“That night, as the moon rose, the Natives demonstrated their Native dance and song. Grark noted to himself, not yet trusting his mouth, that all their culture was considered worthless, except those parts that his people found beautiful. After the dance they sang a haunting lullaby from his own people...
... When he went to bed, after being introduced to the children, that sound, that singing was still playing in his ears.”
(Terra Nullius, pp. 232-233)
Claire G. Coleman’s novel Terra Nullius (Hachette 2017), the outcome of a black&write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship and described as “dystopian” and “speculative”, is a work of defamiliarisation. Narratives you may know, or think you know, will not feel or look the same way again because of this book. For this reason, telling too much about the contents will diminish the first-time experience – but that does not mean there’s nothing to say about the book.
It’s a compelling story of imaginative power – of multiple protagonists and multiple journeys, criss-crossing and converging, characters under pressure to move or trying (in the antagonists’ case, wanting to keep a grip on power) to hold still despite the desire to “go home”. “Home” itself as an idea has been radically destabilised – invasion, dispossession, and cruelty mean that for the colonised, survival has come to entail constant motion and dispersal.
It’s interesting that Coleman wrote the book “while travelling around Australia in a caravan”, because it echoes that onward thrust, the urgency of movement, that pervade the narrative. This is not accidental – as noted in the Guardian: “Her own peripatetic lifestyle flowed into her writing”, or as Coleman herself explained the mode:
“The feeling of travel, of not knowing where you are, of landscapes constantly changing. I think that disoriented sense of time and place was important, because a lot of Aboriginal people have felt very displaced and disjointed, and have a history of feeling like refugees in their own country.”
Coleman, who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people, has referenced Tolkien and Mary Shelley in an online feature as inspirations (an author’s note at the end of the novel itself also acknowledges influence from Aboriginal writers such as Sally Morgan, Kim Scott and Doris Pilkington Garimara). The hubris that drove Victor Frankenstein is here in the hubris of the colonial “experiment” on all scales – as John Rieder points out, Frankenstein has “a certain amount of explicit colonial content” but the Creature’s “progression” also structures a polemics – there’s an allegorical level to it.
In Coleman’s novel, allegory folds in upon itself in an uncanny mode – the narrative is both familiar and strange in a way that breaks open at a certain point and then rides tandem or side-car, or runs parallel, inviting readers to adjust their understanding. It is this-place and not-this-place; our-history and not-our-history at the same time: in the gaps are the what-ifs, the possibilities, the imaginative potential.
If “Australia” refuses to acknowledge fully, and to redress, its historic and contemporary treatment of Indigenous peoples, this novel will re-envisage the trauma and the resistance, the ongoing survival and hope, so as to make them visible again and again, which is why I began with the word “defamiliarisation”. It’s a timely book to make you think and re-think – a bold, energetic and provocative novel for a general audience, but also well-suited, in my opinion, for study in secondary schools.