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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 4: Sovereignty: Mabo and Aboriginal-Authored Fiction


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Sovereignty: Mabo and Aboriginal-Authored Fiction

For a variety of possible reasons, there has been a reluctance among scholars of Australian literature to attempt to identify recent new directions in Aboriginal narrative prose. Specifically, scholars suggest new directions in twenty-first-century Aboriginal writing but have been reluctant, thus far, to construct a historiographic framework by which this writing might be described and analysed in context. For more than two decades now, major companions and general histories of Australian literature have predominantly sought to describe and analyse just two phases (and genres) of Indigenous literary production: “protest poetry” of the 1960s and 1970s, and life writing of the 1980s and 1990s. The work of identifying trends in Aboriginal novel writing, as I will seek to show, has proved more elusive. It is not the aim of this chapter to review developments in contemporary Aboriginal fiction across the time period referred to above but I do wish to identify a general shift that has occurred in this new century in Indigenous narrative prose. In essence, it is a broad-spectrum shift away from life writing modes and life writing’s focus on assertions of identity towards the format of the novel, asserting what I will call a sovereignMentality, a self-evidentiary, no-need-to-justify sense of embodied belonging in place, in literary characters. (I will explain this term more fully shortly.) We see various representations of sovereign space and sovereignMentality in the four novels I will examine in this chapter:...

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