Stan Grant, On identity (#BookReview)

Book coverStan Grant seems to be the indigenous-person-du-jour here in Australia. I don’t say this disrespectfully, which I fear is how it may come across given Grant’s views “on identity”, but it feels true – particularly if you watch or listen to the ABC. He pops up regularly on shows, sometimes as presenter, other times as interviewee. He therefore needs no introduction for Aussies. For everyone else, though, a brief introduction. Grant is described in the bio at the front of his book, On identity, as “a self-described Indigenous Australian who counts himself among the Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi, Dharrawal and Irish.” The bio goes on to say that “his  identities embrace all and exclude none“. He is also a Walkley Award-winning journalist (see my Monday Musings on this award), and the author of Talking to my country, which I reviewed a couple of years ago.

Grant could also be described as a (modern) Renaissance man. I say this because of the way he synthesises his wide range of reading – including philosophy, history, psychology, history, anthropology, and literature – into coherent ideas that support his arguments. He did this orally at the conversation event I attended a couple of months ago, and he does it in this long-form essay called On identity.

In my post on that event, I wrote that his main point about identity was its tendency to exclusivity. In On identity, he explores this “exclusivity”, and its ramifications, starting with those boxes we see on all sorts of forms – including the census – that asks whether you are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. As a person with a keen interest in the pros and cons of “labelling”, I’m aware of the obvious implication of this, that is, that it marks or separates people out. However, as Grant points out, it also, in cases where heritage is mixed (like Grant’s, like many indigenous people’s), forces them to deny other aspects of themselves, to exclude other members of their families.

And so it forces Grant, for example, to deny his Irish grandmother Ivy.

If I mark yes on that identity box, then that is who I am; definitively, there is no ambiguity. I will have made a choice that colour, race, culture, whatever these things are, they matter to me more than my grandmother.

Through her, through this conversation about ticking boxes, Grant introduces his theme of “love”, of growing up surrounded by unconditional love, and how a focus on “identity” becomes a cold substitute for what truly sustains and binds, love. Now, this might sound a bit corny, or simplistic, but bear with me …

Grant then leads us through his argument. He discusses the work and ideas of Noongar author Kim Scott, whose trajectory as an indigenous person, Grant admits, has been quite different from his own. Grant grew up knowing he was indigenous. Scott, on the other hand, was raised with very little contact with Noongar people. On discovering his ancestry and wanting to know more, he felt forced to make a choice – was he black or white? And that decision, Scott writes in his family history, Kayang & me, was a “political imperative”. There are no references to “love” in this book, writes Grant, which confirms, he says, “what I have come to believe is true: identity – exclusive identity – has no space for love”.

Grant “deeply” admires Scott, but feels sad that “in writing himself back into a Noongar identity … it isn’t love that calls him, but politics”. Scott is not oblivious to this, worrying that his decision may strand his children in “no man’s land”, making them targets from both sides of “a historical, racial fault-line”. This concern leads Grant back to his mantra that “identity does not liberate: it binds”. He talks about other writers including Jewish ones (like Kafka) and Irish (like Yeats), about their attitudes to the problematic and limiting notion of “identity”. James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, he says, “knows if he is to write anything he must find freedom; he must shake loose the chains of identity.”

Grant turns to other writers of colour, who have found their “identity” limiting. Toni Morrison sees that the “very serious function of racism” is to distract, preventing you “from doing your work”. Writing for her, says Grant, “has been the struggle to live free from the white gaze”. Similarly, James Baldwin sought to be “free of identity” by going to France:

Baldwin did not wish to escape being black, but he desperately wanted to be rid of other people’s ideas of blackness.

Unfortunately, Baldwin returned to the USA, and got caught up in black protest. Thus, argues Grant, the man “who had been raised in the church … had forgotten the lessons of his own childhood. He had forgotten about love”:

When Baldwin turned to politics, his words lost no power–perhaps they grew more powerful–but he made the worst bargain I think a writer can make: he swapped freedom for identity and the identity writer can only write propaganda.

Strong words, for another day, perhaps! For Grant, it is the Baldwin of France he returns to “because he taught me that a black man could have the world”.

And here, really, is the paradox that I see in Grant’s argument. It’s sophisticated, erudite, and elegantly written. He makes a strong case for his belief that identity binds rather than frees, and that in so binding, if this makes sense, it keeps people divided. But, I’m not sure that he answers for me what can be done about the division (that is, the oppression of people on the basis of race, colour, religion, gender, sexuality, etc) that has given rise to “identity” in the first place. It’s all very well to point to the limitations of and the problems inherent in the politics of identity, but what is the answer to the underlying problem?

Grant returns at the end of the essay to love. He discusses the relationship between totalitarianism and love. Antebellum America, Nazi Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and other regimes, he writes, turn unity (collective identity) into totality, and “crush love because it is the surest way to crush freedom”. What he means by this is that “we banish love, when we no longer see ourselves in each other”, when “we see instead an enemy”.

So, Grant eschews any identity that would cage him, any identity that would deny any aspect of himself or that would pit himself against others. But, acknowledging at last my paradox, he does admit that there are privileges in identity – whiteness, masculinity, sexuality – which need to be called out. It’s just that they are political, and he’s not about politics*. All he’ll say is that “we find no liberation behind walls”. Amen to that!

On identity is not simple reading. Neither does it provide answers to the “identity” problem. But what I like about it is that it offers a way to think about identity that is positive not negative, that would bring us together, not divide us. Where to next?

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) and Janine (Resident Judge of Port Philip) have also posted on this book.

* What he actually says is: “I have no desire to be the writer of politics” p. 95.

BannerStan Grant
On identity (Little books on big ideas)
Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2019
ISBN: 9780522875522

26 thoughts on “Stan Grant, On identity (#BookReview)

  1. Pingback: Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ Litlovers 2019 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  2. Some deep thinking and commentary here, WG. I like Stan GRANT and his interesting way of framing his questions – allowing those he is interviewing the space to find own particular interpretation or perspective.There were aspects of his life as told in his book Talking to My Country which connected to places I know from my time visiting with friends in the Riverina – around Narrandera, Griffith, Leeton. Of course I recognise his Indigenous identity – but his years in China suggest a cosmopolitan outlook – his journalism looking at our world. So how lovely to find him referencing his Irish grand-mother – as any of us might when we acknowledge all our different identities. Yes, I’m an Anglo-Australian – a Scottish grand-mother – an English grand-father – lived some two decades abroad – over 16 years of that in Japan (if you could only see beneath the skin into my heart – into my “core” as it were – a sensibility refined and polished there). You added some unknown (to me) detail about Kim Scott. I am always intrigued when Barack OBAMA is called Black – the first black US President, he is called – yet raised by his Anglo mother and her parents in Hawai’i and for quite some years in Indonesia – other sensibilities integral to his identity – almost totally ignored – “blotted” out by the colour of his skin/complexion. I was at Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly at The Opera House in Sydney last night. Now there was an interesting story – essentially racist in its components – identity or perceived identity broadly masked by some fantastic costuming, set design, singing – and choreography – a very balletic production given Graeme MURPHY’s role as Director. It is certainly a product of its time – but I must say that I find its Japanese elements quite far-fetched, stereotypical and frankly literally incredible. Suspension of disbelief essential. My English grand-father came out of a rural family – his father a farm manager – 14 older siblings – one younger sister – educated to upper primary level My Scottish grand-mother – a teacher – educated in Edinburgh – her grand-father’s namesake first cousin one of the most famous lexicographers in the English language – a well-educated family. Were such images in your mind when I introduced them above? No? No. Surface level identity is just that – there is so much more to each of us – and bravo to Stan for reminding us. Thanks, WG.

    • Thanks Jim. I love how you always engage with reviews like this. Good point about Obama and how he is described. We need to be reminded regularly of the assumptions we make and/or the way we can be led along by others, unthinkingly.

      Re Opera, I think most require large suspensions of disbelief don’t they?! I think the important things are the universal themes, and they are particularly poignant in Butterfly aren’t they? I’m not a huge fan of opera – though I saw quite a few in my 20s – but I love Puccini’s music in Butterfly. I guess you’ve been to the Glover Garden in Nagasaki with its Puccini statue?

      • Many times to Glover Gardens in Nagasaki. My wife’s favourite city in Japan. I could almost write a book on all the significant features of that city and of my/our visits there! SIEBOLD is one name for starters – Franz Philipp von SIEBOLD. Thomas GLOVER himself – a Scot – and a catalyst for much of the action leading to the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The bomb dropped on August 9th, 1945 – actually intended for Kitakyushu-City (but too cloudy on the day)…Hidden Christians. And Puccini!

        • Haha Jim, I’ve only been there once but will go back one day. Fascinating place because of its different history. We are off to Japan in September for our fourth trip.

  3. I don’t/haven’t read Stan Grant. Whatever, and however well, he writes “on identity” he comes across to me as a professional Indigenous commentator. And I really, really distrust the politics of people who are not political. He must be very happy with the way things are.

    • I think he’s one of the smartest political commentators on TV. I used to think he was a lightweight when he was on commercial TV but then he came back from overseas with a level of sophisticated awareness about global issues that is really impressive, and none of that gotcha journalism so beloved by Sales and Karvalis. But he’s completely wasted on the ABC: they gave him his own show and then never advertised it, never promoted it on iView and made it really difficult to find.
      Put him talking about current affairs together with Kevin Rudd and we might actually know something about what’s happening in the world…

      • Well said Lisa. I agree that he is smart, thoughtful, and he’s provocative. I really like the way he thinks, often from first principles – and if you think like that it’s hard to go wrong (or at least it’s hard not to make sense). We love watching him on The Drum, in particular.

    • Oh Bill, I’m not sure where to start with this, partly because I understand where you are coming from, but I think it’s too easy to discount him on those bases.

      I’ll start with the end. If you’d read Grant, you would know that he has really done the hard yards politically and personally, from the moment he was born really, growing up indigenous in rural towns. His family was poor, on the move, and he was called names etc (all of that that you could imagine.) He’s been a foreign correspondent in some of the toughest places, and has suffered PTSD, and most recently he’s been involved in the consultations that led to the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

      I may have misquoted him a bit. I said “he’s not about politics” but what he said is “I have no desire to be a writer of politics”. And yet, really, what he writes is political. I think he’s trying to draw back from big-P politics to question ideas from a more philosophical angle. He is very interested in the Enlightenment, in what it has brought to western cultures, and in what liberal democracy is and can be.

      He does seem to be everywhere at the moment, but he is a journalist and now an academic. He is also the ABC’s indigenous and international affairs person, I believe, so of course he will be around, because those issues are high on the agenda now.

      I think he might, personally, be in a good place at the moment – but should we begrudge him that? I wouldn’t say that he thinks indigenous people are in a good place.

      • In the end I’m not a liberal. Of course I could live quite well in a liberal democracy but it’s now obvious that that disappeared with Regan and Thatcher. Since then the US Republicans have veered further and further towards outright illegality to maintain power, in the US and by extension throughout the Anglosphere. In the face of this, to eschew big P politics, or to treat it solely as a horse race, is a form of denialism rampant throughout the liberal/right media.

        I agree with Kim Scott.

        Ticking the ATSI box doesn’t exclude you from having Irish grandmothers so the rest of his argument would seem to be irrelevant.

        • I don’t think he does deny it Bill… He just doesn’t want, I think, to BE a political writer. He wants to think bigger and broader, which in the end will serve politics I think.

          It would be interesting to sit in on a conversation between Scott and Grant. Grant described himself as having a “conversation” with Scott while reading and thinking about his books.

          I clearly haven’t made the ATSI box ticking argument clear if that’s your conclusion. I’m sorry about that. I think you should read Grant before you call his argument irrelevant rather than call it irrelevant on the basis of my interpretation – much as I appreciate the faith you’ve put in me!!

  4. This sounds like something that I would like to read. It relates to much of what I have been writing and reading about in regards to what I have been calling postmodern. I agree that these things are very complicated. I think it is good to get as many perspectives on these things as possible.

  5. But why do you look for a solution, Sue ? Isn’t it just that Stan’s writing on this deep to the point of fathomless topic – in a way that seems, from your as ever excellent review, to combine research with absolute ‘readability’ – without ever intending to try to provide answers ?

    • True MR, though Grant does say the issues still need to be called out. The question is how to do that without getting stuck in one’s identity to the point that you can’t see the humanity in all. There’s the challenge. You know, how feminists can be called man-haters – whether they are or not – because they criticise male power and it’s impact on women. Some people adopt their identity exclusively, which is the danger Grant is talking about I think, but others have it forced on them because they are outspoken. Forcing people into an identity makes it easier to dis iunt them because they then become other… I think this is the value of G re ant’s book. Seeing this danger?

  6. I don’t think there is a ‘solution’ to the question. Most of us are ‘bitsa’s – bit of this and bit of that, and I do feel at the moment that ticking particular boxes excludes other parts of our identity. Our occupation is another example where we tick a box to represent a role we are paid for, but we’re much more that.
    I really enjoyed your review and will look out for Stan Grant’s book. ‘m enjoying other people’s responses, too.

  7. I loved Talking to My Country but am dubious about this. I can understand Grant’s wish not to be typecast as ‘political’ and wishing to acknowledge his Irish antecedents, but on the other hand, his life has been marked by his Indigeneity in a way that it wouldn’t have been if he had been exclusively Anglo-Celtic. And what in life is not political, I ask? It’s only when you burrow down into the meaning of this that this question arises – not the other way around. Anyway, that’s what I’ve come to believe. There’s always a complex disconnect between the individual’s inner life and the society in which she has entered, but none of us can escape dragging our politics around us like the proverbial ball on a chain.

    • Thanks very much Sara for your thoughts. You know when I read his comment about not being “a writer of politics” and decided to reference it, I tried various ways of saying it, wanting not to cast overt judgement. In the end I went lazy and used the exclamation mark to note “my” questioning of it. I therefore love that so many people have reacted to and discussed that point, because it doesn’t fully make sense for the reasons you say so beautifully clearly. The good thing, I think, is that that statement of his doesn’t negate the value of reading what he says in the essay. The essay is, fundamentally, “political” but I guess avoids engaging with “politics”. Perhaps that’s what he meant – a distinction between “politics” and “political”. Oh, words are so hard!

  8. Oh, this is a really interesting post, Sue! So much to think about. One of the questions I hate most (and which I’ve been asked a lot lately) is where are you from? I’ve lived in so many places, on two sides of the world, and have dual citizenship, so there’s no simple box for me to tick. I’ve taken to just replying “it’s a long story…”

    • Fair point kimbofo. It’s a challenge for a lot of people isn’t it, given the sort of world we live in. I guess the point is that its implications can be more significant, or have more ramifications, for some than others, but the fundamental principles are the same.

  9. I don’t know Stan Grant’s work but I think I can understand his reluctance to be corralled into a political box. I fear the politics of identity that are currently so ugly in the UK with cultural wars creating identity tribes that cannot tolerate each other.

    • Yes, this is the sad thing that Grant despairs – the binding of people to a group which stops them being free to be themselves and thus, as you say, to tolerate others. He talks a bit about Keats and his idea of “negative capability”, of wanting to “have no self” so he could be anybody or thing.

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