Debriefing: Terra Nullius

I meet intermittently with a small group of women to discuss poetry. Together we constitute, for lack of a better term, a poetry book club. During one recent meet-up, I mentioned a pattern that frustrated me in a collection by a Metis woman: her tendency to compare women to birds. From my perspective (white Anglo-Canadian; degree in English Lit), this is a cliché device usually employed by male poets to patronize and coddle female characters– to portray them as weak and fragile. I couldn’t understand why a radical young indigenous poet would frame women this way. Enter stage right: my own cross-cultural ignorance. Another group member– an inquisitive, thoughtful women of colour who looks out for other marginalized women as a matter of course– explained to me that those particular bird species have special significance to some indigenous groups on Turtle Island. My friend and fellow group member had done her homework; I was lazily relying on the homework I’d done for Intro to Women in Literature a decade and a half earlier.

I kept that lesson top of mind while reading Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius. Coleman is, to quote her bio, “a writer from Western Australia who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people.” Her novel is nothing if not a love letter to freedom, self-determination, and the rights of indigenous peoples. It is didactic, but justifiably so, given Australia’s colonial history; and certain passages / scenes could be riveting if read aloud (invoking the power of oral tradition?) in a junior high classroom by a teacher who cares about the work of reconciliation. But Terra Nullius is also beset by a peculiarly reticent omniscient narrator who keeps characters at arms length even while revealing their thoughts and feelings; unhelpful fictional epigraphs and epistolary fragments; and the author’s frustrating decision to conceal the book’s actual plot and setting until more than 100 pages in. (Postcolonial lit, M. Night Shyamalan style?)

The plot of Terra Nullius follows several threads that are gradually woven together. My favourite of these, by far, is Sister Bagra’s reign of terror. She is Mother Superior at a residential school for humans (“natives”), where she contravenes her religious order by malnourishing her charges and training them for menial labour; they are slaves more than students. Sister Bagra is somewhat two-dimensional, even for a villain, and the origins of her bitterness and cruelty are never explored. But a good heel is a brilliant source of catharsis: easy to hate and rally against, especially when we recall that she is a fictional condensation of the religious authority figures who have abused, neglected, and killed indigenous children in colonial residential schools around the world.

To me, this is an important but imperfect novel– but I am a settler trained in a literary tradition that is only beginning to consider the value of indigenous storytelling and ways of knowing. So don’t take my word for it, please.

I originally wrote this review for LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.