Wirlomin-Noongar woman Claire G. Coleman’s short story “Night bird” is the second First Nations Australia story in Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail’s anthology Unlimited futures: Speculative, visionary Blak+Black fiction, the book I chose for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) Australian Women Writers Gen 5 Week. The week finished officially a week ago, but I’m hoping Bill won’t mind my still referencing it. Coleman is not new to my blog. I reviewed her debut novel, Terra nullius, the year after it came out. She has written more fiction and some non-fiction since then, with a clear focus on the devastating impact of colonisation on First Nations culture and people.
“Night bird” continues this focus. It follows Ambelin Kwaymullina’s story in the anthology, “Fifteen days on Mars” (my review), which works well, because both draw on the importance and role of Ancestors in First Nations culture. Coleman’s story is told first person by an artist who is “too afraid to sleep, too tired to be awake”, who drinks to drown her sorrows, who fears she may be “going mad again [my emph]”. She tells us
I am haunted by the ghost of my Ancestors’ Country like a phantom limb …
I have been cut off from my Country, my ancestors cut up, the land drilled and dug and eaten by machines … my wounded homeland won’t let me rest.
This is not a subtle story. The narrator (whom I think is female, so I’ll go with that) grieves for a life she “could never have” because Country has been “severed”. She has “returned to Country” but, finding it “dead”, “could feel nothing and none” of her Ancestors. She feels haunted, but by what or whom?
I can hear a voice but I can’t make it out. I can hear a song but I can’t catch the words. I can hear the wind and it’s stealing my breath. I can hear nothing and it is screaming.
Country is part of her, but she wants to be free of the haunting, the “wordless voice”, the “phantom presence” that won’t go away. There is a wind, but it is “coming from the wrong direction – away from Country”. Then,
The wind changes, it caresses my back, and suddenly it’s coming from Country.
However, at the same time, a man appears and threatens her. There are now two voices – his and the Ancestors. This is a story about a battle between disempowerment (represented by the man) and empowerment (represented by the Ancestors). Is she, and are they, strong enough to prevail?
I suspect this story was inspired by an experience Coleman describes in her article in Writing the Country (The Griffith Review 63). She describes the life-changing experience of going to Country in 2015, her family’s Country that had been taboo due to a massacre that had occurred there in the nineteenth century. She writes:
I didn’t go there until 2015, that place changed my life forever, my world, my life, even the way I breathed. I took the taboo air into my lungs and I did not die or maybe I did. The bones of my feet landed on the sand and returned to life, I was born again on Country. The story of that place made me a storyteller; story is in my veins.
She says an old man told her that “no matter where we go Country calls out to us” and she writes of the bird, the Wirlo (or curlew), that “to me and mine are family”. Its cry, its scream, “calls me home” – as does the night bird in this story. She describes how Country cares for people as they care for Country. She writes:
I wept when I realised Country had not forgotten me even when I did not know Country. My old-people, my ancestors, would care for me.
All of this is seems embedded in “Night bird”, so now, back to it. It is another example of “Indigenous futurism”. It is ground very much in the real world. The voices that our narrator hears are mysterious, sometimes coming from her phone, sometimes from the air around her, but they are not magical, not fantastical, they are the Ancestors – and the story envisions a healthy relationship with them and thus Country.
On her website, Coleman includes a link to an interview she did with VerityLa after Terra Nullius came out. Among the questions was that one we readers love, which is whether any authors or novels influenced her. The first one she named was HG Wells’ War of the worlds, because it “is great in giving an understanding of how to show an overwhelming powerful enemy destroying a less well-armed defender”. “In fact,” she says, “War of the Worlds is a powerful text for the examination of invasion and colonisation”. You can certainly see its influence in Terra Nullius, and it is evident here too.
Claire G. Coleman
in Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail (ed.), Unlimited futures: Speculative, visionary Blak+Black fiction
North Fremantle: Fremantle Press in association with Djed Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781760991463 (eBook)
15 thoughts on “Claire G. Coleman, Night bird (#Review)”
I’m happy for you to reference my AWW Gen Weeks whenever relevant.
I have written quite a bit about Coleman’s Country because it is also Kim Scott’s – they are both Wirlomin Noongar, from southern WA around Ravensthorpe.
The massacre which so poisons the land is described in Scott’s Benang, and also in Coleman’s (non fiction) Lies Damned Lies.
The mining is for nickel, in particular the formerly BHP Ravensthorpe mine.
Thanks for all that Bill. I think she mentions Ravensthorpe in the GR article.
I have Coleman’s Lies Damned Lies TBR – I’m saving it for Brona’s AusReading Month to try to get as much impact out of reading and reviewing it as I can.
Sounds like a good idea Liz. I should read it too.
If you fancy reading it then, I’d find it fascinating to compare thoughts on it!
Remind me! I could read it for NAIDIC Week in July but I have others to read then … so, if you think of it, remind me for Brona’s month and I’ll try to fit it in.
A slightly jagged small piece of writing, this time ..
Still informed, as always; but less .. smooth.
Because of the subject, of course.
Yes, you are right M-R – a bit disjointed, partly because of the subject and partly because of my split attention right now!
Do you plan to divulge the reason in another post, or what ?! 🙂
Oh no mystery, M-R. Right I now am heavily into downsizing, so:
– major decluttering,
– preparing our house for sale including fixing things that have to be fixed because they are damaged or worn out, and
– ordering new furniture for our move to replace completely dilapidated things like our bed and the sofa I’m sitting on.
This is going to be my life for the next few months …
And getting ready for a trip to Melbourne at the end of this week for three birthdays in early Feb (Mr Gums, Son Gums and Granddaughter Gums).
I forgot you’d Begun On It !
Couldn’t come to a better town, imnsho. 🙂
Anywhere near Carlton ?
Oh no, we are not downsizing to Melbourne – yet, M-R! Love Canberra too much. But in order to visit Melbourne more often, we are simplifying our life here from a family home to an apartment! Ask me in 10 years … Melbourne may be then!
My bad, ST: I meant only in reference to your visit ..
My instinct is to say this is too abstract for me, but I’m also clinging to the idea that what seems fiction in western countries is part of reality for some (here, indigenous) cultures. Basically, I shouldn’t be dismissive because the story is unfamiliar to my way of thinking.
It’s actually not really as abstract as I seem to have made it sound, Melanie