Westerly Centre

Australian literature after Mabo

Further Information



Australian Research Council



2011 - 2013


Book stack The relationship between human beings and the land is one of the classic issues in the literature of Australia. That relationship is most often characterised as a difficult one, whether as a long search for a form or technique capable of rendering the unique environment, as a search for a home, or as a physical struggle to conquer the land.


The project will explore the ways in which the literary exploration of belonging or exile is influenced by concepts from the law, especially ideas of property. In 1990 Michael Meehan asked, 'How far has our national legal story disguised and suppressed the truths of its world, rather than exposing and articulating them?' In retrospect, this question can be read as a challenge to the foundational legal fiction of terra nullius, and as an anticipation of the High Court ruling in Mabo.

By acknowledging the existence of another legal system and another language of property in Australia, Mabo created the opportunity for new stories of land and ownership to be heard. The project is a study of those new stories, of the literary responses to and anticipations of Mabo. Artworks have been created and tendered in support of native title claims, films such as Black and White, One Night the Moon and Australian Rules have foregrounded the race-based legal systems and conflicts of ownership in Australia, and new work in Indigenous jurisprudence and creative writing has emerged in the wake of this decision.

It will also examine the extent to which Mabo and indigenous title have reshaped Australian writing across a number of genres. Ian McLean observed in an article on the art of Gordon Bennett, ‘The repeal of terra nullius in the Mabo case may have exposed the mythology which secured the British occupation and exploitation of Australia, but it did not foreclose the myth itself.’

The research has a number of dimensions, including:

  • a survey of the variety of literary responses to the Mabo case and later native title decisions
  • an intertextual study of history, literature, politics and anthropology from the three decades prior to 1992, tracing engagement with the revisionist histories, indigenous petitions, and other writings
  • a search for older texts that recognise or foreshadow indigenous property rights
  • a critique of the discursive forms developed in literary texts to represent Australian space as terra nullius
  • an analysis of the rhetorical strategies and devices of Australian property law, the narrative and performative arts of ownership, the forms of legal invention.

Type of grant

The project is funded by an ARC Discovery Grant from the Australian Research Council (ARC).

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