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Archie Roach, Tell me why: The story of my life and my music (#BookReview)

July 25, 2020

Book coverGood things come to those who wait! At least, I hope so, because Lisa has had to wait a long time for a review from me for this year’s Indigenous Literature Week. Finally, though, I finished the main book I chose for this year’s challenge, Archie Roach’s memoir, Tell me why: The story of my life and my music.

Most Australians will know who Archie Roach is, but international readers here may not. A member of the Stolen Generations, Archie Roach is an indigenous Australian singer, songwriter, guitarist, and political activist. The story he tells in his memoir, Tell me why, is not an unusual one in terms of people of his background and generation, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading, because not everyone can tell this story in the way that Roach can. Perhaps this is because he’s a songwriter, or perhaps, more correctly, he’s a songwriter because he can tell stories.

Roach starts his story with a Prologue set in 1970. He is 14 years old, and receives a letter from one of his birth sisters telling him that his birth mother had died. This is a surprise, because his adoptive parents had been told his parents had died in a fire. He then flashes back in Chapter 1 to tell us about his life, as he knew it, up to 1970. This life involved being stolen from his parents, and being placed in two foster homes, one abusive, before being placed, in 1961, with the Melbourne-based Coxes with whom he was still living in 1970. In Chapter 2 he picks up that point in 1970 when he received the letter, and tells his story chronologically from then on, with some flashbacks to fill in his family’s early life as he learns it himself.

Although Roach had had a good life with the Coxes, who had loved him and whom he loved, the discovery that members of his birth family were still alive brought with it a desire to learn who he was, and he left home. He managed to make contact with his family, but before that he was introduced to drinking (having “a charge”) and life on the streets. Not surprisingly, his story, like those of many young indigenous people who have lost contact with their culture and thus with their bearings, involves alcoholism and related illnesses, run-ins with the police, prison, unemployment, and all-round instability. Archie would obtain work, would be appreciated as a worker, but the demons would return and down he’d plummet again. It’s a common cycle.

However, Archie had a couple of big pluses in his corner. There was Ruby Hunter, whom he met while still a teen and who became the love of his life. It’s not that her appearance resulted in a miraculous turnaround. Real life is rarely like that. But she became the supportive base to which he would return and which, eventually, did provide the stability that enabled him to turn his life around and become the success he now is. The other plus was music, to which he was first introduced by the Coxes, particularly Dad Cox who loved to sing and who gave him his first guitar. While the stories about his drinking life were distressing to read, the story about how music “saved” him, and how he gradually came to realise that he could tell stories through music, was moving and inspiring.

This brings me back to my opening comment that “not everyone can tell this story in the way that Roach can”. The memoir is beautifully constructed, from the Prologue that vividly takes us into the classroom where Roach receives the letter about his mother, to the use of song lyrics, most of them Roach’s own, to introduce each chapter. Roach uses foreshadowing at the end of several chapters to move the story on, such as this at the end of the chapter in which he arrives in Adelaide – “This would be the last hours before finding Ruby Hunter”. And this one at the end of the chapter where Jill Shelton is recommended to him as a manager – “Jill would end up saving my life at a time when I didn’t see there was any point in saving it.”

Roach also mixes up the narrative, commencing some chapters with the next part of the story, while others he introduces with something more reflective. I particularly liked the opening to the chapter in which Ruby dies:

Some people see time as a river with a steady current. Some people say we get in and move with that current, all of us ageing uniformly. I don’t believe that’s true, though. I’ve seen people age years overnight.

It happens to a lot of our people, and it happens to an awful lot of us drinkers. It doesn’t just happen while we’re drinking, either; we could’ve been years off the stuff and then something might change. We might lose a sister or a brother, and suddenly we have age in our face and in our step.

Sometimes it happens for no reason. Someone will be living their life and all of a sudden time will heap years on their shoulders.

Of course, Roach also talks about politics, about Indigenous opposition to the 1988 Bicentenary, about John Howard’s  opposition to a national apology and his criticism of the “black armband view” of Australian history, about Aboriginal deaths in custody, about the stolen generations, and more. It’s all told through the prism of his own personal experience or through his involvement in political action. Most readers will know these issues, but the personal stamp offered by books like this helps keep the issues real and in front of us. Roach, like so many Indigenous people, amazes me by walking that fine line between anger at what has happened to his people and generosity towards the rest of us.

In the end, Roach’s message is an inclusive one. His songs, he has found, speak to non-Indigenous people too, with many telling him that “that’s what happened to me”. Consequently, his songwriting, he says, now “feels more inclusive, more universal” because “it’s about all of us – you can’t write about yourself without including everyone.”

He writes:

For so long we have been divided by ‘isms’ – racism, sexism, fundamentalism, individualism – but when we come back to the place of fire, I believe we will discover there’s far more that connects us than separates us. I believe we will be one humanity again, that we will find release, healing and true freedom.

I love the hope in this but, let’s be clear, Roach is not letting us off the hook. That is, he doesn’t believe we are there yet. He is, though, choosing an aspirational path, and for that I thank him.

ANZ LitLovers logoArchie Roach
Tell me why: The story of my life and my music
London: Simon & Schuster, 2019
378pp.
ISBN: 9781760850166

36 Comments leave one →
  1. Travellin' Penguin permalink
    July 25, 2020 11:36 pm

    He came to Hovart to launch this book and played a couple of songs for us in Fullers book shop. His story shows a strength of character that is impressive. I enjoyed the book but was humbled by it, He has gone through so much. He wasn’t well the night he came to us and left in a wheel chair and did not sign books but all in the audience respected that.

    • July 26, 2020 8:41 am

      Thanks Pam. He’s not well these days is clear. I gather he was to perform there this year … my brother had tickets … but COVID of course has put paid to that.

  2. July 25, 2020 11:48 pm

    Archie’s book is on my TBR pile (a digital pile). In my early years living and teaching in Yamaguchi-ken at one of schools I taught his sing “Took the Children Away…” as one way of teaching the 20th century story of Indigenous Australians – a horrifying story – as well as the callousness of the PM – John “can’t-say/won’t-say-sorry” Howard. I was already becoming aware that Japan, too, had a dark past re both Ainu (only counted as citizens from the 1990s) and of Untouchables…while reflecting too on Australia’s so-called White Australia policy years… nobody gets off Scot-free in my telling – and of course we are once again in the finger-pointing hypocrisy as far as China is concerned ignoring totally our own government’s ugly treatment of asylum-seekers. Anyway a couple of years after teaching Archie’s song, one of the lads in a higher level class (a selective grammar middle school) found out he was to head off to one of the nation’s elite senior high schools – and I had the chance to congratulate him. At which point he sang for me Archie’s song. It was one of those moving moments one simply cannot Ever forget!

    • July 26, 2020 8:45 am

      That’s a lovely story Jim. You never hear much about the Ainu do you, just as, really, is the USA, the plight of Native Americans is lost in the story of the African Americans. Many, particularly non-Americans I fear, are oblivious to the story and situation of America’s Indigenous peoples.

  3. July 26, 2020 12:57 am

    That was a great review, thanks. I’d love to read that book; I’ll add it to my list.

  4. July 26, 2020 5:42 am

    This sounds very much worth the read. There are a lot of reasons to read memoirs. One of those readings is that they can illustrate social and political issues in a unique way. Roach also sounds like an interesting character who is worth knowing about.

  5. July 26, 2020 6:18 am

    I reckon Archie would be as thrilled by this review as someone I know very well was by your review of a just-published book.
    You are a reviewer who finds every bit of good in whatever she reads.

  6. July 26, 2020 6:38 am

    Lovely review. I also enjoyed this book and was moved by Archie’s openness and generosity.

  7. July 26, 2020 6:59 am

    I’ve only seen Archie Roach in concert once, about five years ago, but it was a memorable night. Took the children away is a gut-tearing song, but we whites need reminding over and over that the Stolen Generations is of the present, not something that happened back then in the past.

    • July 26, 2020 8:50 am

      Very true Bill. It’s unfortunate that ill-health is affecting his ability to tour as much as he once did because message through song can be so powerful., can’t it?

  8. July 26, 2020 12:24 pm

    Very good review, Sue, of a fine and poetic book. As you say, the song-writer shines through here. To hear him interviewed is also to understand what a deep-thinking and generous human being Archie Roach is – a truly great Australian in my view. I’m happy to say that at the moment, COVID permitting, his Hobart concert will take place in November. We are looking forward to it.

  9. Sue permalink
    July 26, 2020 2:20 pm

    This definitely goes on my “to read” list Sue. That beautiful paragraph about ageing is very true. Thank you for the lovely review.

  10. July 26, 2020 2:52 pm

    A beautiful review. Thank you so much for your contribution to #IndigLitWeek this year, it is appreciated even more than usual.
    Off now to add it to the list!

    • July 26, 2020 5:12 pm

      Thanks Lisa … I’m sorry it was so late but I know you understand, and that you don’t mind anyhow if they come in a bit late.

  11. Sara Dowse permalink
    July 27, 2020 7:29 am

    As ever, a thoughtful, beautifully expressed review. I heard him interviewed and was as moved as the others. Hoping to read the book soon.

  12. July 27, 2020 4:57 pm

    I love the extracts from this book and have added it to my list.

    • July 27, 2020 11:04 pm

      Your Aussie books for the year Rose? Or additional? Either way, I’m glad.

      • July 28, 2020 5:22 pm

        Additional, probably. So far I’ve only read novels for the Aussie resolution and feel as if I’d like that to continue.

        • July 29, 2020 6:34 am

          That’s good – the more Aussie writers we read the better! I therefore agree that your monthly pick should be a novel!

        • July 29, 2020 5:28 pm

          Tried to buy this today but it was sold out at my local Dymocks (I can’t believe it is still open as Melbourne is in lock down, but the shop is next to my supermarket so I didn’t feel guilty about popping in to buy a book). Anyway, the staff said they have more copies on order 🙂

        • July 29, 2020 5:38 pm

          How great that it is selling so well! I guess reading is an essential activity!

        • July 29, 2020 5:51 pm

          It must be! Our libraries are shut and the book shop looked depleted.

        • July 30, 2020 8:46 am

          Yes, I understand your libraries are shut. I have no idea about ours as I seem to never need to go to them. I have no shortage of books to read, and when I do want a specific one I tend to buy it.

        • August 1, 2020 11:27 am

          I miss my library enormously. The librarians who work there are terrific and there is always something interesting going on, including author talks, reading challenges and various groups meeting (although story time is best avoided if small, noisy children annoy you).

  13. July 28, 2020 10:43 am

    I enjoyed your review, Sue. I already have a copy here somewhere to read and will try to get to it sooner rather than later.

    • July 28, 2020 2:40 pm

      Thanks Jennifer. It’s lovely to know that someone enjoys reading one’s review. I hope you enjoy the book.

  14. August 4, 2020 7:55 pm

    I didn’t know Archie Roach until I read this. Thanks!

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