With Australia Day, Stan Grant continues on from his previous book Speaking to my Country, collecting a range of pieces and ideas tied together, addressing land, family, race, history and nation to answer the question: who are we? The book is a mixture of personal memoir and philosophical exploration.
The book begins with a reflection upon the act of looking on at Australia from a distance. Grant explores the different between the head and the heart, that is Australia as a great place versus the feeling of rejections when it comes to reconciliation. He highlights this conflicting sentiment with different perspective on the idea of Australians being ‘young and free’:
Australians all, let us rejoice for we are young and free.
My people die young in this country. We die ten years younger than average Australians and we are far from free. We are fewer than three per cent of the Australian population and yet we are twenty-five per cent, a quarter, of those Australians locked up in our prisons – and if you are a juvenile, it is worse, it is fifty per cent. An Indigenous child is more likely to be locked up in prison than they are to finish high school.
Grant talks about living space between the dance and the destruction:
Between the dance and the destruction is the Australian dream. It is here I find myself. I live between the dance and the destruction. I live between the ship and the shore. It is here that the dream remains unrealised. In this troubled space we all live our lives.
Part 1: Home
In the section on ‘home’, Grant explores the strangeness associated with the place where we live. He discusses how we try to tame the country with roads and towns, marking the ground and drawing borders to give a sense of certainty. Such acts involve living with absence and loss, “the stranger in ourselves.”
This doesn’t mean we all become Indigenous or that we become more homogeneous but we can dwell in this ‘uncanny’. We can as psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva says discover our ‘incoherences and abysses’ to come to terms with the ‘stranger in ourselves’.
The stranger in ourselves.
That’s what I was coming to terms with at Lake Mungo; it is what has drawn me to the work of Jonathan Jones: not my Aboriginal ancestry or my European heritage, something else, something more elusive that can’t easily be measured in DNA. It is that part of me where black and white meet and how what has happened here between us, has happened on this land. This is our home: unsettled and uncanny.
What interests Grant is the possibility of the space between. Michel de Certeau suggests that we use stories to fill the void. Some examples of literary stories include Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.
The story of Australia speaks to us from the dry shores of Lake Mungo. Forty thousand years ago, the waters were full, sustaining a thriving community. Here a man was laid to rest with full ceremony, his body smeared in ochre. In all of humanity this was rare, among the earliest examples of such ritual. The mourners sang a song in language now lost.
As modern Australia celebrated its birth at Federation in 1901, the historical inspiration for Jimmie Blacksmith, the real Jimmy Governor, sat in a Darlinghurst jail cell, alternating between singing songs in his traditional Wiradjuri language and reading the Bible – the synthesis of the old and new worlds that collided here so violently, given form in a man soon for the gallows. It is a synthesis Keneally saw as contradiction; and yet it is the essence of being Australian.
Joan Lindsay wrote the book of the missing girls of Hanging Rock, and director Peter Weir fixed it in our imaginations. The land itself, a potent character in an ethereal tale of place and being.
These are Australian stories, ancient and modern, and all efforts at recognition – a need to be seen. It is indeed a fleeting project, an attempt to capture a people – a people always changing – in a time and place. A drawing on a cave wall preserved for antiquity, to tell future people: ‘This was us.’
It is so human, and it is essential.
Part 2: Family
In the section on ‘family’, Grant explores the complicated nature of ancestory. He wonders who to embrace and deny in his past. Is it Frank Foster? Is it Otho Gherardini?
We are all of us a part of each other. We step into many rivers and are inevitably changed: a process of becoming. A Chinese friend once said to me that we are the last stop on our ancestors’ journey. What does that make me? I have been a nobleman in old Florence; part of the Norman conquest of England; an Irish baron and then a cast-out peasant farmer. I have been a Catholic rebel, striking back at the harsh hand of Protestant England. I have been a Wiradjuri warrior defending an invasion by strangers with muskets. Yet I would be today unrecognisable to my forebears; someone who doesn’t speak their languages or practise their ceremonies. I am a pinwheel of colours spinning into one; a kaleidoscope of history that came to rest on the shores of Botany Bay.
For Grant there are problems with describing Aboriginal culture as somehow ageless. This is particularly captured in the work of Australian anthropologist, W.E.H. Stanner, and the idea of a people caught between the ‘dreaming and the market’.
Stanner’s essay [Durmugam: A Nangiomeri] has helped set Indigenous people in the Australian imagination: a people for whom change spells doom. It has all the hallmarks of the ‘noble savage’, the European ideal of a people unsullied by ‘progress’. Stanner – for all his good intentions and empathy – robbed Aboriginal people of a future. His idea of people caught between the dreaming and the market exerted a powerful hold on policy makers as they sought to find the balance between economy and identity; between what is ‘mainstream’ and what is ‘Indigenous’. It has helped shape ideas of identity, some Indigenous people embracing the idea of timelessness and rejecting of what is seen as modernity.
Grant warns that identity risks being “a cage in search of a bird”
To borrow from Franz Kafka, identity can be a cage in search of a bird. I was born into that ‘half-caste’ community that emerged from the Australian frontier; a hybrid society formed out of the clash of old and new
In the end, what it means to be Aboriginal is varying and always in a state of flux. With this in mind, regarding those who have ‘made it’ as being somehow less legimate is not true. Being indigenous is a birth right, not something that can be means tested.
Part 3: Race
In the section on ‘race’, Grant explores the ways in which race is constructed. He begins by recounting his first memory of being labelled as ‘black’ while at school.
Black. It wasn’t just a colour and it certainly wasn’t just a word. No, not a word: it was a world, a world unto its own, a world apart. It was a world to which one was banished. Black was a judgment.
Only to then be denied.
You’re not black, you have lovely olive skin.’
There it was. In one day, Owen and I had been called black and then told we were not black. Black was in the eye of the beholder, it was nothing we could own. Tim had spoken the innocence of childhood, but knew more than he realised
Grant explains how race is a learnt behaviour. The challenge faced is balancing between the ‘better angels of our nature’ and the reality of indigenous lives today.
Doesn’t my life tell me that race is not a prison? Unlike Baldwin, I look for the spaces in between, those questions that defy easy answers. My instinct is to soften the blow. Even knowing what I know I struggle to accept that my country should be condemned by the worst of its history. Are we – black people – still in Baldwin’s words ‘worthless’? Is this my country? Today, at this time, is this who we are? I think of my fellow Australians of goodwill – those who have loved and cried with us – and I say surely this, the better angels of our nature, is the true measure of us.
But then I think again how 97 per cent of kids locked up in the Northern Territory are black kids. I think of their parents too likely to have been behind bars. I think of their grandparents likely gone too soon, dead before their time. In this country Indigenous people die ten years younger than other Australians. I think of how suicide remains the single biggest cause of death for Indigenous people under the age of thirty-five. I think of Aboriginal women, forty-five times more likely to suffer domestic violence than their white sisters. An Aboriginal woman is more than ten times more likely to be killed from violent assault.
I think of lives chained to generations of misery.
The problem is that indigenous people are rendered invisible by the white gaze.
I am born of deep traditions. My footprints trace the first steps on this land. I am born too of the white imagination – this imagination that said we did not exist. The imagination that said this was an empty land – terra nullius. It is not just a legal doctrine, it is a state of mind. We were rendered invisible, our rights extinguished. If we existed at all, we were just as likely dismissed as the fly-blown savages unfit to be counted among the civilised races of the earth.
However, the black gaze can also be just as restrictive. One of the problems is that there is often a difference between language and understanding. Extending from this, language is often contested and tells you where you are, as much as it tells you who you are. Interestingly, Grant reflects on the fact that English is his first language:
Yet English is my first language – in truth my only language. To learn Wiradjuri is like learning Chinese, or French or Italian; I can speak the words but never truly hold the thoughts. That may be my loss, but in English I find the words to describe myself.
Race is a lie that we give power to. It exists in the eye of the beholder
Race exists in the eye of the beholder; just like magic what we believe we see. Black can be whatever we want it to be, Jews have been ‘black’; Irish, Greeks, Italians have been ‘black’. Funny thing, the more familiar we become – the closer we get to white – the less black we are.
DIscussing Barbara and Karen Field’s book Racecraft, Grant eplains how race is often used as a way of deflecting our attention away from racism.
Race matters, even if the evidence tells us it should not. Shifting our language is not some ‘Kumbaya’, all-hold-hands fantasy; it is urgent: race exacts a terrible human toll. Barbara and Karen Fields, remind us that ‘race is the principle unit and core concept of racism’.
Part 4: History
In the section on ‘history’, Grant explores the relationship between history, memory and forgiveness. When considering history of ideas, he pushes back on the abandonment of ‘dead white men’. For Grant, if we want to understand the world we are in then we need to engage with the figures that laid the platform for liberalism, democracy, human rights, globalisation, patriarchy, white privilege, and structural inequality. With this said, it needs to be appreciated that liberalism has sown the seeds of both destruction and liberation.
It is inarguable that the revolutions – technological, industrial, philosophical – begun in eighteenth-century Europe have transformed our world. Democracy, capitalism, freedom of expression, universal rights, individualism, rule of law, separation of church and state, accelerated change in a way never before seen in human history. We are today more literate, more materially wealthy, and healthier than ever before. We are more connected to each other, borders have come down and trade moves more freely. Peoples have thrown off the yoke of imperialism and have looked to bodies forged out of Enlightenment principles of liberalism, like the United Nations, to enshrine the rights of previously colonised or indigenous peoples. As I will write later, liberalism has sown the seeds of both destruction and liberation.
Turning back to history, Grant explains that memory is not history.
As David Rieff said, ‘The takeover of history by memory is also the takeover of history by politics.’
Memory can provide belonging or poison the soul.
Memory is a chain linking us to a past from which we forge our identity. At its best it has given me a place to belong and a pride in my heritage and my family’s resilience. But there is a downside. Bitter memory can poison the soul; at its worst it can feel more like a noose, strangling us, choking us off from the world.
Associated with memory is the Importance of forgiveness. As Desmond Tutu stated in reference to Apartheid, “without forgiveness, there is no future.” The opposite of this is resentment. This is epitomised by the life and work of Jean Amery, where resentment turns inward until vengeance destroys us. Amery is Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘Ressentiment Man’, a prisoner of his past, defined by historical grievance and driven by hatred and desire for revenge.
Where Hegel saw history as progress, the quest for recognition and freedom, ‘Ressentiment Man’ is caught in a time warp, returning always to the source of injustice that he cannot fix and does not want to fix. History, for him, is a festering wound, to be picked at over and over, never allowed to heal. His suffering is his strength; his weakness the greatest weapon he has over his oppressor. Nietzsche saw this as the morality of the slave, an inversion of power where the downtrodden emerge triumphant. But to Nietzsche ‘Ressentiment Man’ is a loathsome character.
His soul squints; his mind loves hidden crannies, tortuous paths and backdoors, everything secret appeals to him as his world, his safety, his balm; he is past master in silence, in not forgetting.
Grant explains that forgiving and forgetting is not amnesia, rather it is a choice to ‘acknowledge, commemorate and put aside’. In the end, forgiveness for the past offers a greater opportunity for justice and peace.
Philosopher Paul Ricoeur says forgiveness has a ‘poetic power’, it shatters ‘the law of the irreversibility of time by changing the past, not as a record of all that has happened but in terms of its meaning for us today’.
Part 5: Nation
In the section on ‘Nation’, Grant explores the way in which nations are constructed. He explains that a nation is an ever evolving story. For Australia, this story has been that of ‘terra nullius’.
That’s what a nation is: a story. Stories are how we explain ourselves to each other. It is a story that we imbibe, and a story we so rarely question. What is our story? It is terra nullius. Historian Stuart Macintyre calls it a story of ‘a sleeping land finally brought to life’.
However, there is always other elements in the margins, which sit outside the dominant narrative. For Australia, one such element is the plethora of Aboriginal names used when naming the land, names which offer a constant reminder that Australia was not ’empty’.
Where I grew up there was Narrandera, Wagga Wagga, Cootamundra, Gundagai; it was as if the settlers were reminding themselves whose land this was even as the local people were being forced off.
A sleeping land, brought to life – empty land – the legal fiction struck down by the High Court in the Mabo decision, but so deeply lodged in the Australian consciousness that for much of this nation’s history it rendered Indigenous people invisible.
The challenge indigenous people face when it comes to Australia and nationhood is, “how to live as people with rights and dignity in a country that has historically denied those rights.”
We cannot separate the land from murder. But when we put down our books we return to our daily lives of family, work, school and sport, and push aside those dark thoughts. It is a privilege that other Australians enjoy. I wonder what it must be like to know contentment. It eludes me. Modern Australia was not built for Aboriginal people, my black ancestors were expected not even to survive.
Grant states that a referendum around constitutional recognition serves as both an opportunity and a threat. An opportunity to say, “we are now one people”, recognition of the First Peoples of the land, to have a voice on matters that impact them, and to complete what was started in 1967. However, it is also a threat to the dominant narrative about who we as ‘one people’ are. Because of this, such changes will always depend upon conservative support.
One of the challenges with change is that the expectations around recognition are not reciprocal, rather it often asks more of indigenous people.
Recognition has always appeared to me to ask more of black people than white, Aboriginal people feel strongly the expectations that they will forgive their fellow.
Philosophically, liberalism is tougher for people of colour.
Liberalism asks easier questions of white people; it poses tougher questions of someone like me. I have to work harder to embrace it; I have to push the limits of liberalism until it bends to include me.
Quoting from a lecture by Peter Yu in 2018, Grant explains how politically substance has been traded for symbolism.
Reconciliation, Yu said, with a commitment to a full political settlement ‘no longer exists’, it has ‘lost its moral and political gravitas’. As a nation, we have traded substance for symbolism. This was a devastating appraisal of the abject failure of Australia to heal its deepest wound, while Indigenous people continued to fill our prisons and cemeteries.
The question Grant is left wondering is whether liberalism a big enough idea to liberate Aboriginal people?
In his 2014 Quarterly Essay ‘A Rightful Place’, Pearson challenged Australia as to whether its ‘system of democracy enables an extreme minority to participate in a fair way.’ Pearson wrote:
The scale and moral urgency of the Indigenous predicament far exceeds the power of Indigenous participation in the country’s democratic process.
Pearson had belled the cat. Here was the fundamental question of Australia, it is the question that turns over and over in my mind – it is the question that has hovered over my every thought in this book – is liberalism a big enough idea to liberate me from the chokehold of race, identity and history? If liberalism works for others, can it work for me?
One of the problems with liberalism is that, as “a philosophy of progress, it doesn’t cope well with the past.” Borrowing from Tommie Shelby, Grant suggests that a move would be a focus on ‘thin blackness’, where the emphasis is on justice, rather than identity politics.
African-American, Tommie Shelby, says we can pursue justice without reverting to the divisive politics of identity. He walks a delicate line between what he calls ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ blackness. As the labels imply, thick blackness emphasises racial solidarity; thin blackness puts the emphasis on justice.
For Grant, recognising the inherent rights of First Peoples is actually a means of setting everyone free.
Coming back to the idea of ‘Australia Day’, Grant explains that more than a day or a date, it needs to address who we are as a nation, even with all its tensions. Regarding the idea that a nation is a story, Grant chooses to believe a story of hope over indifference.
The story of this country asks us to choose: what do we believe? Must I be cursed like Sisyphus, forever doomed to roll the boulder of our history to the top of the mountain only to return again to the bottom? A nation is a narrative, it is a story, it is what we imagine, it is what we choose. For me, I choose the historian, Inga Clendinnen, and the ‘springtime of trust’ over the anthropologist, Bill Stanner and his ‘history of indifference’. Is this naive? No, it is hope. This is the hope of the storytellers who have shaped my life.
I spent a long time with Australia Day. I listened to Grant’s reading of it twice and spent a lot of time reflecting upon it. I had also read parts of it previously in The Australian Dream. Although it is structured around five key themes, the book is very much a wrestle. In some ways it feels this way as Grant tries hard to find space in the in-between. However, it also feels like a book very much written for readers. To borrow a quote from Richard Flanagan in conversation with Claire Nichols:
Books are created by readers, not writers. So the more space you leave for the reader to create the story, the more chance you have of writing something that might have meaning for readers.
Source: Richard Flanagan on the atomic bomb, HG Wells and a kiss by The Book Show
With Grant, this space often comes in the form of ideas that are seemingly complete and incomplete at the same time. Ideas that often lead you as a reader to dive down rabbit holes.
One such rabbit hole that I was left thinking about was Grant’s discussion of stories and notions of truth. In Truth and Truthfulness, Bernard Williams discusses the relative way in which we choose truths to form narrative:
There is no way in which the king’s death could have happened “for” the Anglo-Saxon chronicler and not happened “for” us, or the Germans have invaded Belgium in 1914 “for” some cultures and not for others. The same holds for many small-scale explanations: if the king was murdered, someone killed him, period. What is relative is the interest that selectively forms a narrative and puts some part of the past into shape.
Source: Truth and Truthfulness by Bernard Williams
Published in 2019, I cannot help but think about this in regards to the failure of the referendum and what it means for the story of our nation.
I think that Australia Day is one of those books that I will continue to come back to in the way I think about things and what it means to be an Australian.
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