Aborigines Receive a New Visibility in Fiction
In his PhD dissertation, Geoff Rodoreda examined the impact of the Australian High Court’s so-called Mabo decision on Australian literature. The Australian has won two prizes for his work, among them the renowned Dissertation Award of the Association for Anglophone Postcolonial Studies. The literary studies scholar from the Department of English Literatures at the University of Stuttgart was able to show that Australian fiction writing has changed significantly and in various ways since the Mabo decision on Aboriginal land rights.
In 1992 Australia’s highest court delivered its landmark Mabo decision. For the first time in Australian history, the High Court recognized a claim led by an Indigenous Australian, Eddie Koiki Mabo, that he and other Indigenous peoples had customary ‘native title’ rights to land. This decision created a radical change in land law but also in Australians’ understanding of their rights to land, explains Rodoreda. More than any other event in Australian history, the Mabo decision challenged non-Indigenous Australians, in particular, to reconsider their relationship to land, identity, belonging and history.
The First Fundamental Study of the Impacts on Literature
In his study, published in 2018 as The Mabo Turn in Australian Fiction, Rodoreda postulates that these new understandings must have had an impact on Australian fiction writing. In order to demonstrate this, the 52-year-old investigated 19 contemporary Australian novels written by both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal authors. The result is the first in-depth, broad-based analysis of this topic: “My readings and analyses revealed that new understandings of land and of history triggered by the Mabo decision are reflected and refracted in Australian fiction writing,” says Rodoreda. “At the same time, fiction writing — stories told about land and history — has had a major influence on new understandings of identity, belonging and history.” Rodoreda was able to define a major shift in literary production, a cultural turn: “A post-Mabo literature is what we are now reading.”
Geoff Rodoreda argues that before the Mabo decision, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were largely inconspicuous or insignificant as characters in Australian fiction. This changed with Mabo. Indigenous Australians along with their culture and their history became a presence. Fiction writers today, says Rodoreda, create Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal characters with a wider variety of interactions and understandings of each other that move beyond cliché. Historical novelists, too, are re-writing the story of Australia’s colonisation with a more honest focus on the violence of dispossession.
Rodoreda also investigated new directions in Aboriginal-authored novels: “In their stories, Indigenous writers are not responding to what the Mabo decision affirmed – native title – but to what Mabo denied them, namely sovereignty.” For while the High Court acknowledged Aboriginal people’s traditional rights to land in Mabo, it also confirmed British sovereignty over the continent. “But in contemporary Aboriginal fiction Aboriginal characters behave as if they’ve retained sovereignty. They exercise sovereignty over past, present and future Australian space,” explains Rodoreda. These ‘Sovereignty Novels’ constitute a new genre of Indigenous narrative prose, given a marked stylistic shift away from the dominant life-writing formats of the 1980s and 90s as well as life writing’s primary focus on identity.
In recognition of his scholarly achievement, the Association for Anglophone Postcolonial Studies has presented Rodoreda with its Dissertation Award 2018. As well, in Düsseldorf in October this year, the Association for Australian Studies will award Rodoreda its prize for the best PhD thesis.
Dr. Geoff Rodoreda, Institute for Literary Studies, University of Stuttgart, Tel. 0711/685- 83095, E-Mail: geoff.rodoreda[at]ilw.uni-stuttgart.de