Claire G. Coleman is a Wirlomin Noongar woman whose ancestral Country is in South Coast Western Australia. This interview is an exploration of her debut novel and speculative fiction masterpiece, Terra Nullius: A Novel.
Claire wrote her black&write! fellowship-winning manuscript Terra Nullius while travelling around Australia in a caravan. The novel went on to win the Norma K Hemming Award, and was shortlisted for The Stella Prize and Best Sci-Fi Novel in the Aurealis Awards. The work was also Highly Commended in the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards.
Claire and Astrid have previously spoken about speculative fiction, and you can listen to their panel (including Krissy Kneen, Pitchaya Sudbanthad and Michelle Tanmizi)) recorded at the Ubud Writers and Readers festival in 2019 here.
ASTRID: Welcome to The Garret, Claire.
ASTRID: Now, we have spoken once before on a recording for The Garret. We met at a panel session at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in 2019. If only we were back there, Claire, in this horrible, most horrible of years in 2020.
Today I'd really like to talk to you about Terra Nullius: A Novel. Now, this was your debut novel. It was very well-received. You were shortlisted for The Stella Prize, shortlisted for the Aurealis Award, longlisted for the Indie Book Awards, and highly commended in the Victorian Premiers Literary Award. Through that very long list of beautiful accomplishments, I personally think that Terra Nullius: A Novel is a masterpiece, and I think that it is a brilliant contribution to the contemporary speculative fiction canon. It's one of my favourite genres, and I adore the novel, personally.
CLAIRE: Thank you.
ASTRID: Before we dive into Terra Nullius – and I have so many questions for you, Claire – a broad question about your opinion of speculative fiction. And I ask, and I guess I'm asking in reference to After Australia, an anthology that was published in 2020 about Australia's potential futures. And in the back note by Lena Nahlous from Diversity Arts Australia, she actually writes of speculative fiction, ‘Speculative fiction has long been a site of resistance, casting light on our present oppressions, past injustices, and potential narratives of self-determination’. And I guess your thoughts, Claire, on speculative fiction and its power.
CLAIRE: The earliest speculative fiction existed mostly as a political form, as a way to make political statements and sneak them into people's consciousness without having to actively be didactic to people. The classic examples I can think of are War of the Worlds, 1984, even The Handmaid's Tale which is a lot later, they were all intentionally politically didactic, and hiding it as speculative fiction.
And I often think of Rod Serling who was the creator of The Twilight Zone who said – and I'll paraphrase as I don't remember his exact words – he said that the reason he writes his stories as science fiction or fantasy, or he writes them as fantastical, is because if he said what he wanted to say and made it realist, no one would actually put it on television. And that really is my philosophy on speculative fiction. It's a way to say things that otherwise no one will let you say, and that's how I've always used it.
ASTRID: So, I guess before we jump into Terra Nullius, we are going to have spoilers. So, if I ask a question Claire, don't hold yourself back. We're assuming that everybody listening has read Terra Nullius – and I think they should – and the reason we're doing that is this interview is going to be turned into teaching materials for Reading Australia and The Copyright Agency, and the goal being of course, to support Terra Nullius getting on the curriculum in Australia, and I so think it should be there.
But could I ask you to give a 30-second introduction to Terra Nullius?
CLAIRE: Terra Nullius is a speculative fiction retelling of the invasion of Australia in 1788, and I've written it in a way to universalise a story and brainwash my settler audience.
ASTRID: Now, let's start with Jacky. Jacky is I guess the hero of the novel. There are quite a few point of view and main characters, but Jacky is a central character. He was taken from his family when he was very young, he was put into a missionary school run by Settler nuns, taken from school, forced to work for them, he can't remember where he came from, and his only desire is to get home, to escape, to abscond, to find his home and find his freedom. Talk to me about Jacky and how he drives so much of Terra Nullius.
CLAIRE: Well, when I was writing Terra Nullius, it started as Jacky's story. The other stories were mainly there to drive Jacky's story along. And in the end, the way I saw him as a character was... The story was a patchwork quilt and Jacky was the thread that pulled all the patches together. So, it's similar to the way that Frodo is used in The Lord of the Rings, in that he is the protagonist so even when he's not actually actively in the story, it's all about him, really. It's all built up around the story of Frodo. Well, Jacky was like that. The whole narrative was built around his existence and about around what he does. And for me, his story was really a way to tell the story of the injustices to Aboriginal people. To do that, it was important that a character like Jacky be in the story, but I think it was important that he be the main story. And in a way, what was important was that he was somebody who was so much the Everyman that it could have literally been anybody.
ASTRID: So, you used Terra Nullius, I mean, we know from the title that you are going to make something very clear to us, if I can put it in general terms. But you use this novel to explore our past and very much comment on the present, and maybe what will continue to happen, or might happen. How much of that was your intention to start with? Or how much of that just naturally flows out of the story of Jacky and your storytelling, because you think about it?
CLAIRE: When I was writing Terra Nullius, well before I started writing Terra Nullius, I'd been wanting to write a novel, but didn't have any idea where to start. What I wanted to really do was find a way to unpack the story of the invasion and subsequent colonisation of Australia, and the maltreatment of Aboriginal people since then, in a way that would help people who had not experienced it or do not have family history to experience it from, would be more likely to understand what was going on.
So, the idea was to think of a way to tell that story, and of course, I couldn't work out how to do it until suddenly I could. Suddenly I knew how to do it, and once I did it, Terra Nullius almost wrote itself. It had a certain narrative force and inevitability in my own mind once I knew what I had to do. And in a way it was incredibly difficult to write, but also extremely easy to write, because it kind of pulled me in the story itself.
ASTRID: You just said narrative force and inevitability, and you know, every writer wants to write something with narrative force, and not every writer gets there, Claire. So, you have gotten there with Terra Nullius. You have that drive throughout, and from the moment the reader opens the first page and we meet Jacky, we are thrust into this story that, at least for me, took a grip on my mind and I couldn't really escape until I got to the end of your novel.
You just said that the novel wrote itself, but for those who are trying to unpick your words and your literary craft, how did that happen? Was it structure? Was it character? Was it plot? Or was it just, you knew what you had to say?
CLAIRE: What it really was, I had the... where it had to start, I knew when I started. I knew exactly what the twist in the middle had to be to make it work, and I knew how it had to end before I started. And I knew the character of Jacky, and I knew the character of Sister Bagra and Johnny Star. Once I had the beginning, middle and the end and those three characters, you put the character of Jacky or Johnny or Bagra into that landscape I was writing, into that story landscape with a beginning, middle and end. It's like they almost... I knew what they were going to do without even having to think about it. When I was writing, I knew what they were going to do next, because I knew them. And that was what the inevitability of was. The story had that position, that path, there was only one path that would make sense for the characters to do. And I think in a way that's why it worked, in a way I didn't really have to think about what I was writing. It thought about itself, in a way.
ASTRID: So, in my pile of handwritten notes in front of me, Claire, I have a page on Sister Bagra and a page on Johnny Star. So, let's start with Sister Bagra who we meet very near the beginning of the novel. She is a missionary. She is a nun, quite senior at least in the geography that she finds herself in. And she rules the nuns and the children in her care. She is despicable, to find a nice word to describe her. She's intrinsically racist and has this air of superiority that is hard to deal with. She's not a likeable character. And of course, she represents a viewpoint... I guess if we take colonisation, the history of colonisation in Australia, she is representing that idea of bringing civilization and bringing education, and it's a part of Australia's history and it's a despicable part of Australia's history, and Sister Bagra is the worst manifestation of that in Terra Nullius. Can you talk to me about her as the individual character, but also that role that she represents in the story?
CLAIRE: To me, Sister Bagra was actually one of my favourite characters.
ASTRID: I didn't like her at all!
CLAIRE: Well, you're not really supposed to like her, and I think what I like about her is… It comes down a lot to my personal theory on the nature of evil, which I've said before. And I've said this, I've done speeches on this at writers festivals and stuff. I've spoken about this multiple times. I don't believe there's such a thing as an evil person, only an evil act. And in fact, most of the evil that I've seen in history, look through the history books, most of the evil is not evil people, it's good people doing evil things.
And there's a saying, I can't remember who it's attributed to, but I've certainly picked up versions of it from reading the atheist books of Richard Dawkins, which is, it takes religion to get good people to do really, really evil things. [Laughter] And thinking about that, I was thinking about that and the history of Australia when the government historically could not afford to look after the missions, or the settlements where they put the natives, they locked up people in spaces in Moore River Settlement in WA, and places like that. When they couldn't afford any more to it, they handed these places to the Church to run. And the Church of course, filled them with missionaries. And they didn't do that because they wanted to do something good, what we would consider good. They thought they were doing good. What they were trying to do was teach religion to the natives. And in reality, what they were really doing was cultural genocide. But they thought they were doing the right thing.
To me, the reason I like Sister Bagra as a character is because she to me is a perfect personification of this idea of someone doing what they think is the right thing, and in reality doing some of the most evil, despicable acts you can imagine. As it's been said multiple times, even in Nazi Germany, a lot of the people doing really evil things didn't think they were doing anything wrong. They just followed orders, or they were doing what they thought was right for their people at the time.
And I think we need to accept the fact that… I think the idea that somebody does bad things because they're an evil person is a cop-out. It enables us to ignore the fact that good people are doing very bad things, and if somebody does something bad, we can think, that's because they're a bad person, without realising that any one of us if we're not careful about what we're doing, can be the person doing something bad. And that's kind of where she's coming from. She doesn't think she's evil. She thinks she's actually a really, really, really, truly, truly, lovely person, when in reality, her actions have turned her into a monster.
ASTRID: Behind her is this concept of a Church with its missionary mission shall I say, but the other nuns, including Mel the younger nun, I mean, they're not a monolithic force. They have different views. That doesn't mean that they are doing right things or good things, but they do approach I guess, the organisational imperative, or the imperative of their faith as they see it, in different ways, and some are I guess, less harsh individuals than others.
And you also make clear in the notes. Every chapter starts with a little note or a quote, or some form of history from this world that we find ourselves in, you know, exploring maybe the differences in the Church, or the differences in approach, so you're not presenting one view. But I mean, this is very clearly an analogy to Australian history, and colonisation, and it was at the missions that children were separated from their parents, ripped from their mothers, and essentially given a really shoddy and poor education to ‘civilise them’, and that's in quotation marks, for those listening, you can't see me, or assimilate, forced assimilation. I guess that is how I read your story, and I'm just checking with you that that is what you wanted me to read into the Church and the missions in this story.
CLAIRE: That's basically what it comes down to. What some people miss in Terra Nullius, is I with intent pointed out that, in reference to the fact that in our culture in the 19th century, in Anglo-Saxon culture 19th century, it was known... and the 18th century, it was known that the Church did not accept slavery, and neither did British law. And yet they enslaved Aboriginal people and knew they were doing it, and the Church helped them. Even though it was against their religion and against British law they did it anyway. And I made sure that I pointed that out in Terra Nullius, having these debates in the Settler Parliament over whether it was slavery or not. Because in Australia for some reason we have this myth that there was no such thing as slavery here. But I don't know what you call it when somebody is forced to work, isn't allowed to be paid, and can be arrested by the police and taken back to work if they leave. That's slavery.
For me, it was important to point out that even in the history of Australian colonisation, there was no monolithic settler culture. There was variation in the way people thought, but in the end it still led to the same destruction. The people who were anti-slavery in Australia in the 18th century – they didn't achieve anything to stop slavery. It still happened.
ASTRID: You definitely don't present any individual or any institutional force, shall we say, as a monolith in Terra Nullius. We've briefly mentioned Johnny Star, another hero I would say, in Terra Nullius: A Novel. Johnny Star is very different from Jacky. Introduce us to Johnny Star.
CLAIRE: Johnny Star was... I thought it was necessary to have a force from the Settlers to kind of represent to my audience, I suppose an example of what they should be – the person who's seen the evil and has become a good person. I wrote Johnny Star as the exact opposite of another character, Rohan, who is a Settler and Trooper, and a complete monster, to show the difference between whether or not you see the natives as humans, or as people. It determines how you feel you're allowed to treat them.
So, Johnny Star to me was what happens if the villain starts to humanise their victims. And that was all he was. And well of course, he turned into one of my favourite characters in the end. Originally, Bagra was my favourite, and then Johnny Star of course took over, because he's just, he's cool.
ASTRID: He is cool.
CLAIRE: He was essentially, I thought of what would happen if a Trooper realised that the people he was victimising as a Trooper were as deserving of his respect as his own people are, and the only thing would happen is become a bushranger. There would be no other response, he would became a rebel. And I expected that the readers would identify with either Jacky or Johnny or both, and most people do, and so in that way it kind of worked. And because he's supposed to be... that's intentionally why he's so cool. He's cool, so people want to be him.
ASTRID: Johnny is a Settler, but he is not a Settler at least as far as we know, or I picked up in the way that Rohan is. They are supposed to be the organising force, the police force of the Settlers. And as we read, we find out that yes, Johnny Star is now a Trooper, which he then rebels from and leaves, and becomes essentially a bushranger on the run. But we find out that he's only a Trooper because before he was sent to be a Settler, he was convicted of a petty crime that wasn't really his fault, and circumstance kind of required it of him, and for want of a better analogy, and correct me if I'm wrong Claire, he's kind of a convict. He's sent to be manpower in the settlement against his will.
CLAIRE: Yeah, he is a convict. And I suppose in a way it was a way to combine the Convict Settlers of Australia, who were, although they perpetrated evil against Aboriginal people, also were victims in another way, with the idea of the Troopers who... well, people who... Settlers who came here and became good guys. And they did exist historically. I think the idea of thinking of the Australian colonising and settling forces as universally or monolithically bad, I think that kind of gives human nature a massive discredit. I think there were certainly good people who came here.
And also, I was inspired by the fact that even in my own history, there's the case of the... a lot of the… A lot of the free settlers who came here – some of them did bad things, some of them did good things – were Irish victims of British colonisation. Let's not mince words here. The British have colonised Ireland over and over again, and a lot of the people who came here as free settlers or some came here as troopers, and a lot of people became bushrangers, were Irish, and they were victims of the English as much as Aboriginal Australians were. And I have Irish free settlers in my ancestries, it’s where my surname comes from.
So in a way, Johnny Star was kind of like one of those Irish scallywags who ended up here against his will. Certainly, there's nothing in the record to say that... there were troopers who were soldiers sent here as punishment, but in other colonial wars, that's happened. The French did it, America has done it, so it's not an uncommon thing to arrest somebody for petty crime and give him a choice: join the army or go to jail. So, I thought I'd throw that in, and it was a good way to make Johnny Star make sense, make his behaviour makes sense in a relatively short personal history.
ASTRID: Absolutely. You briefly mentioned another Trooper who is kind of the exact opposite of Johnny Star, and that is Trooper Rohan. I actually wrote down, because it was so affecting, Claire, a very short quote associated with Rohan. He is leading a small band of Troopers to go and find Jacky, and he has this feeling of superiority, and he's looking at the Troopers who are with him, and he's wondering about how much they want to hurt the natives. They want to do, and I quote ‘sanctioned killing’, because it brings them pleasure, and Australian history has those people in it. There were many massacres of Aboriginal people by White settlers, and by men in uniform setting out the colonial mission, and Rohan is very much a character who brings that into the story in a very realistic and terrible manner, I have to say.
CLAIRE: The important thing for me about Rohan is that although he's travelling with some guys who are only deputised because they want to hurt people, Rohan, he really doesn't give a shit. He is the sort of person who's doing bad stuff because it's his job, not because he wants to. He is completely cold, and he's doing evil because he doesn't care. And so, he's not actually... he's getting no passionate enjoyment out of killing people.
ASTRID: So, Claire, we just talked about three really significant characters. We've got Jacky, Johnny Star, and Sister Bagra. And you did mention the twist. And the twist is very much a spoiler, but I want to discuss it with you in detail right now. Tell us about the twist in Terra Nullius.
CLAIRE: I don’t normally talk about in the twist as you know, because it is an epic spoiler.
ASTRID: I did not see it coming the first time I read Terra Nullius, by the way.
CLAIRE: (Laughter) The twist is that after thinking for half the book, that it's the Aboriginal Australian being persecuted by White Australians, it's actually all of humanity being persecuted by aliens. And that was of course done in order to humanise the invasion. That's entirely why I did it. It universalised the story rather than it being... because like I said, the whole point of the novel was to find a way to universalise the experience of being colonised. And by making it an interplanetary invasion story, that universalised it for my audience. They could hopefully see themselves as the invaded, not as the invaders for a change.
ASTRID: I read a lot, Claire, and on those few pages where I realised the twist, and I realised that you'd essentially... you'd metaphorically grabbed me by the shoulders and were shaking me into realisation, and a different part of my brain switched on. I think you should have taken out all those awards I listed earlier, but it is a masterful piece of writing. It is masterful demonstration, at least to me as a reader, of what you can do with fiction, and particularly what a writer can do with speculative fiction. Because normally as soon as someone says aliens, no one pays attention, right? Or no one takes it seriously. But you use interplanetary war to basically show what humans have done to each other, and what White settlement in Australia did to the First Nations people on this continent. And you do it in such a beautiful literary manner.
CLAIRE: Thank you.
ASTRID: Terra Nullius has been published for a few years now. If I remember correctly, it came out in 2017. That's a few years for you to get feedback from readers and to have people share their experience of the twist, but also what they think of the story as a whole. What do people say to you?
CLAIRE: Well, the biggest shock of my life for the last three years has been that Terra Nullius has actual fans. In fact, some of them say that they're stans, they're Terra Nullius stans, which was a shock to me, because I'm just a person who was the conduit for a story. The general consensus is that people say that the story and the twist has changed... some people said it changed their entire way of seeing Australia, and that they'll never see Australia the same again. And when I wrote it I said to people, I said to friends and family, that if it changes only one person's perspective on the history of this country, and stops one person saying, ‘It was so long ago’ or saying ‘It was a peaceful colonisation not invasion’… One person changed, then I'll consider myself successful. And I could feel like I've achieved what I wanted to achieve with Terra Nullius.
It turns out that so far, hundreds of people told me personally that they get to the twist in that book, and their entire world changes. It's like they get to the twist and it's rewired their brain.
So, I haven't just achieved my mission, I've achieved my mission over and over and over and over again, and that's great. I mean, certainly, it would have been nice to win some awards, but because I didn't even really win that many of them, I won a couple. But for me, the success was changing the narrative or changing the dialogue within the country, and to certain degree, I've achieved that. I've received fan mail and emails and stuff like that from places I would never have expected it. The general response is that people have had their minds completely screwed with and they're really glad it happened, essentially.
ASTRID: I think you should have won the awards too, Claire. I make no secret of that. But I also think that there are works published in Australia that win a lot of awards and aren't published or reprinted five years later. I'd like to think that Terra Nullius will stay in print and hopefully make it to the curriculum for years and years to come, which is better than a winning some award.
CLAIRE: What gives me the joy, not only having people telling me what three years later, that the change their thinking, but going into bookshops three years later and still seeing it on the shelf and face out.
CLAIRE: For a book to be face out three years later is a bit of an achievement, because a lot of books are removed from the shelves after three months.
ASTRID: Oh, absolutely. Now, we have spoken about some of the main characters, and we have spoken about the kind of institutional idea of the Church and the missions, and that kind of attempt to destroy the culture of humans, of Earth, in Terra Nullius. I also want to briefly touch on the bureaucracy that is involved in any kind of colonisation.
You do have the head of the Department of the Protection of Natives and other bureaucrats who are doing the paperwork of this colonisation and destruction of what is Earth in Terra Nullius, and in history was the first peoples of Australia. Paper-pushing has power in this sense. Can you talk to me about why it was really important to show the role of bureaucracy in the novel?
CLAIRE: The thing about colonial style genocide is it is kind of done on paper as much as it is done with the bullet and the sword. There's a thing I repeatedly hear from my own family who are doing history research, which is, ‘It's a good thing the White people wrote down everything they did, because now we know all about it’. Because the fact of the matter is, the colonisation of Australia left a paper trail, like literally left a paper trail. Someone went through and found the letter!
Terra Nullius was inspired by a massacre that happened near the town my grandfather was born in my ancestral country, around the time that my grandfather was born. And there's actually in the archives the letter that was written getting permission to ‘disperse the natives’ on their property. So, they got permission to kill everybody. Disperse was the colonial euphemism for kill everybody. Let's not mince words. That's exactly what it was. It's like, ‘Oh, can we disperse the natives?’ And what they were really saying is, ‘Can we go kill everybody?’ So, there was always a paper trail.
The character of the devil, the Protector of Aborigines, or the Protective of Natives, is actually based on a real person. In the history of Noongar Country, of my people, there was a Protector of Aborigines called A. O. Neville who turns up repeatedly in novels written about the time. He's turned up in Kim Scott's novels, he's turned up in Ambelin Kwaymullina’s novels, with different names every time. And he was actually using his position in the bureaucracy as the head of the Department for Protection of Aborigines to institute a eugenics program to exterminate people by removing them from culture and then not letting them have children, or more importantly, he as the protector, he had the right to choose who could get married and who could not, for example. And what he wouldn't do is he would disapprove any marriage between two what he called half-caste Aboriginal people, but he would approve it if they were interracial marriage, a half-caste Aboriginal person marrying a White person, he would always approve that. And in that way, he attempted a eugenics program to breed out the Blackness. And he actually said he was going to breed out the Black of the Aboriginals and turn them into civilised Europeans by breeding their skin white. And that's just an example of the kind of bureaucratic nightmare that colonisation brought to Australia. And there's lots of other examples of like children being taken from their parents by laws that said that that could happen.
So, there was all these laws and decisions and stuff like that that made colonisation more powerful just by making decisions of... like based on giving power to powerful people to make decisions that controlled every aspect of people's lives. And so, it was important for me in Terra Nullius to make sure that everyone knew that the evil stuff had the force of law behind it, or the force of paperwork. And the funny thing is that a lot of that paperwork was doing things that were illegal under British law and it was a British colony. So, they had these paper trails of people doing illegal things, using the troopers and the law to do it.
ASTRID: It's extraordinary when you think about it, and it's the kind of thing you can't make up in fiction apart from the fact that this was done over hundreds of years on multiple continents around the world, including Australia. You are bringing it in a fictionalised form here, but it's very much based on reality and history.
I want to explore how you start every chapter. Now we've mentioned it, you have a little quote. Sometimes it's literally a poem, two or three lines long, sometimes it's a page and a half of a history textbook or an official report that is giving the reader a different insight into the Settler colonisation of Earth, the alien colonisation of Earth, and all of the different factions and viewpoints and competing goals. Talk to me as a writer how you structured that, and also how you used those little parts of your narrative to not only comment on the past, but also comment on our present and future.
CLAIRE: It wasn't an uncommon thing in kind of 19th century fiction to have little bits of history inserted in the start of chapters. It was not uncommon. And most people aren't aware of this, but stylistically, I intentionally structured the first half of Terra Nullius after 19th century literature. I was constantly reading and rereading 1984 – which isn't really 19th century – War of the Worlds and Frankenstein, which I was intentionally being influenced by the style of those, because I thought I'd slip it in. But it's not uncommon in that sort of literature to have bits of history or quotes or bits of poetry. So, I thought I'd slip them in. And it's also not uncommon in Indigenous Australian literature to put in bits of family history or quotes of people at the start of chapters as well. So, bearing all that in mind, I wanted to put quotes at the start.
But I knew that in the second half after the twist, they'd have to be fake, right? Obviously, they'd have to be fake. So, I thought, why don't I write them fake from the beginning? So, I did. And what surprised me is, I went out of my way to understand the style that these are written in, that the style that the colonisers would have written their documents and letters in, and consciously copied the style, and actually fooled people.
ASTRID: That is dedication to the craft.
CLAIRE: But it's kind of frightening, because I've actually used my ability to do that without any trainings. I've got no training as a writer. It's how easy it would be for somebody to fake history documents.
ASTRID: That poses a big question. Yes.
CLAIRE: That doesn't it? I was speaking in an archivist conference, and what I was saying is that it's quite easy... if I with no training can write that many fake quotes that look real, how easy would it be for someone to fake a document?
ASTRID: Well, that is true. But I mean, Devil's Advocate here Claire, you are an exceptional writer, and clearly you are an exceptional reader as well, so you're not just the average person walking down the street faking some historical documents.
CLAIRE: But there's other people out there who are exceptional as well.
ASTRID: Maybe, but they haven't…
CLAIRE: If I'm an exceptional writer and an exceptional reader, I'm certainly not alone in that.
ASTRID: But you do raise a good point. I mean, we live in 2020, and this is the era of fake news and technology is around to help and facilitate anybody with that kind of agenda.
The first time I read Terra Nullius, I enjoyed the quotes at the beginning of every chapter and they added to the story. But when I went back, reading Terra Nullius again sometimes you just made me laugh. And I felt like, I mean, serious subject matter Claire, but I felt like you were playing with me, and there were intellectual games in there that I missed the first time.
And I guess two of the things that I would point out to readers of the first time around is, London doesn't exist anymore. London – the seat of the British Empire and English colonisation around the world – is now the most secure hub of the alien Settlers. And then another one that I only just realised is the last US army base is now in Afghanistan, because Afghanistan is dry in a desert, and the aliens don't like dry desert areas.
And these are just tiny comments, Claire, just tiny little one lines, half a sentence in an entire novel, but they're kind of political commentary, if you want to read it that way.
CLAIRE: To me, a lot of those little jokes and little bits of dark humour wrote themselves. I guess I'd been wanting write a little bit of something, and then I'd have this idea, and I'd snigger to myself and just stick it in. And a lot of them, I didn't really... to me, I thought they were funny, but didn't really think they'd have an impact on other people. But they're the sort of mind games I play with myself, I suppose. Like I keep saying, I'm not a trained writer. I don't consider myself to be an exceptional writer. I just wrote a book, and then I wrote another book.
ASTRID: And a third on the way, I believe.
CLAIRE: Yes, there's a third book on the way, yes. I follow the axiom of write what you want to read. And if I was reading Terra Nullius, I'd want to have a little snippets of dark humour or gallows humour slipped into it, so I slipped them in, because I would like to see them there.
ASTRID: Absolutely. I want to ask you about the title. Now clearly, Terra Nullius: A Novel is a reference to Terra Nullius that was this legal fiction that European settlement brought to Australia to justify colonisation. But to call your novel Terra Nullius: A Novel, I mean, does it confuse readers? Does it engage readers?
CLAIRE: The title was actually another one of my mind games. It's a play on words. It's a bilingual play on words, because in Latin, Terra Nullius means nobody's land. But when you think about science fiction, our planet is normally called Terra in science fiction. So, it also means ‘nobody's Earth’. I use the pun of the idea of the aliens declaring the entire Earth to be empty. So that was a pun, that was an obvious bilingual pun.
The reason I called it Terra Nullius: A Novel, is because I personally didn't think it would be as effective if I just called it Terra Nullius, because people... even with the name Terra Nullius: A Novel, people think it's a book of Australian history or politics. So putting a bit about it being a novel in there makes people kind of pick it up as a novel, and then maybe it's the mind games I'm playing with my readers are more effective, because they don't expect it to be as deeply based on truth as it is, I guess.
The idea of just calling it Terra Nullius didn't sit well with me, because there's been many books called Terra Nullius. And over the writing of it, the name Terra Nullius came to me quite early in the process of writing it, and again, I was trying to think of another title, because I thought there was issues with that title. But then the more I wrote it, the more that there was no other possible title, so that became the title.
ASTRID: I think it works well. I'm just fascinated about the reactions that you may have gotten, or book sellers may have gotten over the years. Now Claire, we've talked about two of the central characters, Jacky and Johnny, and of course Sister Bagra, and briefly the Devil, but let's also talk about Esperance. She has a very different experience with the Settlers and a different viewpoint.
CLAIRE: Yeah. She exists mainly to kind of give this idea... or part of her reason for existing comes down to her name. Her name was another one of my internal personal jokes, because Esperance is kind of the Far Eastern border of my ancestral country, the town of Esperance in WA. But her name also means hope in French. And she was there as a joke from the... well, as a kind of internal joke. because from the beginning people would think that hope lies with Jacky, who's Jacky Jerramungup, which is the other Western end of my ancestral country. So, two of the main characters, one's named after you the Western end of my ancestral country and the other is named after the Eastern end of my ancestral country, all there abouts.
So just, I thought the idea of seeking a character named Hope, technically named Hope, and then having her kind of not only have a sort of hopefulness to her, but show that it doesn't matter how competent or powerful you are, if you're overwhelmed, you're overwhelmed. Because people think of Aboriginal Australians as having been overwhelmed because of being primitive, or less intelligent, or anything like that, but the fact of the matter is that my people were not invaded successfully because we were less intelligent or less organised, whatever. We were overwhelmed because we didn't have standing armies, or we didn't have guns, and that is a simple, simple fact.
So, Esperance exists to show that it doesn't matter how confident someone is. They can still lose, basically.
ASTRID: Claire, you've mentioned several other works as influences. You mentioned George Orwell's 1984, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, H. G. Wells War of the Worlds. Where do you place, and this is a big question, so I know that, but where do you place Terra Nullius in contemporary speculative fiction?
CLAIRE: Well, it's actually funny, because when I wrote it, it was kind of written as a response to War of the Worlds in a way. And there's a couple reasons why. I don't know if you know this, and certainly most of the people who listen to this won't know this, but War of the Worlds was actually written in response to the British genocide in Tasmania. He said that when he was trying to work out to a friend, explain to a friend of his how it didn't matter that whether or not the Tasmanians were primitive or intelligent, what mattered was that the British had bigger guns. And he thought well, what would happen if I wrote a story about aliens landing in the middle of London who have overwhelming power and wipe people now. And there was a couple of things about War of the Worlds that annoyed me. One of them was them landing in the middle of London and London basically surviving, which is ridiculous. And the other one was that in War of the Worlds, the aliens are wiped out by diseases on earth, when in reality, in colonial times, the diseases were actually a weapon that supported the colonisers, not the other way around. Smallpox decimated Aboriginal communities when colonisation began. So, in a way, I would position Terra Nullius as a reaction to, or almost a sequel to War of the Worlds, almost.
ASTRID: Claire, that is amazing. H. G. Wells published War of the Worlds about 130 years ago, and I like to think that you have written the sequel as we all need in this millennium.
CLAIRE: Well, it's interesting that War of the Worlds was kind of like, was using speculative fiction to tell the invasion story of Australia, but it's still a white guy writing it. It's like, it's still from his point of view. So, what I was trying to do was write War of the Worlds as if we were, if Aboriginal people were writing it, and not the White guys.
ASTRID: I can't think of anything better, Claire.
CLAIRE: (Laughter) It's actually funny, because War of the Worlds was also within a long history of what was called invasion literature, in which there were novels written in the 1890s and the late 1880s of invasions being of London from Germany, speculative fiction. And the first novel ever published in Australia was an invasion literature novel, which some people say might have influenced War of the Worlds, because it was a couple years earlier, which I forgot the title of right now, but it's an invasion novel... speculative fiction of China invading Australia from the North. And some people speculate that the popularity of that novel in 1896 could explain Australia's fear of invasion from China even today, which just tells you how powerful fiction is in manipulating people's ways of thinking.
ASTRID: I think fiction is the highest form of art Claire, and I think that you do it exceptionally well. Claire, thank you so much for talking to me about Terra Nullius, and more importantly, thank you for writing Terra Nullius. It's damn perfect.
CLAIRE: Thank you very much.