On the road with Claire G. Coleman

Claire G. Coleman was on the road due to the pandemic when we recorded this interview, and the sound quality is not at our usual standard. We recommend reading the transcript whilst listening to the interview.

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, poetry and art writing while either living in Naarm (Melbourne) or on the road. In 2021 she released her first work of non-fiction, Lies, Damned Lies: A personal exploration of the impact of colonisation.

During an extended circuit of the continent she wrote a novel, Terra Nullius: A Novel, which won the black&write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship and was listed for eight awards including a shortlisting for The Stella Prize. Her second novel was The Old Lie, and her third, Enclave, will hopefully be released in 2022.

Claire has appeared on The Garret twice before - talking about Terra Nullius: A Novel, and at a live event at the 2019 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Indonesia.

On the road with Claire G. Coleman


ASTRID: Claire, welcome back to The Garret. It is so wonderful to be speaking with you once again.

CLAIRE: It's a real pleasure to be here talking to you again.

ASTRID: So, where are you recording from today? Because I know that you had been struggling to get back into Victoria for quite a while.

CLAIRE: I'm recording in a cafe/restaurant in Mparntwe, which is the real name for Alice Springs. I'm inside the café, which may be a bit noisy because unfortunately it's pissing with rain.

ASTRID: It happens, and I think that the audience will absolutely understand why there is noise in the background. Now, I've had the pleasure of interviewing you a few times before, once solely devoted to Terra Nullius: A Novel, which of course was your debut work, as well as in Ubud two years ago, almost exactly, when we were both at the Ubud Writers Festival, and there I spoke to you about The Old Lie.

I adore your speculative fiction, but this week you have published Lies, Damned Lies: A personal exploration of the impact of colonisation. Today I would really love to talk to you about that work. And I have to say, reading this work, I learned more about you and about your writing and about Terra Nullius: A Novel, a novel that I adore so much, by reading this work. Can you introduce to the audience Lies, Damned Lies?

CLAIRE: Certainly. Lies, Damned Lies was written because I've written a large number of short works on the topics of colonisation, and I've had a lot of experience writing about the topic, but I've never written a book of non-fiction about it. People kept asking me to write one, and people kept saying that they're using my non-fiction short works to explain colonisation of Australia to people. So, I thought it would be a good idea to produce a book that does the same thing so that the people who had problems understanding colonisation and the experience in Australia would be able to use the book – maybe quote from the book, send the book to their racist uncle, all those things that would help people express the truth about Australia's colonisation.

A lot of First Nations people talk about these topics that are covered in Lies, Damned Lies, but no one's really written about it, making it personal. And I find that the work I did in Terra Nullius, in the research I did for that, in the exploration and the personal equation, kind of fit well as non-fiction as well.

ASTRID: This is a very personal work. In Lies, Damned Lies you actually explain and recount how, in 2015, you returned to Country and you essentially changed your life, decided to change your life, and dedicate your life to your writing and to your art. And that's how we got Terra Nullius and everything that has come since. For those who haven't read your work yet, or for those who are only familiar with your fiction, can you talk about why you changed your life? You had a previous career. Why is writing so important to you?

CLAIRE: In 2015, when I was travelling, I returned to my grandfather's Country, to where my grandfather was born and near where my dad grew up. At that moment, I realised that colonisation and colonial violence was not some distant thing, it was personal for me. My great-great-grandmother didn't die in the colonial violence, but members of their family did. So, I realised that colonisation, for me, wasn't something distant, it was something immediate, something that affected my family, particularly my dad for example, who grew up during the Stolen Generation times.

So, suddenly understanding that led me to try and find ways to unpack it for myself and to talk about it. And I found when writing Terra Nullius that writing is a tool that I can use, not only to understand all these things myself, but also to explain it to other people. And I didn't imagine when I started that process that my work would have such a profound effect on other people. I was writing mostly for myself. But I wanted to change people. I think every artist does want to change people, but I didn't ever imagine it would actually happen.

ASTRID: You just said that you were writing for yourself. Is that true still now in 2021? Because your writing is political, it is beautiful, and you are intentionally out there to change people's minds. When you sit down to write, do you have an end audience in mind?

CLAIRE: I do have an audience in mind. My audience is… the joke way to say it is that my audience is ignorant White people. In reality, my audience is people who want to know more about the colonial experiment in Australia, that colonial spasm. But in reality, I am still writing for myself, because I came to the thought the other day that the reason I'm so determined to do my art is that when I die, I want to die knowing I did all I could to make the world a better place. I think the only thing I’ll regret when I die… basically all my life I've done what I want. So, the only thing I could possibly regret is to change people's ways of thinking.

ASTRID: Now in Lies, Damned Lies, you gave me moments to pause and to think, and I think that the chapter that might stay with me personally, as a reader, the longest is ‘I, Monster’. Now in that chapter you go from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to Bram Stoker's Dracula, from the Aliens franchise to Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice – all of which I love and have influenced me over my life.

You take these parts of pop culture, and you make it very political point. You are talking about how in the world, including Australia, there are systems of oppression that treat women, queer people, Black people, anybody who is not straight, White, wealthy, and part of whatever the norm is supposed to be imposed on everybody. And firstly, I think there's like a PhD in that chapter. I adored it. You also made me question myself. I am a cisgender White woman, Claire, who loved Aliens and Ripley, and you call her the eternal White woman and that's going to be making me think for quite a while, Claire. But I wanted to ask about this chapter because it felt so full of intellect and rage. Not many people can write like that and not many people can draw in popular culture to make a really explicit point.

CLAIRE: Well, the funny thing about that particular work was that it started off as a commission. I was commissioned to write a framing thought for the catalogue for the Adelaide Biennial of Art. They wanted me to write a framing thought on monsters. So, I sat down with the Curator, she had asked me to come over and asked had I got anything I could say about monsters? And the first thing I said was if you look at every monster story, it is Black women who are the monster, no matter how or what the monster looks like, and she said ‘Why Black?’

And, really, when writing the essay, I just went off. I didn't really think hard about what I was writing, I just went berserk pulling together all my thoughts on the way in what's written. And every bit of research I looked into monsters, it became increasingly clear that the monster is always a Black woman. Any literature you look at, the monster is a Black woman or can be framed as one. Even so far as one of the oldest public vampire stories, Carmilla, about a lesbian vampire. She had a mysterious Black servant that was shown in one scene and then disappears. And that was just... That was literally just to frame the monster as a Black woman and no other reason, and it's all through it. The hero of monster stories is normally a White woman. If not a White man, it's a White woman, or the victim is a White woman. Think of Dracula, Frankenstein, even Jane Eyre. The monster is always a White woman, the victim or hero is always a White woman. Even Ripley. In Alien, there's a Black character, he dies. A bunch of White men die, and the only survivor is the White woman. Funny thing is, in the movie Aliens you find out that there's actually – I don't know if you know this, this is a bit of a culture trivia – If you pause and zoom in on the bit in Aliens where they're showing the bios of the crew who died, one of the women is described in their bio as trans, born male and then became a woman. So, in other words, the Black man dies, the men die, the trans woman dies, but the White woman survives and becomes the hero. And that's basically the story of science fiction.

ASTRID: I'm kind of speechless, Claire. Only when I talk to you do I get to have my mind pushed with all of the parts of pop culture I fell in love with as a teenager and you bring them back to me.

I want to change tact now – though potentially still saying with monsters – and talk about Captain Cook. In Lies, Damned Lies, you talk about the fallacies that are so often part of contemporary public discourse and debate, and the curriculum in Australia in terms of Captain Cook and ‘settlement in Australia’, and that whole lie that has been perpetuated for about 250 years. That is a central part of your book. You also talk about how what is in the historical record is often wrong and can be proven to be wrong. For example, Captain Cook's altered log entries and diaries.

I want to ask about oral storytelling and the tradition of oral storytelling, because often that is not written down and therefore, to a Western audience or a White audience, it is sometimes considered to be false or untrue, or misleading, or not provable. But so often it is more accurate in terms of conveying information, very real information and important information accurately and without lies. How do you think, if at all, the tradition of oral storytelling changes or influences how you write on the page? Because you are a writer and a storyteller, and I'm interested in what you think of your own storytelling style?

CLAIRE: Well, my storytelling style, it's been said of me that I write like I speak. People who know me say that they can actually hear my angry rants in my writing, and that makes sense. I do... I tend to try and put that kind of spoken tone into my writing. And oral history has, in my experience, been proven more accurate sometimes than written history.

I'll use an example. The Conconurup Massacre was 10 kilometres from where my grandfather was born. There's been recently a book published, research into the massacre and the historical record of it. And the historical record was John Dunn was stabbed by an Aboriginal man and then his family retaliated and killed the Aboriginals on his land. That's the White story. In the Aboriginal story, which I heard 2015, they named the girl he raped, they named the man who stabbed him, and they name every person who was killed by White folk. Now if that's the case, then if the written story is empty of information and the oral history is full of information, which I actually consider more accurate, there's a massive paucity of information about the massacres and the colonial impact in Australia.

The only way to really find out what's going on is through the oral history. I mean, my family have an oral history about colonisation. So, I think we need to accept that the oral history is quite likely to be mostly true. And the thing with oral history about colonisation… Not long ago in the Kimberley there were people who saw their first White people in 1984, which is not long ago, I mean I was 10 years old. So, oral history of the colonisation of Australia is fresh, really.

ASTRID: Colonisation is ongoing. Claire, at the beginning of, or near to the beginning of Lies, Damned Lies, you mentioned Kim Scott who won the Miles Franklin in 1999 for Benang, his historical fiction novel. And I realise that as a person who interviews a lot of writers and as a person who really reads to understand the world, and reads every day to understand the world, I have been part of the people who buy contemporary First Nations literature, and read contemporary First Nations literature. And for some reason, that paragraph where you mention Kim Scott, I realised that part of what I just said includes an erasure because you are a Noongar woman and Kim Scott is a Noongar writer, and people like me don't refer to that in public. I wanted to recognise that, and ask your thoughts on this terminology and also how Australia can do better in terms of referring to contemporary publishing? Instead of First Nations publishing in Australia, should we be referring to Noongar writing in Australia, or Wiradjuri writing in Australia?

CLAIRE: There's an ongoing issue in Australia. The discourse around art and history and story tends to erase differences between different types of Aboriginal people. It tends to excessively homogenise us as just Indigenous and just First Nations. But frankly, that's not only inaccurate to who we are, it's also a little unfair in a way, because it expects us to all be considered to be the same people. But in reality, we're not, not at all. If you think about referring to Aboriginal people as all Aboriginal, it would be like saying that a writer is from Eurasia. Because Australia is so big in land area that if you left from... Walking from WA to Melbourne would be like walking from… well, from Perth to Melbourne would be like walking from London to Moscow, we're talking that sort of distance. And people don't imagine for a minute that the stories of people from, say France, are the same as the stories for people in Serbia.

They're considered to be very different people, and yet we are homogenised by Australian ways of identifying First Nations people all the time. In reality, Noongar people have only produced one internationally famous visual artist, but a number of internationally famous writers. And so, there's a little quirk, a difference that maybe should be understood as being a real thing. And Kim Scott and I, even more than both being Noongar, we're actually the same clan of Noongar, and we're closely related enough to call each other cousins when we see each other. And yet it seems a bit wild that two of Australia's best known Indigenous writers are of the same clan, it seems a bit wild but it's just the way things go.

But I think trying to erase us by making us all one people is a bit unfair and probably should be something else we need to unpack. It's just ridiculous.

ASTRID: Thank you for that response, Claire. At the end of Lies, Damned Lies, you reflect on the difficulty of being a writer, being an activist, and the emotional toll that that can take. Abuse and trolling online and Twitter, death threats, just the constant questioning and racism that is often directed your way. That is the experience of many artists and writers who challenge the status quo, challenge colonisation, challenge their Prime Minister. Why do you continue to do it? It's a beautiful choice and it does help the rest of us, but it comes at a cost to you.

CLAIRE: I fight colonisation in Australia, and it comes down to the same reason as I write. I think I would hate myself if I didn't do it. Sometimes, I don't think we choose the life we have. I didn't choose my ancestry or my position in society. I didn't choose to be, apparently, a pretty good writer. I didn't choose to tell the stories I tell. They choose me. And I didn't choose to be an activist. I'm in a position where I can be an activist and I'd feel terrible if I didn't do my best with what I'm given. I think anyone who has a platform who isn't an activist, doesn't try to make the world a better place, is a bit of a twat, to be perfectly honest. So, I think we need to... We need to do everything we can to make the world a better place, especially the people who have a voice and platform, people who are listened to.

I think the worst people in our society are the people who have a platform and use it to make the world a worse place. That I don't understand at all, people who spread racism and people who drive neo-liberalism forward, or people who fight against human rights are monsters in my opinion. And yet they're the ones that are seen as good people in our society and I think it's time that everyone who has a strong voice and are one society, who wants to work for the better, does everything they can to achieve that. So, I would hate myself if I wasn't part of that process.

ASTRID: That is a rallying cry for us all, Claire.

In Lies, Damned Lies, there is some poetry throughout the texts.


ASTRID: I haven't read your poetry before and I guess two questions. What was the impetus to include poetry in this work of non-fiction? And also, will there be ever a time when you publish a collection of poetry?

CLAIRE: Well, firstly, I was a poet first. As my first form of writing I attempted, although I have never been particularly successful. I've won some prizes, but I haven't published an anthology as I'd like to. And it's been said by many of the people who like my work, that I'm quite a poetic writer even when I write prose. Now, some of the poetry was put in with intent because I'd written it before and it worked what I was doing, and other bits of poetry in it are, quite literally, I went, sat down to write an essay, and ended up with poetry. Or I'd sat down to write poetry and ended up with an essay. So, I think... I don't think it's possible to erase the poetry from my non-fiction, so I've stopped even trying. I don't mind if like my poetry and my nonfiction overlap. I've been told sometimes that some of my non-fiction reads a lot more like a chain of thought poem than non-fiction, and I'm okay with that. That's just the way life is.

ASTRID: For my sins, Claire, I spent a long time studying the classics including many years studying Latin and the Aeneid. And one of the things that I noticed, particularly in the opening chapter, the very emotional and emotive chapter of Lies, Damned Lies, it almost sounded like oral storytelling from the Aeneid. The repetition, the coming back and reminding the reader where we are and what we're doing, phrases, sentences, the point over and over again, different each time, but coming back and telling the reader ‘This is what you must be thinking about. This is what we're doing here’. It's beautiful, Claire.

CLAIRE: Thank you.

ASTRID: Moving from Lies, Damned Lies back to your speculative fiction. I know that you have another novel somewhere out there, Enclave, stopped by COVID. Is it complete? And do you have any idea when it will be with us?

CLAIRE: Enclave has been complete for a while. It's the editing and the making room for the marketing of it that's continued to delay it, and upheaval with my publisher, moving from one publishing company to another kind of messed up process. I mean, it's in its third round of editing, like that has happened. It's rescheduled again to June next year. Let's hope that in fact it will happen. It will be published. It's contracted, it's complete. It will be published, it's just I don't know when.

ASTRID: This is a podcast for writers, and I did have a question about changing publishing companies. Your first two novels were with Hachette, Lies, Damned Lies is with Ultimo Press, which is a new press. What was the impetus for you personally to change?

CLAIRE: I haven't changed as such, I mean I still have a relationship with Hachette, and my next novel will be with Hachette. So instead of changing, I now have two publishers who are trying to have a good relationship. They had a good relationship anyway, but it's kind of, they both determined to keep me happy, which is good. I like that.

ASTRID: That is a very good position to be in.

CLAIRE: It's pretty great. But the real impetus was that Robert Watkins, who was at Hachette, is the Head of Publishing at Ultimo and he wanted a book from me. So, rather than me choosing to spread out across two publishers, two publishers have chosen me to both try and just work for me. And I think it's complicated, but when you get a publicity request, you got to find out which book it's for before you tell them which publicist to talk to. It gets complicated, but...

ASTRID: That is a good problem to have though, Claire.

CLAIRE: It is a good problem, and I think both publishers are determined to work together to make sure that there're no problems in kind of going forward with... Two books we've got to have overlapping publicities from two different publishers. Complicated but I'm sure it will be fine.

ASTRID: Claire, I want to say again, congratulations on Lies, Damned Lies. I would like to use the phrase that Declan Fry used in one of his recent reviews, I consider myself one of your ‘forever readers’. I will buy any book that you publish, and I will talk about it to everyone. Lies, Damned Lies is going on the holiday list for everybody I know, and I really hope to see it on the prize list soon. Thank you so much for talking to me, particularly because you are on the road, and you are not well today.

CLAIRE: No worries, and thank you very much for your time and thanks for all the support.