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Not As We Know It: Terra Nullius

Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman book cover
Terra Nullius
by Claire G Coleman
Hachette
304pp
$29.99 AU
Published August, 2017
ISBN 9780733638312

Terra Nullius is terra nullius, but not as we know it. It’s colonisation, this continent, time, place, Country, race – but not quite as we know it. Terra Nullius is a work of speculative fiction written by Claire Coleman, a Noongar woman whose people have seen – and survived – the apocalyptic moment for hundreds of years. It is a story, exactly as we know it. No speculation required.

Coleman is a skilled writer. She and Terra Nullius are alumni of the State Library of Queensland’s blak&write! program, which aims to secure and promote fresh and unique Indigenous literary talent. This program doesn’t so much unearth new Indigenous literary voices as equip them to produce the full, unrelenting, unapologetic extent of their work.

We begin with Jacky, a young Native man (and slave, stolen from his parents at a young age) fleeing a mission run by a callous benevolent nun into an unforgiving landscape. Jacky is a lingering figure who sweeps a set of catastrophic narrative arcs together, as if by happenstance, as he seeks to find his roots and his home – evading those trackers, Troopers, local militia and native police that seek his extermination. We don’t stay with him for long, not even for three pages, before Coleman introduces a flutter of new characters and worlds, all contained within the Australian continent. For a long while, then, Terra Nullius is decentralised.

Coleman’s somehow-unified pastiche colonial worldbuilding is compelling. Each chapter opens with a snippet from some archival or historic text. Each text is a fiction, unexpectedly, crafted by Coleman. Less startling is the shared history to which each fragmented article contributes. Large-scale chaos, is, after all what we have come to expect of the apocalypse in contemporary vision – and yet at once it is a far cry from the systematic order of colonisation.  Some of the most potent and unsettling of these false historical documents are letters home, Settler policies, anthropological appeals to preserve a subject population. A rich, incisive and old race politic bleeds through them.  She has fictionalised an archive that never seems contrived, forced or tedious. Actually, without Coleman’s author’s note clarifying that all documents in this archive are fiction, I would have believed that some of them were drawn from the historical record.

Coleman cuts quickly between familiar scenes in the novel’s opening chapters. A forlorn and bedraggled camp of Native refugees fleeing crisis after crisis, ever thinner for it. A Settler Trooper, for the first time seeing the – uh – humanity in the groups of Natives he massacres. A murderous and inhumane Settler nun, managing the mission, who resents and tortures the young Natives in her care, and their land. A wide-eyed investigator from the Settler motherland. A sadist, genocidal colonial administrator – known only as the Devil. Native outlaws. Unlikely accomplices. Empire. Jacky, fleeing. Jacky, fleeing.

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.

The book eventually and dramatically splits itself in two, not on the seam of plot or charater, but on the reader’s apprehension of what is happening in this world. Coleman is almost aloof in her introduction of a new colonising force and timeline. As we unaware readers discover that we’re at a turning point, as new and old threads of misery, vindictiveness and brutality lick and intertwine – Terra Nullius is no longer familiar. Until this point, Coleman permits the reader to assume the novel is set in the Australian colonial frontier post-1788. It’s only now that she reveals that Terra Nullius is set sometime towards the end of this century. We are in a post-racial Australia – the Utopic fever dream Australia writes for itself has been delivered as reality. How? Through a speculated, not-so-distant future invasion by the greyfella, a Settler alien species. Their perpetual drive for moisture leads the dry continent to resist them – much like it deprived early, thirsty European colonists.

Coleman’s historical documents ground us in this new world, twice-colonised. This is a defiant gesture of survival of two colonisations from a ‘Doctor Black’, part of the Native Delegation to the Settler Parliament:

‘Since the invasion, you call it Settlement, of this planet you have acted as if humans do not exist. If you acknowledge at all that we were here before your arrival you believe we were rendered extinct by your expansion. This has happened before, the English believed they had exterminated all of the Tasmanian Aborigines, the Palawa, in fact they survived the invasion, they still exist now.’

And this is a plea for mercy from a European woman at protests marking invasion day:

‘We ask you, beg of you, that you learn to live in harmony with us as Europe once learned to live in harmony with the rest of the world….Rather than thinking of what you can take, I beg you to consider what our two peoples can offer each other.’

Beyond the faux archive, the novel only briefly glances at the events that cumulated in the second colonisation and instead painstakingly details an outlaw tale and slave rebellion from its moment of inception, Jacky’s departure from the mission.

At times, Coleman’s colonial characters are didactically drawn. She boldly and unabashedly prescribes their motives and modi operandi. They are out to end the Native:

Sister Bagra had never bothered to learn the noises the Natives made instead of speaking; she could not see the point…so close to extinction…Kicking each door once for emphasis, the sheet metal emitting a yell like a cross between thunder overhead and a church bell, she stormed away…she did not consider the Natives people at all.

This is not even close to irredeemable, nor even unrealistic. Coleman’s deft depictions of familiar colonial atrocities don’t seem out of their time or place, not even once the novel is revealed to be future-looking. Indeed, the novel grinds itself against the Australian literary tradition of conceding moral ground to colonists (leaders of massacres, administrators and mission managers) and tending moral turbidity in their victims in the name of nuance and narrative balance. It doesn’t do this without sacrifices to more conventional markers of character construction.

The early chapters of Terra Nullius are lush and dense – but little happens beyond the unrelenting and exhausting same-same pace of Jacky’s run-eat-hide triad. In these early chapters Coleman sets about constructing a world in which the reader can situate herself, and within which she can draw parallels to current affairs. Coleman urgently picks up the pace in the second half of the novel when she charts an unexpected decolonial social movement.

I think it no coincidence that the early, contextless chapters  are where Coleman makes the most of the potential allegory of Terra Nullius for the Australian colonial frontier as we know it. Despite this, as I read them as an Indigenous reader, I felt locked out of the surprise, revulsion and immersion that these earlier chapters could offer because the parallels, sparse and ambiguous as they were, ran simply too close to the truth to be speculative to me. Non-Indigenous (especially white) readers, whose lives more closely parallel those of the Settlers portrayed in the earlier chapters of the book may find this world-building more illuminating. Nevertheless, Coleman presents a slow and necessary reflection on colonisation and its impacts, especially for those Aboriginal nations located in the Western side of the continent.

The Settler-Native binary is disturbed once Coleman has built her world in the first half of the book, and a non-Indigenous reader might then more closely read herself as Native (or human) rather than Settler (or alien). I was left uneasy about how our readings may fragment, and distrustful of those non-Indigenous readings for which Coleman leaves makes generous (and rightful) subjective space to flourish. Terra Nullius becomes its own horror, for me as a blak reader, when the catastrophe of new invasions made Australian colonists take note of our plight – just in time to think themselves Indigenous and drive us out of our last epistemic refuge. This is a more fearsome apocalypse – one where sheep and wheat are given nativity by virtue of a force that tries to dislodge them. The second invasion serves colonial empathy for non-Indigenous peoples; for Indigenous readers it serves a new horror in that is irreversibly cements the first invasion, although not without hope.

‘People from other places came before, those white fellas, they came before, long time ago, but they couldn’t live there, in that country. The white fellas let us have our Country because they couldn’t live there. These grey fellas, they don’t much like the hot and the dry, they like it even less than the white fella do.’

Terra Nullius is a cleverly multiplicitous text . The reader is an observer who must sit between two apocalyptic colonial moments (one ongoing, one possible) – analogising the latter to better appreciate the former. There is much here that is cleverly racially messy: Coleman contempolates such minefields as ‘race betrayal’ (through Native trackers and Settler rebel bandits alike), technological eugenics, and the varied pathways to redemption or damnation after genocidal atrocity.

Careless readers might miss the intricacies of Coleman’s Indigenous/human/alien analogy and instead entertain the post-racial, reconciliatory gestures that Terra Nullius could also offer. Empathy is, after all, constrained by will and effort when one is called to empathise not by putting themselves in someone else’s shoes, but rather seeing themselves through someone else’s eyes.  Just like Darryl Kerrigan in The Castle, as he contemplates constitutional progress in the recently-post-Mabo age, it might also be possible for a non-Indigenous reader to read this inspired work, only to insipidly think ‘I’m really starting to understand how the Aborigines feel!’ As in The Castle, an unsteady hope prevails in Terra Nullius, but is incomplete without also seeing Darryl Kerrigan’s (and non-Indigenous readers’) own, unwitting colonial violence.

Now is the moment for Terra Nullius. Like its titular legal concept, speculative racial fiction is rooted in the political struggles of the late twentieth century and is contesting them into the twenty-first.. Also like its titular concept, Terra Nullius shows us that speculative fiction is looking for its own future as a mode of understanding the present – as the present becomes less and less believable. Terra Nullius gets me into a corner – it’s a damn good book that’s asking me, just how good is analogy for the purpose of racial allegory? From Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, to Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, to the experimental ‘sov-apocalyptic’ work of Hannah Donnelly, this is a question that new works of speculative fiction are considering as it becomes more apparent (or at least more visible) in the mainstream that the apocalyptic moment is racialised.

Although this is hardly new, race is again at the centre of mounting mainstream anxieties about the end of ‘as we know it’: climate change disappearing whole nations; dystopic police violence; economic precarity with eerie, slick PR; escaping war through the waters surrounding southern Europe and Oceania. All are urgent enough to not ignore – but so pressing, contested and real that they are difficult to write about without some degree of abstraction. In ABC and SundanceTV’s Cleverman, for instance, Indigeneity and racial persecution finds an additional dimension in the creation of the Hairy People. In the US, Derrick Bell’s The Space Traders’ Solution, is a seminal speculative critical legal text that qualifies the very dystopic procedural brutality paid to secure white Utopia. White nation states trade Black communities to alien species to secure their own triumph.

More recently, the concept album by Afrofuturist hip-hop artists clipping. Splendor and Misery seems to stretch Bell’s horror to its uneasy end, making a rebel ex-slave in deep space its launch point for depicting colonial fatalism and hope. In 2017 Splendor and Misery was nominated for the Hugo Prize for Science Fiction, the first album to be so nominated.  It entertains a post-racial Earth unified by alien invasion, just like the second half of Terra Nullius. In Splendor and Misery, Kuba creation stories that suggest whiteness is borne out of a sickly god balance the apocalyptic spreadsheets to punish the beneficiaries of chattel slavery – who are made chattel slaves themselves by alien force. Those critical texts, and Terra Nullius, follow a scholarly responsive tradition in which racial minorities, but especially Indigenous groups, are well versed.

In Terra Nullius, the selfsame cruelties inflicted on Indigenous peoples – Stolen Generations; language death; frontier massacres; land theft; disruption of means of sustenance; total contempt by benevolent societies; slavery and internment – are turned to peoples whose racial subjectivity is unclear. In the first narrative half, the stories are familiar enough as to create blak/white binaries. In the second, race remains ambiguous (only Aboriginal characters are clearly racialised – even then, only few), but species steps in as a proxy. The victimisation, Alien Settler ministries assert, is mutual across humanity. It even results in such a degree of miscegenation that all Australian humans, save a remote few, are raceless. This reflects the artificial homogenisation of Indigenous cultures under colonisation, and responsive changes to identity and community in reaction to atrocity.

All the same, as Coleman’s fictionalised archival excerpts have it, Settlement takes place in a few decades’ time, in which time it is clear, at least to me, that our first colonising force had yet to be resolved. It is this lack of reparation, amends, even the possibility of justice for that, as if white suffering could tie them to the land as sovereigns, that haunts the representation. In analogising race so that settler readers might see difference, race is lost. Responsibility, too.

And what is the purpose of ‘race, but not as we know it’? Is it to build empathy – the blithely-praised storying act restoring humanity to those who white Australia builds upon or drives to the fringes? Empathy itself has its limits, and few nuances can survive in an empathetic appeal to the mainstream. Imagining ourselves feeling the same brutality that’s inflicted on someone else drives few to stop it – especially when those at the centre imagine themselves passive, or see few alternatives. Coleman does better than empathy – but I’m not confident her readers will.

Terra Nullius ought not be burdened – as works by so many Indigenous authors disproportionately are – with healing those deep scars it depicts. Deliciously, Coleman withholds just enough of the required narrative resolution. No one is coming for the Natives. Many die, and in detail. Their rebellion is quashed. Everyone has a leaden story of tragedy. Only small, concessional, strategic victories are achieved. Troops are withdrawn from the drier parts of the continent. Rebellions and their accomplice landscapes make the sheer scale of Australian enslavement unprofitable. A few Settlers are redeemed by their deaths in defence of Natives. Perhaps Terra Nullius’ most triumphant resolution – and its most hopeful push against the colonial frame – is the steady and resolute emergence of a young woman leader, and her determination to save only herself and regroup, to recoup what is left and rebuild with Indigenous (not only Human) peoples outside of the Settler gaze. And hence, beyond the gaze of the reader who closes the book on its smart, loose threads.

Coleman also subtly proposes Indigenous ways of doing and being as central to colonial rebellion and Native reconstruction – succumbing to and working with Country, deferring to Elders as a governance structure. Even survival techniques, the meat of any survivalist narrative such as this, speak back to colonial tropes of Australia as a hot waterless hellscape. Terra Nullius draws from the early frontier, where settlers go mad seeking water to no avail, and repeatedly demonstrates that the only way to survive is to respect the land and those mobs whose knowledges intertwine with it .

Terra Nullius suggests a surprising, and (unsurprisingly) more sophisticated, instruction manual for hope than the balmy reconciliation that is expected of Indigenous narratives addressing race relations. So, too, is it more galvanising and less patronising than the tragic end so often written into narratives of the colonial apocalypse by its ‘victors’ – like the bloodletting, defeatist trauma of Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. In building this model of hope, Coleman diverts from recent resurgences in white Australian speculative fiction, which are often so preoccupied with the ennui of individual suffering in global tragedy, or with the systemic catastrophe of tragedy itself, that their own fatalism on both runs amok and no diversionary link is made. And as will be unsurprising to many Indigenous readers – that neglected linkage is Country and Indigenous peoples themselves. It is not the redeeming linkage, nor a reconciliatory one, that plagues Australian apocalyptic literature. Those sentimental gestures become burdened with anxiously making good with the land as a method for the survival of the colony. Terra Nullius is not that, or at least, not as we know it.

This is my reading. Coleman’s skilful play with contextual cues and decontextualisation opens up many interpretive possibilities. Just as Coleman’s braid of characters make many lenses available, so too are their many stories available as exploratory vehicles for the reader throughout the whole of the collection. This is especially impressive, given Coleman’s specific and meticulous attention to faux-historical material. no muted euphemisms on the violence of colonisation, or of rebellion. Her Troopers are relentless, sociopathic and bloodthirsty; her victims, slaughtered with sickening detail.  Her set ambiguity on the timelessness of this story in some way forces her to minimise or euphemise those technological features that make this second colonisation possible. Only when necessary do the guns and Flyers emerge – and never unduly, and never without their own compelling history. Coleman’s fictional archive even makes useful, teachable comparisons to the rapid development of war technologies in conflict-dense Europe as a substitution for glancing, uncritical narrative descriptions about Settler advancement. Terra Nullius could as easily be Europe, and the equation fills in any gaps in a reader’s comparative imagination. The fact that there are gaps acknowledges some degree of shared communal knowledge that can go unspoken on the subject of colonisation, and draws our feet back to this reflective exercise about the now. It barely matters when the novel is set. Present or new colonisation – this is the apocalyptic moment. Just as we know it.

For a work in a genre so preoccupied with the future, Coleman’s skilful creation of a future history signals Terra Nullius’ principal diversion from Australian colonial and speculative literature – by placing the past and present at its centre while looking forward, it can truly be timeless. Make no mistake, Terra Nullius has a prodigious Noongar author, but is not an empathy or feel-good read about Indigenous peoples. It is an ambitious mirror for settler Australia – by no means prophetic, but revelatory. Coleman is unflinching. Jacky, fleeing, tracing with every step how deprived the non-Indigenous claim to dominion on this continent is – frightened, dehydrated, always on the precipice of being uprooted.