Non-Linear Modes of Narrative in the Disruption of Time and Genre in Ambelin Kwaymullina’s The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf




Indigenous literature, dystopia, Indigenous Futurisms, time

How to Cite

Herb, A. (2019). Non-Linear Modes of Narrative in the Disruption of Time and Genre in Ambelin Kwaymullina’s <em>The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf</em>. M/C Journal, 22(6).
Vol. 22 No. 6 (2019): time
Published 2019-12-04

While Young Adult dystopian texts commonly manipulate expectations of time and space, it is largely in a linear sense—projecting futuristic scenarios, shifting the contemporary reader into a speculative space sometimes only slightly removed from contemporary social, political, or environmental concerns (Booker 3; McDonough and Wagner 157). These concerns are projected into the future, having followed their natural trajectory and come to a dystopian present. Authors write words and worlds of warning in a postapocalyptic landscape, drawing from and confirming established dystopian tropes, and affirming the activist power of teenage protagonists in cultivating change. This article examines the intersections between dystopian Young Adult literature and Indigenous Futurisms, and the possibilities for sharing or encoding Indigenous Knowledge through the disruption or revision of genre, where the act itself become a movement of activism and survival echoed in text. Lynette James acknowledges the “ruptures” (157) Indigenous authors have made in the genre through incorporating Indigenous Knowledge into story as an embedded element – not only of narrative, but of structure. Ambelin Kwaymullina, of the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia, exemplifies this approach in her disruption or rupture of the dystopian genre in her embodiment of Indigenous Knowledge in the Young Adult (YA) text The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf. Kwaymullina centres Indigenous Knowledge throughout the trilogy, offering a powerful revision of key tropes of the dystopian YA genre, creating a perspective that privileges Indigenous Knowledge. This is most significantly identified through her depiction of time as a non-linear concept, at once realised narratively, conceptually, and structurally in the text. 

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, the first of a trilogy of novels in “The Tribe” series, presents a futuristic post-apocalyptic world, set 300 years after the Reckoning, a cataclysmic environmental disaster. The protagonist, Ashala Wolf, is one of a number of people with supernatural abilities that are outlawed by their government and labelled Illegals. As the novel begins, Ashala is being interrogated by the villainous Neville Rose, held in a detention centre as she plots to escape, free her fellow detainees, and return to the Tribe in the Firstwood. The plot draws from historical and contemporary parallels in Australia, yet part of the text’s subversive power is that these parallels and connections are never made explicit on the page. The reader is invited to become an active participant in coding meaning by applying their own understandings of the context and connections, creating an inter-subjective dialogue between reader and text, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowing. 

This article looks to the first novel in the trilogy as the key exemplifier of the disruption of genre and knowledge through the representation of time. It is in this novel that these concepts are established and realised most clearly, being predominantly from Ashala’s perspective as a direct descendant of Indigenous Australians, with the following two novels divided between Ashala, Georgie, and Ember as polyphonic narrative focalisers. Acting as an introduction to the series, The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf presents a foundation for readers to challenge their perceptions on both genre and knowledge. Kwaymullina entangles the two, imbuing knowledge throughout narrative and structure which in turn disrupts genre. In her revisioning of narrative through genre and structural focus of time as a non-linear concept, Kwaymullina puts into practice Conrad Scott’s argument that “the potential healing of moments or processes of crisis in Indigenous dystopias is never possible without a strategic engagement with narrative itself, and even the formal aspects of the text” (73).

While the series fits the conventions of the dystopian genre, it has been more commonly identified as speculative fiction, or Indigenous futurism, as Kwaymullina herself defines her work. James notes the significance of acknowledging a text as Indigenous futurism, writing, “identifying a work as Indigenous futurism rather than simply as YA dystopia asks readers, critics, and scholars to adjust their orientation in ways that may radically alter both their perception and reception of it” (153). For the purposes of this article, I acknowledge the clear value and importance of identifying the text as Indigenous futurism, but also find value in the movements that define the shift from dystopian literature to Indigenous futurism, in its engagement with and recasting of dystopian conventions in the text. In embedding Indigenous Knowledge in her worldbuilding and narrative, Kwaymullina actively rewrites dystopian expectations and tropes. These notions would be expected or normalised when grounded in Indigenous futurism, but are regarded as a subversion and revision when read in dystopian fiction. The text engages directly with the specific tropes and expectations of dystopian genre—its significance in rewriting the spaces, narratives, and structures of the genre cannot be overstated. 

The employment of the dystopian genre as both framework and space of revision speaks to larger debates of the value of dystopian fiction in examining socio-cultural issues over other genres such as realism. Critics argue the speculative nature of dystopian fiction that remains linked to concerns of the present and past allows audiences to envision and experience their own transformative experience, effecting political change (Kennon; Mallan; Basu, Broad, and Hintz; Sypnowich). Balaka Basu, Katherine Broad, and Carrie Hintz argue that serious issues presented in fantastic futuristic scenarios “may provide young people with an entry point into real-world problems, encouraging them to think about social and political issues in new ways, or even for the first time” (4-5). Kerry Mallan notes the “ability of dystopian fiction to open up to readers a dystopian social elsewhere serves a double function: On the one hand, it offers readers an opportunity to reflect on their current existence to compare the similarities and differences between the real and the fictional; on the other, these stories implicitly exhort young people to take responsibility for their own lives and the future of society” (16). Drawing on these metanarrative structures with the interweaving of Indigenous knowledge increases the active responsibility for the reader. It invokes Nnedi Okorafor’s labelling of Indigenous Futurisms as “the most truthful way of telling the truth” (279), creating opportunities for the Indigenous and non-Indigenous reader to engage with narratives of a real apocalypse on invaded land. The dystopian setting and expectations form a buffer between reader and text (Basu, Broad, and Hintz 4), making the narrative more accessible to the reader without shying away from the embedded trauma, while drawing on dystopian fiction’s balance of despair and optimism (Basu, Broad, and Hintz 2).

The stakes and value of dystopian fiction are heightened when engaging with Indigenous narratives and knowledge; as Claire Coleman (a Noongar woman from the south coast of Western Australia) notes, Indigenous Australians live in a post-apocalyptic state as “all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people alive today are the descendants of people who survived an apocalypse” (n.p.). James, quoting Uppinder Mehan, concurs, writing “these narrators are ‘survivors—or the descendants of survivors’ [162], not just of broken dystopian worlds or post-cataclysmic events but of the real historical legacies of slavery, conquest, and oppression” (157). Writing on Indigenous futurisms in dystopian and utopian fiction, Mary Morrison argues “people outside Western hegemonic power structures would likely be well-placed to transform the utopian imagination, to decolonize it” (11), acknowledging the significance in the intersection of genre and lived experience by author and character.

Kwaymullina expands on this, noting that for Indigenous authors the tropes of speculative fiction are familiar lived experiences. She writes that

many of the ideas that populate speculative-fiction books – notions of time travel, astral projection, speaking the languages of animals or trees – are part of Indigenous cultures. One of the aspects of my own novels that is regularly interpreted as being pure fantasy, that of an ancient creation spirit who sung the world into being, is for me simply part of my reality. (“Edges” 27)

Kwaymullina affirms Coleman and James in her approach, writing “Indigenous people lived through the end of the world, but we did not end. We survived by holding on to our cultures, our kin, and our sense of what was right in a world gone terribly wrong” (“Edges” 29). The Tribe series demonstrates survivance, with Kwaymullina’s approach forming possibilities for intersubjective dialogues across genre. The concept is reinforced through Ashala’s repeated, joyful cries of hope throughout the text: “I live! We live! We survive!” (197, 200, 279, 391).

Sara K. Day, Miranda A. Green-Barteet, and Amy L. Montz note dystopian literature considers possible futures from the outlook and failures of the present (8), arguing “the label ‘dystopia’ typically applies to works that simultaneously imagine futures and consider the present, essentially occupying a liminal space between these times” (Day, Green-Barteet, and Montz 9). This sense of liminality is heightened with the engagement of time from an Indigenous perspective; as Scott writes, “Indigenous dystopian fiction presents not only the crisis of the future but the ongoing crisis of the present time, and that which is still resonant from the past” (73). In “Respect, Relationships, Renewal: Aboriginal Perspectives on the Worlds of Tomorrow”, Kwaymullina notes that linear time can “become a tool of ideology, with colonial characterisations of Indigenous peoples as being of an earlier (less ‘advanced’) time through the use of terms such as ‘primitive’, ‘prehistoric’ and ‘prehistory’” (“Respect” 126).

In shifting to a dystopian world where Australia as a colonised or invaded country is no longer recognised, but Country is still alive and read by those who live on it, Kwaymullina recasts the use of linear time as a tool of ideology to reaffirm Coleman’s argument that Indigenous Australians already exist in a post-apocalyptic state. She draws from the past and present and casts it into the future, while simultaneously recognising that all three are linked and circular—events are repeating and being relived. Kwaymullina depicts numerous parallels between the dystopian world and a post-invasion Australia, populating her world with references to detention centres; othering and distinct labelling of a vilified minority deemed a threat or aberrant to the majority colonising community; the name and title of the series’ central villain Chief Administrator Neville Rose in a clear reference to A.O. Neville, WA Chief Protector of Aborigines.

At the outset, the government uses labels to separate and denigrate the Other—individuals with Abilities are called Illegals, distinct from Citizens, although they can apply for Exemptions if their Ability is deemed useful and passive. The terminology of Exemption draws deliberate connections to the Exemption Certificate Indigenous Australians could apply for from the Aborigines Protection (Amendment) Act 1943. The text consistently operates in modes of survivance, as Ashala and the Tribe redefine their world through a distinctly Indigenous perspective (Murphy 179). Ashala gains power through the tool used to suppress her by claiming and embracing this status, identifying her friends and herself as the Tribe and choosing a forest name emblematic of the totems that each Tribe member has a particular connection to (e.g. Georgie Spider, Ember Crow, Ashala Wolf). Continual parallels are drawn to Indigenous Knowledge: Ashala’s Ability is Sleepwalking, where she enters a state in dreaming where she can alter reality, a liminal space that suggests connections to the Dreamtime. While the land is no longer called or recognised as Australia, and the tectonic plates have shifted land mass, it remains Country, as recognised in Ashala’s relationship with the Firstwood. The Balance, the inherent harmony between all life, animate and inanimate, is a clear reflection of an Indigenous understanding, positioning it as the mainstream ideology.

Kwaymullina weaves Indigenous knowledge through the text as demonstrated through narrative, key thematic concepts, and structure, disrupting the tropes of dystopian fiction in a manner that subverts genre and presents new possibilities for both reader and writer while presenting a shift to Indigenous Futurisms. As an organic by-product of this ideological framework, regressive or gendered tropes are re-envisioned as feminist and ecologically centred, ultimately conveying a sense of hope and survivance. Key tropes of YA dystopian fiction include a female teenager protagonist oppressed by her government, often initially unknowingly so embedded is she in the system, potentially profiting from it in some way. She is often introduced to the reader in a setting that the character initially reads as utopian, but is revealed to be dystopian and authoritarian in its construction. As identified by Ann M.M. Childs, a common dynamic in the genre that reinforces gender roles in heterosexual relationships see the protagonist introduced to the concept of rebellion or dissent through a male love interest already embedded in a resistance movement, at the cost of losing or betraying a female friend (188). Childs notes the protagonist may be resistant to the idea of rebellion, but after falling for the love interest, grows to genuinely care for the cause. Technology is depicted as advanced, alien or dehumanising, and both belongs to and represents the repressive society the protagonist seeks to escape and change. The natural environment is depicted in binary opposition, with characters finding resilience, freedom, and personal agency in a return to nature (McDonough and Wagner 157). Society will have attempted to restrict, destroy, or otherwise mine the natural world, but this attempt for control will inevitably fail or backfire. Initially the environment is displayed as a potentially antagonistic element, wild and dangerous; however, after the character escapes their confining world, it becomes an ally. 

In her employment of a perspective framed by Indigenous Knowledge, Kwaymullina subverts each of these established tropes, offering an alternative reading of conventions often embedded in the genre. Ashala is introduced as already entrenched in a rebellion that she is both leader and pivotal figure of. Inverting the dynamic outlined by Childs, she is love interest Connor’s motivation for rejecting the government and joining the Tribe: “You are the reason I came here, Ashala Wolf” (Kwaymullina 263). Kwaymullina dismisses Childs’ concern over the removal of female friendship in favour of heterosexual romance by centering Ashala’s relationships with Georgie and Ember as fundamental to Ashala’s well-being, where sistahood is a key paradigm of hope: “I carry my friends with me” (Kwaymullina 39). For Ashala and the Tribe, nature as exemplified through the Firstwood is Country, not only sanctuary but an animate being that Ashala speaks with, asks permission to live within, and offers protection and apology for the harm down to it by humans in the past. The privileging of environment, and reading all animate or inanimate beings as living, extends to challenging the nature/technology dichotomy. Even the static or sterile environments of the detention centres are recognised for their connection to nature in their construction from recycled materials: “Nothing ever truly ends, only transforms” (Kwaymullina 141). In “Learning to Read the Signs: Law in an Indigenous Reality”, Ambelin Kwaymullina and Blaze Kwaymullina write that

since everything must interconnect and interrelate to survive, if a pattern is fixed in time, it loses its ability to dynamically connect with other patterns. To be temporally fixed is therefore to be isolated; frozen. In an Indigenous worldview, it is, in fact, an impossibility – for that which cannot move, cannot interact, and that which cannot interact is inanimate. And there is nothing inanimate in country. (200)

This can be read as representative of Kwaymullina’s rupture or revision of dystopian tropes and genre. When tropes are read as static or absolute, they run the risk of freezing or limiting the knowledge encoded in these stories. By integrating Indigenous Knowledge, new patterns can emerge and interact, extending to the reader’s own understanding of genre, time, and epistemology. 

Kwaymullina’s revisioning of dystopian tropes through an embedded and celebrated Indigenous perspective culminates in the successful thematic, narrative, and structural expression of time as a non-linear concept. Kwaymullina and Kwaymullina acknowledge the division between the reductionist and linear perspective of time through a Western worldview in comparison to the non-linear perception from that of an Indigenous Australian worldview. They acknowledge that their expression of time is not to be read as representative of all Indigenous Australians’ perspective of time, but one informed by their own Country and upbringing. Kwaymullina and Kwaymullina write,

in an Aboriginal worldview, time—to the extent that it exists at all—is neither linear nor absolute. There are patterns and systems of energy that create and transform, from the ageing process of the human body to the growth and decay of the broader universe. But these processes are not ‘measured’ or even framed in a strictly temporal sense, and certainly not in a linear sense. (199)

This is enacted through the narrative structure of The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf. The text is set across four days, yet spans years, shifting through narrative in a non-linear manner and reflecting the Indigenous understanding of time as a circular, evolving concept. These four days act as the containers for the text, as Kwaymullina distinguishes the departure from linear time for the uninitiated reader by including headings and subheadings in chapter titles, marked as “Day One”, “Day Two”, “Day Three”, and “Day Four”, before the final section, “The Escape”. Within these containers, themselves marked linearly, narrative ebbs and flows across time and space, taking Ashala away from the Detention Centre to different moments from her past, spanning years. These ‘flashbacks’ are not presented in a linear fashion; the text revisits and repeats key moments of Ashala’s life out of sequence, providing an immediate focus on these seemingly past moments. This is key in shaping the reader’s understanding of “the patterns and systems of energy that create and transform” (Kwaymullina and Kwaymullina 199)—as Ashala revisits or rediscovers memory through time, perceptions of character, motive, relationships, and key plot points are changed and transformed. Meaning is formed through this relationship of narrative and time in a manner not possible through a linear structure. 

Over the course of the novel, Ashala and the reader find she’s chosen to give herself false memories to protect the Tribe and complete a master plan to defeat Neville Rose. As such, as the novel begins the reader, aligned with Ashala as narrative focaliser, is positioned to read key points through a flawed perspective. Connor is presented as an enemy and betrayer of the Tribe, while Ashala denies her feelings towards him. The reader is aligned with Ashala’s perspective—she has already fallen in love with Connor, but neither she nor the reader knows it due to the displacement of knowledge through narrative structure and memory. This also speaks to identity formation in the text—Ashala is herself, and not herself until the novel reaches full circle, and she and the reader have experienced multiple points of time. As Ember explains, “it’s not about losing small pieces of information. This stuff shapes your entire understanding of reality” (Kwaymullina 167). If the reader revisits the text with this knowledge, they find further value in exploring the non-linear, circular narrative, finding subtext in characters’ interactions and decisions. 

The disruption in the non-linear narrative structure is twofold: to reflect the representation of time in an Indigenous epistemology, further rewriting the genre; and to create an intersubjective dialogue. As such, the narrative structure creates a space of invitation to the reader. Rather than positioning Ashala as embedded and aware of her status as a custodian of Indigenous knowledge, the text places her as ingrained in Indigenous epistemology, but unaware of it. In this way, the text effectively invites the reader in, mirroring Ashala’s journey of (re)discovery. The non-Indigenous reader enters the text alongside Ashala, with Indigenous knowledge embedded subtly throughout the text echoed in Kwaymullina’s engagement with dystopian tropes, and integrated Indigenous epistemology. By the time Ashala meets the Serpent, her Grandfather, and has her ancestry explained to her, the reader has already been immersed in Ashala’s own way of thinking, an inherently Indigenous one; for instance, throughout the text, she acknowledges the value and interconnectedness of all beings, human and non-human, animate and inanimate. The text leaves space for the reader to be active in their own construction of meaning and knowledge by never using the terms “Indigenous” or “Aboriginal”, themselves colonial inventions employed to control and label. Instead, the reader is encouraged to engage in the metatextual intersubjective dialogue introduced by Kwaymullina to acknowledge Indigenous epistemology—but by way of her approach, Kwaymullina further encourages the reader to “forget Aborigines” (Healy 219) by centring knowledge in its own right, rather than in direct opposition to Western epistemologies. That is, Kwaymullina disrupts Western perspectives framing of Indigenous knowledge as “other”, altering expectations of the norm as non-Indigenous. 

As Kwaymullina writes, 

to conceive of time in a non-linear way is at once a great gift and a great responsibility. The responsibility is that our individual actions matter powerfully, radiating out across relationships and affecting all that might be thought of in a linear sense as past, present and future. But the gift is that the passage of linear time has never moved us so far that we cannot take meaningful action to heal the wounds of colonialism. (“Respect” 126-127)

In The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, Kwaymullina realises this gift and responsibility. By framing structural, conceptual, and narrative time through an Indigenous epistemology, Kwaymullina privileges Indigenous Knowledge and effectively subverts and revises the genre through the rupture of dystopian conventions. Possibilities of hope and healing emerge in the text’s construction of time and genre as spaces of growth and change are emphasised; like Ashala, the reader finds themselves at the end and beginning of the world at once.


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