Research has shown that reading novels improves empathy. Terra Nullius certainly does just that. If you want to understand – on an emotional level – the history and current plight of modern-day Australian aboriginals, this is a good place to start.
The first half of Claire G Coleman’s award-winning debut novel is written in such a way that you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a story of the 1788 British invasion of Australia.
Except it’s not the past. And the British are not the invaders.
Through tiny details drip-fed throughout the first hundred-odd pages we come to understand that the time is now. The displaced people of Australia – both white and black – stand equally broken under the oppression of the colonisers.
Of course – the settlers don’t mean to be cruel, you must understand. They simply don’t consider the inhabitants of Australia to be particularly intelligent… or making good use of the land. The well-intentioned colonisers figure they can simply educate the natives so they can be useful. You know, like servants. Except that it’s so much easier to educate and civilise them if the natives join a mission school from a younger age. And of course, they must cut off all contact with their parents.
Any of this sounding familiar yet?
What I thought of it
Terra Nullius is disturbing and confronting. It is, however, utter compelling. Coleman’s characters absolutely leap off the page at you.
Sister Bagra runs a mission for native children. She’s an utter sociopath – in one scene she’s just thrown terrified small children into solitary lockups barely the size of dog kennels. And yet she’s primarily concerned with HER ability to withstand ‘this terrible place’.
And then there’s the so-titled ‘Protector’ of the natives, nicknamed the ‘Devil‘ who truly appears to believe that he’s helping natives by stealing their children and enslaving them:
There was nothing to like about the job except the satisfaction he received from helping the Natives to help themselves. Natives raising their own children to the primitive ways they lived before he came, that is unacceptable, they would have to be elevated. The school would help elevate the Natives.
Jacky is a runaway native who becomes an icon to his oppressed fellow Australians. All through his hellish life – first on a mission, then in virtual slavery – he’s told himself:
I am Jacky, he thought, I belong somewhere, I had a family once, I have a family who misses me. This litany played over and over in his head. I have a family, I have a family, I am Jacky.
Esperance and her starving group of fleeing refugees are desperate to escape being enslaved. Her experience echoes that of modern refugee camps. This is the rarely told story of the colonised rather than the colonisers:
Everybody there had come from somewhere else, thrust together, unintentionally, by the Settlers who had merely pushed them away from their homes, expanding to cover more country. Others had arrived there running in terror, barely escaping the violence that had killed everybody they knew.
Over the years the camp had grown to over a hundred refugees, all malnourished, all dirty, destitute and homeless. Among them there was likely not one, not even a child, that did not relish a thought of returning ‘home’ one day, returning to wherever they had come from. Every child knew they did not belong there, on that dry riverbank although every child had been born right there in camp.
The stories of attempted escapes from slavery reminded me of the The Floating Theatre – a story of pre-Civil War America – except that these slaves have nowhere to run to. There will be no sympathetic reception on the other side of the Mississippi.
Blurring the line between history and future
The scene which causes Johnny Star – a settler – to abandon his military post and join the natives’ cause is horrific. It draws from established accounts of genocide, where the attackers do not consider their victims to be truly human:
He saw a woman shot, bent over her child to protect it, then a man shot bending over her to wail for her life. He saw death: death walking and death running, even death dancing. He saw death in the blades and death in fire and smoke.
Terra Nullius demonstrates the power of fiction to tell uncomfortable truths. Mixing narratives from the past and present, it projects the blend into a speculative future. The result is a novel which distances the reader from modern Australian politics while immersing the reader in the ongoing stark reality of the physical and psychological effects of being one of a dispossessed and oppressed people.
These lines, from Johnny Star, truly sent shivers down my spine in recognition of modern day Australia:
He had learned, through his friends, that the bent, broken drugged and drunk state of those surviving near the Settlements was not the habitual state of 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.
It’s not an easy read, but it’s certainly worthwhile.
Disclosure: I received a copy from the publisher for the purpose of review. This post contains affiliate links.
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