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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 3: Re-writing the Present: Mabo and Contemporary Australia


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Re-writing the Present: Mabo and Contemporary Australia

It is not only historical novels that seek to re-inscribe an Aboriginal presence in the land; contemporary novels set in contemporary Australia also acknowledge, to varying degrees, a continuing Aboriginal connection to the land. For despite the devastating effects of colonisation and the dispossession of many Aboriginal people from their traditional lands, the Mabo decision recognised, in broad terms, that Indigenous peoples’ connection to country remains. Even in urban spaces where buildings stand, and in many rural spaces now managed as farms or as cattle stations or as national parks, Aboriginal people are still able to find evidence of occupation of country. They can identify rock paintings and carvings, walking trails, ceremonial and hunting grounds, and features in the land that still resonate with meaning. These markers of Indigenous culture in the colonised landscape may be located on land that cannot be claimed as “property,” in legal terms, under the provisions of the Native Title Act of 1993. But these markers in the land as well as the stories that continue to be told by Aboriginal people about them have, nevertheless, retained their residual power. For the majority non-Indigenous population, these markers in the land are “unsettling reminders […] that alternative and Indigenous claims to land are ever present” (Banivanua Mar and Edmonds 4).

These “ever present” Indigenous claims to land provide the dramatic backdrop to key post-Mabo narratives that I have already...

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