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: The Rest is Silence

Background

I think I bought my copy of Scott Fotheringham’s The Rest is Silence at Bookmark II in Halifax in 2013 or 2014. It may have been a sale specifically on hardcovers– because I generally dislike hardcovers. I definitely still lived in the South End of the city. And I loved the idea: bio-catastrophe spec fic set in Nova Scotia. This province is a stormy peninsula on the eastern edge of North America that is both economically precarious and insulated from sudden economic and cultural shifts– a good vantage point for exploring the consequences of widespread devastation. And Fotheringham is a molecular biologist; in my experience, authors trained in STEM tend to write startlingly original, insightful prose and verse. (Names that come to mind: Jan Conn, Ellen Ullman, Rosemary Drisdelle.)

Why Not Then

Timing is everything. Not long after I bought my copy of The Rest is Silence, I had to put myself on a climate change / environmental degradation information diet. It was a matter of being able to get out of bed in the morning without feeling like a resource vampire; eat a proper meal without feeling like a parasite; and visit family without being caught in a loop of guilt and dread. No climate change documentaries. No long reads or infographics about antibiotic resistance or ocean acidification. Certainly no eco-apocalyptic movies or novels. I kept my head down and focused on consuming carefully and using my democratic rights to constructive ends.

The “diet” was a matter of accepting that as fun and fascinating and righteously infuriating as it can be to consume imaginative nightmare fuel, that exposure results in no material benefit to the planet. I already do what I can do solo; legislative change and political courage are the most significant missing pieces.

But for me, nightmare fuel can have some rather dire emotional and psychological consequences. And if I’m not feeling resilient: why? What good am I to any cause I care about, hiding at home, awaiting the inevitable? Captain Planet persuaded me into ecological conscientiousness by the end of elementary school; spec fic with ecological themes is less an eco-awakening than it is voluntary submission to a biosphere-centric version of having your eyes clipped open in A Clockwork Orange.

Why [Not] Now

I’ve recently weaned myself off my environmental degradation diet. Yes, we’re still hurtling toward a climate change precipice, but I’ve made a kind of peace with it– not politically, but at least personally. I’ll spare you a detailed description of what that peace looks like, because it’s its own kind of nightmare fuel; think Charlize Theron walking out the back door in The Road.

This Tuesday, it was finally time to pick up The Rest is Silence. Fifty pages in, I was ambivalent: nothing had really happened– very little rising action or tension. The narrator hadn’t yet convinced me to care about the characters, and a few descriptions of women characters tiptoed into seedy old macho SF writer territory. But I really, really loved the few hints I was given as to the scale of the biological/ecological event underway. And I didn’t mind the similarities to Oryx and Crake: both are narrated by a hermit-in-the-woods type, reflecting on his personal connection to the character who opens Pandora’s box. So I stuck with it.

Wednesday night: another 50 pages. But that’s where this story ends for me. Flashbacks to the narrator’s time in graduate school– where he met the woman who developed the technology bringing the industrialized world to its knees– are written in a stoic, omniscient third person that narrates the characters’ actions like a police report. The ambitious young scientist relishes leering gazes from both strangers and a senior scientist, not as a personality quirk (which could’ve actually worked for the story), but as a matter of course, like feeling hungry at lunch time or enjoying the sun– things that most characters (indeed, most people) experience.

Meanwhile, 100 pages into the story’s present, there is still very little rising action or tension. Characters remain opaque and instrumental; I’m not sure what song the narrator is trying to play, or what kind of machine he’s trying to build. One character, an old fella with David Lynch hair, has his charming moments, but his young assistant’s attraction to the narrator– who is still a cipher for the back story at this point, still going about his days like a sentient insect– is utterly inscrutable.