We had the special opportunity to chat with Claire G. Coleman about her debut novel Terra Nullius, which was shortlisted for this year’s Reading Women Award for fiction. Coleman’s skillful use of science fiction elements enhances her story, causing readers to recognize the alien as something all too familiar. Terra Nullius possesses a universal impact and stands as one of the best novels addressing colonialism that we’ve ever read.
Terra Nullius is your debut novel, and you’ve had a whirlwind publishing story. Could you tell us a little about what the journey was like to have your book published?
I was traveling when I conceived of the idea that was to become Terra Nullius and there was no way, nor desire at that time, to stop the trip. Therefore, I wrote the work while on the road with no belief it would be published. When I was phoned to inform me I had won the Black&Write! Fellowship, that would eventually lead to publication, I was so excited I cried.
Since then, my journey has indeed been a whirlwind; Terra Nullius was published and did better than I had expected and better than I believed I deserved. A year after the Australian release, I still sometimes want to pinch myself; it all seems so unbelievable.
Terra Nullius (Latin for “nobody's land”) is such a charged and devastating term in Australian history. Was this the title you always had in mind for your novel?
I had been searching for a way to challenge Terra Nullius as a concept from the beginning, and in my novel, I believe I discovered that way. Surprisingly, though, the title was not there before the idea. I thought of the way to tell the story first, and Terra Nullius was a working title I came up with. I worked on the novel with that working title, thinking the title was a bit much and trying to think of something new.
Later I came to believe it was the only title possible.
Your novel has been nominated for several awards and positively reviewed all over the world. What do you hope that international readers take away from Terra Nullius? How does this differ from what you hope Australian readers take away from it?
I had always considered Terra Nullius as a targeted empathy bomb aimed at non-Indigenous Australian culture and thinking. However, I have been told that I have managed to universalize the story and the issues. What I hope people take from it, no matter where they are from, is empathy for the plight of Indigenous and First Nations people all around the world. Colonization was not remotely pleasant for First Nations people anywhere it occurred.
Many of the scenes in the novel draw heavily on Australian history, particularly in terms of race relations and conflicts, but you approach them with a science fiction lens. What made you decide to use this format to tell the story?
Speculative fiction has always been used to make political points. Part of its strength is that it can sneak politics into the very design of the universe the author uses and therefore the message is hard to avoid. I had always intended to use a spec-fic, sci-fi lens; I believe it’s the most powerful platform available.
The experiences of your Indigenous characters are harrowing and yet not too dissimilar from what many Indigenous people have experienced throughout Australian history. How did you go about researching these stories and how did you decide which ones to include?
I did not really need to research. Every Indigenous family has horror stories; every Indigenous Australian knows at least one true horror story. All I had to do was listen. Additionally, I was travelling at the time and by paying attention the stories were just there—in plaques at memorial monuments, in the names of places, in the leaflets in information centers. It would have been harder to block them out than find stories.
Terra Nullius contains so many memorable characters. Did your original vision for the story contain all the characters that make it into the final version? How much was Jacky, for example, an essential part of the story's early development and ultimate message?
The only character there from the beginning was Jacky. Although a lot of other stuff happens it's Jacky who is the thread that draws the story together. The other characters revealed themselves to me when they were needed.
What Indigenous Australian authors or books would you recommend that more international readers pick up?
There are so many great Indigenous Authors that it's hard to name just a few without leaving someone out. However, here's a partial list of amazing books:
· Bruce Pascoe, particularly his incredible Dark Emu
· Alexis Write, whose Carpentaria was incredible
· Kim Scott, who writes prose like nothing I have ever seen before, read it all
· Tony Birch, who offers a lens into the world of the abjected
· Ally Cobby-Eckermann whose poetry is achieving worldwide recognition
Are there any projects you’re working on right now that you would like to share?
I am editing my second novel and writing the first draft of the third. The second novel is slated for release in Australia in August 2019. It's a speculative fiction work based on the treatment of “Black Diggers,” First Nations soldiers who fought for Britain even though they were not citizens of the colony.
Claire G. Coleman is a Noongar woman whose family have belonged to the south coast of Western Australia since long before history started being recorded. She writes fiction, essays and poetry while (mostly) traveling around the continent now called Australia in a ragged caravan towed by an ancient troopy (the car has earned "vintage" status).
Born in Perth, away from her ancestral country she has lived most of her life in Victoria and most of that in and around Melbourne.
During an extended circuit of the continent she wrote a novel, influenced by certain experiences gained on the road. She has since won a Black&Write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship for that novel, Terra Nullius. Terra Nullius was published in Australia by Hachette Australia and in North America by Small Beer Press.