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