How Australian is Australian Urban Fantasy?
It is always a little difficult to identify the nationality of fantasy literature, and most of the time that is part of the appeal. It is literature that transforms and transports. It is a window to other worlds and other’s rich imaginations. However, urban fantasy has always been a genre that founded itself within the real, the mundane and specifically the urban.
There are many different types of urban fantasy, whether they be the historically set such as the works by C.J. Archer or A.W. Exley, which slant a little more fully towards paranormal romance; but still are defined by their placement within a detailed and confining city. Or, are slightly futuristic with hints of technology beyond what we have now, such as Keri Arthur’s series; or they are resoundingly set in the “now.” Regardless of the specificity of the time period they are usually soundly positioned within a city. For some, such as China Mieville’s King Rat or Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London the place is so absolutely positioned it could be no where else in the world. This type of setting, of developing of place, is most common for urban fantasy set in London or generally of places quintessentially American that they resonate with the same imagery that are seen in American films. However, it is less common outside of those places.
The question remains then, what is Australian urban fantasy if it is not set in a globally recognisable city? What makes urban fantasy Australian and not just generic urban fantasy?
This article is an invitation to consider the issue of a trend of overly Eurocentric mythology and settings present in Australian urban fantasy, a genre that traditionally was about the unseen. I will not pretend to have an answer to this issue, but rather, invite the reader to consider the many questions this seemingly innocuous limitation is raising in today’s world.
What is urban fantasy?
Urban fantasy (hereafter UF) is a genre of the fantastic that intersects with the mundane in an urbane setting (has a real world setting with fantastical elements). 1 It rose in popularity in the 1980s as a response to the over saturation of Tolkienesque fantasy of the time. 2 However, the exact parameters of the genre remain contested. An existence of fuzzy edges has allowed authors to tell diverse stories that reflect and critique the society in which they are produced. The genre is categorised by its use of an urban setting with a fantastical intersection. This means the utilisation of fantasy and supernatural elements within an urban setting to explore urban narratives. Full of hidden and liminal spaces, the cities of UF have offered modern settings that reject medievalist modes. Yet, UF does not look to the future as science-fiction does, rather, it maintains an intense tension between the modern present and the past. This trope remains true in Australian UF.
Three novels that represent Australian UF, which will be used for this discussion, are Keri Arthur’s Full Moon Rising (2006) set in Melbourne, Patricia Leslie’s A Single Light (2016) set in southern Sydney, and Angela Slatter’s Vigil (2016) set in Brisbane. Each author uses elements of Australian urban settings to present supernatural creatures encroaching on mundane life. As society has continued to be increasingly urbanised in focus, it would seem logical to see a rise in urbanised fantasy. However, this is not the work being dominantly produced in Australian fantasy. Instead, overwhelmingly in all categories of fantasy, the focus remains on medieval and Eurocentric narratives. The following discussion begins to question this dominance of European mythologies in fantasy, and particularly UF, as well as suggesting ways for writers to move forward. However, I recognise this is only a limited forum for a much larger conversation that I hope you are also interested in pursuing.
Really, how Australian is a werewolf? 3
To begin, Australia does not and has never (according to current fossil studies) had wolves. It has other canine and close relative species, but not wolves. So how Australian is it to have werewolves? Australia is a country with its own rich flora and fauna, yet the predominant focus of fantasy, including UF, is of Eurocentric mythologies. Where are the weredingoes or the bunyips? Why does Australian fantasy continue to privilege a Eurocentric perspective?
The fantasy genre has always been susceptible to expectations of the marketplace and this has shaped the form of UF from the start. Although all fantasy experiences trends and fads, UF and its authors have often been driven to particular representations and even narrative approaches based on this. The rise of paranormal romance from UF is one of the best examples of this; to the degree that paranormal romance has eclipsed the presence of UF in bookshop shelves. Australian fantasy in particular has experienced critical and commercial success only with its Anglocentric, medieval setting fantasy series. Where authors have strayed from this path they have met resistance both critically and from readers. UF makes up a very, very small component of Australian fantasy, and it too conforms strongly to the larger expectations. For instance, Arthur’s werewolves are Irish, Slatter chose harpies, angels and witches, and Leslie used a variation of vampires and hunters.
There is nothing inherently “wrong” with selecting a Eurocentric mythology or a medieval setting. What is interesting is the overabundance of this specific category of fantasy in comparison to other forms, and also the lack of support in the marketplace for alternative types of stories.
One reasonable point is made by a number of authors: that this is their own personal history. Author Sophie Masson writes “[i]t is because, for myself, as a first generation immigrant…it comes naturally.” 4 Masson goes on to discuss that her preferences for European mythologies is influenced by her own personal history and heritage. This is not an unexpected choice, as many writers draw from their own personal narratives in all genres. Helen Young outlines UF’s use of portable stories as a common element of the genre. She notes that “[w]hen they take shared stories – folktales, legends, myths, history – with them, that invisible luggage changes the nature of their home when it is unpacked.” 5 It is not surprising then that a particular nostalgia for immigrant history becomes embedded into stories, including fantastic stories. For other authors it is about using generic settings to allow them to act as global storytellers. All very reasonable points for this choice, but this does not address the absences. Australia is not a homogenised European offshoot, so why are these the dominant histories and mythologies being used?
Furthermore, in the use of medieval fantasy by Australian authors there still remains a troubling sparsity of anything distinctly Australian to be present. Author Kate Constable reflects that the presence of more “Australian” fantasy “might have woken an appetite for a different kind of magic, a magic bred in the landscape I was born, rather than on the other side of the world.” 6 Are we doing a disservice to Australian readers by not connecting with the elements that make Australia unique? But what does this really look like? What makes fantasy “Australian”?
Even in UF where an Australian landscape setting is present there is a hesitancy to articulate this fully. Arthur’s series is so generically of any city that a reader would not know it as Melbourne, nor that the mythos has any Australian connection (which it does not). Leslie does draw on more recognisable presentations of the bush and coast around the Sydney area, but her mythology, and to an extent her style of storytelling, is presented in a dreamlike state that separates it from its place. Slatter, perhaps, presents the most authentic setting by utilising references to topography, and flora and fauna that is recognisably eastern Australian in origin. Yet, still in her choice of mythology it is focused on European, mainly Ancient Greek and Christian, in origin.
Both Arthur and Slatter directly call out that their supernatural creatures immigrated to Australia. Arthur frames this with an unfortunate turn of phrase that alludes to the deeply troubled Terra Nullius history of colonisation, when she describes her Irish wolves as settling in the middle of Australia where “there was plenty of land to be had.” None of these authors include any reference to, or presence of, the Indigenous people of Australia. Such silences and omissions are problematic. This is not to suggest that the inclusion of Indigenous sources into fantasy would make a text Australian, however, it is a concerning absence of a fundamental part of the country.
What is the solution?
An excellent example of how some speculative fantasy fiction is already beginning to find new ways to create authentic Australian fantasy is present in Hoa Pham and Ambelin Kwaymullina’s work. From Pham’s Vixen, a reconciliation story about a Vietnamese Australian fox-spirit, where an encounter with an Indigenous land spirit provides a place for common shared experiences of trauma; to Indigenous speculative author Kwaymullina’s own work in presenting Indigenous mythologies in a modern world, there is clearly meaningful space for these narratives. Kwaymullina also advocates for a closer partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers to engage in a sharing of words and worlds. 7 However, this needs to be a respectful act with careful considerations of boundaries.
In Kwaymullina’s suggestion is perhaps a way forward. Even if a writer’s own history comes from a European context, they are living in a diverse country; looking to partnerships with groups whose own histories also enrich this country should be a consideration when writing Australian fantasy. UF is a genre of urban archaeology interested in the history and past of a place. 8 A strong thematic concern is the tension between these two states, and is this not a tension that continues to exist in Australia today? Are we not continuing to try and find a way to reconcile our past with the present we live in? UF aims to present a contemporary urban landscape, which in Australia is a diverse space, based on urban realism that intersects with the supernatural. It is a small step to consider then that the supernatural should be more than just Eurocentric in origin. Equally, the use of these Eurocentric archetypes offer a place to have conversations about the impact of colonisation. For instance in the gothic series Master of the Ghost Dreaming by Mudrooroo, the vampires act as representation for the colonial invader.
This means UF can serve as a vehicle for discussions about the intersection of the past and present in Australia. Brian Attebery is right to call out a need for commission over omission. 9 Such an act by UF written to value and acknowledge Indigenous history does not mean writers cannot engage with Eurocentric settings or mythologies. But it does mean they cannot continue to ignore Indigenous cultures and history when writing in Australia. This act of recognition would not be new to UF. The seminal authors of the genre, such as Emma Bull and Charles de Lint, engaged with the genre specifically because it offered opportunities to tell marginalised stories; to hear voices from the edges, and to acknowledge the unseen. There is no reason Australian UF cannot do the same to explore the continuing tensions of Australia’s past and present.
Furthermore, a greater focus and inclusion of the flora and fauna of Australia, as in Slatter’s Vigil is needed. For UF to be Australian it actually needs to be in Australia. What do you think? Out with the werewolves and in with the weredingoes?
- Clute, John. “Urban Fantasy.” Edited by John Clute and John Grant. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. London: Orbit, 1997. ↩
- Mannolini-Winwood, Sarai, and Krzysztof M. Maj. “Theorising the Emergent Subgenre of Urban Fantasy.” Creatio Fantastica 1, no. 58 (2018): 29–48. https://creatiofantastica.com/2018/09/16/cf-nr-1-58-2018-fantastyka-miejska/ ↩
- Mannolini-Winwood, Sarai. ‘How Australian is a werewolf? Discussing the use of European mythologies in Australian urban fantasy.’ Concepts in Popular Genre Fiction Symposium, 6-8 Dec 2021 Conference. NOTE: Much of this article comes from the conference paper, which is still available on Spotify. ↩
- Masson, Sophie, and Elizabeth Hale. “Mosaic and Cornucopia: Fairy Tale and Myth in Contemporary Australian YA Fantasy.” Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature 54, no. 3 (2016): 44–53. https://doi.org/10.1353/bkb.2016.0085 ↩
- Young, Helen. Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness. Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2015 ↩
- Constable, Kate. “Crow Country: Treading Ambiguous Pathways.” Magpies: Talking about Books for Children 26, no. 4 (2011): 18–20. https://search.informit.org/doi/abs/10.3316/ielapa.201110975 ↩
- Kwaymullina, Ambelin. “Edges, Centres and Futures: Reflections on Being an Indigenous Speculative Fiction Writer.” Kill Your Darlings, 2014. https://www.killyourdarlings.com.au/article/edges-centres-and-futures-reflections-on-being-an-indigenous-speculative-fiction-writer/ ↩
- Elber-Aviram, Hadas. “‘The Past Is Below Us’: Urban Fantasy, Urban Archaeology, and the Recovery of Suppressed History.” Papers from the Institute of Archaeology. University College London, 2013. https://doi.org/http://doi.org/10.5334/pia.426 ↩
- Attebery, Brian. “Aboriginality in Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 32, no. 3 (2005): 385–404. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4241374 ↩
What do you think? Leave a comment.