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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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Chapter 1: Four Core Post-Mabo Novels


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Four Core Post-Mabo Novels

In this chapter, I examine four high-profile, prize-winning novels, which I classify as exemplary post-Mabo fiction. Two are novels set in 1990s’ Australia, and the Mabo decision and its consequences figure directly in the plot. The other two are historical novels which engage with the discourse of terra nullius and an Aboriginal presence in the colonial landscape and in history. I will seek to demonstrate the ways in which these core post-Mabo texts participate in a re-writing of frontier and settler experiences – historically and contemporaneously – through a re-inscription of Aboriginal people as both a visible presence in the landscape and as active agents of land management. These novels also examine the fears, the tensions, the misunderstandings, and in particular the violent conflicts that occurred between settlers and Aboriginal people for possession of the land. These texts – their reception, the discussion and debate they promoted, their thematics, the critical acclaim (and critique) they have attracted – reveal the way in which Mabo has opened up space for a new fictional authorship and readership on prior and continuing Aboriginal occupation of the land.

David Malouf, Remembering Babylon (1993)

In David Malouf’s historical novel Remembering Babylon, the land beyond the fence at the edge of colonial settlement is not inscribed as empty. It is quite clearly a place inhabited by Aboriginal people, and the settlers fear their presence. It is through the character of Gemmy, an English...

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