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Noongar author Claire G. Coleman’s new book – her first nonfiction title – looks at colonisation through a very personal lens. By Jacob Boehme.

Author Claire  G. Coleman

Author Claire  G. Coleman.
Credit: Jen Dainer

“It feels like I’m on the run from a disastrous disease,” says Noongar writer and poet Claire G. Coleman. “We went to Barunga Festival in the Northern Territory, then over to Laura dance festival in Queensland, then the shit started hitting the fan. We got to Alice Springs, broke down and now Darwin’s gone into lockdown. We’ve constantly been escaping lockdowns.”

Although she’s based in Melbourne, Coleman is currently stuck in the Central Desert, unable to return home because of lockdowns. We’re speaking on Zoom, with Coleman sitting on a picnic bench outside Araluen Arts Centre on Arrernte Country, Alice Springs, as her partner, Lily, hunts for a charger in the background so the iPad doesn’t run out of battery. Coleman is in good spirits as the mid-morning sun dances across her face through a canopy of leaves.

“This is our worst-ever breakdown,” she says. “We’ve blown the head gasket on the LandCruiser. If I wasn’t concerned and stressed about my upcoming book publicity, I’d be delighted to be in Alice Springs right now.”

Coleman’s third book, Lies, Damned Lies, is out this month – her first nonfiction publication. The book takes an in-depth and unreserved look into the personal impacts of colonisation, from light-skinned identity politics to history wars, debunking some of Australia’s fondest colonial myths.

Her debut novel Terra Nullius (2017), recipient of the 2016 black&write! Fellowship was shortlisted for a swag of awards, including the 2018 Stella Prize, and won the Norma K. Hemming Award for excellence in the exploration of race, gender, class or disability in speculative fiction. Her second novel, The Old Lie, was published in 2019, followed by the novella The Mists of Down Below, published as part of Griffith Review’s “Generosities of Spirit” in 2020.

Terra Nullius was written in the back of a caravan as Coleman travelled around Australia. She says that being on the road is in her blood. “The story goes that my parents went on a long-distance road trip through the south-west of Western Australia when I was a baby in a bassinet so, basically, I’m born to travel,” she says. “My dad’s a traveller. He was a truck driver and he loves road trips. Like a lot of Western Australians, road trips were our holiday. Every school holiday was a road trip to somewhere. We had family scattered all over the place so we had to drive out to see family anyway. I basically grew up in cars. And then of course when I moved to Melbourne from Perth I drove over back when the Nullarbor was a shit road. It’s got much better now, but it was really shit then in the mid-’90s.”

Coleman is attracted to arid lands and is in constant dispute with her partner about it. “She likes the tropics and the rainforest and I’m not a fan. It’s the humidity. Almost feels claustrophobic for me,” she says. “The places I like tend to remind me of my ancestral country, rolling sand dunes and banksias about as tall as your waist. I like estuaries and arid country, scrub and sand. I like the country around Coober Pedy, all the Kokatha Country I think is stunningly beautiful. Dead flat and scrub gets no taller than your knees. I love it.”

Her relationship to Country and to her own ancestry has been a 20-year personal process of decolonising that she discusses candidly in her new book. “As a child I had blacker skin than I do now, but I didn’t know I was Aboriginal,” she says. “We were brought up with a lie of being Fijian.” Her father was told he was Fijian – a story invented to prevent him from being taken as part of the Stolen Generations as a child. “It wasn’t until I was in my 20s when this came tumbling down, and of course I’ve spent most of my life since then trying to decolonise, after going through that.”

This part of Coleman’s story is not an uncommon experience among many Aboriginal families. It triggers memories of my own family lore, told by my father, about “passing” as Malaysian, Indian and Filipino in country towns across South Australia. “Passing” has been used by mixed-race Aboriginal people for decades as a form of survival in a country whose policies have defined Aboriginal identity as a criminal act. More recent declarations of Blakness, pride and identity – particularly by fair-skinned members of the Aboriginal community – still cause confusion and, at times, downright offence to some non-Aboriginal Australians. Coleman shares an interesting perspective about these complex identity politics from within the Blak community.

“The funny thing about being a light-skinned Blakfella is, in places like this, in Alice Springs, in remote communities – almost everywhere except the big cities down south – it is never the Blakfellas who question your identity. In the big cities like Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, sometimes Perth, you get questioned by Blakfellas who go, ‘You’re not black enough.’

“The other day I got out of the car on the Todd River and some Aboriginal guys saw me and they walked over and they said, ‘Where you from?’ and I said, ‘I’m Noongar.’ And they said, ‘Where in Noongar land are you?’ and I said, ‘I’m from the south coast.’ And the guy said, ‘I thought so. You look like my ex-wife. She lives on the desert right near you guys.’ We became almost family then. Big hugs all round.”

Coleman believes that identity policing of fair-skinned Blakfellas is the concern of a small number of vocal people and is driven by their own uncertainty. “To me it’s a non-question. To me I don’t see a difference between urban Blakfella culture and bush Blakfella culture,” she says. “For people who grew up in the city, it’s still a Blakfella culture – it’s just a different aspect of Aboriginal culture. If someone’s Aboriginal and shows the right respect and is connected to their culture and their family, nothing else should matter. We are all Aboriginal.”

I bring up the old chestnut: if you’re a mixed-race Aboriginal person, why focus on your Aboriginal identity?

“I’ve got a few answers to that,” says Coleman. “One is, would you rather identify with the bully or the victim? There’s a murdering side to my family and the ancestors who were murdered, I think I’d rather identify with the victim.

“The second is, the attempt to kill my people off was a genocidal project. If I don’t identify with the Aboriginal side of my family, then the genocide has worked, and I’m not going to let them win. And that to me is the important one.”

This type of concise and sometimes cutting commentary has seen Coleman make a meteoric rise in the literary world. “It’s been very fast. I can’t keep up. It was considered by some that I broke the mould by stepping out in my first novel straight into a straight white male’s domain. I didn’t break the mould because I sought to, I broke the mould because I wanted to do a certain thing and I just did it.”

Before she became a writer, Coleman was a computer scientist with an honours degree in artificial intelligence, and was a casual teacher at universities and TAFEs. After what she describes as a “mental breakdown”, Coleman left computer science and tried her hand as a short-order cook. During a period of homelessness, Coleman began to dabble in writing performance poetry. She then went travelling. It was on the road, Coleman says, that she really began to write.

“There’s a prevalent belief that First Nations writing is only autobiographical torture porn. I refused to write that. I wasn’t interested in it,” she says. “I just wrote what I felt like writing, which is what straight white men do.

“There’s this idea in Australia that straight white men can write whatever they want and everybody else has to write within a very narrowly prescribed idea. We’re expected to write suffering porn to the point where, when Black women are doing interviews about their books, [they] are generally asked. ‘Tell me about your childhood and the suffering.’ We are more than our terrible childhoods. I didn’t have a terrible childhood – I had a great childhood. My family were balanced and everything was great.”

Coleman believes we should be producing more Indigenous speculative fiction in Australia, as the lived experience of First Nations Australians and the Aboriginal and colonial histories of Australia are a perfect breeding ground for the genre. “Aboriginal people don’t have to imagine the apocalypse. We’ve lived through it,” she says. “And we don’t have to imagine a dystopia, we live in one now.”

Much of science fiction or speculative fiction is based on the idea of colonising another planet or being colonised. As Coleman points out, the first modern speculative fiction novel about war with aliens was H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which he said was a parable about the British invasion of Australia. “So, if Australia is the spiritual homeland of the alien invasion genre, why aren’t we producing more of it?”

Coleman says speculative fiction has always been a political force, pointing to authors such as George Orwell, for the left, and Ayn Rand ,“who wrote that monstrous work”, for the right. “I think the reason the selfish of the world are currently winning the war for people’s minds is because they don’t think about changing the world by themselves. What they think about is, I’m gonna add my little bit,” she says.

“We have to face the fact that the right wing of politics are results driven and the left wing of politics is thought driven. The left wing of politics want everyone to think and act right, whereas the right would unite with their worst enemies to achieve something. Such as we’re seeing with the current political unity between British TERFs [transphobic feminists] and the American religious far right. The religious far right don’t give a shit who they’re allied with as long as they achieve something that they want.”

Coleman hopes to do good through her own writing and suggests we could think about political thought as a bucket of water. “What you’ve gotta do is feed the bucket and then someone else will add a drop and then someone else, and eventually the bucket will be full,” she says. “Eventually the bucket will overflow. And when the bucket overflows, everyone’s attitudes will change.”

Culture, Coleman says, is the stories we tell each other.

“That’s all culture is, it’s just stories. So, if I’m a good storyteller then all I can do is try and find the right story to change everybody’s story and that’s what I’m going to keep doing,” she says. “I could use my writing to make lots of money. Or I could use it to do bad things, but I’m not going to. I’m going to use it to try and change the culture of this country.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 4, 2021 as "Rewriting futures".

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Jacob Boehme is a Narangga and Kaurna writer, theatre-maker and choreographer.