‘Listen        to the People Who Know’: Nuclear Colonial Memory in the Work of Natalie Harkin and Yhonnie Scarce


In this article, I ask how the British nuclear humanities, and in particular literary studies, might turn towards Indigenous Australian artistic, literary and critical work on nuclear legacies. Reading responses to the afterlives of British nuclear operations at Maralinga by the activist-poet Dr Natalie Harkin (Narungga) and the artist Yhonnie Scarce (Kokatha / Nukunu), I consider how, for British scholars, interpreting Aboriginal nuclear texts asks particular questions of critical practice, drawing attention to empire’s intellectual, as well as social and chemical, residues. Such work invites a reflexive critical approach, attentive to what feminist and Indigenous scholars call ‘positionality’. In Britain, the places blasted and irradiated in the name of national defence have a vague, occluded presence in collective memory. This inhibited awareness of nuclear history, I suggest, has been shaped both by avoidant attitudes to empire, and also by strongly future-oriented nuclear imaginaries. By contrast, Harkin and Scarce draw attention to intimate, ongoing encounters with toxic legacies left by imperial and settler-colonial projects. As they celebrate the resilience of dispossessed, poisoned communities for whom nuclear apocalypse is an everyday reality, they emphasise interrelated forms of responsibility: to the past, to land, and to future generations. I discuss the important challenges that their art and activism present to mainstream nuclear cultures, and to the memory of empire in Britain.

our hearts grow as we mourn for our Land.
it’s part of us. we love it. poisoned and all.

– Ali Cobby Eckermann. ‘Thunder raining poison.'

It is hard to unlearn a language:
       to unspeak the empire

– Evelyn Araluen. ‘Learning Bundjalung on Tharawal.’

Speaking in Cambridge, UK, at the January 2020 conference Climate Fictions / Indigenous Studies, the Goorie poet, researcher and educator Evelyn Araluen noted that she stood on ‘land which is entangled in the denial of our sovereignty’ (Araluen, ‘Text in the Grass’). How, she asked, might she acknowledge her country, her culture, and ongoing anticolonial struggles from this place? British people seeking to understand colonial legacies, and their generally inhibited cultural awareness of those legacies, might usefully consider similar questions In this article, I ask how British literary scholarship might turn towards art and writing on specifically nuclear colonial histories, focusing on contemporary Indigenous responses…

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Published 2 May 2023 in Volume 38 No. 1. Subjects: Aboriginal relationship with the land, Activists, British Empire, British politics, Environmental conservation, Environmental issues, Poetry, Natalie Harkin.

Cite as: Newton, Robert. ‘‘Listen        to the People Who Know’: Nuclear Colonial Memory in the Work of Natalie Harkin and Yhonnie Scarce.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 38, no. 1, 2023, doi: 10.20314/als.dee584755a.

  • Robert Newton — Dr Robert Newton is an independent scholar and educator living in London, specialising in environmental storytelling and toxicity. He was awarded a PhD in Modern and Contemporary Literature by the University of Cambridge in 2020. He currently works as a policy analyst in the renewable energy industry.