Children of Change, Not Doom: Indigenous Futurist Heroines in YA

By James, Lynette | Extrapolation, April 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Children of Change, Not Doom: Indigenous Futurist Heroines in YA


James, Lynette, Extrapolation


The future has long seemed a perfect theme for young adult sf. After all, what better literature to not only reflect but model the world these to-be-adults will inhabit? Unfortunately, even as commercial trends have shifted toward what the authors of a recent Time article refer to as "the mania for dystopia girls" (Rothman and Zemler), more and more YA texts portray all worlds to come as not only bleak but unavoidably so; as critic Michael Cart says, "Read 'em and weep, friends" (34). More concerning as supposedly female-centric stories surge in popularity and profits, these futures tend to imagine ethnically and culturally monolithic landscapes of bewildered have-nots with no recourse to changing their station beyond massive, almost arbitrary violence that dismantles what few (if unequal) social structures remain. This state of the genre has creators and readers of color alike asking Anishinaabe scholar Grace L. Dillon's question of whether sf even has "the capacity to envision" futures meaningful to non-Caucasian/Eurowestern audiences (Walking the Clouds 2).

Fortunately, recent works by Ambelin Kwaymullina (Palyku), Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), and Nnedi Okorafor (Nigerian-American) challenge the concept of dystopian futures even as they seem to embrace them, envisioning ethnically diverse heroines in their battered earths of tomorrow. These stories participate in Indigenous futurism, an emerging intersectional focus whose stories aimed at young audiences often combine elements of YA dystopia, cyberpunk, postcolonial sf, and Afrofuturism. As Ytasha Womack says of Afrofuturism, Indigenous futurism is both "an artistic aesthetic and a framework for critical theory" (9).

Indigenous futurism is a deliberate, intentional, and purpose-driven position that addresses not only inclusion but intersectionality for its protagonists and themes. While not limited to portraying heroines, it explores the vital role of young women in coming worlds that, while difficult and dangerous, are neither random nor pointless. In doing so, these fictions question received ideas of agency, gender, and ethnicity, uses of violence and technology, and even the meaning of survival and triumph, while extending more nuanced concepts of tradition, community, scientific exploration, environmental and social consciousness, power, and responsibility. Emerging primarily from authors of color who identify as First Nations, Native or Indigenous peoples, these works offer fertile ground for conversations about, and the development of, more diverse perspectives in YA sf.

Terminology

As audiences of stories for young people explore these overlapping and sometimes contradictory thematic elements, how do they identify appropriate vocabulary to make their concerns and focuses clear? As the editors of Teaching Science Fiction point out, "confusion [over sf] arises from the collision of three different traditions of discourse [...] the terminology of fandom, the terminology of professional writers and editors, and the terminology of scholars and academics" (Sawyer and Wright 12-13). Added to this situation are the terminologies of social justice and diversity among the groups working for recognition within sf.

The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction holds that all science fiction is "an inherently, and radically, future-oriented process" (Csicsery-Ronay Jr. 3). However, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction limits dystopias to future "worlds worse than our own" with a general focus on "an oppressive totalitarian state [...] [ruling] by means of futuristic technology" (Stableford), and cyberpunk to worlds that specify such technology as "cybernetic [...control] through information networks, [...] machine augmentations of the human body [...], drugs and biological engineering" (Nicholls), holding dystopia and cyberpunk distinct. According to the editors of After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia, recent YA dystopian fiction blurs this distinction, showing more interest in the resultant broken societies than the details that led to them, encouraging attention to "a story's overall tone [rather] than its plotline" (Windling and Datlow). …

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