Lies Damned Lies, Claire G Coleman

ANZLitLovers First Nations Literature Week, 3-10 July 2022

I first really got to Indigenous Lit just seven years ago when WG persuaded me to read Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance, which I would say now was an almost perfect introduction. Shortly after, a letter appeared in the West, our local newspaper – now a Murdochesque rag – which I reproduced and subsequently revised/expanded on as Pinjarra Massacre (1834). That began two important (belated!) streams in my blogging – reading Indig.Lit and documenting Western Australian massacres.

A year or so later when I got to Scott’s Benang, I wrote to him and he sent me some newspaper cuttings from which I was able to write up the Cocanarup Massacre. The central figure of that novel is the matriarch Fanny (Benang) of the Wirlomin-Noongar people. She marries a white sailor and they have a son and two daughters. Scott tells and retells this story over a number of books, each time with variations on the names, in one of which he discovers that Benang is his own great-grandmother.

Basically, Wirlomin country is on the WA south coast east of Albany , around the (small) towns Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun. Benang’s two daughters marry twin brothers, named Coolamon (in Benang) or Coleman. The Cocanarup Massacre, which is witnessed by Benang, occurs on the Dunn bother’s Cocanarup Station, west of Ravensthorpe, in the 1880s after John Dunn rapes a Wirlomin girl and is killed by her relatives by spearing.

Claire G Coleman appeared on the literary scene with the clever Terra Nullius in 2017. She is a Wirlomin-Noongar woman and a descendant of one of Benang’s daughters. She writes that “the Coleman name came from my dad’s grandfather, a free settler from Ireland via South Australia”, and later refers to her (paternal) grandfather’s mother Harriette, and grandmother Binian.

The place of my grandfather’s birth was said to be taboo. No blackfellas ever dared to go there these days, not for a long time, my dad used to tell me, too many ghosts, he said, too much death, too many bones in the ground … My dad told me that blackfellas drove through that town with their windows closed tight, not to breathe the air, not to get the bad stuff, the ghost stuff, on them.

For some reason, I had expected Lies Damned Lies to be a collection of facts about the settler project in Australia, but it begins at least as a passionate memoir: “I am furious about colonisation, that fury is perhaps all the qualification I need to write a book excoriating it.”

Coleman, born in the 1970s, grew up in Perth not knowing she was Wirlomin-Noongar, still not knowing when she left Perth in her twenties to move to Melbourne (Naarm). She was not/is not white – though she has written a lovely poem about ‘passing’, Forever, Flag – her father told her she was Fijian, a fiction begun by his father to prevent his children being taken away under the (WA) Aborigines Act, 1905. So her family weren’t Stolen Generations; she refers instead to ‘Hidden Generations’, people forced to deny their Aboriginality by the Aboriginal “Protection” laws.

My grandfather was so scared to lose his sons he hid us from the government by hiding us from ourselves; from our families; from our Country.

I see Coleman on Twitter. She is fierce, gets in lots of blues. Trolls for some reason respond to her by questioning her skin colour. She writes a chapter Not Quite Blak Enuff where she interrogates this: “There can be no doubt that all mixed-race Aboriginal people are a product of colonisation; and the attempt to define us as not Aboriginal enough is also part of colonisation.”

She writes else where that she automatically identifies with the underdog, but here are the three reasons she gives for identifying as Aboriginal
1. Who would you identify with? the bully/murderer or the victim
2. Pride in being able to identify with the first people, the ones who belong;
3. The colonisers were attempting genocide. “If I identified with my wadjela ancestry at the expense of my Aboriginality, the colonisers win.”

Colonisation, and to be precise, settler colonisation – the occupying of a land by settlers replacing the original inhabitants – is not an event, does not occur at one particular date, it is a process, a process which in Australia is ongoing. Coleman offer us the hope that if we cease attempting to take over, we might earn a place here in “a postcolonial society, a new Australia that is connected to Country”, born of a dialogue between wadjelas and First Nation people.

I’m not going to spoil Coleman’s novel Terra Nullius for those of you who haven’t read it, but is (surprisingly) dystopian SF. Coleman says all novels about the history of Australia are dystopian – post-apocalyptic for the original inhabitants. And writes further that the inspiration for HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds about an invasion from Mars was the invasion by the British of Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) and the near-genocide of the Palawa people.

Coleman uses the central part of her book to debunk myths; from the obviously ignorant like (former) prime minister Morrison’s assertion that Cook circumnavigated Australia; to the odd belief that Australia was first settled by ‘negrito’ pygmies (an hypothesis attributed to Tindal and repeated by Windshuttle); to the original inhabitants benefitted from being colonised (also Windshuttle); to ‘you were lucky it was the British’; to Australia Day, “an annual vitriolic and excited spasm of settler colonialism and white nationalism”.

There is a long chapter about Grog; depression; the Intervention; Grog bans enforced only on Black people; but this quote struck me: “Remember how well Prohibition went in the US. All it did was lead to organised crime. Already white crime gangs smuggle grog into Aboriginal communities, even the government knows about that ..”

Towards the end, Coleman writes: “It can be hard work being an Aboriginal writer, columnist, activist, it’s hard work and risky work sticking our necks out in this increasingly polarised, dangerous, and in my opinion, increasingly white supremacist society we call Australia.” But she sticks at it! This, she says, is her compilation albumn, a book of all her greatest hits from years of writing. Not as fierce as Chelsea Watego, but in some ways more thoughtful, offering at least the possibility of a way forward.

.

Claire G Coleman, Lies Damned Lies, Ultimo Press, Gadigal Country, 2022. 270pp

Coleman’s latest novel, Enclave was released a few days ago. My copy awaits me at Crow Books. See my reviews of her two previous novels:
Terra Nullius (here)
The Old Lie (here)

14 thoughts on “Lies Damned Lies, Claire G Coleman

  1. Excellent, a book I can get hold of here. So I have ordered it from Book Depository. It does sound powerful and important and I can add it to my Aus Reading Month and Non-Fiction November this year!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you’re going to read it (I know you are serious about running down your TBR). And of course it’s always good to be able to knock off multiple challenges with one book.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post Bill … but, you know, I’d forgotten I’d encouraged you to read That deadman dance. I feel quite chuffed!

    This sounds like an excellent book. I had heard of it but not really been aware of exactly what it covered. Her description of being told she was Fijian recalls Sally Morgan whose mother told her she was of Indian background. I like the term Hidden Generation. I also like her thoughts on colonialism. If only we’d all behaved decently back in the 18th century, eh?

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    • I might need to re-read Sally Morgan, I found her more than a bit annoying first time round. One of the many things Coleman is annoyed by is being told she was lucky the British were the colonisers, which I have heard quite often myself. She points out that the Dutch, French and Portugese were all here earlier and without the British dumping their convicts here, Aboriginal people may both have benefitted from and contributed to, trading relationships as they had with the nations to the immediate north.

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      • I found Morgan moving and eye-opening but I read it back in 1988 when it came out … and there wasn’t much around then?

        Yes, I had heard that too re British colonisers. Who knows now but it’s a pretty arrogant self-serving thing to say.

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  3. I heard Coleman speak about this book at the Perth Writers Festival in February and promptly went and bought a copy, yet to be read. She spoke a lot about her father’s fears and how she was told she was Fijian but she movingly described what it meant to him to reclaim his aboriginality and to go on country for the first time. Anyway, I look forward to reading the book in due course. I bought Enclave from New Edition on Monday night but probably won’t get to it until I’ve finished my #20booksofsummer challenge.

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    • I’ll pick up Enclave today, but it will probably take me a month or so to read it. Coleman says in the book how she came back from Melbourne to meet her father at Ravensthorpe. It would be interesting to know how much of Kim Scott she had read – discussing her own great grandparents at some length – before she realised they were her Colemans. I really must go to writer talks, maybe when Coleman comes to Perth for Enclave (she was pretty cut up on Twitter about her Melbourne launch for Enclave being cancelled).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I was reading one of the news articles this week about the census data collected last year. Apparently there has been something like a 25% jump in people identifying themselves as being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent. They were discussing the various factors into why this is so, but the big one was feeling proud of heritage rather than being fearful that their children might get taken away or other negative experiences with govenrment services.

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    • That’s interesting isn’t it that more people are identifying. I suppose too, people with parents brought up white have more avenues now to look into their grandparents and great grandparents, and less reason not to.

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  5. I like that she isn’t waiting for permission to share her thoughts, express her anger. Often, at least in the U.S., highly-charged topics face gatekeeping from the academic community. I also think that smaller voices can get shut out when they are called “not real” news (not “fake news,” but more like someone who doesn’t have the credentials to prove their worth). Such conversations leaving the realm of academia and getting out to the people is important.

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    • I think that the ‘gate’ that Coleman has passed through is that she is a recognised writer, both through her novels and her magazine work (in the arts area). We do have a number of Indigenous academics who at least used that as their kicking off point, notably Anita Heiss.

      As a newby to Twitter I am seeing for the first time a fierce Indigenous community making arguments both between themselves and to those white settlers who care to observe (white participators seem to quite often get their fingers burnt).

      It seems to me there is a willingness at the moment to listen to Indigenous voices and so a wide range are being published.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Just to add one last comment, I think even if the quality of writing isn’t strong (meaning up to publishing industry standards), I would want to read Indigenous stories. Sometimes I see self-published work like that — just a person with a lone voice trying desperately to be heard.

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