The limits of writing trauma in the colony
Reviewed: Claire G. Coleman, Lies, Damned Lies, Ultimo Press
In so-called Australia the trauma of colonisation persists. There are white police shooting and killing young Aboriginal men without consequence, the underreported deaths of Noongar women in the Perth CBD, the COVID-19 health crisis in Aboriginal communities in New South Wales and relentless exploitation of Country—most recently seen in Western Australia, where the state government granted a fertiliser company approval to build in a sacred area without consulting traditional custodians. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Yet the prevalent narrative is that colonisation has already happened, that it is a thing of the past, with the harm it has caused and is still causing being tokenised at best. In Lies, Damned Lies, Claire G. Coleman delves into this injustice to illuminate the sources of what she refers to as ‘the great all-consuming shame in Australia’s psyche’. She is explicit in her aims: ‘I have made it my mission, my life’s work to uncover, expose and destroy the lies embedded deeply in the history of the colony currently called Australia.’
In the first essay in the collection Coleman introduces a main theme. This is reflective of the book’s subtitle, ‘A personal exploration of the impact of colonisation’: of how trauma often repeats, especially when it is a deep harm that has not been dealt with and must be revisited—whether prompted or not. She describes her ancestral land, Noongar Country (the area that includes so-called Perth), and tells of the traces of a massacre there. In the first instance, Coleman writes:
I was told … that blackfellas drove through there with their windows wound up tight and their doors locked. So many Noongar had died there, in the killing times, I was told, there were so many ghosts, that to breathe the air might make you sick.
And the second, appearing within three pages:
It would make you sick if you were dumb enough to go there. My dad told me that blackfellas drove through that town with their windows closed tight, not to breathe the air, not to get the bad stuff, the ghost stuff, on them.
Trauma compels the traumatised to revisit traumatic events in minute detail, to feel it and relive it, embodied, particularly if there has yet to be closure.
Of course, trauma has roots. The foundational lie Coleman refers to was passed down in her family: colonisation is an intergenerational harm. She did not know she was Aboriginal until she was in her twenties. Although she found out about her cultural heritage only in adulthood, she reflects that her father taught her skills he had learned without knowing their origins. She recounts how her grandfather told her father that they were Fijian in order to prevent his removal by the assimilationist state, allowing him ‘to stay with family in Western Australia in the 40s, perhaps one of the most dangerous places and times for Aboriginal children, particularly mixed-race Aboriginal children’. The lie persisted, Coleman states, even ‘after children had ceased being stolen because it’s hard to break the habit of decades; his justifiable fear would have continued’.
Despite the subtitle, Coleman largely leaves personal reflection—enough for a book on its own—behind to move into polemic mode. At its best, Lies, Damned Lies is clear and emphatic: ‘Every blak death in custody is a war crime and proof that the war continues … Every blak person homeless on the street on lands that once belonged to us is proof the war continues.’ Coleman’s sense of responsibility as a writer and public figure is reflected in the broad approach she takes to the subject. One essay, ‘No, I will not thank you for your invasion’, began as what she describes as a ‘Twitter rant’ in response to Keith Windschuttle, who posted a think piece online accusing her of being a ‘hypocrite’, implying that she should be thankful for the benefits of colonisation. Coleman has a very active internet presence, and this is apparent in the rhetorical approach in Lies, Damned Lies. As she writes: ‘My skills are most useful right where I am, writing, speaking, arguing, slaying trolls.’ This argument is a mode that demands complete airtight-ness and thus informs the breadth of her concerns; every claim must be met with a counterclaim, rebutting every mistruth presented. She engages regularly with Twitter users whose usernames are primarily numbers, and who seem to exist merely to have a go at public figures, especially if they are women, and even more so if they are Aboriginal women.
Coleman describes Lies, Damned Lies, which contains 24 essays, as being like a ‘compilation album’. The book covers family history, Bla(c)k Lives Matter, climate change, decolonisation, alcohol, the myth of terra nullius, agriculture, Australia Day, art, James Cook, the Northern Territory Intervention, Twitter, QAnon, sci-fi and horror. There is an aside about the brand ‘Coon’, which after an anti-racist campaign by Stephen Hagan renamed themselves ‘Cheer’ in 2020. The effect this assemblage produces resembles an online fight; no matter how many facts are deployed, or the standards of rigour and accuracy involved, you have simply lost by the mere act of engaging with your detractors—because you are now affected in your body, and inadvertently you have learned that ‘the cheese now known as Cheer apparently never used the “Cooning” process in its production’.
In ‘The Claude Glass’, Coleman uses Claude glasses (small black mirrors used to reflect landscapes in the eighteenth century) as a tool for discussing racism, and those who claim they do not see race. Her given definition of settler colonialism is quoted directly from the first two sentences on the Wikipedia page, which seems to undermine the authority of the essay. The chapter ‘I, Monster’ is an exploration of misogynoir, blending witches, queerness, literary vampires and film criticism:
We are the witches who were killed in trials in Europe, in Salem, in Massachusetts. Nowhere in the holy books does it say that witches are mostly or all women, yet it is mostly women who were accused; it was mostly women who were killed; always.
For Coleman, the form of the sentence is the same as the form of the book; she wants to address every single untruth, whatever its impact. She does not give the reader space to read between the lines; there is no room for misunderstanding.
In ‘Debunking the Australian pygmies’, Coleman’s rebuttal of the unfounded and bizarre idea that pygmies predated Aboriginal custodianship of the continent, she states that ‘there is no harm in being rigorous; no harm in making sure that even a straw man has no legs to stand on’. It is unfortunate that this chapter is far longer than her illumination of the intersection of Aboriginal art and law (‘Aboriginal Art is a Political Thing’), and resilience through apocalyptic changes to the environment (‘Indigenous Wisdom and Climate Change). Focused on minutiae (for example, the two separate dates on which ‘Advance Australia Fair’ was made the national anthem, and mismatches between colonists’ diary accounts), Coleman undermines the effectiveness of some of her arguments. Clarity is at times subordinated to breadth. The effect of trauma, the compulsion to repeat and to address every detail, influences the form and style in a way that resists reading, or can make a reader resistant.
However, unlike her previous books, the novels Terra Nullius (2017) and The Old Lie (2019), Coleman here explicitly addresses the book’s audience: ‘Only you, white people, can do this. Nobody else has the power or the privilege to end white supremacy.’ This is why she sets herself against every lie on which the nation is built—as she says, ‘if Australia is going to mature, decolonise, be at peace with itself, it first must tell itself the truth’. But perhaps the mistake is assuming that the trauma of colonisation continues because ‘Australia’ doesn’t know. The edifice of violence has calcified around the lies; it remains even if they evaporate.
To address this, Coleman offers a powerful conceptual shift, which gets us outside that structure: ‘All novels set in Australia are post-apocalyptic.’ Having survived one end of the world already, the ‘survival techniques and unique timeless culture’ of First Nations people ‘could teach others to survive the coming climate apocalypse’. But this still seems to predicate an acknowledgement of the value of Aboriginal culture and knowledge in terms of how it can benefit settlers.
As we have seen time and time again, ‘Australia’ and its mechanisms are literally incapable of changing white supremacist carceral capitalism from the inside; we have been ineffective so far in the face of climate change, natural disasters and, most recently, a pandemic. But what I believe settlers can do is pay attention to activist groups such as Sisters Inside, the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance, Frontier War Stories and Grandmothers Against Removals. Lies, Damned Lies is an exhortation to settlers to engage with the truth. We can pay the rent, listen, turn up when and where we are told to, and get out of the way of the sovereignty that exists whether white Australia believes in it or not. •
Alex Gerrans is a nonfiction writer from Meanjin whose work has appeared in Overland, the Guardian and TEXT, among other places.