Terra Nullius is a powerful re-imagining of Australia's violent and oppressive past.
Jacky, a male youth, is on the run. He’s on the run from the Troopers, part of the colonial police force, well known for their human rights abuses.
This is a familiar Australian colonial narrative – invasion, brutality, dominance. Or so you would think. Half way through the novel, however, the reader learns that we are not reading about events that have happened in the past. The year is actually 2041 and something quite unthinkable has happened to Australia.
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North Melbourne Books talks to Claire G. Coleman
North Melbourne Books: Jacky, a male youth, is on the run from the colonial Troopers. He’s escaped Sister Bagra’s mission, where he’s been working essentially as a slave. He is pursued by Sergeant Rohan, well known for his cruelty and hatred of the Natives. This is a familiar Australian colonial narrative – invasion, brutality, dominance. Or so you would think, but half way through the novel it becomes clear we are not in colonial Australia. This is Australia in the near future.
Terra Nullius is both familiar and discombobulating, holding up a mirror to Australia’s
violent history. How did you get the idea for the plot?
Claire G. Coleman: In 2015 I was travelling through my Grandfather’s Country, to discover more about my past, to the town where he was born, Ravensthorpe Western Australia. When I was there I was invited, by the local historical society, to the opening for a memorial park, to memorialise the massacre that happened not far from the town. My ancestors’ extended family were swept up in that massacre, there were few survivors.
After that event I was left in a confused and unsettled state, I understood the brutality of
the invasion of Australia in a way I hadn’t before. I wanted everybody to be as unsettled
as me, as discombobulated (I love that word) as me, I wrote Terra Nullius in an attempt to
achieve that. The story and device I used to achieve that came to me in a rush, along with
the title. I can’t remember the moment it came to me, once it happened it was like it had
been there, in my head, forever.
NMB: Your novel really elicits the reader’s empathy. Every page makes you think and feel
deeply about what it must have been like for Indigenous people suffering colonisation.
What do you hope the reader will take away from the story?
CC: Empathy was all it was about. What I was thinking every moment I wrote, for every word I
placed in the story, “how do I provoke empathy”. I am glad my novel has elicited empathy,
for that was my intent and it is gratifying I if I have achieved any of that at all. I want
people to know how it felt to be colonised, or invaded. Maybe if people can understand
some of what it felt like to be invaded, dispossessed and oppressed they can help us all
bring an end to the colonisation that continues even today. I would love it if everyone who
reads Terra Nullius reacted by fighting with us to end racism, to stop Indigenous
disadvantage and maybe even bring about a treaty.
NMB: In the author’s notes for the novel you list some of your influences for Terra Nullius. The novel has a strong science fiction component. Do you have any favourite science fiction authors?
CC: I mostly love books, rather than authors. Frankenstein is one of the greatest books ever
written. It comes from a time when there was no such thing as the genres we speak of. It
was not horror, even though it had horrific elements, it was not sci-fi, although it had a
strong sci-fi bent – I believe it is more sci-fi than horror. It was literature, because all
The same can be said of War of the Worlds and 1984, by existing before the existence of
the genres as we know them they could use speculative elements without being shoe-
horned into “science fiction” or relegated to the “genre fiction” shelves. Sometimes the
genres and categories that are used for marketing seem somewhat arbitrary.
The authors I do love are those who blur the lines between science fiction and literature.
J. G. Ballard wrote in both Speculative Fiction and Literary Fiction and it seems to me that
he had no respect for the line between them. Sheri S. Tepper was shelved with Sci-fi early
in her career and got stuck there even though her works skirted close to and often crossed
the line between sci-fi and literature. Sometimes I have a hard time understanding why
Margaret Atwood, who I respect greatly, is in Literary Fiction and Sherri S. Tepper, who I
respect just as strongly, was always shelved in “genre fiction”
NMB: You wrote your novel while travelling around Australia in a caravan. What was that
experience like (it sounds like a whole other book!) and did it influence the writing
CC: Writing while travelling in a caravan is both easier and harder than most people would
imagine. It’s harder because there are things that eat your time and leave less time for the
actual writing. Every daily task takes longer than it does when not travelling and there are
the constant minor repairs to the car and caravan. Most of the time I travelled every day
which ate a big chunk of time just in itself. It’s easier because I didn’t have to look far for
inspiration, it was outside the windscreen all day, it was in the places I stopped and slept, it
was in the information plaques at historical sites, in the people I met. It was in the land
It was a massive and constant influence on the writing process and on the book. Most of
the characters are travelling for big chunks of the story, I didn’t even notice that when I
wrote it because travelling was my default state, it was completely normal. The
landscapes I travelled in were characters in the work as well as being analogous for the
emotional state of the story’s characters.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
CC: I am a bit of a book monogamist, I don’t like trying to read more than one book at a time.
At the moment I am really enjoying Why I’m No Longer Speaking to White People About
Race by Renni Eddo-Lodge if “enjoying” is the right word with that book. It is not a
pleasant book, it is about an unpleasant topic, racism, but it is a very important book.
I have also started Common People by Tony Birch, being a collection of short stories I can
consume the book in smaller bites. The stories Tony revealed in that book illuminate the lives of people you might not normally speak to, the people whose stories are normally
Terra Nullius, by Claire G. Coleman. Published by Hachette. RRP: $29.99