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The Mabo Turn in Australian Fiction


Geoff Rodoreda

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.

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Conclusion: Dominant, Residual and Emergent Cultures


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Dominant, Residual and Emergent Cultures

Having argued that both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal authored contemporary fiction be read within a broad post-Mabo framework, in this concluding chapter I seek to consolidate my arguments by proposing that the Mabo turn in Australian literature and culture be considered through the lens of Raymond Williams’s relatively old but still useful model, later extended by Fredric Jameson, of cultural dominance. This is not meant to be prescriptive. The Williams/Jameson model is not the only way to read the broad cultural shifts that have occurred and that continue to surface in the wake of and “beyond” the Mabo decision. But it is a useful model because it can be adapted to account for the various strains or tendencies of literary endeavour I have addressed in this study. In short, using Jameson’s and Williams’s terminology, I propose to name mainstream, post-Mabo discourse as the “dominant” cultural tendency in Australia today. The discourse of terra nullius is in turn described as a “residual” cultural tendency, while the discourse of sovereignty is an “emergent” cultural strain. In broad terms, we see these cultural tendencies in Australia’s cultural-social sphere, and, more specifically, we see it in literature. I will explain what I mean by beginning with Fredric Jameson.

In Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Jameson is concerned about being able to distinguish late twentieth-century aesthetic and cultural production from earlier, modernist cultural work. He therefore argues...

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