CuSPP Literary Studies Seminar Series 2020: Annelise Roberts, Atomic totem: the poetics of nuclear testing in Australia

Arthur Boyd's "Jonah on the Shoalhaven - Outside the City" (1976)
Arthur Boyd's "Jonah on the Shoalhaven - Outside the City" (1976)

Atomic totem: the poetics of nuclear testing in Australia

British nuclear testing in Australia has been poorly publicly memorialised. This is in spite of the significant risks the program posed to public safety and the remarkably “dangerous” and “deceitful” behaviour of the Menzies government and its agents throughout the episode – behaviour which was condemned by a subsequent Royal Commission as evidence of a grave “cynicism” (Conclusions and Recommendations, 1985). In this seminar, I present an overview of my PhD research into the poetics of texts connected to the nuclear testing program. I read a diverse range of texts – including works of Aboriginal life writing, the memoirs of a surveyor raconteur, and naming practices for places and military operations – through the lens of ‘unsettlement’, a critical device that has been developed in recent work on Australian poetics which enables readings of marginal texts in ways that destabilise the colonial project. Focusing on the appropriation of Aboriginal imagery in the conceptualisation of the nuclear testing program, I build an argument for the existence of a cultural symptom that I call the ‘Australian desultory’: the melancholic result of the conjunction of an unconfronted violent colonial history and the existential anxieties of the nuclear future. I also outline how this research informs my creative practice and give a short reading from the creative component of my thesis, Totem: an epistolary novel.

Annelise Roberts is a PhD candidate in the School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics at the Australian National University. Her critical work, poetry and fiction has been published or is forthcoming in journals such as Rabbit, Mascara Literary Review, Cordite, and The Suburban Review.

Date & time

Thu 05 Mar 2020, 1pm


Milgate Room, AD Hope Building, ANU


Annelise Roberts


Christie Margarve


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