Now reading: Talking to my country, by Stan Grant

Talking to my countryStan Grant, Talking to my country (2016)

The marketing line on the cover of this book could instead be a bold subtitle: ‘the book that every Australian should read’. Well, is it?

I heard Stan Grant speak at this year’s Newcastle Writers Festival, unaware of his article in The Guardian that was inspired by the continued booing of Adam Goodes during football matches last year, and the interest that the article generated. This book is the result of that interest.

As a journalist and media presenter with decades of experience, Grant delivered a polished performance as an interviewee — and potential political candidate — at the festival. His report from his side of the racial divide between black and white Australia highlighted the horrendous statistics of the ‘gap’ in health, wealth, education, employment, longevity (and all other socio-economic indicators) between black and white Australians. But to call it a gap is a horrendous euphemism; it is a chasm inside a crevasse within a canyon. It is partly our use of language, our terminology, he argued, that limits our ability to understand and to act. So, instead of calling places ‘Indigenous communities’ and invoking whatever stigma that name holds, what if we called them ‘Australian towns’ — because essentially that’s what they are, or at least, what they should be seen to be. Would we then accept what is going on therein for Aboriginal people? Australia is a model developed country with generally luxurious livings standards, but many Aboriginal people are living in poverty, with living conditions worse than that of war-torn countries and nations to whom Australia provides foreign aid. Why should we accept such a state?

Would you accept a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years less than the national average in an Australian town? Would you accept the infant mortality rate to be five times higher than the national average in an Australian town? Would you accept that the adult population is four times less likely to reach the age of 60, that over half the population will not even live to reach 60 years of age, in an Australian town? Would you accept the likelihood of having diabetes being four times higher than the national average in an Australian town? Would you accept that the death rate due to diabetes is three times higher than the national average in an Australian town? Would you accept that the risk of kidney failure due to diabetes is 10 times higher than the national average in an Australian town? Would you accept that the unemployment rate is three times the national average despite their being 33 per cent less people seeking paid work in an Australian town? Would you accept that the rate of incarceration in jails is 15 times higher than the national average in an Australian town? Would you accept that the likelihood of juvenile detention is 30 times higher than the national average in an Australian town? Would you accept that young adults aged 15 to 34 are four times more likely to commit suicide in an Australian town?

Would we, and should we, accept this deplorable situation? The ironic response is: No – our leaders would declare an emergency intervention, repeal the Racial Discrimination Act and send in the army and police, all without prior consultation of local elders.

In the hour-and-a-half session I thought Grant covered pretty much everything that was in his book Talking to my country. But I was wrong. Talking to my country is a passionate and personal look at Grant’s own identity and history, and in so doing, he challenges the identity and history of Australia and of all Australians.

I admit to feeling a little uncomfortable with the emotive and somewhat overly self-possessive tone early in the book — the repetitive use of my people and my country where I was unsure to whom or what he was actually referring: his immediate family, the Wiradjuri people and/or nation, all Indigenous people, Australia and/or all Australians — and the proud, quasi-nationalistic fervour of ‘My country: Australia’. I thought that this divisiveness could inflame those people that should read this important book. I reacted like I do when calls to national pride revere the Australian trinity of Gallipoli and the ANZAC spirit, mateship, and having a fair-go; and the fervour associated with our national anthem, our flag, and the unusual concept of un-Australian behaviour (whatever that means).

For me, the book hit home deeply once Grant revealed the tragic history of his own family tree. For he is a Wiradjuri man; a Wiradjuri man with an Irish great-great-grandfather.

My story is born on the banks of the Belabula [River] and in the hard dirt of Moyne [County Tipperary, Ireland]. Two men: Wongamar and John [Grant], born into different worlds. But those worlds would soon collide and new families would be formed and torn apart — one white, one black — one family would become Australians and the other outcasts in this same Australia. One family would claim an inheritance that remains today. The other — my family — would see shattered their claim to thousands of years of tradition.

I am what remains. I am a man whose personal journey threads through a story of a new nation formed on an ancient land. My blood, the blood of Moyne and the Belabula. White and black: two worlds that even within me, bend to each other but still can’t quite touch. (p. 73)

How is it, he asks, that we can celebrate our transported convict ancestors that became free and rich squatters, and yet deny that their prosperity was due to the pillaging and desecration of traditional Aboriginal lands and waterways, and the dispossession of Aboriginal people whom received no recompense for their loss?

But then, Aboriginal people were not expected to survive the arrival of the Europeans. Darwinian logic assured decent folk that Aboriginal people were Stone Age survivors that would surely go the way of the dodo, that their ‘species’ extinction was part of the anticipated, but unfortunate, collateral damage of European colonisation, civilisation, and economic development.

Grant’s own family history since British occupation in 1788 mirrors that of his dispossessed and damaged Indigenous brothers and sisters, uncles and aunties, throughout Australia.

My family is like so many other Aboriginal families. What has happened to us has happened to all. We have felt the brutality of Australia. We have had our land — our inheritance — stolen. Our language was banned. Our children have been taken away. We have been herded onto missions. We have been forced onto the margins of society. We have lived in tin humpies and tents. We have been powerless before the state. Welfare officers and police have invaded our lives at will. We have been told to become like white people, yet when white people loved us and had children with us they too were punished.

It would be so easy to surrender to this oppression. The weight of history in Australia suffocates us. I have said it before but it demands repeating — our history leaves its mark on our bodies and our souls. I have seen people crushed by whiteness. I have seen people deny who they are — lie to their own children — to escape the fate of blackness. They prefer to disappear into a world that has never wanted them anyway.

It is so easy to walk through this country and be blind to it all. I am still surprised — although now I should not be — at how often people tell me they just didn’t know. Yet it is there right in front of us. The reminders are everywhere. It is written into our landscape. [It takes little imagination to conjure what atrocities occurred to Aboriginal people at places like] …Slaughterhouse Creek … Poison Waterholes Creek and Murdering Island.

… Rivers, mountains, ranges, plains and deserts have become graveyards for my people. Australians pass by these places oblivious to what has happened in their own country. They are oblivious to us as well. (p. 117-8)

We cannot escape the actions of our ancestors in creating Australia. We cannot turn a blind eye to the dispossession and wanton murder of one people solely for the benefit and profit of another. Unlike the Maori in New Zealand and the American Indian nations, there was no formal war waged for Australia, and there was no treaty. But there is no denying that a form of guerrilla warfare was waged on many fronts, in many Aboriginal nations. And the policies of protection, segregation, assimilation, integration, self-determination, and intervention, although they could be considered at the time to have been developed with good intent, were all made without consultation with those it affected and only further isolated and devalued Aboriginal people.

This book could so easily be a divisive rant from the pit of multi-generational anger and shame. But that was not Grant’s intention: he is a diplomat and a storyteller. The stories — shocking as they are — are not a reason for invoking a jihad against whitefellas: they are a call for us to acknowledge ‘the contested space of our shared past’ (p.162); they are a poke in the guts of Australia’s racist underbelly; and they are a strident call for true reconciliation. This could take generations. But we need to start. We need to start asking the tough questions and seek the answers within ourselves, individually and collectively … to forgive.

Stan Grant as MHR, Senator, or future Prime Minister? No. He would be smothered and belittled as a one-issue politician in parliament. I think Grant’s questioning and intellect would be far better served by continuing as a journalist and cultural commentator. But this I could foresee: Stan Grant as an outspoken Australian of the Year, and Stan Grant as Australia’s first Indigenous Governor-General.

As a meditation on what it means to be an Australian today – black, white or any shade between — this book truly is one that every caring and enquiring Australian must read.

What else have I been reading?