Title: Terra Nullius
Author: Claire G Coleman
Genre: Speculative Fiction
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Published: 29th August 2017
Synopsis: In the near future Australia is about to experience colonisation once more. What have we learned from our past? A daring debut novel from the winner of the 2016 black&write! Writing fellowship.
‘the truth that lies at the heart of this novel is impossible to ignore‘ – Books+Publishing
‘Jacky was running. There was no thought in his head, only an intense drive to run. There was no sense he was getting anywhere, no plan, no destination, no future. All he had was a sense of what was behind, what he was running from. Jacky was running.’
The Natives of the Colony are restless. The Settlers are eager to have a nation of peace, and to bring the savages into line. Families are torn apart, reeducation is enforced. This rich land will provide for all.
This is not Australia as we know it. This is not the Australia of our history. This TERRA NULLIUS is something new, but all too familiar.
This is an incredible debut from a striking new Australian Aboriginal voice.
Terra Nullius begins in an Australia that has a sense of a distant past, a setting that could have ben colonial days between 1788 and 1901, prior to the Federation of the nation, and it begins with a Native (as Claire writes it), running from a mission, conjuring up a very specific, and what is to me. A very sad, gut wrenching image of a young man running to find his true home and family after being ripped away from them by people who lack understanding of their culture. The first third or so of the book has this image and implication – the way the Settlers and Natives speak or don’t speak, the way they are portrayed through the eyes of the other, all suggest a novel about the early British arrivals making contact with the Aboriginal Australians, and their journey throughout the country, and how they dealt with what they saw as a hindrance and the aftermath that has had a trickle down effect into later generations. What Coleman has done though, is using this experience as a basis, is placed the Australia as we know it in an undecided time and place – and instead of the British, an alien race has come down and taken over all humanity and set out to destroy them, regardless of race, and regardless of how humanity, at the stage of the novel, has been working together to combat racism. Faced with interplanetary overlords, the remaining humans must fight to keep their humanity, keep their planet, and come together against a common enemy.
Told through a few perspectives – a spiritual sister, Sister Bagra, whose slow unravelling shows the flaws in thinking of the need to re-educate native populations that permeated throughout colonial times and powers, Johnny Starr, the rebel who slowly realises through contact with the Natives of Earth that perhaps, his people are wrong, showing that following a doctrine and specific way of thinking will often result in rebels who come to aid the down trodden, runaway Jacky, and refugee Esperance, whose stories, along with the head of the so-called protection board and the one who hunts down runaways, form a story that is familiar to many, yet unfamiliar to others, a story that some can identify with, but that others can hopefully learn from, and realise the mistakes of the past, and hopefully, work towards a better future.
Each character presents nuances in the way they react to the world around them, from outright hatred, to feelings of displacement, to attempting to understand beyond what they know, or feelings of superiority. Jacky and Esperance do not lose their humanity – instead choosing to unite their humanity and desire for freedom to fight an enemy that even some of its own people fear, or so it felt in the case of Johnny Starr, who could have acted as an intermediary, the one who wanted to stand up and say this is wrong, but whose own people refused to listen to. It sparked something in my mind of how people during colonisation thought – whether they all just accepted what officials told them without question, or if there were pockets who felt the desire to speak out, and yet didn’t – whether it was fear, or because they were laughed at or ignored – it would be interesting to know how these early contacts happened and whether different people had different experiences – and how listening to the other side and allowing them to be equally involved might have changed the history of Australia – would things have been better? I certainly hope so, for everyone.
Using speculative fiction to tell a narrative like this is powerful. Rather than distance itself from the history of colonisation, Coleman’s novel uses it but reimagines it in an undefined time during the history of Australia – so indistinct that it could be the distant past or near future. In doing so, Coleman has communicated a message of hurt and pain, and has evoked an empathy for the Australian Aboriginals in people who have not experienced what they have, and who also, may not understand it, but through speculative fiction, diverse voices like Claire’s can explore the politics that have influenced them and their families, and slot politics in where readers don’t expect it. I did come to expect some when I came to read this – I didn’t expect the speculative fiction, but rather, a historical fiction or alternate history dealing with colonisation in the eighteenth century. This would have been just as powerful, but the way Claire has done it, is exceptional. It provokes empathy and thought, and illustrates how the colonisation and settlement really was an invasion that led to colonisation and settlement – maybe this would be a better, more rounded way of putting it, and a way to acknowledge everyone involved in the history of Australia.
Made up of the Indigenous Writing Fellowships and the Indigenous Editing Fellowships, this is a program designed to recruit, train and mentor Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander editors to develop Indigenous authored manuscripts. It is a State Library of Queensland project and more information can be found here: http://www.slq.qld.gov.au/whats-on/awards/blackwrite