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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 2: Re-writing the Past: Mabo and History


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Re-writing the Past: Mabo and History

Kerryn Goldsworthy notes that in the twentieth century Australian novelists returned again and again to the historical novel “as a form of nation-building, of alternative history writing, of expiation for colonial guilts, or of comment on their own times” (108). This observation also applies to historical novels of the post-Mabo era. However, there is a significant element of difference that might generally be ascribed to historical novels written since the Mabo decision. According to Goldsworthy, earlier twentieth-century historical fiction concentrated on three aspects of nineteenth-century Australian history: “convicts, pioneers and gold” (109). Likewise, Susan Sheridan notes that most historical fiction of the post-World War II decades “reinforced the prevailing ‘national story’ of heroic pioneers and oppressed convicts” (“Historical” 9). What it did not do, to any significant extent, was thematise the history of contact between settlers and the original inhabitants, the dispossession of Aboriginal people from their lands, and the legacy of frontier violence.

Sheridan does name some exceptions to the standard historical narrative (among them, Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land, published in 1941 [“Historical” 8]), and before I proceed I would like to add some other texts to this list. Thea Astley, whom Sheridan also names (9), in both her 1974 novel A Kindness Cup and her 1987 novel It’s Raining in Mango, sought to incorporate Aboriginal histories into her fiction. (I elaborate on this briefly in the next chapter when I...

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