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Stan Grant, Talking to my country (#BookReview)

November 5, 2017

Stan Grant, Talking to my countryHistory is, in a way, the main subject of my reading group’s October book, Stan Grant’s Talking to my country. I’m consequently somewhat nervous about writing this post, because discussions of history in Australia are apt to generate more emotion than rational discussion. I will, though, discuss it – through my interested lay historian’s eyes.

However, before we get to that, I’d like to briefly discuss the book’s form. Firstly, it’s a hybrid book, that is, it combines forms and/or genres. In the non-fiction arena, this often involves combining elements of memoir with something else, like biography, as in Gabrielle Carey’s Moving among strangers (my review). In Grant’s case, he combines memoir with something more polemical – an interrogation of Australian history, and how the stories we tell about our past inform who we are and how we relate to each other.

Secondly, and probably because it’s not a straight memoir – Grant wrote his memoir, The tears of strangers, in 2002 – the book is structured more thematically than chronologically, though a loose chronology underlies it. For example, his discussion of the lives of his grandparents and parents doesn’t happen until Part 3, and then in Part 4 he discusses the government’s policies for handling “the ‘Aboriginal problem'”, particularly that of assimilation (or, more accurately, “absorption”.) This structure enables him to focus the narrative on his theme, so let’s now get to that.

The book opens with an introductory chapter titled, simply, My country: Australia. In it, Grant sets out why he wrote the book, which is to convey to non-indigenous Australians just what life is like for indigenous people, to explain that although history is largely ignored it still “plagues” indigenous people, and to tell us that the impetus for him to finally write the book was the booing of indigenous football player Adam Goodes in 2015. And here, in very simple terms, Grant states his thesis:

This wasn’t about sport; this was about our shared history and our failure to recognise it.

He goes on to explain that while some tried to deny or excuse it, his people knew where that booing came from. From my point of view, it’s pretty clear too.

“the gulf of our history”

Now, I’m not going to summarise all his arguments – or the stories of his and other indigenous people’s experiences – but I do want to share some of his comments about history. As Grant is clearly aware – and what Australian isn’t – history is politicised, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. My generation, the baby-boomers, grew up learning that Captain Cook discovered Australia and that Governor Phillip established the first settlement. If Aboriginal people were mentioned, it tended to be in passing. They were merely a side-bar to the main story. We may have learnt about the missions (and the “great” work they were doing) and we may have learnt in later years of schooling that many indigenous people lived in poverty, but we weren’t told about the massacres and violence that occurred, and nor was it ever suggested that we* had invaded an already occupied land. However, as we now know, these things we weren’t told are incontrovertible facts, supported by evidence.

Some, unfortunately, still ignore these facts and some try to interpret them differently, while the rest of us accept them but feel helpless about how to proceed. And this leads directly to Grant’s underpinning point, which is that we – black and white Australians – meet across “the contested space of our shared past”. Elsewhere he states it a little less strongly as “the gulf of our history”. I love the clarity of these phrases. They explain perfectly why discourse in Australia regarding indigenous Australians can be so contentious and so often futile. Grant’s point is that we can’t progress as a unified nation until this space is no longer contested, until the gulf is closed or bridged.

Grant puts forward a strong case based on experience, anecdote and hard facts (such as the terrible, the embarrassing, statistics regarding indigenous Australians’ health outcomes, incarceration rates, etc) to encourage all Australians, “my country” as the title says, to understand why, for example, when we sing the national anthem – “Australians all, let us rejoice” – indigenous people don’t feel much like joining in. What do they have to rejoice about? Where is their “wealth for toil”.

Suffice it to say that I found this a powerful book. While in one sense, it didn’t teach me anything new, in another it conceptualised the current state of play for me in a different way, a way that has given me new language with which to frame my own thoughts.

By now, if you haven’t read the book, you’ll be thinking that it’s a completely negative rant. But this is not so. It’s certainly “in your face” but Grant’s tone is, despite his admitting to anger, more generous. His aim is to encourage us white Australians to walk for a while in the shoes of our indigenous compatriots and thus understand for ourselves what our history, to date, has created. He believes that good relationships do exist, that there is generosity and goodwill but that, as the Adam Goodes episode made clear, bigotry and racism still divide us.

Late in the book Grant discusses the obvious fact that this land is now home to us all, that many of us have been here for generations and “can be from nowhere else”. Rather than rejecting “our” claims to love this place, he writes that this should make it easier for us to understand indigenous people’s profound connection to country. He writes:

I would like to think that with a sense of place comes a sense of history; an acceptance that what has happened here has happened to us all and that to turn from it or hide from it diminishes us.

And so, rather than telling indigenous people that “the past is past” and “to get over it”, it would be far better, far more honest, far more helpful, for us non-indigenous people to say, “Yes, we accept what we did and understand its consequences. Now, how should we proceed?” Is this really too hard?

Stan Grant
Talking to my country
Sydney: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2016
230pp.
ISBN: 9781460751978

* And by “we”, I mean, as Robert Manne explains it, not “we” as individuals, but as the nation.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2017 9:09 pm

    Well said, Sue:)

    • November 5, 2017 9:36 pm

      Thanks Lisa, this space is so tricky isn’t it, but hopefully our contributions are more helpful than not.

  2. November 5, 2017 9:51 pm

    Good review. Personally I would like a new date for Australia Day, a new anthem and a new flag. Don’t know if I will see any of that in my lifetime.

  3. Jim KABLE permalink
    November 5, 2017 11:15 pm

    When the book was first published Stan GRANT seemed to be everywhere speaking to it. My wife and I attended his speech at the AGNSW. Preceding his introduction – the duo “Microwave Jenny” sang. Brendon BONEY & wife Tessa NUKU. Brendon’s father – Athol – was one of the more remarkable – among many such – of my students – in the foreign country which was rural Inverell in the mid-1970s. He passed away far too young several years ago – a huge funeral in Wagga Wagga – St John’s Anglican Cathedral – and a graveside ceremony in which his namesake first born performed a smoking ceremony and sang – in Gamilroi – his father’s spirit to the heavens. It was beyond an honour and privilege to be there.

    A year or two before that – while visiting friends in Leeton – I followed up on aspects of the story told by Noel BEDDOE in his 2012 novel The Yalda Crossing – based on the true incidents of the Second Wiradjuri War between 1836-1842 in and around present day Narrandera. I found Murdering or Massacre Island in the Murrumbidgee River just a few kms upstream from the town – noting also Poison Waterholes Creek nearby on the highway leading towards Wagga Wagga. These were places referenced by Stan GRANT – whose early years were in nearby Griffith – before the family moved to Canberra.

    WG: There can be no disputing your review of this book – nor indeed of Stan’s story – and that of his family – his remarkable father and others. Nor that his story can stand as representative of the stories of most other Indigenous people in this country. When PM Tremble recently rejected out of hand the recommendations for a Voice (an advisory Council of Indigenous Elders to the National Parliament) he confirmed in his timidity and arrogance – both at once – that he is unfit to be our PM – proving Stan GRANT’s essential thesis re a continuing displacement of equality and justice for Indigenous Australians.

    • Sara Dowse permalink
      November 6, 2017 7:09 am

      A wonderful book, and a sensitive, receptive review of it, WG. I am at the moment binging on the re-run on Netflix of the Ken Burns’ documentary on the American Civil War – his first. I had seen it when it first aired but this second viewing is almost unbearably powerful. The point being that the US has never really recovered from slavery and that war – for as long as I can remember it has been a divided country and we are witnessing the consequences of that now. The parallels aren’t exact, but they are there notwithstanding. If non-indigenous Australians can’t start walking in indigenous people’s ‘moccasins’ we may very end up as America has – that is, if we haven’t already.

      • November 6, 2017 7:51 am

        Exactly, Sara. And last night Mr Gums and I watched the second episode of Robert Redford’s The West with the story of Crazy Horse and his people’s move onto the reservation. He saw them losing their culture within months, and dying through loss of spirit. Their situation of course is theoretically closer to our indigenous people’s story, but the story of the African Americans is also relevant. We SHOULD be watching and learning. It’s breathtaking that we don’t.

    • November 6, 2017 7:47 am

      PM Tremble. Yes, good one, Jim – and yes, you are right. What is wrong with our government? It’s horrifying to be reminded in the book that after nearly every government “action” (like Deaths in Custody, Stolen Generations), outcomes for indigenous people have been worse. It will probably continue until they are given a bigger “voice” in their future.

  4. November 6, 2017 6:25 am

    Reblogged this on World4Justice : NOW! Lobby Forum..

  5. November 6, 2017 12:10 pm

    I’m not sure there’s anything left to say after Jim Kable. The insulting rejection out of hand of the Uluru Statement from the Heart means that for a long time into the future Indigenous people will be speaking to us, the white converted, and not to any effect.

  6. ian darling permalink
    November 6, 2017 8:54 pm

    It sounds like an important book. The experience of indigenous Australians is a stain on the Australian official story of cheerful mateship in the same way that slavery is of the USA narrative.

    • November 8, 2017 8:14 am

      Got it in one, Ian. It is a stain and must be righted. Eventually I’m sure it will but the progress is too slow.

  7. November 10, 2017 7:38 am

    This sounds like a really good, moving and important book. Very much enjoyed your thoughts on it.

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