Stan Grant makes a con­vinc­ing case for the re­def­i­ni­tion of what it means to be an in­dige­nous Aus­tralian, writes Stephen Fitz­patrick

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Fitz­patrick

In his re­cent me­moir Talk­ing to My Coun­try, in­dige­nous jour­nal­ist Stan Grant let fly with a barely con­tained fury, an an­guished, laser-sharp at­tack on the forcible si­lenc­ing of his peo­ple: names, lan­guages, whole na­tions dis­ap­peared in a rel­a­tively brief mo­ment. “You called us Abo­rig­ines: a word that meant noth­ing to my peo­ple,” he wrote. “And in that one word you erased our true iden­ti­ties.”

Less than a year on, it is as though the cathar­sis of or­der­ing his rage into para­graphs and chap­ters has been com­plete. In a mea­sured, con­sid­ered Quar­terly Es­say, Grant pon­ders what po­ten­tial there may be for co-opt­ing that era­sure. He con­cludes that fram­ing the story as bear­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties to eco­nomic mi­gra­tion the world over may be it.

Which is not to down­play the mas­sacres, the rapes, the re­moval of chil­dren and the bru­tal­i­sa­tion of a cul­ture but to ac­knowl­edge th­ese events know­ing “his­tory — the his­tory of dis­pos­ses­sion and en­su­ing suf­fer­ing — can be an all-too-con­ve­nient ex­pla­na­tion of what ails us”.

Grant ar­gues that marginal­i­sa­tion and im­pov­er­ish­ment through land seizures were not al­ways mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive, with de­vel­op­ing eco­nomic re­la­tions, chiefly through the supply of labour (and, it should be said, sex). The process was un­der way of build­ing a hy­brid econ­omy, in which “Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple could be both needed and seg­re­gated”.

He de­scribes this QE, The Aus­tralian Dream, as a coda to the now-fa­mous speech he de­liv­ered at a low-key fo­rum last year, as a way of try­ing to un­der­stand the vi­cious, racist in­sults then be­ing launched against AFL star Adam Goodes — a speech that months later un­ex­pect­edly went vi­ral when it emerged on­line.

That ad­dress, in which he lev­elled the sim­ple charge that the Aus­tralian Dream was “rooted in racism”, res­onated so deeply with both black and white Aus­tralia, it be­came a “weight” for him to bear. Many in­dige­nous peo­ple felt that in telling his fam­ily’s story, he had also told theirs; at the same time, “to some, I may have let white peo­ple off the hook, too read­ily ab­solved them of their sins”.

Yet, he writes, “I can no more deny the great­ness of Aus­tralia as a peace­ful, co­he­sive, pros­per­ous so­ci­ety than my fel­low coun­try­men and women can deny the legacy of ne­glect and big­otry and injustice that traps so many in­dige­nous brothers and sis­ters still”.

And from there it is a short dis­tance to his con­vinc­ing propo­si­tion that the eco­nomic mi- gra­tion model is a pow­er­ful lens through which to view what has hap­pened, even as that model has of­ten put his peo­ple at a dis­ad­van­tage. He takes his fam­ily as a prime ex­am­ple: mov­ing across three gen­er­a­tions from itin­er­ant fruit pick­ing, sawmilling and tent-box­ing, to itin­er­ant, or at least glo­be­trot­ting, TV jour­nal­ism.

A great-great-grand­fa­ther, Frank Foster, who Grant re­veals here for the first time after only re­cently dis­cov­er­ing the de­tails of his life, was born in 1870 — long enough ago to have spent the first years of his life liv­ing in one of many makeshift blacks’ shores of Sydney Har­bour.

That man’s own grand­par­ents saw the ar­rival of Euro­peans and bore the brunt of first con­tact as part of the an­cient Eora na­tion; yet he gained enough skills to be­come a mis­sion school­teacher, wan­der­ing NSW and Vic­to­ria for work, spend­ing time in jail and end­ing life as a fish­er­man. A vic­tim, by some ac­count­ing, of the colo­nial state but also, in Grant’s view, part of the “great mi­gra­tion” of Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple as a new in­dige­nous iden­tity was formed. camps around the The sac­ri­fice and re­silience of our fore­bears has cre­ated a bur­geon­ing in­dige­nous mid­dle class: con­fi­dent, self­as­sured. They are re­defin­ing what it is to be in­dige­nous … the grand­chil­dren of peo­ple who emerged from op­pres­sive Abo­rig­i­nal mis­sions in a seg­re­gated Aus­tralia are as at home on the streets of New York as Dubbo.

It is a far from glib as­sess­ment, and Grant treads a fine line, cit­ing Abo­rig­i­nal ed­u­ca­tion­al­ist Maria Lane’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of two sep­a­rate in­dige­nous so­cial streams: an “open so­ci­ety” fo­cused on op­por­tu­nity, ef­fort and out­comes, and an “em­bed­ded so­ci­ety” that is risk-averse and wel­fare-ori­ented.

Th­ese two so­ci­eties are linked through kin­ship “but their cour­ses were set by the great Abo­rig­i­nal mi­gra­tion”, he ar­gues. Lane’s def­i­ni­tions are not ab­so­lutes and are dan­ger­ously at “risk of fall­ing into car­i­ca­ture and stereo­type” but her work helped iden­tify a key truth, “punc­tur­ing the lazy as­sump­tions and con­ve­nient iden­tity of a ho­moge­nous, united in­dige­nous so­ci­ety: no, we are not all the same”.

He is cog­nisant of the north-south di­vide in in­dige­nous Aus­tralia, the dif­fer­ing needs of each, and the fact while “just 20 per cent of the in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion live in re­mote ar­eas … their dis­ad­van­tage is so acute that it ob­scures the suc­cess­ful lives of oth­ers”.

Ques­tions of the pre­car­i­ous na­ture of in­dige­nous iden­tity arise, then, and Grant in­ter­ro­gates the im­pli­ca­tions of the “‘half-caste’ com­mu­nity that emerged from the Aus­tralian fron­tier; this hy­brid so­ci­ety formed out of the clash of the first peo­ples and the new”.

It is a com­mu­nity to which he be­longs and one in which a query­ing of iden­tity must play a cen­tral part. But as he dryly notes, “I don’t try to profit from be­ing Abo­rig­i­nal; I take my skills and ex­per­tise to the mar­ket­place, not my iden­tity.” To the prob­lem of “whether an Abo­rig­ine can be a Smiths fan”, he an­swers with a ve­he­ment “I can be what­ever I damn like”.

Per­haps clew­ing to the out­sider sta­tus de­lib­er­ately in­hab­ited by that quin­tes­sen­tial 1980s English rock band and its for­ever pained singer­lyri­cist Mor­ris­sey un­der­mines Grant’s broader ar­gu­ment against Abo­rig­i­nal es­sen­tial­ism. But as he was still a teenager — just — when the Smiths emerged, all angst and gui­tar driven, from Manch­ester in 1982, it can prob­a­bly stand as a rhetor­i­cal de­vice.

Un­less he re­ally does, at his ripe old age, still blast Heaven Knows I’m Mis­er­able Now from his com­fort­able in­ner-Sydney home. That would be fine, too, which is the point he’s mak­ing. is The Aus­tralian’s in­dige­nous af­fairs ed­i­tor.

Stan Grant is an in­sider and an out­sider

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