Having established herself as a writer-illustrator of picture books that demonstrate a fresh take on indigenous Australian storytelling, Ambelin Kwaymullina has made the move into Young Adult novels. She tells us how it happened.
Sometimes you find a story, and sometimes a story finds you.
I never felt that I created Ashala’s story. I felt that I discovered it – or that she discovered me. Ashala came to tell me of a future where everything was destroyed in an environmental cataclysm called ‘the Reckoning’. The society which emerged from that destruction is in many ways an admirable one – they have no war, no hunger, and no poverty. They strive to live in harmony with each other and the earth, to keep ‘the Balance’.
But anyone born with an ability – for example, a power to control fire, or cause explosions – is feared. People with abilities are labeled Illegals, and locked away in detention centres. Ashala has run away to escape this, and, along with a group of other runaways she calls her Tribe, she lives in a vast forest called the Firstwood. When the story begins, Ash has been captured by the government and is on her way to being interrogated.
Ashala is a work of dystopian fiction that is also part-thriller and part-romance. All my experiences went into the book in some way. Ashala has my fear of spiders, along with my stubbornness, and reluctance to compromise. Although she lives in a time when people no longer distinguish between themselves on the basis of race, her ancestors were Aboriginal people, and she has the same love of her homeland that they would have – and that I do. For me it is the purple hills, red earth and endless blue sky of the Pilbara region of Western Australia where my people, the Palyku, are from. For Ashala, it is the towering tuart trees, deep rivers, and dark caves of the Firstwood.
Writing a novel is hard work, and it involved a lot of long nights. My family would go to bed, leaving me typing furiously at my computer, and wake the next day to find me still there, tapping away (although more slowly at this point!) and surrounded by many empty coffee cups. In some ways, writing is a very lonely experience. But in others, I was never truly alone. I was with Ashala, sharing her experiences as she fought to escape the detention centre and protect her Tribe from the government. It was often a shock to look up from the computer and see the furniture of my lounge room instead of the crisp white walls of the detention centre, or the tuart trees of the Firstwood.
Some people have asked me why I wanted to write a novel. In some ways I find that a strange question, because it implies I had a choice. But there is no choice when a story like Ashala’s finds you. A story like that has to be told, and it demands every last scrap of your talent and time and devotion.
I hope I told it right.
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is now available, with book two to follow in 2013.