be explores a vast number of futures that run the emotional gamut from harmonious to terrifying. At their core, all the worlds no matter how dystopian or desperate are spun from the idea that the Indigenous people of the Tweed region were never forced to or at least always seemed to win back their unceded sovereignty over the land. Reading this book, knowing that was the central tenet challenged me, something I welcome. It made me uncomfortable. It made me hopeful. It made me question a lot of the things I’ve been taught about nature, humanity’s place in it, and even got me thinking about what the conceptual labels of "dystopia" and "utopia" really mean . When we use them, what perspective are we seeing the world from? Is a utopia for one group of people the same for everyone? Who benefits when the world and power are turned upside down? Why do we turn away from Indigenous knowledge when it may hold the key to longevity?

All of these questions had me deeply curious about the writing process behind such a bold and oftentimes quite stark project. Saunders explains, “All of the stories are set in my community where I grew up in the Tweed on Bundajalung country. But they’re all set in a different version of the future. So we're looking at different climate scenarios, different political scenarios. And, of course, different characters, different concerns in all these worlds.” The central insistent question running through them, sometimes at a whisper, others at a primal scream is ‘what if?’ What if we don’t solve the climate crisis in time? What if we do? What if the world becomes enveloped in ice again or we just adapt to a world on waves because of rising sea levels? What if we live alone? What if we live in community? And on and on.

The important thing for Saunders as the architect of her own fictional universe, created over a process of several years of significant upheaval in Australia from 2017-2021 (including bushfires, floods, a pandemic, and the fight for Indigenous constitutional recognition), is that no matter what, the stories all centre Goori characters and learnings. Like so many of us who live in marginalised groups, Mykaela never saw these stories out in the world growing up, so became the one to write them instead. For her, the true test of this book’s meaningfulness is not in its ability to win awards or generate buzz (although it did pick up the David Unaipon Award), but in how it reflects the authenticity and accuracy of her community’s experience.

And for Saunders, it's the reactions of these readers in particular that she holds near and dear.

“They are the readers whose comfort I care about the most. If other readers, particularly white people are uncomfortable, that doesn’t bother me. I don’t make art that’s meant to be necessarily palatable to them in that way. But my community? Yeah, I care a hell of a lot about what they think.”

Listen to this episode of Booksmart here.