Claire G. Coleman first burst onto the Australian sci-fi scene in 2017 with the publication of her debut novel, Terra Nullius.
A novel exploring colonisation, Terra Nullius takes the reader deep into the experience of living as a colonised people.
It begins with the escape of a young man named Jackie from a mission and the cruel Sister Bagra.
Figures from WA’s colonial history make appearances: a man in charge of the ‘natives’ is referred to as the Devil, a reference to A.O. Neville, Chief Protector of Aborigines between 1915 and 1940.
But once the reader settles into the fictionalised historical narrative, Coleman whips the rug out from under them.
Jackie and the other colonised people are humans; and the colonisers are alien invaders who have taken the Earth as the newest corner of their galactic empire.
A masterpiece of deeply affective science fiction, Terra Nullius won a raft of awards, beginning with the State Library of Queensland black&write! Fellowship soon after its publication, and became a new benchmark in Australian sci-fi.
Coleman identifies with the south coast Noongar people of the area around Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun, WA.
She grew up in a forestry settlement in the middle of a tree plantation, not far from Perth.
Coleman said writing science fiction was the obvious choice for her—and not just because it was a useful vehicle for communicating a political point.
“The first reason [for writing science fiction] is that I happen to really like reading it,” she said.
“They say to make sure you write a book you’d like to read, otherwise you’ll be really bored reading it.”
She said sci-fi has been used for making political points for as long as it’s existed.
“It’s a very useful form for slipping lessons into literary work without doing so obviously; you build an entire world … around a single concept you want to educate your audience about.”
Coleman pointed to the classics of science fiction: War of the Worlds, 1984, and The Handmaid’s Tale. All were explicitly political.
Before writing her debut, Coleman studied computer science. After completing her studies, she had a mental breakdown.
Coleman was pragmatic about the subject of mental health: “I don’t mind saying I had a mental breakdown, because it’s true.”
After spending some time working in hospitality, the long-term effects of her breakdown pushed Coleman into homelessness. Having “not much going on”, she took up travelling with a partner.
“If I was going to be without a fixed address. I might as well be without a fixed address enjoying myself,” she said.
Coleman also made the point it is far harder to be arrested for vagrancy from inside a caravan.
Though she didn’t realise at the time, the experience of homelessness vastly impacted Coleman’s writing.
“I’m never conscious of how my life is affecting my stories. I tend to just write then look back and say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’,” she said.
“As several reviewers say, it’s interesting that Terra Nullius was written in a caravan, because virtually no one [in the novel] is staying still.”
In her second novel, The Old Lie, Coleman meditates on the devastation and displacement of war. Inspired by the First and Second World Wars, the titular ‘old lie’ is that to die for your country in war is a glorious good.
Refugees feature prominently in the novel, and one character, Jimmy, is on the run and homeless.
“The character of Jimmy spent a lot of time in the space equivalent of a departure lounge and some of those scenes were written in departure lounges,” Coleman said.
The author said her experience of homelessness made the character possible to write.
“It’s not only the practicalities of surviving homelessness that’s hard for people to write, it’s the little subtle emotional triggers and the point of view; the little bits of change in mindset … that would make it hard for someone to understand … if they haven’t survived homelessness.”
It’s the diversity of life experiences that create an interesting writer, Coleman said. For her, the field of diverse writers currently gaining traction with mainstream audiences is long overdue.
“I look at this idea of a more diverse scientific fiction, or speculative fiction, and Black, Indigenous, People of Colour [writing] science fiction—I look at it, and I think: firstly, why didn’t it exist before? Why did we have to wait so long for full flowering science fiction?”
Coleman said much of the speculative fiction she reads by Indigenous authors is a magical realism that defies categorisation.
“Aboriginal people don’t consider themselves to have written magical realism,” she said.
“And the issue with magic that often comes up is people will often say that magical realism is just the mainstream way of describing how Indigenous or Black people write anyway.”
Moving forward, Coleman’s next project is still under wraps, but readers can be sure she will continue her journey of truth-telling.
“Most of what we were taught in school about Australian history is all … lies or misleading,” she said.
“What I have been trying to achieve from the very beginning is changing the way that history is understood in this country, so that the lies have no place to be anymore.”
By Sarah Smit