Other histories: Terra Nullius / Claire G. Coleman

I’m writing this review with care because I’ve resolved to write it without spoilers. Terra Nullius is best placed as a work of speculative fiction, a genre seemingly without boundaries. As with other affecting books, Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius was a shift from one state to another, a journey in itself.

It went a little something like this: I heard of a book that was pitched as a ‘game changer’ in contemporary Australian literary fiction. I eagerly awaited the release of Terra Nullius, winner of the black&write! fellowship. As I began reading I felt… coolly neutral. The text had a kind of distance from the events depicted, events that seemed to tell a story we’ve read before. It called to mind Rabbit Proof Fence. Rather than sisters on the run, this was the story of Jacky, a Native runaway from a religious mission managed by a vicious mother superior. There were the familiar pursuers: troopers, government figures of terrible authority and power, trackers of the same people as those being tracked. Horrific atrocity visited so often in stories of the invasion of Australia by Europeans. These narratives have been so entrenched in our understanding of colonial history as to almost rob them of their horror, the same as the fatigue visited on imagery from the Holocaust. Too often, the invasion is a mere backdrop to stories written by and about those of European descent.

And then.

And then there was a shift. I won’t spoil it, because what is revealed acted to impart a greater appreciation of displacement and genocide than in many other forms of fiction I’ve read before. So complete and assured in its delivery it was staggering. I went back to the beginning and read again, my eyes wide open.

As in the separation in the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the narrative shift, Terra Nullius is an incisive examination of polarities, the ‘us’ and ‘them’. The Settler deserter Johnny Star considers that his kind:

Would be disgustingly, foully cruel to the Natives. Obviously they did not consider Natives people, thought them less than animals maybe… Did the Natives fail to draw that line, the important line that had driven Johnny’s life before, defined all Settlers’ lives: the line between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’?

I’m not sure what it means that some of the most striking passages of Terra Nullius were those by Johnny. Perhaps it’s a personal form of self-reflection, the Settler regarding the aftermath of invasion with a kind of dread.

He had learnt, through his friends, that the bent, broken drugged and drunk state of those surviving near the settlements was not the habitual state of the Natives. The truth was, it was a sort of depression brought on by what they had lost, brought on by being dominated and controlled by another people. Who could not be depressed, being treated like animals in a land that had once been theirs alone?

In one particularly powerful description, Coleman considers the innate drive of humans to make art. An investigator of the mission muses on Native culture: “considered worthless, except those parts that his people found beautiful.” Amidst moments of intensity and heartbreak, Terra Nullius succeeds in depicting strength and resistance in the face of annihilation.

During my second reading, I had another realisation. Not only have I not read this kind of book before, but I’ve read a woefully limited number of books of fiction by Indigenous writers. I could count these authors on one hand. It is an unsettling thought: regardless of how considerately written, literature depicting the invasion, the stolen generations, and the countless other injustices inflicted on First Nations peoples in Australia I’ve read is written by white people.

The most engaging aspect of Terra Nullius is the world built within – or rather, the world rebuilt within. Coleman redraws the rules of history telling to illustrate a powerful truth. I discussed Terra Nullius with a well-read friend, who debated its extended metaphoric content. At first I disagreed. And then I thought – it is a slap in the face, a kind of brutal revelation.

I wish I could relate how this extraordinary feat is achieved. But I won’t. You’ll have to read it yourself.

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