Talking To My Country

Born out of the response to his searing and heartfelt column on the booing of Adam Goodes during the 2015 AFL season, Stan Grant’s Talking To My Country is just as difficult and personal as that column.  And considering the story he has to tell, of course it is.  At its heart Grant is grappling with an essential problem with identity and pride: how can he sing along with the national anthem when his people aren’t included in its foretold wealth?  Contemporary Australia is forged on the idea of forgetting its colonial past; his ancestors were on the land for 60,000 years before the British but it is not indigenous culture that is celebrated.  Particularly comparing growing up in rural New South Wales in poor indigenous communities, and living overseas reporting on international conflict and development, Grant has a particularly acute perspective on what it means to be Australian and the current schism in the heart of it.

Stan Grant is lucky.  Like Goodes, he is one of the few where “wealth for toil” has borne out: through talent, circumstance and education he has moved significantly beyond his itinerant youth, constantly moving from town to town with his parents looking for work, constantly living on the fringes.  Surrounded as he was by family, he was also surrounded by death, grieving and loss: he started noting from a very early age the constancy of funerals and mourning.  Now he knows that conditions he saw his family affected by disproportionately affect indigenous Australians and, rightly, it makes him angry.

And anger here is completely understandable.  Because it is just not his childhood poverty that affects Grant, but the treatment of his ancestors ever since invasion:

“I was born into what anthropologies W.E.H. Stanner called ‘the great Australian silence’.  This was the period of forgetting.  The myths we created fed Australia’s lie” that no blood had stained the wattle.  We were told a story of peace and bravery and the conquest of the continent.  This was the inevitable push into the interior, a land opening up before the explorers.  It was empty; tamed and claimed.”

The echoing negative affects of the myth of terra nullius are undeniable.  Grant is a storyteller and comes from a line of storytellers; it is impossible not to be able to see how generation to generation in a practical and spiritual sense the loss of country is so affecting.  This is not a high-concept issue: this has real-world practical ramifications on the every day life of Grant, his father, is grandfather, and onwards.

My problem with the writing though is its sentimentality.  I can understand where it comes from, but it was overwhelming returning time and time again to his poetic reflection on feelings, his grant big-picture summations of what it means.  In that way perhaps Grant reminds me of Kári Gíslason, who also was so personally close to his subject that he could not see how explicable emotion was actually clouding communication of the vital story they have to tell.

But what Grant has to say is so important, so sharply perceived and so particularly felt that it is easy to move on from this stylistic complaint.  The fact is I felt a lot reading this book without even bringing in Grant’s personal reflections in.  And that is because of moments like this, worth quoting at length:

“We are often told we should all just be Australians.  It is a noble sentiment, and perhaps one day we can find a common identity that encompasses us all, but for much of this country’s history we have been told we were anything but Australian.  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.
Australia has universal health care, a minimum living wage and if unemployment tips over six per cent it warrants front-page headlines.  If Australia is free, prosperous and healthy then we are not Australians.”

The reason that this book should be essential reading for every Australian is because shamefully, we aren’t taught it in our schools, it is not a part of our everyday dialogue; it is a fringe, special-interest, too-hard issue.  We are not taught the cultures contemporary Australia built over, nor are indigenous Australians given a voice to speak of the pride or the history or the pain that comes from our complex past.  Grant is just one articulate, intelligent, genuine voice amongst the myriad of indigenous Australians speaking on cultures and memories and experiences; it is one listening too.

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