Sci-Fi Twist on Reconciliation


Terra coverClaire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius, Hachette Australia 2017
(304 pages)

$20 paper, $5 e-book

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Set in occupied Australia, Terra Nullius tells three inter-weaved stories: the first is a residential school for Natives run by Settler Nuns headed by a fearsome Mother Superior, Sister Bagra. In this school, Native children have been forcibly taken from their families and are given a basic education so that they will graduate to domestic service in Settler households.

The second story is the escape of Jacky from a similar place. Jacky is determined to find his birth family. He is told that they may be at the former town of Jerramungup, so proudly takes the name ‘Jacky Jerramungup’.

The third group of Natives live fearful lives in a series of squalid camps, always on the run and moving to a new location as the Settlers drive them into the desert. The only advantage of this is that the Settlers cannot live in the desert.

First-time novelist Claire Coleman, a West Australian Noongar, drops little hints that this is not the occupied Australia we know when the British Settlers occupied the land and treated the indigenous people with cruelty. About half-way through the book, she reveals that these Settlers come from a space-faring Empire, and these Natives are black and white survivors of their arrival.

The Settlers are nicknamed Toads by the Natives because they need moisture to survive. Because of the ever-present threat of Settler violence, the name ‘Toads’ is never used in their hearing.

The three main characters, Sister Bagra, Jacky and Esperance, the de facto leader of the ever-moving camp, are vividly drawn, as well as a big cast around them: Sergeant Rohan the indefatigable hunter of runaway Natives; Johnny Starr, the outlaw Settler whose little gang gathers up Jacky Jerramungup on their way to an eventual show-down with Settler power, and Father Grark the reluctant Inspector sent to Sister Bagra’s mission.

I liked Terra Nullius very much. An atmosphere of dread induced both by the Settlers and the difficulty of surviving in the desert pervades the book. The West Australian settings are familiar but changed. The characters are never reduced to caricatures: most Settlers genuinely believe that the Natives were not human; the Native characters are clear individuals.

The pacing is well-handled. Towards the end, I couldn’t put the book down I was so afraid for Jacky and Esperance, and with reason!

It is a didactic novel. I suspect that Australians sceptical of Aboriginal claims will not be convinced by its premise, and may even be annoyed by its ideas. However, it will appeal to people looking for reconciliation and deeper insights into our shared history, settler and native.

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Unmasking Humourless Powers


I salute my colleagues who were detained and strip-searched yesterday. I salute their courage, their grace and humour. Especially their humour. At the end of the day it is not they who stand naked and humiliated. It is the system that allows children to be indefinitely locked up in third world conditions.

I am outraged, but not surprised. Jarrad and Lorna, I know, have read Pace e Bene non-violence training; they have read Walter Wink; they have read Martin Luther King Jr. They know to expect the full response of the law if they go down the path of civil disobedience: fines, jail and all the police procedures that may go with them. They were prepared to pay the full price.

And they also know from their training that their opposition to the status quo will make it unstable, and their disobedience will provoke unexpected reactions. For their friends, it is distressing to see police attempt to humiliate them, but they are asking us to see beyond this.

Because what Lorna and Jarrad and their colleagues have achieved is to unmask the powers. For a moment we have glimpsed what Australia has become. We can thank the protestors for their courage in bringing to our attention not just the plight of asylum seekers and their children in detention, but the community attitudes that permit such cruelty.

The South African activist theologian Walter Wink points out that that the system cannot bear a sense of humour. Those who promote violence are enraged that they might be made fun of. A laugh is what makes us human. Those who stop us laughing must be stopped. #lovemakesaway