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