Claire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius (Hachette, 2017, 304pp, £13.99)
Reviewed by Jeremy M. Carnes (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)
Terra Nullius tells the story of the Settlers and their colonization of the Natives through all too familiar means. The novel follows various characters: Jacky, a Native on the run from the Settlers having escaped enslavement; Johnny, a Settler who has turned from the violent practices of colonial genocide and is fleeing with a small group of Natives; Esperance, a Native who, with her village, remains on the run and hidden from the Settlers; and Sister Bagra, a Settler in charge of a boarding school Jacky once attended. The stories of these, along with various secondary characters, weave in and out to create a tale of colonial power that is at once familiar and bizarre.
In the first half of the novel, the political context and exact relationship between the Settlers and Natives remains unclear. We receive no descriptions of either the Settlers or the Natives and thus are left questioning the specifics. Yet, the questions are quickly set aside as the novel turns its attention to the story of Jacky, who becomes the focal lens through which we experience the violence and, by association, fear of the Settlers. The lack of political specifics makes the novel analogous to narratives of historical fiction. Coleman further creates the historical feel through her use of epigraphs for each chapter which, though fabricated, mirror writing about the colonization and subsequent ‘civilization’ of indigenous populations globally. In many ways, Jacky’s story is the story of indigenous people around the world.
These analogies make sense given that Coleman identifies with the South Coast Noongar people in Australia. Her identification with Australian indigeneity coincides with many of the colonial practices she represents in Terra Nullius, most of which are similar to those implemented by the British Empire in the colonization of Australia and New Zealand. However, while this is not the story of the colonization of the Australian Aborigines, the similarities make clear that the base of settler colonialism is the same regardless of the colonial power. To take land, those in power must develop an ‘us’ versus a ‘them’, which necessitates the ‘civilizing’ of the ‘savage’ Native.
The second half of the novel introduces the science fiction twist, providing more detail on the relations between the Natives and the Settlers. By beginning the novel in the vein of historical fiction, Coleman is able to embed the entire narrative of interplanetary voyage in terms of colonialism, and thus highlight the concerns many indigenous peoples have with some science fiction. Thus, Terra Nullius becomes a book at once about historical understandings of settler colonialism, contemporary understandings of the continuity of settler colonial practices, and the pessimistic view of what the settler colonialism of the future could be. However, as much as the novel focuses on settler colonialism as a system of violence against indigenous peoples, Coleman also focuses on and masterfully transitions through both Settler and Native epistemologies. Primarily, her attention to specific ways of knowing the world, or worlds, happens through the shifting point of view in the novel. Each section focuses on the perspectives and beliefs of different characters as the narratives moves in time and space. It is in these moments that readers learn just how savage Sister Bagra believes Natives to be, or how worried Esperance is for her very elderly grandfather. Running beneath the surface of these epistemologies is one that guides the entirety of the novel, embodied in the narrator: a focus on place.
The narrator throughout Terra Nullius notably provides detailed descriptions of the landscape. From the desert to the rural towns and the bushland in between, the novel foregrounds a focus on land that is about more than just setting. Rather, as with many indigenous epistemologies, one can see in Coleman’s words the understanding that the land is able to give and to take. In many instances, characters die or are on the verge of death at the hands of an unforgiving environment. Yet, readers also see characters with a particular relationship to the harsh land who are able to make a living. By stringing together various epistemologies about peoplehood, community, and place, Coleman presents us with a debut that forces us to question our relationships to others, to land and to our own self-understanding.