Contested Land: Country and terra nullius in Plains of Promise and Benang: From the heart

Jane Gleeson-White


The Mabo decision of 1992 made questions about the definition of land in Australia and its relation to humans newly significant by overturning the British legal fiction of this continent as ‘terra nullius’ (empty land) and acknowledged for the first time in Anglo-Australian law the validity of Aboriginal land claims. Alexis Wright’s Plains of Promise (1997) and Kim Scott’s Benang (1999) were written in the wake of this landmark decision. Both tell stories of children of the Stolen Generations and their ancient ties to their ancestral land, despite their severance from it. Critical scholarship on these novels has focused primarily on their human stories and been conducted in terms of postcolonial theory and discussions of magic realism. In this article I seek to complicate and expand these predominantly anthropocentric readings by drawing on ecocriticism to explore the central role of the non-human world in these novels. I argue they privilege an Indigenous understanding of two regions of the Australian continent as ‘country’ over their conception as terra nullius, a blank canvass available for colonisation and inscription by British property law and Christianity. The novels contest this concept of terra nullius by manifesting ‘country’: a vibrant, active land inextricably bound to its Indigenous people by ancient, enduring laws. They rewrite the continent as black land and suggest their protagonists’ inextricable, enduring ties to it.



Country; ecocriticism; Plains of Promise; Alexis Wright; Benang: From the heart; Kim Scott; Mabo; Indigenous fiction

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