Getting to know the author, including:
- cultural background
- family history and relationships
- personal experiences
Coleman is asked by Astrid Edwards at the opening of the interview about where she thinks her work aligns in the contemporary speculative fiction canon. Typically, speculative fiction is the fiction of “What if…?” Investigate the verb “to speculate”. Find five other synonyms. How do the synonyms provide further insight into the nature of speculative fiction?
Speculative fiction is often used as a form of resistance, something that Coleman refers to in her interview. She explains that it is a malleable genre where people can “sneak” political ideas into the consciousness of the readers. She alludes to its scope for Aboriginal writers, who are able to subvert the typical narrative of Australia’s history of dispossession.
In an interview with The Guardian, Coleman goes one step further, saying, “Aboriginal people live in a dystopia every day. The problem is that the world we live in, people don’t understand that.” This idea is also explored in Beyond the Dark in Amy Schoonens’ chapter “‘Dystopia’: a history of the genre in (and) Australia”. Using previous studies and knowledge of the history of First Nations peoples in Australia, as well as news articles and social commentary, consider why Coleman confirms that Aboriginal people are living in a dystopia. Complete this table (PDF, 97KB).
Coleman says that the title of her text, Terra Nullius: A Novel, is a “bilingual play on words”. Have students investigate the two words: terra and nullius.
Your students’ history studies should bring up the most common use of terra nullius in that it was used by English colonisers to justify the invasion of Australia. The myth of terra nullius has long been debunked and officially put to rest by the Mabo decision in 1992.
Coleman explains that whilst the common understanding is that it means “nobody’s land”, terra can also mean “earth”, thus also translating to “nobody’s earth”. In light of the plot twist and interplanetary warfare that occurs, the title helps to reinforce the idea of colonisation and also helps to universalise the experience of invasion for readers.
Coleman has said that writing Terra Nullius was an opportunity to provoke empathy in people who had none.
- How does understanding the title do this?
- What position does the title put readers in before even understanding the content?
Consider other myths about Indigenous Australians (use the Creative Spirits website as a starting point and then direct students to more authentic resources such as the AIATSIS site to explore and study particular examples of ongoing myths and widely-held erroneous beliefs). Consider how they might be able to interpret and “play” on them to give Terra Nullius a new title.
The writers’ journey, including:
- development of approaches, style and individual writing characteristics
- themes, issues and motivations
Whilst being an example of speculative fiction, Coleman’s work also features elements of allegory, where the plot developments are suggestive of Australia’s colonial frontier. An allegory is a story that has another story or message hidden underneath. Terra Nullius combines colonisation, resistance and a dystopian environment to provide such parallel messaging. Another allegory of the colonisation of Australia is Shaun Tan and John Marsden’s The Rabbits.
- Is it easy to identify the parallels between the two stories (Australia’s history and Terra Nullius)?
- Can you make any direct connections (i.e. are any events easily understood to be direct re-imaginings of Australian history)?
- Are the connections too close/obvious to the truth to be truly speculative fiction?
- To what (if any) extent does speculative fiction need to revolve around made-up events that did not actually happen?
Allegory utilises symbolism to broaden the deeper meaning of a text for the reader. Discuss the symbols used in Terra Nullius. These could be:
- character traits
- items or talismanic objects
- repeated phrases or words
Have students complete a table such as the following to extract and identify the concepts of an allegory as they appear in Terra Nullius. Working in small groups or pairs may help students to uncover more ideas.
|Terra Nullius: A Novel|
|A symbol used in the text||The literal meaning of the symbol||Figurative meaning of the symbol||Why use this symbol?|
It is no secret that Terra Nullius contains a surprising and important plot twist, wherein it is revealed that all of humanity is oppressed by an alien species. In her interview, Coleman reveals that she did this in order to “universalise the experience” of invasion for all readers. Her use of aliens highlights what damage humans are doing to each other and, with the inclusion of interplanetary warfare, has allowed her to explore this more fully.
Coleman has also been quoted as saying she “was trying to foreshadow without foreshadowing” when planning for this plot twist. It was designed to be surprising but not surprising at the same time.
Students should experiment with a plot twist in their own writing. You can charge them with the task to create a new story, or they may have one as part of a writing portfolio they could edit. Encourage them to think about:
- Avoiding an obvious or predictable twist. Students should brainstorm all the possible options and then come up with one that is totally “outside of the box”.
- What they want the reader to learn or understand. What is the key theme or overarching message of the story in the first place and how can a plot twist reiterate this?
- Creating emotional investment in the characters and the plot. Students should not try to trick the reader or cheapen their experience of reading the story.
- Creating a plot twist that is designed to deliver the response from the reader that they desire.
Some other suggestions for plot twists can be found here.
The writer’s craft, including:
- meaning in context
There are three main characters that Coleman speaks to in her interview with Edwards. Have students explore these characters and their role in the text through the following activities.
Coleman refers to Jacky as “the everyman”. The everyman is a stock character who represents all people, and is usually facing a challenge in extraordinary circumstances. Complete the following Venn diagram (PDF, 211KB) about Jacky and the everyman.
Coleman explains that Johnny Star is somewhat of a hero, role modelling how Settlers should behave toward the Natives. Coleman describes Johnny as a villain who starts to humanise his victims and changes their behaviour as a result. She says that Johnny is meant to be “the direct opposite of Rohan”; a foil. He rebels against the ideas of the Settlers and becomes an outlaw.
A foil is a character who shows qualities that are directly in contrast with those of another character in the same text. The idea is that the traits of the foil (usually a minor or secondary character) highlight the traits of the other character (usually the protagonist or another major character). The etymology of the word relates to the practice of backing precious gems with foil to make them shine more brilliantly.
Consider Johnny and Rohan and complete the following activity.
- Illustrate the characters of Johnny and Rohan on a piece of paper (separated by a line down the middle).
- Draw the symbols associated with each character (aim for two per character).
- Use quotes that highlight their differences on each side (aim for a minimum of three quotations).
- Describe the situations where each character’s qualities are best on display.
- Respond: how is the relationship between Rohan and Johnny used to highlight the message of Terra Nullius?
Sister Bagra represents the cultural genocide that takes place in Terra Nullius. She is described by Coleman as a despicable character who is not meant to be at all likeable, but through her, students can learn about the nature of evil. Sister Bagra believes that she is doing the right thing and easily demonstrates that she can be “any of us” if we are not careful with our actions; we can all become a person who does evil things.
Sister Bagra’s actions open up a dialogue about evil and whether, as Coleman argues, there are such creatures as evil people or whether it is just their deeds that are evil. It is worth contrasting Sister Bagra with other “evil” characters in film and literature, though be sure to:
- clarify a working definition of evil
- constitute examples of evil behaviour
- discuss whether villains are evil or just bad
Have students create a listicle like those they can find online. The topic is “Top 5 reasons why Sister Bagra is an evil character”. The task is to identify five examples of Sister Bagra’s behaviour that link to your established definition of evil. Use quotes to support statements. A guide for writing a listicle can be found here.
Edwards and Coleman discuss the structure of Terra Nullius, particularly the way that each chapter starts. Each chapter starts with a snippet of a poem, an excerpt from a history book, a letter or other document.
- Whose view is being represented in each snippet?
- What is the purpose of the piece of information included?
- Why would Coleman choose to structure her text like this?
- How do the snippets direct the story and assist in the development of the plot?
Toward the end of the interview, Coleman reveals that these snippets are fake – she created them herself by imitating the voice and style of the colonisers. Are there any repercussions with this approach? Does knowing this detract from their impact?
Have students experiment with rewriting the snippets themselves, offering a new interpretation of each section of Terra Nullius based on their key takeaway ideas or on parts they want to emphasise/draw attention to in their reading.
Coleman remarks that it is a “good thing” that white people wrote down everything they did, essentially keeping a paper trail of all the illegal activities they were undertaking. Some of this paper trail is used by Coleman as her chapter markers, but it can also form part of the storytelling experience.
Epistolary novels or stories are written as a series of documents. Usually the documents are letters but they can also include diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documentary texts. Well-known examples of epistolary texts include: The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Red Shoe by Ursula Dubosarsky. These texts use letters, diary entries, shipping logs and newspaper clippings, amongst other items, to tell their stories.
Challenge students to write a short story that includes other items within it that enhance the story. How can they use a “paper trail” created by characters in their story to enhance the direction of the plot or develop the theme more?
Comparison with other writers and texts:
- versions of style and key themes in other modes, media and contexts
- aspects of genre
- other writers using similar approaches or dealing with similar ideas
- evaluation of the body of work within Australian culture and literature
Coleman repeatedly highlights texts that she found influential in writing her novel. She recalls the following as texts that influenced her:
- George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four
- Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale
- H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds
- The Twilight Zone stories by Rod Serling
Edwards also comments that the publication After Australia edited by Michael Mohammed Ahmad lends itself to comparison with Terra Nullius due to similar overarching themes and the Indigenous backgrounds of the contributors.
Edwards asks Coleman to situate Terra Nullius amongst contemporary speculative fiction. Coleman explains the history of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and some of her grievances with the direction of the story. She explains that Terra Nullius is a reaction, or sequel, to War of the Worlds. If time allows, consider a comparative study between the two texts.
In addition, Coleman references her work in relation to the genre of invasion literature. She is unable to think of the name of the first invasion novel that spawned the genre but it could be The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer by George Tomkyns Chesney (1871). She also references an invasion novel that was popular in Australia, presumably The Yellow Wave (1895) by Kenneth Mackay, which reflected the societal concerns of being invaded by China or Japan.
Consider studying small excerpts from these texts with students.
- What similarities can be drawn between the texts?
- How do they represent the genre of speculative fiction?
- What traits has Coleman reimagined in her own text?
- How does Coleman expand on the conventions of earlier invasion novels?
Rich assessment task
Coleman asserts that she lives by the axiom “write what you want to read”. She applies this approach to a reimagining of Australia’s invasion, integrating it into the characters she creates and embedding all of this into the language she uses. Her dark sense of humour is richly woven into the kinds of “intellectual games” she plays with her readers
This task (PDF, 119KB) is designed to have students follow Coleman’s lead and produce a piece that celebrates something they want to read.