The Mabo Turn in Australian Fiction

by Geoff Rodoreda (Author)
Monographs VIII, 268 Pages


Winner of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature‘s Alvie Egan Award 2019!
Winner of the Association for Anglophone Postcolonial Studies (GAPS) Dissertation Award 2018
This is the first in-depth, broad-based study of the impact of the Australian High Court’s landmark Mabo decision of 1992 on Australian fiction. More than any other event in Australia’s legal, political and cultural history, the Mabo judgement – which recognised indigenous Australians’ customary «native title» to land – challenged previous ways of thinking about land and space, settlement and belonging, race and relationships, and nation and history, both historically and contemporaneously. While Mabo’s impact on history, law, politics and film has been the focus of scholarly attention, the study of its influence on literature has been sporadic and largely limited to examinations of non-Aboriginal novels.
Now, a quarter of a century after Mabo, this book takes a closer look at nineteen contemporary novels – including works by David Malouf, Alex Miller, Kate Grenville, Thea Astley, Tim Winton, Michelle de Kretser, Richard Flanagan, Alexis Wright and Kim Scott – in order to define and describe Australia’s literary imaginary as it reflects and articulates post-Mabo discourse today. Indeed, literature’s substantial engagement with Mabo’s cultural legacy – the acknowledgement of indigenous people’s presence in the land, in history, and in public affairs, as opposed to their absence – demands a re-writing of literary history to account for a “Mabo turn” in Australian fiction.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • The Mabo Decision: Text and Context
  • Post-Mabo Cultural Practice in Australia
  • Post-Mabo History, Film and Literature
  • Historiographic Realignments: Moving on from White
  • Narrating the Nation Anew
  • Part I: Writing After Mabo
  • Chapter 1: Four Core Post-Mabo Novels
  • David Malouf, Remembering Babylon (1993)
  • Alex Miller, Journey to the Stone Country (2002)
  • Andrew McGahan, The White Earth (2004)
  • Finest patch of meadow
  • Kate Grenville, The Secret River (2005)
  • The silences of history
  • Chapter 2: Re-writing the Past: Mabo and History
  • Frontier Violence in Liam Davison’s The White Woman (1994)
  • Admitting to committing murder
  • Disease in Debra Adelaide’s Serpent Dust (1998)
  • Multiple perspectives
  • Exploration in Peter Mews’ Bright Planet (2004)
  • Historiography in Richard Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide (1994) and Gould’s Book of Fish (2001)
  • Death of a River Guide (1994)
  • Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish (2001)
  • Chapter 3: Re-writing the Present: Mabo and Contemporary Australia
  • Co-existence: Dorothy Hewett’s Neap Tide (1999)
  • Aboriginal place
  • Zac Mumbula
  • Wik
  • Zac’s speech and Gilbert’s legacy
  • Shared belonging
  • Fitting in, or not
  • Respect and Visitorship: Tim Winton’s Dirt Music (2001)
  • Colonial arrival
  • Postcolonial departure
  • Indigenous characters: Dirt Music and Cloudstreet
  • Country Towns and Rural Place: Thea Astley’s The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow (1996) and Drylands (1999)
  • Astley’s earlier fiction
  • Multiple effects
  • Dry land
  • Weather changes
  • Negotiated Belonging: Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog (2007) and Simone Lazaroo’s Lost River: Four Albums (2014)
  • Curthoys’ uneasy conversation
  • The Lost Dog (2007)
  • Lost River: Four Albums (2014)
  • Supplementing bluff binaries
  • Part II: Writing Beyond Mabo
  • Chapter 4: Sovereignty: Mabo and Aboriginal-Authored Fiction
  • Introducing Sovereignty Novels
  • Sovereignty and Mabo
  • Return of the “Unspeakable”
  • Sovereign Voice: Orality and Narrative Invention in Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (2006)
  • Carpentaria: “Big in scope, ambition and physical size”
  • Asserting orality in Carpentaria: Explicit strategies
  • Asserting orality in Carpentaria: Implicit strategies
  • Sovereignty and native title
  • Sovereign Space and Sovereign Mentality: Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (2013)
  • Swan Lake
  • A sovereign homeland
  • A sovereign mind
  • Acting sovereign in Swan Lake
  • Once Were Sovereign and Still Are: Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (2010)
  • Being of country
  • A managed estate
  • Were sovereign and still are
  • Sovereignty Beyond Legal Title: Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby (2013)
  • Land and belonging
  • Cash on the stump
  • Hard yakka, native title
  • Liarbird place
  • Internal and external, sovereign being and sovereign place
  • Conclusion: Dominant, Residual and Emergent Cultures
  • Framing a Literary Era
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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The genesis of this book was a PhD project completed within the English Literature department at the University of Stuttgart, Germany. I am fortunate to be able to work there with wonderful colleagues and friends, in both the English and American Studies departments, who have always supported and encouraged me in my teaching and research. I am especially grateful to Renate Brosch for offering me work as a lecturer and then for supervising my doctoral research. She took a chance on an outsider – given, among other things, my previous career in journalism rather than literary scholarship – and kept pointing me in the right direction with wise counsel and critique. Thanks also to Russell West-Pavlov for his advice and encouragement as my second supervisor. I extend my thanks to the anonymous reviewers of drafts of this book for their helpful feedback, and to the series editor, Anne Brewster, for invaluable and insightful advice. Three good organisations need to be thanked, too: the European Association for Studies of Australia, the Association for Anglophone Postcolonial Studies (GAPS, in German), and the Association for Australian Studies (GASt, in German). This book could not have been produced by an Australian scholar in Europe without the stimulating, collegial and critical energy – and especially the regular conferences – generated by these institutions. Parts of some chapters of this book have appeared in the following journals or books:

“The Darkest Aspect: Mabo and Liam Davison’s The White Woman.” Zeitschrift für Australienstudien/Australian Studies Journal 30 (2016): 44–60.

“Orality and Narrative Invention in Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria.” Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature 16.2 (2016): 1–13.

“Post-Mabo Literature: New Discourses in Australian Fiction.” Australia: Reality, Stereotype, Vision. Ed. Henriette von Holleuffer and Adi Wimmer. KOALAS: Series of the Association for Australian Studies, Vol. 10. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2012. 97–107.

“Reading Mabo in Peter Goldsworthy’s Three Dog Night (2003).” The Journal of the European Association for Studies of Australia 7.2 (2016): 15–29. ← vii | viii →

“Sovereignty, Mabo and Indigenous Fiction.” Antipodes 31.2 (forthcoming).

“The Swinging Stirrup Iron: Murder Most Pastoral in Queensland Fiction.” The Journal of the European Association for Studies of Australia 5.1 (2014): 60–75.

“Weal/th in the Land: Re-imagining Indigenous Land Use in Australia.” Uncommon Wealths in Postcolonial Fiction. Ed. Helga Ramsey-Kurz and Melissa Kennedy. Leiden: Brill, 2017. 189-206.

My thanks to the editors and/or publishers of these publications for kindly granting me permission to reprint parts of those essays in this book. Finally, thanks to Sophie, Ben and especially Asti for an abundance of wisdom and loving support.

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There is a moment of liminality at the beginning of David Malouf’s 1993 novel Remembering Babylon that might now be read as a liminal moment in contemporary Australian fiction. The protagonist, Gemmy Fairley, emerges from the bush on the other side of the frontier in mid-nineteenth-century Queensland. He is an English man who has lived most of his life with Aboriginal people and is attempting to return to non-Aboriginal society. He leaps onto the top rail of the boundary fence and totters, “arms outflung as if preparing for flight,” between the Aboriginal world and the world of the British settlement (Malouf, Remembering 3). At this moment, Gemmy is balanced precariously on a boundary between two worlds.

This balancing act can be seen as symbolic for the position the book Remembering Babylon occupies as a transitional text in Australian fiction. Malouf’s novel examines the figure of the settler not as heroic pioneer, secure in his or her place on the frontier of an unpeopled wilderness, but as a figure confronted with the “fragility of […] fixed cartographies of identity and belonging” (Fjellestad 384). This text might be identified as the first of a series of novels, published from the beginning of the 1990s, that seeks to re-examine and re-question the colonialist enterprise in Australia, and that seeks to explore, as Malouf’s text does, the “profound dilemmas and traumas lying at the very foundation of Australian settler culture […] bound up with the processes of colonization” (Fjellestad 380). Gemmy stands tottering, in limbo, and then falls from the fence into the world of the settler to activate the narrative. His sudden bodily presence in the settlers’ world is a reminder of the physical and social presence of Aboriginal people on the land. The settlers respond to that presence in manifold ways but they can no longer deny its existence.

The timing of the release of Malouf’s novel is significant. It was published just one year after the Australian High Court delivered its landmark decision, Mabo and Others v. Queensland (No. 2), more commonly known as the “Mabo” judgement. In this decision, handed down on 3 June 1992, ← 1 | 2 → Australia’s highest court ruled in favour of Eddie Koiki Mabo (and his Torres Strait Islander co-plaintiffs) who had argued that the British annexation of their island in the Torres Strait in the nineteenth century had not lawfully extinguished their customary ownership of land. These Indigenous Australians claimed they still had traditional, customary title to the land. The Court agreed with them. It found that these Indigenous Australians were entitled to the “possession, occupation, use and enjoyment” of those portions of the islands they had always considered their traditional home (Mabo 2). Australia’s highest court thereby recognised, in the common law, a new form of customary land title for Indigenous Australians: “native title” (Mabo 2). Further, the Court held that native title rights to land might still exist across the Australian continent where those rights had not been expressly extinguished by the Crown and where Indigenous people could still prove an attachment to land.

This legal recognition of native title rights altered the foundation of land law in Australia by rejecting the idea that no one occupied the land upon British settlement in 1788. The High Court deemed “the enlarged notion of terra nullius” (Mabo 24) to have been the legal basis upon which the British had claimed possession of Australia. Although the Court refused to recognise Aboriginal sovereignty over the land, for the first time in Australia’s history, Indigenous people were officially recognised as the first legal occupants of the continent. Two of the High Court judges described the wrongful dispossession of Aboriginal people from their lands as “the darkest aspect of the history of this nation” (Mabo 82). They continued: “The nation as a whole must remain diminished unless and until there is an acknowledgment of, and retreat from, those past injustices” (82).

The Mabo decision represented “a turning point in Australian jurisprudence” (Reynolds, “The Judges” 231), but more broadly Mabo has had “a profound impact on the legal, social and political reality” of Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations (Strelein 1). It immediately provoked a “sense of national crisis” (Attwood, “Mabo” 100), as conservative forces, especially the resources sector, “anticipated greater constraints on their access to land for exploration and mining” (Strelein 1). The government of the day eventually proposed a statutory framework for regulating native title claims, which led to the Native Title Act of 1993 and the establishment ← 2 | 3 → of a national Native Title Tribunal. Beyond this, Mabo has continued to provoke heated public debate about land, who belongs on it, who owns it, who has rights to exploit its riches. In this regard, Mabo has “thrust back into the limelight the contested character of spatiality and territory” in Australia, and made clear that the “fraught relationship between white and black Australia is not merely a matter of culture, but was and remains a question of territory” (West-Pavlov, “Introduction” 18–19).

In terms of Australians’ understanding of their colonial history Mabo’s impact has been profound. The doctrine or discourse of terra nullius had positioned Indigenous Australians as “primitive and uncivilised, without recognisable land laws or social organisation and hence lower in the scale of humanity than the European settlers and their descendants” (Sharp 5). Twentieth-century history books, on the whole, acknowledged neither Aboriginal people as land owners nor their dispossession from the land. The alternative historical narrative proposed by Mabo, then, shook the foundations of non-Aboriginal Australians’ belief in the legitimate settlement of the continent by the British – or, as Garth Nettheim puts it, the central issues in Mabo went to the “historical and juridical foundations of the Australian nation” (8). In other words, the Mabo decision of 1992 altered the notion of what it meant to be a settler Australian. Non-Indigenous Australians were finally confronted with a new narrative about the occupation and settlement of Australia: no, Australia was not a terra nullius, an empty land belonging to no one, settled peacefully by the British, from 1788; the land, already occupied by nations of peoples, was taken from its original inhabitants. Aboriginal people were dispossessed, often violently so, of their rights to land. More than any other event in Australia’s history, the Mabo decision has challenged previous ways of thinking about land, identity, settler belonging and history. In the words of Nicholas Birns and Rebecca McNeer, Mabo is a “landmark development in Australian national life,” which has caused a “seismic shift in Australians’ sense of what their nation and its relationship to Indigenous peoples is and has historically been” (9).

Mabo has also caused a “seismic shift” in Australian fiction writing. The story of that shift in literature has not yet been told. For while Mabo’s impact on ← 3 | 4 → history, law, politics and film has been the focus of considerable scholarly attention, the study of Mabo’s influence on literature – and of literature’s shaping of post-Mabo discourse – has been sporadic, cursory, and largely limited to examinations of non-Aboriginal fiction. Mabo’s re-assertion of an Indigenous presence in the Australian public and cultural sphere has been substantial, and it has been fiction writing that has been foremost in re-shaping and re-configuring imaginings and understandings of land and space, settlement and belonging, race and relationships, and nation and history, both historically and contemporaneously. It is a post-Mabo literary imaginary that works to describe, articulate, reflect, and ultimately represent post-Mabo discourse in Australia today. This book is the first to propose a typology of post-Mabo fiction for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal authored novels. Through the analysis and interpretation of nineteen novels written between 1993 and 2014 – though many other novels are referred to in brief – this book re-defines post-Mabo fiction in two distinct ways.

Firstly, post-Mabo fiction is writing by non-Indigenous authors that acknowledges or thematises, in whole or in part, prior and continuous Indigenous occupation and possession of the land. It is writing that seeks to counter the myth of terra nullius, and that seeks to critically scrutinise colonialism in Australia and the often-violent dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands. I demonstrate that such thematic elements are found not only in major, prize-winning works written by authors like David Malouf, Alex Miller, Kate Grenville, Thea Astley, Tim Winton and Richard Flanagan but also in many lesser-known works by authors such as Liam Davison, Debra Adelaide, Peter Mews and Simone Lazaroo. I examine these non-Indigenous texts in Part I of this book under the heading “Writing After Mabo,” wherein after indicates both “in the immediate wake of” as well as “in regard of” or “in reference to” Mabo. I am able to show that Mabo’s impact has not been peripheral; it has brought themes and debates previously considered marginal, such as Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations, to the centre of Australian literary endeavour. Whenever these non-Aboriginal authored novels reference key motifs in settler-Australian fiction, such as land, identity, nationhood and history, they inevitably engage with Mabo’s cultural legacy: the recognition of Indigenous people’s presence in the land, in history, and in political and social affairs, as opposed to their absence. ← 4 | 5 →

The second manifestation of post-Mabo fiction is writing by Indigenous authors that responds not to what Mabo affirmed but to what it denied Indigenous people: sovereignty. For while the High Court acknowledged traditional, native title rights to land in Mabo, it also confirmed British sovereignty over the continent. It has taken until the first decade of the new millennium but Aboriginal writers like Alexis Wright, Kim Scott and Melissa Lucashenko are now asserting claims to Indigenous sovereignty in their fiction, creating two kinds of sovereign imaginaries. First, they are imagining sovereign political spaces – past, present and future spaces – on the Australian continent. Second, they are creating what Alexis Wright calls a “sovereignty of the mind” (“On Writing” 6), wherein characters in Aboriginal-authored novels demonstrate or act out their sovereign custodianship of the land irrespective of the legal status of their landholding in the narrative. I have created a term, sovereignMentality, to describe this particular feature or mentality of characters in Indigenous Australian fiction. I call these Aboriginal-authored texts the new Sovereignty Novels, and I argue that sovereignty is asserted in them in direct response to what characters see as the inadequacy of native title rights offered by Mabo. For this reason, Part II of this book is titled “Writing Beyond Mabo,” given that the Indigenous writers I examine are not writing after Mabo – in the sense of following on from or in direct reference to – but beyond Mabo, beyond white discourses of native title. I further argue that Sovereignty Novels constitute a new genre of Indigenous narrative prose in Australia, given a stylistic shift away from the dominant narrative prose format of the 1980s and 1990s, life writing (and away from life writing’s broader focus on assertions of identity), in favour of the format of the novel and an assertion of sovereign, embodied belonging in place.1

I refer to all of the novels I examine in this study as post-Mabo fiction and the worlds created within them as forming a post-Mabo literary ← 5 | 6 → imaginary. Post-Mabo is not a term I have invented; it is now overly used, and is as problematic as any other “post-” term that implies a strict delineation into a before-and-after linguistic or cultural discourse. Literary scholars mostly use post-Mabo as a temporal marker, signifying writing produced after 1992. But for me, post-Mabo is also a way of reading, speaking and writing. It conceptualises reading and writing practices which both reflect and agitate a changed way of thinking that non-Indigenous Australians have had to come to terms with in relation to understandings of Aboriginal attachment to land and an Indigenous presence in Australian society. Mabo legitimated Aboriginal people’s claims to be identified as the first proprietors of the land. Moreover, Indigenous knowledges “have shifted from the barely discernible margins of European histories of denial to the […] frontiers of mainstream political and legal discourse” (D. Otto 70). These factors inform “post-Mabo” as a way of thinking about Australian society, so that we can refer to post-Mabo acts, post-Mabo reflection, post-Mabo discourse – indeed, post-Mabo texts.

In the sense that the prefix “post-” implies not only chronological sequence but also opposition to – or at least a contestation of – its base word (Murfin and Ray 394), as per its use in postmodern, poststructuralism or postcolonial, post-Mabo should ideally be “post-terra nullius.” But the concept of thinking or performing or writing counter to Australia-as-terra nullius has established itself as “post-Mabo” in Australian society and culture, and I will therefore retain the use of the term for this study. It is also important to state that just as the “post” in “postcolonial” “does not mean that colonialism has finally been overcome” (Berensmeyer 128), neither does the “post-” in post-Mabo mean that thinking terra nullius has been overcome. No less a person than the (then) Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, described Australia as “unsettled” and “nothing but bush” twice inside of a few months in 2014, in widely reported public statements (Davidson; A. Henderson). Indigenous scholar Michael Dodson said Abbott’s comments were “a typical European colonial thing to say,” and he added: “The British view that the place was terra nullius and unsettled still lingers in the minds of people like our prime minister” (qtd in Davidson). The Eualeyai/Kamillaroi law professor, Larissa Behrendt, describes Mabo as “an important legal, symbolic and psychological turning point” in Australian history ← 6 | 7 → (“Mabo” 1). But she adds there is still a “psychological terra nullius” rooted in the minds of many Australians (4). What is required, says Behrendt, is “a public that has overcome its psychological terra nullius” (6). I argue that post-Mabo novels are engaged in the task of creating what David Herman calls “storyworlds” (72) – or “mental representations” evoked by a narrative – which are working to overcome Australia’s lingering psychological terra nullius.


VIII, 268
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
Australian literature post-Mabo fiction Mabo decision and Australian culture
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2018. VIII, 268 pp., 2 fig.

Biographical notes

Geoff Rodoreda (Author)

Geoff Rodoreda is a lecturer in the English literature department at the University of Stuttgart, Germany. His PhD at the University of Stuttgart focused on post-Mabo discourses in contemporary Australian fiction. His teaching and research interests include Australian literature, history and culture, Anglophone-African literatures, and contemporary British literature and culture. He previously worked as a journalist at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Adelaide and Darwin.


Title: The Mabo Turn in Australian Fiction
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