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

Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian literature, 1970s

Although Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) annual Indigenous Literature Week is officially over for 2020, I thought I’d bookend it with a second Monday Musings, this one on how Indigenous Australian literature looked around 50 years ago. Who was writing then, and what were they writing?

My main sources were Trove, of course, and the Macquarie Pen anthology of Aboriginal literature, edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter. In their introduction, Heiss and Minter argue that:

Aboriginal literature as we know it today had its origins in the late 1960s, as the intensification of Aboriginal political activity posed an increasing range of aesthetic questions and possibilities for Aboriginal authors.

With the Constitutional Referendum of 1967, and, as they put it, “the election of the reformist Whitlam government in 1972 [that] saw a new radicalisation in Australian politics”, there was a growing interest in land rights and cultural self-determination. In this world, Aboriginal literature “began to play a leading role in in the expression of Aboriginal cultural and political life”.

Heiss and Minter nominate the period from 1967 to the mid-1970s as being “significant for the sudden growth in Aboriginal authorship across a broad range of genres.” Ha! It was in 1967 that I wrote a little piece for my school year book on “Aboriginal equality in Northern Australia”. (It’s a bit excruciating to read now, being the words of an idealistic young teen, but that was when my interest in Indigenous Australian rights really started – and when I started reading authors like Kath Walker, later Oodgeroo Noonuccal.)

Book coverThe writers they name from that time – Kath Walker, Jack Davis, Kevin Gilbert, Monica Clare (who is new to me), Gerry Bostock and Lionel Fogarty – pretty much mirror the writers who cropped up in my Trove search. Heiss and Minter describe them as

active in the political sphere while simultaneously catalysing a nascent publishing industry and writing their own vanguard pieces of creative literature.

There is another name that they don’t mention, but who comes up in Trove, and that’s the controversial Colin Johnson (who also published under the name Mudrooroo.)

The interesting thing about this group of people is that they are primarily poets and playwrights. Davis, Bostock and Gilbert are both, while Walker (Noonuccal) and Fogarty are best known as poets. The exception is Monica Clare. She was primarily an activist, but wrote an autobiographical novel that was published posthumously in 1978, Karobran: The story of an Aboriginal girl. Why were poetry and drama so dominant at that time? Is it because they were easier to publish (or get published) – or perform? Is it because these forms lend themselves more to the activism all these writers were engaged in? A poem, after all, is a powerful tool that can be performed, learnt and quoted again and again – as Noonuccal’s were, I know.

Now, what did the newspapers at the time have to say about Indigenous writing? First, there were several references to the paucity of Indigenous writing and Indigenous characters in contemporary literature, including in children’s literature. Presumably this awareness marked the beginning of the slow change that led us to the last decade or so in which we’ve seen significantly more Indigenous writing being published across all forms and genres.

There was, though, less awareness of the importance of Indigenous people telling their own stories. The sense I get is that it was perfectly alright for non-Indigenous people to tell Indigenous stories. Reviewer Lyndal Hadow, writing in the Tribune about a book of short stories by someone called D Stuart, praises:

his wide and deep knowledge and appreciation of the Aborigine. I believe there is no one who has written with such understanding in all the literature of the subject. His ear and his pen for the subtleties of altered English as used by his Aboriginal friends are not matched by any one I have read, and I have read them all. Again Stuart shows that those of whom he writes are known to him, not as subjects to be studied, but as old friends whose lifestyle he understands, and whose strengths he respects.

I love her confidence in her assessment because she has “read them all”!

The most comprehensive article I found about Indigenous writing in Australia came from the University of New South Wales’ student magazine Tharunka in 1976. The article, written by John Beston, commences:

Who are the Aboriginal writers? The first person to supply an answer to that question was Kath Walker, herself the best known of Aboriginal writers. In an article entitled “Aboriginal Literature,” in the January 1975 issue of Identity, Kath Walker mentions five writers other than herself — Jack Davis, Kevin Gilbert, Colin Johnson, Wilf Reeves and Dick Roughsey — and concludes that there is an exciting time ahead. I agree with her.

Beston comments on the three main poets of the time, Walker, Davis and Gilbert, and shares this:

Kath Walker has graciously acknowledged Jack Davis to be the better poet, but there is no clear superiority of one poet to the other: Davis is the more skilled craftsman, but Walker sometimes has greater emotional force.

This article is worth reading, because it surveys the gamut of Indigenous Australian writing at the time, across all forms and genres. He concludes, though, by returning to Walker and her significant role, saying (in the tone of his times):

The quality of her work and the success she met with — We Are Going went into seven editions — gave other Aboriginals a needed boost and encouraged them to express the creativity that they have always had. So Aboriginal literature is less than twelve years old. The young tree is certainly flourishing.

Another article I found noted Kevin Gilbert’s being awarded a literature grant to write a book. And, there was a 1979 review of the book Literature and the Aborigine in Australia by a non-Indigenous writer, which seemed to be more about “the history of the efforts of Australian writers to come to terms” with Indigenous culture than about Indigenous literary culture itself, though the review does say:

‘There is also, completing the record, the very new group of writers, Aboriginal or part-Aboriginal themselves, who are producing their own literature.’

In the 1970s, then, there wasn’t a lot of coverage of Indigenous Australian writing, but there was the beginning of an awareness that Indigenous Australians were writing – and that Indigenous Australians and their culture should no longer be overlooked. We have a long way to go yet in terms of all Australians reading and appreciating Indigenous Australian writing and culture, but it is useful to see where we’ve come from, don’t you think?

Past ILW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings

Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian biographies

Yesterday was the start of Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) 2020 Indigenous Literature Week, and, as I have done for a few years now, I’ve decided to devote my Monday Musings to an Indigenous Australian literature topic. This year’s topic is Indigenous Australian biography.

I have previously written Monday Musings on Indigenous Australian autobiographies and memoirs. These have flourished in the last decade or so, particularly, it seems, memoirs from Indigenous Australian women. I’ve reviewed several on this blog. However, biographies are a different form altogether, and in researching for this post, I’ve struggled to find many. Readings bookshop, for example, provides a list of Australian First Nations Memoir and Biography but I struggled to find many biographies in their list. It is a positive thing that publishers and readers have embraced memoirs, but I can’t help feeling that the paucity of biography tells us something about the place of Indigenous Australians in Australian culture.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), self-described as “Australia’s pre-eminent dictionary of national biography”, aims to provide “informative and fascinating descriptions of the lives of significant and representative persons in Australian history.” This suggests that biography has a formal role in telling the story of a nation. Consequently, the dearth of Indigenous Australian biographies – if my research is right – is surely a measure of the continuing marginalisation or exclusion of Indigenous Australian culture and lives from our national story.

Not surprisingly, I’m not the only one to have noticed this problem. In 2017, the National Centre of Biography launched a new project “to develop an Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography“. It’s being led by Shino Konishi who is of Indiengous descent from Broome. She is on the ADB’s Indigenous Working Party which was established in 2015, and which includes “leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholars from each state and the territory”. The main aim of the project is to add 190 new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander biographies to the ADB which, they say, has published nearly 13,000 biographies since 1966, but “has tended to under-recognise the contribution of Indigenous people to the Australian story”. The end-result of the project will be a dedicated Indigenous ADB.

Alongside this, the National Centre of Biography, which publishes the Australian Dictionary of Biography, also hosts a site called Indigenous Australia which “brings together all entries on Indigenous Australians found in the NCB’s biographical websites–Australian Dictionary of Biography, Obituaries Australia, Labour Australia and Women Australia.” It also supports the Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive, which is an initiative of the University of Western Sydney. (However, it moves us away from my focus here on biography.)

Of course, the above is all very important, but the ADB is about biographical essays in a dictionary of biography. I’m also interested in full-length biographies. I didn’t find many, but, as always, I’m hoping you will tell me (or remind me of) others?

Alexis Wright, TrackerIndigenous Australian biography – a small selection

  • Max Bonnell’s How many more are coming?: the short life of Jack Marsh (2003): on athlete and first class cricketer, Jack Marsh, who died in 1916.
  • Kathie Cochrane’s Oodgeroo (1994): on poet and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal.
  • Ruby Langford Ginibi’s Haunted by the past (1999): on Ginibi’s son, Nobby, who spent significant time in prison, and the systemic failures in handling Indigenous young.
  • Kevin Keeffe’s Paddy’s road: Life stories of Patrick Dodson (2003): on activist Patrick Dodson, and his family, and their commitment to reconciliation.
  • Marlene J. Norst’s Burnum Burnum: A warrior for peace (1999): on Burnum, Stolen Generations survivor, sportsperson and activist.
  • John Ramsland’s The rainbow beach man (2009): on Les Ridgeway, Worimi elder, who was a farm labourer, station manager and was eventually recruited by Charles Perkins to work in the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
  • Peter Read’s Charles Perkins: A biography (2001): on activist, Freedom Ride participant and administrator, Charlie Perkins.
  • Banjo Woorunmurra and Howard Pedersen’s Janadamarra and the Bunuba Resistance (1995): on Aboriginal resistance fighter, Jandamarra, and his resistance against invasion in the Kimberleys.
  • Alexis Wright’s Tracker (2017): on the charismatic ‘Tracker’ Tilmouth, activist, a book which is described by some as a “collective memoir” but which I’ve included here as an example of new forms of “biography”, particularly for Indigenous life-writing.

So, now, please add to this list …

Past ILW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings

Tara June Winch, The yield (#BookReview)

Book coverTara June Winch’s novel, The yield, follows her impressive – and David Unaipon award-winning – debut novel Swallow the air (my review). Ten years in the making, The yield could be described as her “passion project”. It makes a powerful plea for Indigenous agency and culture.

I wrote about The yield’s genesis last year, but will repeat it here. It was inspired by a short course Winch did in Wiradjuri language run by Uncle Stan Grant Sr (father of Stan Grant whom I’ve reviewed here a couple of times). Discovering language was, she said, transformative, but turning her passion into a book proved tricky. She started with too broad a canvas, until her mentor, Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, encouraged her to focus on 500 acres of land, telling her she could tell her story through that lens. So, she found her 500 acres on the Murrumbidgee, created fictional places – the Murrumby River, and the towns, Massacre Plains and Broken – and her novel started to take shape.

“that unhandsome truth”

But my, what a shape it takes. It has three, roughly alternating, narrative strands, each quite different in style but each reflecting or enhancing the other two. They are:

  • Poppy Albert Gondiwindi, dictionary writer, first person narrator. He is dying but is also a time-traveller, so, Winch said, his story has elements of magical realism. It’s told through the words in his dictionary, starting at the end of the alphabet, “a nod to the backwards whitefella world I grew up in”. “The dictionary”, Poppy says, “is not just words – there are little stories in those pages too.” There sure are. Through them Poppy tells the story of his and his people’s lives; he passes on as much of their culture as he has learnt and can tell; and he shares his hopes and values:

respectyindyamarra I think I’ve come to realise that with some things, you cannot receive them unless you give them too. Unless you’ve even got the opportunity to give and receive. Only equals can share respect, otherwise it’s a game of masters and slaves – someone always has the upper hand when they are demanding respect. But yindyamarra is another thing too, it’s a way of life – a life of kindness, gentleness and respect at once. That seems like a good thing to share, our yindyamarra.

  • August Gondiwindi, Poppy’s grand-daughter, third person voice. She tells a contemporary story of the 500 acres where the Gondiwindis live, and the challenges faced, including from mining and river degradation. Her story is about finding her place after living overseas for ten years. It’s a quest story, in a way, a little like that of Swallow the air’s protagonist. We meet her in Chapter 2 as she hears of the death of Poppy:

She knew that she had once known the beloved land where the sun slapped the barren earth with an open palm and knew too that she would return for the funeral … go back and try to find all the things she couldn’t find so many thousands of kilometres away.

(“Where the sun slapped the barren earth with an open palm”. Winch’s language throughout is gorgeous.)

  • Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf, Lutheran missionary, first person voice. Winch created him, she said, to “round” out the story. He’s her villain, but she gives some balance, humanity, to him by sharing his own experience of loss of home and mother tongue. His story is told through the letter he writes in 1915 to Dr George Cross of the British Society of Ethnography about his experiences running a mission from the 1880s. The first instalment ends with why he is writing it:

To tell how wrongs became accepted as rights. … I will tell that unhandsome truth, even if it will amount to last words. The circumstances and the times demand it.

His story is the most problematic for readers because he, with good intentions, established the ironically named mission, Prosperous House, near the non-ironically named town of Massacre Plains. Indeed, Poppy writes in his dictionary that the Reverend was “the only good white gudyi” he’d known, gudyi meaning medicine man, priest, conjuror. Greenleaf’s heart is in the right place – having seen the “the vile inhumanity practised by the white-skinned Christian on his dark-skinned brother in order to obtain land and residence, for ‘peaceful acquisition'” – but of course he is a man of his times and his paternalistic actions have their own consequences. August sees the paradox in his “trying to protect those ancestors at the same time as punishing them”, while her aunt Missy takes a harsher stance.

These three stories span over 100 years from the late nineteenth century to the present, with Poppy Albert’s dictionary providing the novel’s backbone, spiritually, culturally, and plot-wise. August’s story, on the other hand, provides its emotional heart, while Greenleaf’s provides important historical context.

The stories don’t, then, just meander along side by side for their own sakes. Each contributes to an overall plot which concerns a proposed mine, and efforts to stop it – a story that is broadly reminiscent of non-Indigenous Australian author Madelaine Dickie’s Red can origami (my review). In both stories the Indigenous people need to invoke Native Title if they are to have a chance of stopping the mine, and in both stories competing interests and loyalties, not to mention a helping of skulduggery, work to prevent the Indigenous owners from progressing their claim.

In Winch’s story, Poppy’s dictionary, which documents not only language but his people’s ongoing connection to the land, together with a collection of artefacts that had been donated to a museum by local rich landowners, and the information in Reverend Greenleaf’s letter, are critical to the Native Title claim. August and her family’s challenge is to realise the relevance of and/or discover and locate these “proofs”, while others try to foil them. It’s the oft-repeated story across Australia when traditional owners, protestors and landowners, with competing or criss-crossing interests, confront development, particularly mines.

Threading through all this is the novel’s heart, August’s journey to find herself and her place of belonging, as she navigates her people’s painful history of being “torn apart”, of massacres and dispossession, of racism, of incarceration, and of abuse from both within and without her culture. These are stories we’ve heard before. However, Winch keeps them fresh and urgent by engaging with contemporary thought (concerning, for example, Indigenous agricultural practice and the idea of slavery) and by creating characters who feel real and authentic, who are complicated like those in Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (my review), rather than simple mouthpieces for ideology.

For all the anger and sadness in the book, it is also a positive – perhaps even hopeful – one. Early on, Poppy’s wife and August’s grandmother, Elsie, tells her, “Please don’t be a victim”. This is, I’d say, Winch’s plea to her people, and is reinforced by Poppy’s dictionary words at the end in which he says the time for shame is over. It is time, in other words, to heal, to be proud, to embrace country with confidence.

The yield is a rewarding read. Its three very different voices challenge our minds to think carefully about what we are reading, while its plot and characters engage our hearts. I would be happy to see it win the Stella Prize next week.

Challenge logoLisa (ANZLitLovers) also loved the book and includes examples from Poppy’s dictionary.

Tara June Winch
The yield
Hamish Hamilton, 2019
344pp.
ISBN: 9780143785750

Nhulunbuy Primary School, I saw we saw (#BookReview)

Book coverA week or so ago, I wrote a post to commemorate this year’s Indigenous Literacy Day. In that post I noted that the book I saw we saw was going to be launched at the Sydney Opera House that day. It was written and illustrated by students from Nhulunbuy Primary School, up on the Gove Peninsula, and a number of them were going to read and perform from the original Yolŋu Matha language version, Nha Nhunu Nhanjal?, at the launch. I ordered my own copy of the book that day.

The books – the original Yolŋu Matha version, launched at this year’s Garma Festival, and the English version – were published by the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which describes itself as a “national book industry charity”. Their aim is to “reduce the disadvantage experienced by children in remote indigenous communities in Australia, by lifting literacy levels and instilling a lifelong love of reading”. These two books came out of their Community Literacy Project, and were produced through a series of workshops with illustrator Ann Haddon and teacher-librarian Ann James, with local Yolŋu elders helping develop the story.

So, the English-version book. It begins with a brief introduction telling us that the Yolŋu people of north-east Arnhem Land represent one of the largest indigenous groups in Australia. Their main language is Yolŋu Matha, which, it explains, has twelve sub-languages, each with its own name. It also tells us that, for most Yolngu children, English is their second (or even third or fourth) language. I saw we saw, the English language version of their book, is, by definition, written in English, but it uses words from the Dhaŋa sublanguage to name the actual “things” seen. This is a lovely, effective way of introducing indigenous language to non-indigenous people (as recommended at the Identity session of the Canberra Writers Festival). However, this approach also creates a bit of a challenge for the reader – what is being seen, and how do you pronounce it?

Beach, north-east Arnhem Land

Beach, north-east Arnhem Land

Well, there is quite a bit of help for us in this. First, the text and illustrations provide a lot of clues. “I see a waṯu grab a stick from a man” is accompanied by quite a busy drawing with birds, fish, turtle, jellyfish, and a person fishing, but there is also a picture of a dog with a stick in its mouth. So, waṯu is dog! Sometimes, however, it’s not so easy to get it exactly right, either because of the busy-ness of the picture or the (delightful) naiveté of the children’s drawings. You can usually guess, but can be uncertain, nonetheless. In these cases, the illustration on the last page of the story, which shows most of the creatures with their English names, provides most of the answers. Finally, there is also the online Yolŋu dictionary which, in fact, I used to obtain the necessary diacritics since, funnily enough, they are not available on my Apple keyboard!

That’s the “what is being seen” problem solved, but what about the pronunciation issue? How would you pronounce ŋurula (seagull)? Or mirinyiŋu (whale)? This one is easily solved. At the front of the book is a QR code. You hold your tablet or smart phone camera over that to be taken to a website where you can hear the story read by child-speakers of the language. The whole story only takes 3 minutes or so. Of course, being able to then say the words yourself will take some practice.

The story itself is simple, traditional picture-book style. The pages alternate between “I saw …” and “We saw …”, with each “I saw – We saw” pair forming a rhyming couplet:

I saw a maranydjalk leaping high
We saw a ŋurula soaring in the sky

It’s a delightful book. The rhymes are comfortable, not forced; the illustrations are appealing, particularly to young people; and story introduces readers to the rich natural environment of Arnhem Land region. It also conveys the pride the young authors and illustrators have in their country. It would be a wonderful book to use in primary school classrooms. It’s certainly one I look forward to reading to Grandson Gums when he’s a little older (and I’ve practised my Yolŋu Matha).

You can purchase this book directly from the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, for $24.99.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeNhulunbuy Primary School students, with Ann James and Ann Haddon
I saw we saw
Broadway: Indigenous Literacy Foundation, 2019
40pp.
ISBN: 9780648155492

 

Indigenous Literacy Day 2019

Today, Wednesday 4 September, is Indigenous Literacy Day, which the Indigenous Literary Foundation (ILF) describes as “a national celebration of Indigenous culture, stories, language and literacy”. The day is intended to both promote awareness of disadvantage in indigenous communities, and to  “encourage the rest of Australia to raise funds and advocate for more equal access to literacy resources for remote communities.”

I have been donating annually to ILF for the last few years, but there’s more I can do to support them and raise awareness. Writing this post is one of those ways.

It seems particularly relevant for me to do this this year, because the importance of supporting indigenous literacy, and, related to this, of spreading knowledge about indigenous languages was the impassioned parting message from Tara June Winch, Yvette Henry Holt and Jeanine Leane, at the Canberra Writers Festival Identity session.

Nha Nhunu Nhanjal? project

Book coverA few weeks ago, I received an email from the ILF reminding me about Indigenous Literacy Day and telling me about a book they are publishing, commemorating both this day and this year’s International Year of Indigenous Languages. The book is Nha Nhunu Nhanjal?, and is the product of a special project. It was “written and illustrated by Yolŋgu Matha-speaking students from Nhulunbuy Primary School on the Gove Peninsula in North East Arnhem Land and was launched at this year’s Garma Festival”. An English edition of the book, titled I Saw We Saw, will be launched at the Sydney Opera House today, Indigenous Literacy Day. Students from Nhulunbuy, 4,000 kilometers away, will be present to read and perform from the Yolŋgu Matha version.

In the email, ILF quoted well-known Australian author Richard Flanagan, an ILF Ambassador, speaking at the Garma Festival:

“Every language is a universe, and each universe allows us to understand what it is to be human in a different, larger and richer way. Like a basket woven out of many pieces of grass, many languages make our societies stronger and better.”

ILF says, reiterating Winch and co’s message, that

It is vital for young children to have access to books in their language. And seeing their way of life reflected in books their own children and community have created, ensures that cultural identity and connections to country remain strong.

We all know this don’t we? Many of us love reading about other cultures, but our first home, our starting point has to be, and for most of us naturally was, books about our own culture.

How can you support indigenous literacy and culture?

There are many things you can do, of course, depending on your skills, abilties, interests and wallets. Here are some ways:

  • donate to ILF (here)
  • buy a book (or two) from the National Library of Australia’s Bookshop, online or in store, today, between 9am and 5pm, as they all be donating 5% of all sales made to the  Indigenous Literacy Foundation. (Or from any other bookshop offering a similar donation to ILF today.)
  • buy the English version of the book, to keep, give away and/or donate to your local school.
  • hold your own fundraising activity, such as a Book Swap (doesn’t have to be today!)
  • advocate for ILF on social media, tagging @IndigenousLiteracyFoundation on Facebook and Instagram, and @IndigenousLF on Twitter

Let’s do what we can to help indigenous Australians’ literacy. And let’s also do what we can to increase non-indigenous Australians’ understanding of an ongoing 60,000+ years culture that no other country in the world is lucky to have. I mean, really, how fortunate we are.

Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 2, Session 1: Identity (Tara June Winch with Yvette Henry Holt)

Holt and WinchToday was the day I was able to devote to fiction writers. There were still clashes, but there was never any doubt that I would attend this Tara June Winch session, even though it meant missing a panel featuring Charlotte Wood, Brian Castro, and Simon Winchester. Why were these scheduled opposite each other?! The Festival-goers complaint! Anyhow, fortunately, as you’ll see, I did get to hear Brian Castro too; and I have seen Charlotte Wood before and did see Simon Winchester in a different session.

Anyhow, as I said, I was not going to miss Tara June Winch, and I was not disappointed by my resolve. It was a special session. There was a lightness to it, a joy, a love, a generosity, but also a deep and passionate commitment to indigenous lives and culture.

Poet and current chair of FNAWN (First Nations Australians Writers Network) Holt commenced by jokingly welcoming us to the Boris Johnson Fundraising event at the Canberra Raiders Festival! But she then turned serious, acknowledging the passing of Kerry Reed Gilbert (see my Vale post) whom she called one of “our most imperative voices for treaty in Australia”. She called for a one-minute silence.

Holt then introduced Wiradjuri-born Tara June Winch, who now lives in France. She named Winch’s works to date: the award-winning novel Swallow the air (my review), short story collection After the carnage, script for the VR program Carriberie (which I’ve seen at the NFSA), and her latest novel, The yield. She then handed over to Winch.

Book coverWinch explained The yield’s genesis. Ten years in the writing, it was inspired by a short course she did in Wiradjuri language run by Uncle Stan Grant Sr (father of Stan Grant whom I’ve reviewed here). Discovering language was transformative. She’s always regretted that she didn’t include more language in Swallow the air.

She then discussed the tussles she had writing the book. She started with too broad a canvas, but her mentor, Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, encouraged her to focus on 500 acres of land, telling her she could tell her story through that lens. So, she found her 500 acres on the Murrumbidgee and created fictional place names – the Murrumby River, and the towns, Massacre Plains and Broken. These names, Broken and Massacre, which do exist elsewhere in Australia, convey the nation’s brutal colonial history, and thus encompass truth-telling. I appreciated hearing this, because I have started referring to fiction as part of the truth-telling process, and hoped I wasn’t being naive.

She said she wanted her places to be real, but she used fictional names so that she wouldn’t be imposing her story on the specific stories and experiences of people living in a place. I was glad to hear this too, because I think there’s real sense in using fictional place-names, as, for example, Melissa Lucashenko does in Too much lip, Tony Birch in The white girl, and also Karen Viggers in The orchardist’s daughter. It is these sorts of insights that can make attending festivals so meaningful.

Winch then described her three narrators, all of whom tell the story of the same 500 acres:

  • Poppy, first person narrator, dictionary writer and August’s grandfather; he is dying but is also a time traveller, so, Winch said, there are elements of magical realism.
  • August, third person voice; she tells a contemporary story of the 500 acres and the challenges faced, including from mining and river degradation.
  • Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf, a Lutheran missionary, who’s writing a letter in 1915 about his experiences running the ironically (I assume!) named Prosperous Lutheran Mission from the 1880s. Winch created him to “round” out the story. He’s her villain, but she gives some balance, humanity, to him by sharing his own experience of loss of mother tongue.

At this point, Holt noted that at Hermannsburg, the Lutheran missionaries are remembered more positively than other denomination missionaries tend to be. There was some discussion about religion, and how indigenous people who’ve had positive experiences with Christianity can comfortably straddle the two belief systems.

Winch then did a reading, which was of course special. She read Chapters 1 and 3 – they are short, and in Poppy’s voice. The first paragraph starts:

I was born on Ngurambang — can you hear it? — Ngu-ram-bang. If you say it right it hits the back of your mouth and you should taste blood in your words. Every person around should learn the word for country in the old language, the first language — because that is the way to all time, to time travel! You can go all the way back.

Holt described the novel’s opening, and I think I’ve got this right, as “brushstroked around language”. She then quoted indigenous writer Ellen Van Neerven (whom you’ll find here too) who has said that a recurring theme in contemporary Aboriginal literature is that of returning, which, when I think about what I’ve read, rings pretty true. Holt then said something, and again I think I’ve got it right, about the “circumnavigation of Aboriginal placement” which I guess refers to the way indigenous people, rarely easily, find their way back to their start.

Winch talked about her intentions for the book. She wrote it as a gift for her father who had no language, and for her daughter whom she hopes with grow with language. She wants it to be life-changing for them. She also sees it as a handbook for claiming native title, and for recovering language. She describes her book as “faction”, which of course, with my open-mind to the fact-fiction nexus, I rather like. During the Q&A, she added that she was writing for people who still believe taking children away was a good thing.

She spent some time at Wagga Wagga Writers Writers House (love it!), where she, a coast girl, learnt about Riverina country. She “dragged” the book around with her for years, working on it in various locations.

She worked with indigenous intellectual rights lawyer Terri Janke to make sure all protocols were met, and that she had not included secret/sacred stories. Bruce Pascoe and Eric Rolls helped her with Knowledge about landscape through time. Wiradjuri people, her people on whose land the story is set, have given her good feedback.

Holt shared a favourite quote from the book (at the end of Chapter 2), in which Poppy tells August about memory and history, about the torture of memory versus forgetting. It ends with

He was telling her more – that a footprint in history has a thousand repercussions, that there are a thousand battles being fought every day because people couldn’t forget something that happened before they were born. ‘There are few worse things than memory, yet few things better,’ he’d said. ‘Be careful.’

Holt also mentioned indigenous Australian poet Kirli Saunders who is fostering poetry in first languages at Red Room Poetry.

They talked about the “heartache we carry”. Winch shared the challenge of creating a palatable story, a story with characters “you can root for”. She said she needed to take on the trauma of her research herself. She wanted to be truthful but not dogmatic, not hit readers over the head. She wants the truth to seep into the readers.

Winch conclude with a quote from the Persian poet, Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” This, she said, is her book.

Q&A

The conversation was followed by an engaged Q&A which continued the warm, welcoming, respectful tone set by Holt and Winch. One person, who was only one-third through the book, questioned Greenleaf’s villainhood, but Winch said “read on”! However, she also said that she wanted to take the idea of a villain and turn it on its head. People aren’t black-and-white, she said.

Another question concerned the dictionary, and how good it would be if more indigenous words were everyday parts of Australian language. Winch noted that it’s a sign of respect to use local words when we travel overseas, so why not the same here? Fluency isn’t necessary to show such respect.

There was also a passionate comment from the floor about Adani and the disrespect being shown to indigenous people, particularly to Adrian Burragubba.

Perhaps the most significant question concerned the sense that there is a strong momentum building of indigenous voices. Holt and Winch respectfully, but clearly, responded that these voices have always been there, that the renaissance is not with indigenous people but with non-indigenous Australians. Indigenous writers are now getting an audience which means that Australians have changed! Perspectives, again, eh?

Holt, noting that this Session’s audience comes with an understanding of Indigenous literature, asked what has changed in your (the audience’s) psyche about Aboriginal Australia? There is, she agreed, an explosion of indigenous voices being celebrated, but the voices have always been there! Publishers, though, Winch noted, have played a role. Winch and Holt affirmed their wish for respectful mutual conversations in which we share each other’s skies.

The session ended with more discussion about language. Winch said that she wrote the book for what comes after, that is, to encourage readers to vote well, to get local indigenous languages into local schools. Language heals, and it continues culture. She wants us to have the conversations, to think nationally, act locally. She also commented on the acceptance of apathy in Australia versus France where protest is part of fabric of their nationality.

The last audience question/comment was given to Jeanine Leane (whom I’ve reviewed here), who reiterated the call for more first nations languages and literature in education. It is growing in the tertiary sector, but there is a “sad gap” in primary and secondary education. (Here’s an opportunity for me to donate some books to my son’s primary school.)

Her mantra was: Start reading books and think small picture.

Such a strong but gentle, provocative but gracious, session. (And, I’ve written a lot!)

Vale Kerry Reed-Gilbert

Note: It is traditional in most indigenous Australian communities to avoid using the name of a deceased person, for some time after their death. And so, as is my wont regarding writing about indigenous writers, I checked out what I believed to be authoritative precedents, and found that Wiradjuri woman Kerry Reed-Gilbert’s name has been used on sites such as AIATSIS (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies). I am therefore presuming that her family (probably with her approval) is happy for her name to be used. It is in this spirit that I write this small tribute post.

Kerry Reed-Gilbert (1956-2019) died last weekend, as NAIDOC Week was coming to an end. She was, says Wikipedia, an “Australian poet, author, collector and Aboriginal rights activist”, and anyone interested in the history of Indigenous Australian writing is sure to have heard of her. She had certainly been in my ken for a long time, and has appeared in this blog several times. The first time was in 2013 when I described her as the first chairperson of FNAWN, the First Nations Australians Writers Network, which she co-founded. She appeared again in 2014 as one of the indigenous people recommending books every Australian should read. She recommended:

  • Because a white man’ll never do it, by her father, the author and activist Kevin Gilbert
  • The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature, edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter
  • Any book by historian Henry Reynolds, because “it’s time for people to know the truth of this country”
  • That deadman dance, by Kim Scott (my review)

Jump a couple of years to 2016, and Reed-Gilbert appeared here again, this time as a participant in the Blak and Bright Festival. And she appeared twice the next year – 2017 – first, as a contributor to the interactive book, Writing Black, and then later in my review of that work.

It was, however, not until 2018, when I attended An evening with First Nations Australia Writers session as part of the Canberra Writers Festival, that I became fully aware of the love and esteem with which this clearly amazing woman was held. Jeanine Leane, in particular, paid tribute to her for her work with FNAWN, with the Us Mob Writing Group, and in organising the Workshop for indigenous writers that coincided with the 2018 Festival. The warmth felt towards her was palpable that evening.

Us Mob Writing, Too DeadlyBut wait, there’s more! Reed-Gilbert appeared again in my blog this year, twice in fact – for her contributions to two anthologies, Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss (my review), and Too deadly, edited by her and two others for the Us Mob Writing group (my review). As well as being one of the editors, she had ten pieces in the anthology.

If you don’t have a sense by now of what a stalwart she was for Indigenous Australians, and particularly for Indigenous Australian writers, then maybe some info from the AustLit database will help. Reed-Gilbert was a well-recognised, high-achieving poet and editor:

  • receiving funding from the Australia Council to attend a poetry festival in the USA (2010);
  • receiving an ‘Outstanding Achievement in Poetry’ award and ‘Poet of Merit’ Award from the International Society of Poets (2006);
  • touring Aotearoa New Zealand as part of the Honouring Words 3rd International Indigenous Authors Celebration Tour (2005);
  • being awarded an International Residence from ATSIAB to attend Art Omi, New York, USA (2003); and
  • touring South Africa performing in ‘ECHOES’, a national tour of the spoken word (1997)

Her work has been translated into French, Korean, Bengali, Dutch and other languages.

You may also like to read the statement made by AIATSIS upon her death, which speaks of her role as a writer, mentor and activist, and this heartfelt one from Books + Publishing which describes her, among other things, as a literary matriarch.

Book coverNot only is it sad that we have lost such an active, successful and significant Indigenous Australian writer, but it is tragic that we have lost her so soon, as happens with too many indigenous Australians. So, vale Kerry Reed-Gilbert. We are grateful for all you have done to support and nurture Indigenous Australian writers, and for your own contributions to the body of Australian literature. May your legacy live on – and on – and on.

Meanwhile, we can all look out for her memoir, The cherry-picker’s daughter, which is being published this year by Wild Dingo Press.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Listen to Indigenous Australian authors

BannerSome years, I’ve written an indigenous Australian focused Monday Musings post to start and conclude NAIDOC Week and Lisa’s ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week. I have been researching a topic for this year’s second post, but it’s taking longer than I expected, so have decided to hold it over to next year. Meanwhile, having committed to a second post, I decided to change tack and instead share some podcasts comprising interviews with Indigenous Australian authors …

So, I’ve put together a sample list of interviews conducted this year with Indigenous Australian writers. They are from ABC RN programs (AWAYE!, The Book Show, and Conversations) and The Wheeler Centre. You can search those sites for earlier interviews with these, and other writers.

I am listing them alphabetically by author to make it easy for you to see if your favourite is here! And I am providing website links, but most if not all of these will be available through podcast services on tablets and smart phones.

Tony Birch

Fighting for family in Tony Birch’s The White Girl, The Book Show, (ABC RN), 24 June 2019, 17mins

Book coverBirch speaks to Claire Nichols “about trauma, bravery and writing stories of the past” regarding his latest book The white girl (my review) He discusses, among other things, the “contradictory and unpredictable” way in which the Act (which limited the freedom of indigenous people to travel, and made children wards of the state) was enforced in towns, and how this increased the level of insecurity and anxiety felt by indigenous people, somehting experienced by his character Odette Brown. The reason for this unpredictability could be incompetence in the local police, or the presence of a genuinely benign policeman, or because there was no law in the place or town.

Stan Grant

Book coverConversations: Stan GrantConversations (ABC RN), 24 April 2019, 52mins

Coinciding with the publication of his latest book Australia Day (about which I reported in another conversation with him), Grant talks with Richard Fidler about his book, and specifically his thoughts about the push to “change the date” of Australia Day. He believes, as the show’s promo says, “that … for now, 26 January is all that we are and all that we are not” and thinks that there are deeper questions to discuss about who we are than simply changing the date. I like his comment on protest – his dislike of “certainty” and of “slogans” – because I feel similarly uncomfortable, much as I agree with the heart of most protests. “I like to live in the space between ideas”, he says.

Melissa Lucashenko

Melissa Lucashenko in conversation at Sydney Writers Festival, AWAYE! (ABC RN), 11 May 2019, 33mins

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much LipConversation with AWAYE!’s Daniel Bowning, including Lucashenko reading from Too much lip (my review). The show’s promo says “we talk about our grannies, the meaning of place, the role of humour in serious literary work, the fetishisation of Black suffering and why she would never kill off one of her characters.” Lucashenko talks about how the book is about oppressed people (of whatever ilk) standing up. (As she says on another podcast, “if you don’t fight you lose”.) Because she included some negative depiction of indigenous lives (particularly black-on-black violence), she expected backlash from the black community, but it hasn’t come. She feared being honest about this issue at this time in Australia’s history – was it the right time, she wondered – but then realised that “silence is violence”. She says the job of the writer being “to see what’s going on and write about it”.  Oh, and she wanted to write a funny book – which she certainly did.

Other interviews with Lucashenko on this book are available on ABC RN’s The Book Show, including one after its Miles Franklin shortlisting (12 July 2019, 10mins).

Bruce Pascoe

Book coverA truer history of Australia, AWAYE!, 25 May 2019, 12mins

Pascoe talks about Young dark emu, his junior version of his bestselling Dark emu (my review). It includes a reading by Pascoe from the book. He talks about the importance of teaching the true history of Australia to young people in schools, arguing that “ignorance makes you scared, knowledge makes you wonder”.

Alison Whittaker

Book coverAlison Whittaker in conversation at Sydney Writers Festival, AWAYE!, 18 May 2019, 32mins

Whittaker talks about (and reads from) her latest work, Blakwork, reviewed for Lisa’s ILW week by Bill and Brona. She talks about the “transformative power of poetry” and says her aim is “to provoke and upset white readers because they are the main readers” of poetry. This issue, that we middle class, white, educated people are the main readers of indigenous writing, is something I often think about. It’s a complex interaction, methinks. Whittaker talks about the paradox of using the English language, the language of the imperialists, to convey feelings and ideas from a very different culture.

An aside. I appreciated her discussion of the word “important” as in, “an important book”. I agree with her dislike of it, and avoid it in my reviews, albeit the temptation can be great. She says that “important is not an interesting thing to say”. The challenge for me, often, is to find the “interesting thing to say” that is also succinct!

Tara June Winch

Book coverDocumenting ‘the old language’ in Tara June Winch’s The Yield, The Book Show (ABC RN), 15 July

Winch talks to Claire Nichols about her new book, The yield (reviewed by Lisa/ANZlitLovers), and also reads from the book. In the book, the character Albert Gondiwindi is writing a dictionary of Wiradjuri language. He says that “every person around should learn the word for country in the old language, the first language – because that is the way to all time, to time travel!” Given the current interest in reviving indigenous languages, and the criticality of using our own language to express our own culture, this book sounds really timely.

Alexis Wright

Alexis Wright, TrackerAlexis Wright in conversation with Elizabeth McCarthy, Books and Arts at Montalto, The Wheeler Centre, 14 January 2019 (though recorded in 2018), 1hr 3mins

Wright talks to Elizabeth McCarthy about her collective biography Tracker, which won the 2018 Stella Prize and the Non-Fiction Book Award in the Queensland Literary Awards. The interview focuses mostly on Tracker Tilmouth himself, rather than on the form of the book, and the approach Wright took to writing it.

Do you listen to literary podcasts? If so, I’d love to hear your favourites.

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
95pp.
ISBN: 9780522875522