My book reviews are generally a bit tongue-in-cheek. You know, a bit of back and forth, a bit of piss-taking.
Not today. Because Talking To My Country is too serious for fucking about.
There’s a certain type of shock-jock that would suggest this book (and others focusing on Australia’s thorny, sometimes hopeless-seeming struggle to make sense of our national identity) be written off as black armband history. That it’s something designed to make people feel guilty for being white, for crimes committed generation before them. That it’s all virtue signalling, or a big wank.
We have been told what an Australian is and we know so often, in so many ways, we are not that. We die ten years younger than other Australians. We are twelve times more likely to be locked up. Over the age of forty, we are six times more likely to go blind. Indigenous children are said to have the highest rates of deafness in the world. Indigenous people are three times more likely to be jobless than other Australians.
Those people are cowards. And they’re wrong. Grant’s writing has a fair amount of anger at white history and white privilege, it’s true, but he’s coming from both a place of investigation. The writing, while calling for greater integration, for greater reckoning with the things done in the name of our country, is at heart the personal struggle of one man to understand who he is, and how his history shapes him.
That I am on television, earn a good living and send my kids to good schools, does not redeem our history. It is as illogical as saying Julia Gillard becoming Australia’s first female Prime Minister vanquished sexism. Of course it is a step forward, but the fact that it is exceptional reminds us how far we have to go, how far apart we are in this country.
Outwardly successful, Grant – the son of a Wiradjuri man and a Kamilaroi woman, a man with an Irish surname – is consumed by the tensions of his history, both Black and white. Taking the 2015 shitstorm of fuckery levelled at Adam Goodes as a starting point – something explained at length inside – Talking To My Country in the main provides both an exploration of the author’s history, and an explanation of dispossession and the long shadow it casts.
This book speaks adroitly of the Australian dichotomy. That relatives of Grant’s were good enough to go to war and fight for this country, but weren’t good enough to be allowed to ride the train home when they returned. We’re reminded of the increased levels of incarceration, of incapacitation and death. Of the push of the past to make First Nations people invisible, even as the meaning of placenames celebrating their deaths slip from our minds.
I was aware always that we were marked by something more than poverty; that no amount of hard work, honesty or decency would untether us from our destiny. We lived in Australia and Australia was for other people.
I live in Wiradjuri country now, outside a small town. I moved here from a large city and while I might be having a lend of myself, being outside the built environment has made me feel much more aware of the weight of the land, if not making me a part of it. It’s funny, while I’m further away from markers of “history” as you’d find in towns, I’ve become more aware of the current of time running through this place – seeing actual seasons and cycles. And I’m acutely aware that though I live here, this is land that belongs – traditionally – to other people. People who aren’t as visible on their own lands as they should rightly be.
I’m a white Australian. I could read this, feel horrible and put it away and go on with the life I enjoy thanks to generations of privilege. It’s much harder – and a work in progress – for me to read this, sit with the burden that First Nations peoples across the country, and then try to figure out what to do next. To figure how to be an ally, and a useful one. To think about things like the Redfern address, and to wonder what’s happened since then.
It’s difficult. But as a grown-ass man in Australia, I’ve got to do it. If you live here, so do you. Read this book, and let’s try to figure out how to make shit better. We owe this land that much.
Here is how we – indigenous people – see the Australian dream: here’s the worst of it. Aborigines rounded up and shot, babies buried into the sand and decapitated, women raped, men killed as they hid in the forks of trees, waterholes poisoned, flour laced with arsenic. The Australian dream abandoned us to rot on government missions, tore apart families, condemned us to poverty. There was no place for us in this modern country and everything we have won has come from dissent, it has been torn from the reluctant grasp of a nation that for much of its history hoped that we would disappear.
Always was, always will be.