Born in Western Australia, Indigenous author Claire G Coleman was raised in a Forestry’s settlement outside of Perth and identifies with the South Coast Noongar people, as well as having family ties to the Hopetoun and Ravensthorpe areas. Coleman rose to prominence after winning the Queensland State Library’s prestigious black&write! Fellowship for the bold and unique manuscript that would eventually become Terra Nullius. Written on the road as she travelled across the country, Terra Nullius is Coleman’s debut novel.
Interviewer: Samuel Elliott
The origins of Terra Nullius are embedded in the real-life massacres of First Nations people in colonial Australia which have largely been omitted from white historical accounts. Did you research these massacres in addition to drawing upon your own family history?
I was already largely aware of the history of massacres, most Aboriginal people are. I did do some research during the writing of Terra Nullius, while I was travelling around. A lot of my research was reading, and a lot of that reading was fiction: that is often how the truth of our history has been encoded. I also just talked to people — many Indigenous people hold family history stories of massacres. The stories of massacres are everywhere: in history books, in artist’s statements inside visual art galleries, at information bays, and thinly disguised on historical plaques. All you have to do is pay attention and look everywhere, and you can learn much of the hidden or ignored history of Australia.
I was careful to not directly reference anyone else’s family history because I have no right to those stories. The closest I got to anyone’s stories were the stories I grew up with, mostly stories of my Country and the massacres there. There were stories of massacres from my childhood and youth, stories my dad told me, that were horrific. Many years later I discovered those stories were about my Country, my family.
Was examining such horrific cases of genocide what first drew you to writing Terra Nullius? How did your family history shape your writing?
My grandfather was born in Ravensthorpe, Western Australia, in our ancestral Country. It was when visiting there for my birthday, with my parents, that I was invited to the opening of a memorial park for the victims of the massacre twenty or so kilometres out of town. It was there, right then, that the idea that was to become Terra Nullius dropped, almost complete, into my brain. So, a massacre that almost certainly included my own extended family, the family of my ancestors, was the story that inspired Terra Nullius. The work would not have existed, I believe, without my family history.
Despite writing a novel detailing much of Australia’s barbaric past, you remain even and impartial in your telling throughout, not uniformly demonising all white people collectively — was that difficult to maintain at times?
Sometimes it was very difficult but it was necessary to maintain that balance as I wanted the white reader to see themselves in the Settlers in my novel. If those Settlers were too sinister, too evil, it would never work. I loved my characters and discovered motivations in their behaviour that made them more complicated. I do not believe that evil characters enjoy being evil or set out to be evil. I believe solidly that everyone who does something evil holds a conviction that what they are doing is the right thing to do. In the mind of every villain is the belief that they are the hero.
Once it is understood that every evil character believes they are good it’s imperative to treat them with respect and an even hand.
It also helped me to understand something that I knew intellectually but didn’t feel. Despite all the evil done by white people when they colonised the world, not one of those people was evil. Those people thought they were heroes, good-guys, they thought they were doing the ‘right thing’. They seem to have genuinely believed they were bringing civilisation to the savages, they were taming a wilderness, they were protecting their civilisation from uncivilised outsiders.
Do you feel that Australia is starting to acknowledge its horrific past, filled with countless acts of genocide and massacres? Or do you feel that this is still hidden in shame?
Much of it, too much of it, is still hidden in shame. Other parts are coming to light. For example, The Ravensthorpe Historical Society built a memorial to the massacre at Coconarup, just out of town, a pretty strong acknowledgement of the massacre. In other cases acceptance that these massacres happened is still forthcoming. I do believe though that times are changing; maybe soon Australia will be ready to accept the truth about the invasion of this continent.
That was part of the motivation behind the writing of Terra Nullius. I wanted to provoke empathy for my people in the hearts and minds of non-indigenous people. If I succeeded in that mission it would also change how people view the massacres, how they view the entire history of the nation of Australia.
Still related to that, do you feel that contemporary Australian fiction continues to white-wash history?
To be honest, I don’t read a whole lot of historical fiction written by white people. I do believe there was a higher tendency to white-wash history in the past than there is now. Writers of historical fiction do seem to be more aware, now, that there was a brutal history in Australia, that the past was an ugly place, that their people massacred and tormented my people.
Rather than white-washing the past there is a tendency to white-wash the present, a tendency to ignore the existence of non-white characters despite the fact that we clearly exist.
Were there any earlier novels or authors that inspired your writing of Terra Nullius?
There are many earlier works I find inspiring. War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells is great in giving an understanding of how to show an overwhelming powerful enemy destroying a less well-armed defender. In fact, War of the Worlds is a powerful text for the examination of invasion and colonisation.
I also read a lot of indigenous fiction. Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara is awesome; that, and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, were influences for my character Jacky. The works of Kim Scott, set in my ancestral Country, helped me understand how to talk about those environments. Kim also taught me to be fearless with language; his writing is fiercely powerful. That’s just the start: I am a compulsive reader and there are doubtlessly many works that influenced me, so many that I could never name them all.
Much of your prose reads like poetry and you have cited poetry as an influence. What is it about poetry that resonates and inspires you to write? What’s different about it to say, more standard long-form prose?
I’m glad you think my novel reads like poetry, I wanted it to read like that. I’m a fan of verse novels and they were an influence on my language.
Poetry, to me, is all about finding a way to express emotions in as elegant a way as possible. However, poetry is usually a lot shorter than prose. Even verse novels, those niche minority works, are not as dense as prose, although they have their own soaring elegance.
Writing Terra Nullius was hard because I wanted it to have that poetic feel yet also retain the density of prose, without bogging it down. It sometimes seemed impossible to balance elegance, density and simplicity, but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.
Are there any poets, contemporary or otherwise, Australian or international, that particularly inspire you? What is it about them that inspires you so much?
I’ve been a fan of Dorothy Porter for a very long time. A lot of my obsession with elegance and beauty in language comes from my love of her sparse minimalist works. There are many contemporary poets in Australia, many of whom are my friends, who are a constant source of inspiration. I write poetry but I am constantly surprised by how prolific some of my friends are and how powerful their verse can be.
Poetry, more than any other form of literature, is all about words, the beauty of words, and their ability to express feelings. That is the power of poetry: it’s beautiful and expressive in a way that other forms are not. Writing poetry, reading poetry, both have made me a better writer.
Considering how much you love poetry, how difficult was it for you to write Terra Nullius in novel form? Did you encounter any particular challenges?
Although I always intended to use poetic language, I had also always intended Terra Nullius to be a novel. It was easier to write a novel than I thought it would be; in a way, I find writing poetry much more difficult, as much as I love it. I have enough poetry stored away in boxes and computer files for more than one collection, and I’ve even had a couple of poems published in a journal. I would love to publish a full collection of poetry one day but at the moment I acknowledge that I have been doing better at prose. I have to admit I am surprised at that.
Could you tell us a bit more about your process? Did you find that the story of Terra Nullius changed much during the editing stage?
I wrote in a frenzy, almost in a fever. The story almost wrote itself, but it was my first novel so, as you would expect, there were some problems, mostly with the punctuation, and some of my language needed to be clearer. I suppose a lot of that came down to lack of experience. There were also a couple of minor issues in the structure and timeline, mostly caused by the interwoven stories. However, the story changed less in the editing process than I would have expected: some scenes were moved around but not in a way that changed the overall arc.
You wrote the novel while you were travelling around Australia in a caravan — what did that involve? Was there a daily set word limit?
It wasn’t so much a daily word limit, but more a case of doing as much as I could, when I could. I was getting up at 5 every morning and writing till about 7 — that was if we were moving every day, but if we weren’t moving, I’d write more. Then we’d break camp and set up again. I found it very productive. It seemed that my brain worked best at that time of morning, my thoughts were clearer and faster.
Did you find that the story was shaped by the travelling?
I wrote Terra Nullius while travelling because I first developed the idea for the novel while travelling around the country. I didn’t want to stop travelling just because I had this great idea, so I had to do both things, write and travel, at the same time. Because the vision was created while travelling, I don’t think it’s possible that my travels could not have changed the story. Certainly, many of the characters are travelling, and while that is significant it is not a departure from the idea behind the work — in fact, my travels made it easier to give my characters the sense of personal displacement they needed to make the novel work.
Travelling up the West Coast I saw amazing things and met amazing people, and they would tell me their stories. Every experience had a hand in shaping the story. I’m not sure I would’ve been able to write the same novel without the journey.
Do you think that Indigenous authors are starting to get a long-denied platform within prominent mainstream literature in Australia?
It does seem a bit that way; there seems to be an increase in the publication, and also in the recognition, of Indigenous writers. There’s still quite a way to go though, and there are still great stories by First Nations authors that are not getting their chance to be read. Projects like the black&write! Fellowships go some of the way towards redressing the lack of platform, the lack of opportunities for First Nations writers.
I know that things are better now but I continue to hope things will improve even more.
When I saw the squalor they lived in, without any of the conveniences that make our lives better, dirty and seemingly incapable of being clean, I was horrified. When I discovered they had intelligence I was surprised. When I was told their souls had not been saved I resolved to do something about it.
— THE REVEREND MOTHER MARY SANTESLOSH
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 heave of his breath, the hammering of his heart were the only sounds in his world. Through the film of tears and stinging, running sweat in his eyes there was nothing to see, only a grey, green, brown blur of woodland rushing past. Jacky was running. Other days he had felt joy at the speed, at the staccato rhythm of his feet, but not today. There was no space in his life for something as abstract — as useless — as joy. Only a sense of urgency remained. Jacky was running.
Sister Bagra paced the oppressively dark, comfortably stuffy halls of her mission in silent, solitary contemplation. She was dedicated to her duty, to bring faith to these people, if they could be called people; to bring religion, to bring education to these savages. An almost completely thankless task, a seemingly pointless, useless task. The recipients of her effort seemed totally incapable of appreciating what was being done for them, even going so far as resenting her help.
No matter how much she questioned the validity of the task at hand, it mattered not. She twisted, writhed, fought like a hooked eel, trying to throw off the pointy bit of steel in its mouth, inside her head where nobody else could see. She moaned, bitched and complained behind her nearly always expressionless visage, careful to ensure nobody else would ever know about it. She would persevere, she would fulfil her duty to the best of her ability.
They may be out in the middle of nowhere, there may be nobody to see them bar the ubiquitous Natives, but that was no reason to allow decorum to slide. The walls glowed faintly; an observer would guess rightly that in daylight they were a blinding pure white. The sort of white that hurts your eyes if you are foolish enough to stare at it for too long. There would not be a speck of dirt on the walls, no sand on the floor, no scuffs, nothing to demonstrate that the building was used. An army of hands kept her halls spotless.
Her robes, her habit was too thick, too stiff, too warm for this ridiculously hot place, yet to not be dressed in the full dress of her Order was unthinkable. She would never suffer a lowering of the standards of any of the women under her command, and she was always far harder on herself than she was on them. Far better to pray, again, and then again that the weather in this godforsaken place where she had found herself would get better, get cooler, or wetter. Her role, her duty was to suffer through discomfort if needs be; her job was to be disciplined, to teach discipline, to bring the Word to the ungodly, so suffer she must.
There was no escaping the certainty that she did not belong in this place, it was too hot and too dry and the food — the quickest way to earn her ire, the easiest way to unleash her famous temper was to mention the food. Certainly, there were local plants and animals that the savages seemed to relish, but surely she could not be expected to actually eat them. Attempts were being made to grow crops from home but they were hampered by the lack of rain and lack of farming expertise.
So many people kept arriving: troopers, shopkeepers and merchants, missionaries and thieves. What they needed was just one decent farmer.
Over half the colony were still totally reliant on rations delivered by ship from home, and what arrived was barely edible after the months of transit. Most of it was barely edible before it even left home, after what they had to do to make it survive the trip. Once it arrived at the colony it still had to be transported overland in the heat to the mission. The food, don’t get her started about the food. Stopping suddenly as if startled, she listened. She could hear the susurrus of voices — no intelligible words, just the faintest of tiny noises like the scurrying of the infernal mice that infested this unlivable hellhole no matter what measures they took to eliminate them. Wrapped in the comfort of her accustomed silence she followed the faint, bare trace of sound, finally tracking it down to the correct door.
Talking after lights out, and in that jabber as well — that nonsense the Natives use instead of language. Will the little monsters never learn?
She opened the door and slipped through it, the hems of her neat pressed habit cracking like a whip with the speed; she moved so fast she was almost invisible. Two children were kneeling beside their beds whispering prayers to whatever primitive god, or gods, they worshipped. Surely they were newcomers to the mission school if they knew no better.
They would soon know, that much was certain; both would be in solitary before dawn. Why wait, why not this instant?
She dragged the little animals by their too thick, too curly hair, chastising them in a constant hissing monotone, ignoring their screamed, unintelligible complaints. They had fallen before she had dragged them through the kitchen courtyard, past the new plantings she had been eyeing earlier that day in anticipation of their future fruit. The dead weight of the children was no hindrance to Bagra in her fury, they left two uneven runnels in the gravel and dust. At the far side of the dusty red-brown courtyard, past the straggling green, yellow, brown weeds that needed pulling by the too-lazy Natives, was a neat line of three sheds. They were rough but strong, constructed of sheets of iron and local wood, barely the size of kennels. Two of them she opened, the bolts sliding with a snick like a drawing blade, and the windowless doors were yanked ajar. The screech of the doors opening was even louder than the wailing of the children as they were each in turn dumped unceremoniously in a box.
Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman is published by Hachette Australia, RRP $29.99. Purchase your copy here.
Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based freelance literary and entertainment reporter. Having previously worked for The Australia Times, Elliott now produces a broad range of work for numerous publications in both digital and print. He currently divides his time between two jobs in the television industry and readying his next novel for publication. Find more of his work here.