Cannibalism and Colonialism: Lilian's Story and (White) Women's Belonging

Laura Deane


In 1985, when Kate Grenville’s novel about a fat, unlovely bag lady appeared on the Australian literary landscape, Lilian’s Story was celebrated as a feminist and postcolonial text. By locating Lilian as ex-centric to the nation, to inhabit the abjected zones of the colony—the bush, the asylum, the streets of post-Federation Sydney—Grenville is commonly read as a feminist writer intervening into the gender politics that shaped Australia. Feminists celebrate the ways in which she carves out discursive spaces for women who have existed largely in the interstices between public memory and official history. Postcolonial critical interpretations of Lilian being ‘colonised’ by her father, provoked by the rape narrative, have tended to reproduce the postcolonial trope of Australia’s shift from a colonial relationship to a national structure. Such readings largely neglect the colonial violence of Australian patriarchy, and the skewed gender norms that result when a host culture is transplanted to an imperial outpost. Taking up the colonial metaphor structuring the relationship between Lilian and her father, I read Lilian’s ‘madness’ as a response to discourses of ‘race’ and gender that circulate in the colonial Imaginary to position women as the site for racial anxiety about colonial ‘dirt’, contamination and disorder.  While Lilian approaches the rebellious female grotesque celebrated in postcolonial feminist theorising, her obese body also signifies the devouring nature of colonialism. This paper engages with the white politics of women’s ‘belonging’ inscribed in Lilian’s Story to disinter the schizoid nature of white women’s relationship to colonial patriarchy.


Kate Grenville; feminist criticism; postcolonial criticism; colonialism; female grotesque; Australian Gothic

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