‘The great Australian silence’. It’s a phrase I’ve heard, referring to our country’s whitewashing of its history with its Indigenous people, but one I’ve never really understood. Having read Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country, I feel like I’ve begun to amend my ignorance.
Grant is a Wiradjuri man and journalist who has worked for numerous Australian news networks, as well as internationally for CNN. He has long been an advocate for Aboriginal issues, but has risen in prominence this year on the back of a powerful speech at the Ethics Centre IQ2 Debate in January 2016.
Talking To My Country is a brave, honest and raw book that communicates how it feels to be Aboriginal. It covers, briefly, the history of European and Aboriginal contact: the occupation of land, the genocidal government policies, the theft of children, the sundering of culture, the racism, both official and societal, that plagues Australia to this day. It talks, too, of how the dominant narrative ignores the many atrocities committed by the British during the frontier wars.
Many Australians hold the view that Aboriginal people should forget their history and move on. Let bygones be bygones, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, integrate and share in the enormous material wealth of the country. Grant perfectly illustrates how, for Aboriginal people, history is not the past.
Grant’s grandparents and parents grew up in an era when Aboriginal people did not have the right to vote, and were considered fauna under the Constitution. His grandfather was once arrested for speaking his own language. His father was suffered violent hate crimes, including at the hand of police. Grant’s own childhood was defined by poverty and itinerance, driven by the constant fear that the state would arbitrarily take him and his siblings from loving parents. It is not just genetic memory – Grant and those closest to him have been subjected to trauma and discrimination that could not help impact their lives. By telling his own story, he shows how two centuries of oppression have impacted the psyche of his people.
He does not gloss over the dysfunction of Aboriginal communities, but it is a dysfunction born from oppression. To my shame, I had never considered how excluded from the national narrative Indigenous people have been. The Australian dream is one of continuous progress: of the taming of the land, the gold rush, Federation, Gallipoli, World War II, then the steady climb to being an open, relatively progressive, developed nation. It is a dream open to migrants, but closed to our first people. They are ‘refugees in their own country’. Despite paternalistic and, in some cases, well intentioned public policy, they are still subject to blatant racism, demonstrated in the Northern Territory Intervention and the shameful treatment of Adam Goodes on the football field.
The last third of the book, detailing his adult life, is not written with the same focus as the earlier sections. Grant escaped ‘the tyranny of low expectations’ thanks to the mentorship of others in the Indigenous community. He became a journalist and then a foreign correspondent, searching through stories of others with long connections to their land: the Chinese, the Afghans, seeking to learn how they maintained their pride through periods of hardship He suffered a major depressive episode, due both from the horrors of war he had witnessed and from ‘the weight of history’, both personal and collective. He returned to Australia.
With less distance to smooth his personal narrative, he seems to cast around for topics, rehashing points for earlier in the book. He ends on an uncertain note, willing to fight for his people for now, but leaving open the possibility of escaping the again, aware that he, like Adam Goodes, may be worn down by the seemingly intractable injustice.
For all his searching, Grant does not reach a reconciliation. But then, neither has Australia.