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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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There is a moment of liminality at the beginning of David Malouf’s 1993 novel Remembering Babylon that might now be read as a liminal moment in contemporary Australian fiction. The protagonist, Gemmy Fairley, emerges from the bush on the other side of the frontier in mid-nineteenth-century Queensland. He is an English man who has lived most of his life with Aboriginal people and is attempting to return to non-Aboriginal society. He leaps onto the top rail of the boundary fence and totters, “arms outflung as if preparing for flight,” between the Aboriginal world and the world of the British settlement (Malouf, Remembering 3). At this moment, Gemmy is balanced precariously on a boundary between two worlds.

This balancing act can be seen as symbolic for the position the book Remembering Babylon occupies as a transitional text in Australian fiction. Malouf’s novel examines the figure of the settler not as heroic pioneer, secure in his or her place on the frontier of an unpeopled wilderness, but as a figure confronted with the “fragility of […] fixed cartographies of identity and belonging” (Fjellestad 384). This text might be identified as the first of a series of novels, published from the beginning of the 1990s, that seeks to re-examine and re-question the colonialist enterprise in Australia, and that seeks to explore, as Malouf’s text does, the “profound dilemmas and traumas lying at the very foundation of Australian settler culture […] bound up with the processes of colonization” (Fjellestad 380). Gemmy stands...

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