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.


Debriefing: Consumed

What C[orinne] did see was a work created expressly for her by, unaccountably, a [Canadian] movie director [who had written a book] and who [almost certainly] had never heard of her. (170)

I should have more to say about David Cronenberg’s Consumed. It began by ravishing me with cool, flirty menace and a nigh-fetishistic appreciation for the finer details of photographic technology. And later in the novel, even as that deliberate, methodically crafted atmosphere deflated– like a whoopee cushion being squashed by the voluminous buttocks of excessive expository dialogue– it grabbed my attention  again with a leftfield Korean subplot and a handful of sharp, cheeky social observations.

But I just don’t. That is, I don’t have a lot to say about Consumed, other than to add that with some rigorous editing by a disinterested third party, it would make a damn fine Cronenberg film.

As for the overall influence of Cronenberg’s œuvre on my tastes and interests: damn, that’s another matter entirely. And most of the reason I bought the book.

From Chapters. On a warm day this winter. When I just had to get the hell out of my apartment and go for a drive.

“The twisted sex of Cronenberg’s Crash” is the first time I remember seeing his name. It was a headline on a movie magazine. I don’t think I ever read the story, but I kept the cover– featuring Val Kilmer– in a 3-hole plastic sleeve until the end of junior high.

I didn’t watch a Cronenberg film until almost a decade later, when I saw A History of Violence twice in two weeks. First, with a good friend and cinemaphile. Then again, as a very strange second date choice with a very promising suitor.

The second time, I missed the bus; I had to cross a dark freeway on foot and scrape through ditch shrubs to make it to the multiplex on time. It could have been an opening title sequence. Or something. But I didn’t know that yet.

I remember telling my mother, over the Remembrance Day long weekend, how much I loved Violence. Menace, I went on about. Menacing. And the way it was paced. And the use of Chryslers as gangster cars, damn. My mother responded with an observation that cut to the interpersonal heart of the film, and I was completely thrown.

How dare a woman with four kids and a divorce on the horizon come away from this arty thriller with a richer, more nuanced understanding than I, her thrillingly arty daughter.


But the one that really shook me up was A Dangerous Method. The career training I quit at 24 was saturated with Freud– less as a credible doctor than as an inescapable social and cultural force who still has us looking inward with our eyeballs balanced on carving knives decades after his death.

In Method, I saw my old preoccupations reflected back at me. Transference rendered immanent. Fetishism. Compulsions beyond pleasure. I felt seen and heard and validated and perfectly anonymous and generic– all at once. It was liberating.

And I felt that way again when I picked up Consumed. “Naomi was in the screen,” it begins. Then Cronenberg launches into an obsessively detailed digital video mise-en-scène of doomed philosophers in their apartment, smoking and pontificating, the footage (how arcane that sounds) being analyzed by a young journalist– Naomi– with her MacBook in her lap.

Naomi was in the screen. And then I was in the page.

And Cronenberg always does this to me: t-bones me with articulations of what preoccupies me– ideas I can’t let go of, whether I should or not.

And Cronenberg always does this to me: t-bones me with articulations of what preoccupies me– ideas I can’t let go of, whether I should or not.

But as with Freud, I’ll never know for certain how many of those interests would have crystallized as they did, absent Cronenberg’s influence. I can guess, but I cannot know.