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

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 whom he would return and who, 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