Indigenous Wonderworks and the Settler-Colonial Imaginary

by on Aug 10, 2017 in Nonfiction | 0 comments

Adapted from a longer discussion in Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, forthcoming in 2017 from Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Indigenous and other minoritized writers have often had to take on the task of challenging stereotypes and misrepresentations, to offer our stories as imaginative and humanizing interventions against the dehumanizing projections of those in power. Given that so much of what people think they know about Indigeneity is self-serving colonial fantasy that rationalizes the continuing theft of Indigenous lands, violence against Indigenous bodies and relations, marginalization of Indigenous lives, and displacement of Indigenous being, there is a deep and urgent need for more accurate representations. And given the cultural capital of literature in this age, more accurate literary representations are some of the most vital and vibrant means for pushing back against the colonial imaginary, with Indigenous realism standing in contrast to colonial fantasy.

Yet “realism” as the standard against which literary merit is measured can also be problematic, especially for minoritized communities. Privileging this narrow definition of literary realism at the exclusion of the fantastic can actually work violence against our struggles for figurative and experiential liberation. At its best speculative fiction offers a complementary and distinctive range of reading and interpretive strategies that can undo the violence of the deficit models of “the real” and offer transformative visions of otherwise lives, experiences, and histories. For that reason, fantasy, science fiction, and horror merit also consideration as serious literature deserving of critical and pedagogical regard, as well as ethical import. It’s time for a reappraisal of the relationship between realism and the fantastic, especially when considering the work that minoritized writers are doing to challenge oppressive lived realities through the intentional employment of the fantastic to imagine otherwise.

But even with those hard-won advances, deeply entrenched settler-colonial biases mean that our literatures already aren’t “literary” enough for many whitestream scholars and critics; adding the pathologization of fantasy and the scorn of genre snobbery on top of it is hardly something to be relished. Deficit remains the defining trope for Indigenous peoples in the settler-colonial imaginary. In this construction, “real” Indigenous peoples are always Other, always diminished, always the reduced shadow of our former greatness. So if the “real” is that which is passed away or gathering dust on the museum shelf, the “real” of Indigenous experience must therefore only be about deficit and loss.

The “real,” then, can be an extraordinarily troubling category, and realistic fiction and criticism can unintentionally reinforce disempowering narratives that offer little to minoritized readers but a very limited and often pessimistic range of legitimized representations. If the “real” is only about language loss, we miss the extraordinary language recovery efforts of many Indigenous communities; if the “real” is only about dysfunctional and abusive families, we don’t see the many Indigenous families where substance abuse is not a problem or is only part of a much more expansive and complicated set of experiences, where there is strong and loving support across the generations, where education is prioritized as an expression of tradition, not in opposition to it; if the “real” is only about dispossession, then we’re not offered the stories about communities fighting and succeeding to regain lands and inherent territorial rights and relational obligations to the other-than-human world. As famed weird fantasist China Miéville has pointed out,

A realist novel, of whatever brilliance, is always limited by its relations to reality because of the paradigm in which it’s working. Whereas the fantastic is able to do certain things—and obviously ninety-nine percent of it doesn’t do those certain things, but it is potentially in its form able to do those things in a way that nothing else can … I think there is something in the fantastic which has the potential to engage with the lived reality of modernity in a way that the supposedly realist cannot. [1]

“Realistic fiction,” when framed by social presumptions that naturalize colonialism and its effects and presume the inevitability of Indigenous deficit, is as much a compromised perspective as that of imaginative fiction, if not more so, as it reinforces oppressive presumptions through its assumptions of benign, authorized authenticity.

There most certainly are Indigenous writers for whom the fantastic—in fantasy itself or its sister genres, horror and science fiction—offers as much (if not more) scope for addressing issues of decolonization and self-determination than realist fiction. As Ojibway critic Carter Meland notes in relation to science fiction:

The question then becomes how do Indians who have written sf engage these themes of imperial expansion and righting what has been wronged. Decolonization, undoing colonial and imperial habits of thought, especially as they relate to indigenous people, is one of the central concerns of Native writers and scholars in general. Native sf writers are no different from their peers working in other genres … For the moment, suffice it to say, that sf by Native writers concerning Native characters seeks to privilege Native power, to present Native ways of seeing and being as legitimate, and to explore the differing ways of perceiving the universe we all share. [2]

For Indigenous writers of speculative fiction, the fantastic is an extension of the possible, not the impossible; it opens up and expands the range of options for Indigenous characters (and readers); it challenges our assumptions and expectations of “the real,” thus complicating and undermining the dominant and often domineering functions of the deficit model.

Yet we must acknowledge, too, that fantasy carries its own representational burdens that these writers are also working against. The savagism vs. civilization binary that has so deformed colonial understandings of Indigeneity is very much the world-building template in fantasy fiction. Indeed, if any literature can be said to be the safe haven of this intellectually and morally bankrupt concept, it is that nebulous textual archive known variously as genre, adventurer, or heroic fantasy, wherein largely white heroes possessed of courage and, sometimes, strange talents struggle to challenge evil and reaffirm the values of social conservatism and right order—namely, might is right. Civilization is bad or good; savages are noble or brutish; yet in either case, the conflict between a simplistic primitivism rooted/trapped in the past and a contemporary progressivism of technological complexity is the superstructure undergirding the narrative content of most genre fantasy.

The textual archive that has grown up, mushroom-like, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s great shadow is, for better or worse, informed by the same ideological apparatus that shaped his legendarium, his great myth-building project. Tolkien’s epic story of English pastoral goodness besieged by swarthy techno-fascist hordes added a moral certitude, literary cachet, and coherent secondary-world mythology to heroic fantasy. Up to that point the genre had largely been dominated by the amoral and violently misogynistic and racialized phallic fantasies of Robert Howard, creator of the Hobbesian barbarian Conan and the Puritan witch-hunter and soldier-of-fortune Solomon Kane (and whose own work was influenced in no small degree by H.P. Lovecraft’s literary eugenics).

Yet while the pipe-smoking Catholic don of Oxford University and the tough-talking Texas libertarian would seem, at first glance, to have little in common, their secondary worlds are in some ways complementary, for each presents a cosmos where heroic/tragic acts of righteous conquest affirm the right of chosen men to lay claim to lands, resources, and peoples, a world where manly virtue is ordained and, for a time at least, rewarded (although in Tolkien’s legendarium power accompanied by hubris always collapses in upon itself, with other power only occasionally surviving). There are more women in positions of authority in Tolkien’s work, and far less sexual violence than in Howard’s, and Tolkien was a widely tolerant man whose politics were far from those of Howard’s racial fantasies, but together and in different but sometimes complementary ways the two men’s work influenced the ideological template for the bulk of fantastic literature produced today.

A genre so vexed offers numerous objections to those who want to redeem it. Even so, such an effort is warranted in a few ways. First, this is some of the first literature that many of us have read that fuels our imaginations and encourages us to imagine otherwise, to believe in possibilities beyond the mundane of now and often oppressive realities to which our differences, whatever they may be, are subject. It’s also one of the first literary forms that encourages us to ask questions about the given state of the world, its codes and credos—and it often leads us to asking bigger questions about our own and our families’ histories and experiences as well.

Black fantasist Octavia Butler, in responding to a question about why science fiction matters to Black people and, by extension, their struggle for justice and liberation, responded succinctly:

What good is any form of literature to Black people?

What good is science fiction’s thinking about the present, the future, and the past? What good is its tendency to warn or to consider alternative ways of thinking and doing? What good is its examination of the possible effects of science and technology, or social organization and political direction? At its best, science fiction stimulates imagination and creativity. It gets reader and writer off the beaten track, off the narrow, narrow footpath of what “everyone” is saying, doing, thinking–whoever “everyone” happens to be this year.

And what good is all this to Black people? [3]

Further, fantasy—imagining otherwise—matters because there’s good anecdotal (and growing documentary) evidence that genre fiction is the primary literary fiction read by Indigenous audiences, with fantasy, science fiction, horror, and supernatural romance among the most popular. If this is the case, then abandonment of genre isn’t an option if we believe in the power of literature to liberate both imaginations and bodies. If we’re reading these works, they belong to us, and we can change the genres to reflect our imaginations, our fantasies, and not just those of an oppressive worldview that sees us as walking anachronisms.

If the colonial imaginary is one predicated on Indigenous deficiency and absence, an empty frontier awaiting white supremacy to give it shape and substance, then what alternative does the Indigenous imaginary offer to us as readers and as bearers of embodied story? How might a different way of engaging our histories and imagining our futures chart a different course for relationship and different possibilities for the future?

“Fantasy” as it’s commonly understood for us is dangerous, because it’s so deeply entangled in settler-colonial logics of dead matter, monolithic reality, and rationalist supremacy. But we can offer our imaginations as something entirely different. Terminology is just one issue—imaginative orientation is the more significant challenge. And, I think, the one that promises a better way forward.

So here I want to suggest a different term in place of fantasy, speculative fiction, or even imaginative literature, as all are burdened by dualistic presumptions of real and unreal that don’t take seriously or leave legitimate space for other meaningful ways of experiencing this and worlds: through lived encounter and engagement, through ceremony and ritual, through dream. I suggest that “wonderworks” is a concept that offers Indigenous writers and storytellers something very different, and something more in keeping with our own epistemologies, politics, and relationships—in English, admittedly, and limited by its generic applicability, but no less useful, I think, for that. It’s a term that gestures, imperfectly, to other ways of being in the world, and it reminds us that the way things are is not how they have always been, nor is it how they must be. It’s in Indigenous wonderworks that some of the best models of different, better relationship are being realized, and it’s these stories that give me hope for a better future even in these scary times.

If “fantasy” presumes some measure of falsehood or deeply Freudian impulses too readily transformed into pathology and neurosis, it also presumes a kind of arrogant certainty over what is real and unreal, true and false, legitimate and delusional. “Wonder,” on the other hand, is a word rooted in meaningful uncertainty, curiosity, humility; it places unsolvable mystery, not fixed insistence, at the heart of engagement.

Etymologically “wonder” is of unclear origin, but always keeps astonishment, admiration, and even a bit of mindful fear at its core. Wondrous things are other and otherwise; they’re outside the bounds of the everyday and mundane, perhaps unpredictable, but not necessarily alien, not necessarily foreign or dangerous—but not necessarily comforting and safe, either. They remind us that other worlds exist; other realities abide alongside and within our own. Wonderworks, then, are those texts—literary, filmic, etc.—that centre this possibility within Indigenous values and toward Indigenous, decolonial purposes. And it’s a concept of increasing currency for Indigenous scholars and writers. Brian Kamaoli Kuwada (Kānaka Maoli) and Aiko Yamashiro (Japanese/Okinawan/Chamorro) remind us that

wonder changes us and changes our world. When we stop marvelling at ourselves—ourselves in the most connected and expansive sense, that is, we as individuals, as activists, as communities, as past and future ancestors, as gods, as mountains and rivers and ocean—we lose belief in our ability to heal and transform even the deepest wounds. The act of bringing new life to our Indigenous stories reawakens our lands and peoples to remember the power we have always had, to feed our families and strangers, to care for the past and future. Hope is fed by our ability to apprehend and trust our storied connections, by the rush of unexplainable movement, by the unruly growing of our love and gratitude for the strange and marvellous ways we live on. [4]

Wonder is thus not a generic experience, but a relational one. It offers other possibilities than the template. It gives us possibilities.

Indigenous wonderworks are neither strictly “fantasy” nor “realism,” or maybe both at once or something else entirely, though they generally push against expectations of rational materialism. They’re rooted in the specificity of peoples to their histories and embodied experiences. They make space for meaningful engagements and encounters dismissed by colonial authorities but that are central to cultural resurgence and recovery of other ways of knowing, being, and abiding. These works remind us that there are other ways of being in the world than those we’ve been trained to accept as normal. They offer us hopeful alternatives to the oppressive structures and conditions we’re continually told are inevitable material “reality.”

Wonderworks give us alternatives that the champions of “the real” too often foreclose upon in despair and cynicism. They remind us that there are other ways of looking at and living in the world, different ways of engaging with one another and our other-than-human relations. They insist on difference, not as deficiency, but as distinction. They’re rooted in the land—not generic landscapes but specific places with histories, voices, memories. They carry the past forward. They give us a future, even if it’s only an imagined one. But without that imagined possibility, it’s all too easy to believe we don’t belong there. And that’s a road to a very frightening place indeed.

Indigenous writers continue to produce works that articulate and even anticipate our potential for transformative change, if only we bring to it the best of our imaginative selves. Freedom of love, of desire, of life, culture, and political survival—these are only realized through the linking of our courage to our imaginations. We can’t possibly live otherwise until we first imagine otherwise. Our literary and literal ancestors made possible the world we hold now in trust—it’s our responsibility, for as long as we’re given to bear it, to carry their work forward, to help realize their hopes and to ensure their fears never come to pass. We will have done our job as good ancestors if the world we leave is one more fully alive with the stories of our time and those before, if the struggle of our predecessors is honoured and shared, if the justice of our fight and the rightness of our relations carry on beyond us.


[1] China Miéville, interview with John McDonald, International Socialist Review (Issue 75; online at http://isreview.org/issue/75/fantasy-science-fiction-and-politics); accessed 14 April 2017

[2] Carter Meland, “American Indians at the Final Frontiers of Imperial SF,” Expanded Horizons, issue 5 (February 2009) (http://expandedhorizons.net/magazine/?page_id=150); accessed 14 April 2017.

[3] Octavia Butler, “Positive Obsession,” Bloodchild and Other Stories, 2nd edition (Seven Stories, 2005), pp. 134-135.

[4] Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada and Aiko Yamashiro, “Rooted in Wonder: Tales of Indigenous Activism and Community Organizing,” Marvels & Tales (30.1, 2016), pp. 20-21.


Daniel Heath Justice is a Colorado-born Canadian citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He works on Musqueam territory at the University of British Columbia, where he is Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Literature and Expressive Culture and Professor of First Nations and Indigenous Studies and English. A writer of literary criticism, Indigenous wonderworks, and animal cultural histories, his work focuses on diverse articulations of Indigenous kinship, sexuality, speculative fiction, and other-than-human relations. His contribution to this issue of Apex is part of a longer chapter from his forthcoming book, Why Indigenous Literatures Matter (Wilfrid Laurier University Press).

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