Monday, 16 April 2018

Terra Nullius by Claire G. Colman

Claire Coleman is a young Western Australian writer who is a great fan of science fiction and loved Lord of the Rings as a child. She read it when just 8 years old. This first novel, written while travelling around Australia, has been very well received, winning her a black&write! fellowship from the State Library of Queensland as well as being listed for the Stella Prize and 5 other awards 2017-18.  The novel is a story for our time according to her publisher Hachette.

Terra Nullius is a challenging work by an author who ‘identifies as a South Coast (WA) Noongar' woman.  Many of the nine participants at our recent meeting thought it was a very clever and innovative novel however some of us had some reservations. It was suggested by one of our members, encouraging us to read more by Australian Aboriginal writers. We all agree with that idea.  

For the first half of the novel we are lead to believe that the story is of groups of people who are living primitively and nomadically and trying to stay away from the ‘squatters’ or ‘settlers’ (also known as toads) colonizing their country. There are also single people trying to escape captivity or re-arrest. There are also girls in a convent being abused. The colonizers treat all these people appallingly.  The children are taken away from their families. There are also massacres of people.  The ‘Natives’ try to fight but are without many weapons and manpower so they try to retreat further into the desert. Coleman appears to be telling the story of our Australian Aboriginal people in the nineteenth century. However in the middle of the novel the twist occurs and we find ourselves in the future and these ‘Natives’ are actually the human race of the world and the colonizers are from outer space. It becomes a dystopian/sci-fi or speculative fiction depending on your interpretation. It ends with the two main villains being killed and with some hope of the humans surviving. The colonizers actually want the art of the humans so that may help save them.

One of our members who is knowledgeable about films thought there were similarities with movies such as: The Moon is a harsh mistressBlade runner and Total recall.

Comments from our members :
  • glad to read it, premise is good but novel is less than engaging
  • loved it and loved the story
  • premise is worth discussing but it would be enhanced by editing, maybe to even a short story length
  • enjoyed it but harrowing
  • 1860s to 1960s (possibly) is a clever flip
  • hard to get into and the flip was a surprise
  • there were indications in the beginning that everything was not as it seemed
  • second half seemed to be in Margaret Atwood type scenario
  • reasonably well written especially for a first novel
  • intellectual book
  • good read in parts but a bit repetitive and didactic
Many of us have not read much science fiction so found the book a surprise. One member pointed out that sci-fi although about the future often is speculative fiction reflecting on our past. Dystopian novels often make moral judgements such as in Oryx and crake or the Handmaid’s tale by Margaret Atwood. There are certainly moral similarities in this novel with The Handmaid's tale.

The characters were difficult to like – one really ‘bad’ person was Sister Bagra. One of our members was sorry for Bagra as she was the main villain with no redeeming features. We thought she was a bit one-dimensional as was the policeman – Sergeant Rohan.  We discussed the scene where he and the troopers are searching for Jacky and are desperate for water. 

They visit a farmhouse and demand water from the settlers but have no success. His only thought is that ‘appeals to settlers’ better natures, informing them that giving visitors water was simple hospitality, were met with blank stares; maybe they had no better natures’ (Chapter 6) so he ends up threatening them with arrest. There are no shades of grey for the Sergeant. But we need to remember that he is an alien too. That feature about some characters is not always known until well into their story so it can be confusing.

It was also difficult to differentiate between some of the characters especially Jacky and Johnny, also between the two main ‘Native’ characters – Esperance and Jacky. Jacky is an Indigenous man whilst Johnny is the only ‘squatter or settler’ who defects from his fellow colonisers to live with the Natives, being fed and befriended by them. 

We did appreciate Esperance, who is a struggler and fighter. She is a clever character and the ending seems to suggest that she may survive.

The Toads are seemingly repugnant physically. European settlers in Australia in the nineteenth century were often seen as ghosts by Indigenous people, which possibly equates to ugly. However, we were careful not to describe too many similarities to Australian history. 

The Environment was a real presence throughout this novel. There are many graphic descriptions of difficult places to live for both the ‘Natives’ and for the settlers. It can be read as an analogy to the European view of Australia at the time – they didn’t like Australian landscape and animals, many of which were considered to be pests. 

Coleman tries to show that there wasn’t a single response from the Toads to Australia and the Natives but a variety of reactions --  ranging from sympathy (by Grark) to hatred for Sergeant Rohan and Sister Bagra.

The device of quotes at the beginning of chapters was clever and really emphasized the nineteenth century feel of the novel as a semi-documentary one. All the quotes are fictitious, as stated by Coleman, but do seem real in the context of the work. The one which we really appreciated is at the beginning of Chapter 16. 

It was a quote from Julas Salis, Chief executive officer at the Louvre art Centre and Gallery in Paris. 

Art is potentially the most valuable commodity this planet can produce, and we can get more. … Seemingly the human tendency to produce Art is innate and cannot be eliminated, even if we now wanted to. … We must bring these humans together and give them nothing to do, no task other than to produce the Art that is, as far as we know, the unique talent of the humans.

The settlers can’t produce Art, which makes the point even stronger.

This lead to a discussion about Albert Namatjira (1902-1959) and his civic rights -- a much maligned artist in his day but one who is gradually being recognized as a great Australian Aboriginal artist. We also discussed the larger question concerning Aboriginal art and whether Australians appreciate this art (or just ‘use it’ (to show off ?) as evidenced in the recent opening of the Commonwealth Games).   We talked about the various large Aboriginal exhibitions we have recently viewed in Canberra.  We are very privileged to see these works in many different venues and interpreted through many different eyes.

The title is controversial. Terra Nullius is a cheap shot by Coleman  according to one member – this was also not the assumption of British colonisers in the opinion of some members. It was generally agreed that the title doesn’t work. It is too generic and lacks specific references. Other possible titles we suggested could be: Johnny Star or The settlers.

It is the voice of Aboriginal writers and film makers such as Warwick Thornton we need to listen to in order to learn more about their present problems, issues and personal histories. A very pertinent film many of us have seen is: A rabbit proof fence. It is ‘based on a true story of 3 Aboriginal girls, Molly, Gracie and Dolly Pilkington who in 1931 were forcibly removed from their mothers and their home in Jigalong and moved 1500 miles away, as part of official ‘White Australia’ Government policy.’ (From SBS On Demand)

Language is another part of Aboriginal culture which is now being recognized to some extent after a shocking failure to acknowledge. The way children were removed from their homes and forbidden to speak their language is worthy of present day condemnation.

The Noongar background of the author is important in this novel and a good source of information about the Noongar language is their website

The conclusion from this discussion was that Claire Coleman is trying to educate white Australians in what it feels like to be colonised. On a personal level it also reminded me of my inadequate knowledge of Aboriginal history. 

PRESENT: 9 members