‘Witnessing the Violence of the Settler State in Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and Lee Maracle’s Celia’s Song’

Laura Hamilton

University of Adelaide



Journal of Australian, Canadian, and Aotearoa New Zealand Studies 1, issue 1 (December 2021): 109-139, https://doi.org/10.52230/NESQ6849


A Canadian literary scholar based in Australia, I read “Aboriginal/Indigenous” Australian and Canadian literatures in English as sites where the ways in which we perceive racial and cultural violence might be re-configured. Cognizant of the role that literary studies discourse has had and continues to have in these nations as a tool for the maintenance of official, state-recognised ‘reconciliation’ narratives, my work looks instead to the literary encounter itself as a potential site for registering, or witnessing, the violence that the settler state attempts to screen off behind the scenes of its official attitudes towards reconciliation. This article will explore the concept of literary witnessing in an archive of trans-Indigenous literature across settler colonial states, linking award-winning authors Alexis Wright (Waanyi, writing in Australia) and Lee Maracle (Sto:lo, writing in Canada). Analysing Wright’s Carpentaria and Maracle’s Celia’s Song, I trace how these novels enact and inspire, but also complicate, witnessing in Canada and Australia (both of which maintain official policies of inclusion and multiculturalism, but are actually held up by a regime of continuing racialized violence). I also examine how these works of literature model ignorance and choosing to turn away as a form of violence and a roadblock to justice. Finally, I ask how these novels might provide models for subjectivity and justice that subvert the judiciary systems of these settler states, dislodging ‘witnessing’ from its place in discourses of state-authorized “justice”, and placing it in the realm of Indigenous law and the potential of an ethical (literary) encounter.


Literary Witnessing, Trans-Indigenous Literature, Reconciliation, Settler Colonialism, Justice

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