Stan Grant, On Thomas Keneally (Writers on writers) (#BookReview)

Book cover for Stan Grant, On Thomas Keneally

Stan Grant’s On Thomas Keneally is the second I’ve read in Black Inc’s Writers on writers series, Erik Jensen’s On Kate Jennings (my review) being the first. As I wrote in that post, the series involves leading authors reflecting “on an Australian writer who has inspired and influenced them”. Hmm … the way Keneally inspired and influenced Grant is not perhaps what the series editors envisaged, but certainly his essay meets some of the other goals: it is “provocative” and it absolutely starts “a fresh conversation between past and present.”

Most Australians will know immediately why Grant chose Keneally, but for everyone else, it’s this. In 1972, Thomas Keneally’s The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was published. It is historical fiction based on the life of Jimmy Governor, an Indigenous man who was executed in 1901 for murdering a white family. Keneally is on record as saying he was wrong to have written the book from an Indigenous person’s perspective, but he did, and the book is out there (along with its film adaptation by Fred Schepisi).

That’s Keneally, but what about Stan Grant? Of Wiradjuri and Irish heritage, he is no stranger to this blog. He’s an erudite, thoughtful man, always worth listening to, but, here’s the thing. I find it difficult, with this book, to be a white Australian discussing a First Nations Australian writing about a white Australian who wrote a novel about a First Nations Australian. The politics are just so complicated. I’ll do my best, but will just focus on a few ideas. At 86 pages it is a short piece so, if you are interested, I recommend you read it yourself.

If you have ever listened to Grant, you will know that his thinking is deeply informed by history and philosophy, and so it is here. He is also palpably angry, and pulls no punches. He writes, just over half way through the essay that

This entire essay is about writing back to the white gaze. I need to write back to the white author who would steal my soul. I must prove I exist before I can exist.

Grant starts his essay by reminding us of Australia’s history and how “in a generation or two, my people were nearly extinguished.” He introduces us to Jimmy Governor, who was executed just three weeks after Federation. Jimmy becomes the lynchpin for his argument, because he, “that grotesque murderer”, is also, says Grant, “the memory of a wound. He is a scar on our history that runs like a fault line between black and white.” He is “a spectre that will not let us bury our history.”

The problem is, argues Grant, that the real Jimmy is nothing like Keneally’s Jimmie:

Keneally’s caricature of a self-loathing Jim­mie Blacksmith is a lost opportunity to explore the complex ways that Aboriginal people … were pushing against a white world that would not accept them for who they were; that would not see them as equal; that, in truth, would not see them as human.

But, of course Keneally’s novel is historical fiction, and, historical fiction, as most of us realise, says as much about the time it was written as about the time in which it is set. In Keneally’s case, The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was written in 1972, a particular time in Australian history, Grant recognises, “a time of anti-Vietnam protests, the election of the Whitlam government and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy”. Grant continues:

Keneally was writing a protest story for a protest era; he needed Jimmie Blacksmith to be the freedom fighter that Jimmy Governor never was. Jimmy was a man who wanted respect. He bridled against injustice, yes, but this was a crime of anger, not an act of war.

Grant though wants something more. He wants exploration and understanding of how history, how Australia, has negated First Nations Australians’ very beings. He refers to Jacques Derrida’s coinage of

‘hauntology’, to describe how the traces of our past – our ghosts – throw shadows on our world.

Grant believes that “the West thinks it can vanquish history; that the past can be entombed”. I don’t personally ascribe to that. It’s not rational, to me. But I can see how the course of Western “progress” does in fact manifest that way of seeing, and it leaves people – like First Nations Australians – in its wake. This, really, is the theme of Grant’s essay.

However, at times Grant lost me. He says Christos Tsiolkas is “copping out” when he says that it is not for white Australians to write “a foundation story for the first peoples of this country”. Grant suggests Tsiolkas can, and that he could “look to the First Peoples to enter our tradition; to understand that story and his place in it before he writes a single word about what it is to be an ‘Australian'”.

I’m uncertain about how a white Australian can do this right now, but that is probably my lack of imagination. Regardless, I feel that Grant is refusing to recognise the respect behind Tsiolkas’ statement. It’s a respect many of us feel when we contemplate writing about First Nations Australians. We don’t want to presume we know what we can never understand. Grant says it himself, late in the book:

No one who has not lived through our interminable loss could capture what it is to be Indigenous in Australia.

In the last part of the essay, Grant discusses other Australian writers. Besides Tsiolkas, these include Patrick White, Joan Lindsay, Randolph Stowe, from the past, and contemporary Indigenous writers like Tara June Winch and Bruce Pascoe. His thoughts are often surprising. He clearly approves Eleanor Dark who “knew that blackness hovers over everything that is written in this country”.

The final part of essay reads like a manifesto. Grant states exactly what he will and won’t do and be. But, he also says he is glad Keneally wrote his book because it has stayed with him for forty years. In it, he felt “the weight of my history”. The results weren’t always positive, but the book has, I think he’s saying, kept him thinking.

And he says this:

Like me, Thomas Keneally made his own pilgrimage to the old Darlinghurst Gaol. Standing near where the real Jimmy Governor was hanged, he said he was sorry for “assuming an aboriginal voice”. He should have sought permission, he said. “We can enter other cultures as long as we don’t rip them off, as long as we don’t loot and plunder,” he said. I don’t think we can police our imaginations. I don’t think we need to ask permission. Australian writers have never done this and, frankly, I see them in my country more clearly because of it. It is like the debate about Australia Day; why move the date if it will only hide the truth.

I will leave you with that.

(My third post for Lisa’s 2021 ILW Week.)

Stan Grant
On Thomas Keneally: Writers on writers
Carlton: Black Inc, 2021
ISBN: 9781760642327

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

Stan Grant in conversation with Mark Kenny

Who could resist a conversation involving Australian journalist, author and academic, Stan Grant? Not many, it seems, which is why this ANU/The Canberra Times conversation event was held in a bigger venue than usual, Llewellyn Hall, and just as well, because the audience was indeed bigger than usual. Such is the drawcard of Stan Grant – whose Talking to my country I reviewed in 2017.

Book coverThis conversation, with Australian journalist and academic Mark Kenny, coincided with the publication of Grant’s new book Australia Day and his essay On identity.

After MC Colin Steele did the usual introductions, Kenny took over, introducing himself and Grant, whom he called an “all-round truth-seeker”. Grant is an articulate, confident, erudite speaker who peppers his arguments with the ideas of many writers and philosophers. There’s no way – my not being a short-hand trained journalist – that I could record all that he said, so I’m going to focus on a few salient points, and let you read the books or research Grant for more!

On Identity

Grant’s analysis of the current “identity” situation made complete sense to Mr Gums and me. He said, essentially, that identity (of whatever sort) is problematic when it becomes exclusive, when it reduces us to those things that define a particular identity and intrudes on our common humanity. At its worst it can trap us into a toxicity which pits us against each other. This sort of identity can make the world “flammable”.

On Justice

This is a tricky one, and I could very well be layering my own values and preferences onto it, but I think Grant aligns himself with people like Desmond Tutu for whom forgiveness, leading to a “higher” peace, was the real goal rather than justice, per se. (It’s all about definitions though isn’t it?) It’s one thing, Grant suggested, to feel righteous indignation, but quite another to desire vengeance. Grant talked about inhaling oxygen into the blood, not the poison of resentment.

On Liberal democracy

The strongest message of the conversation, as I heard it anyhow, concerned Grant’s belief in the fundamental value of liberal democracy as the best system we have for organising ourselves, albeit he recognises that it’s currently under threat (and not just in Australia). In supporting liberal democracy, which came out of the Enlightenment, Grant does not minimise the hurts and losses of indigenous Australians under this system. However, he argues there are solutions within its tenets. I hope I don’t sound simplistic when I say that I found this both reassuring (because I sometimes wonder about our democracy) and encouraging (because it was good to hear some articulate so clearly why he believes liberal democracy has got what we need).

His aim in this latest book of his, Australia Day, was, he said, not to look at indigenous issues in isolation but within a broader context. The conversation spent quite a bit of time teasing out what this actually meant.

Grant made a few clear points:

  • we have a problem when a liberal democratic state refuses to recognise its own history. In Australia we are still living with the legacy of our history, and are facing the challenge of marrying this with Australia’s founding principle, the liberating idea of freedom.
  • the Uluru Statement from the Heart was, fundamentally, indigenous Australians stating that they want to be part of this nation; it conveyed an active choice to be part of a nation that had done them wrong; it represents, and this is my interpretation of what he said, a faith and trust in the nation and its liberal democratic processes. For Grant, the Statement represents the foundational idea of a liberal democracy. Grant then spent some time articulating the flawed arguments used to reject the Voice to Parliament. He argued that the rejection was more than a failure of imagination, courage, and politics. It represented a lack of understanding of the system we are founded upon.
  • the problem in Australia is that there are some extreme minorities who refuse to engage in our liberal democracy.
  • nations are not static – just ask the Balkans, he said! – they come and go. What defines them are not borders but story, a shared story. What is Australia’s story? Part of it is that we are a liberal democracy, but this democracy is being threatened, here and elsewhere, by the increase in the politics of identity which tears at the fabric of nation.

Detail of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam

Detail, Michelangelo, The creation of Adam (Public domain)

A key question he said is whether a liberal democracy can deliver on its promises. Among the many philosophers he referenced was Hegel whose idea of “becoming” Grant likes. He talked about Michelangelo’s painting of The creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel, and the fact that the fingers don’t meet. We all live in this space, he said. It’s a powerful image. He believes that “unfettered liberalism can erode community”, and that liberalism is currently failing to deal with fruits of its own success. It works well in an homogenous state, but most states are not homogenous. Resolving this is modern liberalism’s challenge.

On Australia Day (January 26)

I have heard Grant on this before, but I enjoyed hearing it teased out more in this forum. On January 26, 1788, the idea of the Australian nation was planted, and this idea encompassed the ideas of the Enlightenment (albeit, he admitted when question by Kenny, the colony didn’t look much like it in those early days). This day, he says, holds all that we are and all that we are not. It also means something for all of us, indigenous and non-indigenous. For him, the day is about considering, recognising, exploring who we are.

He argues that changing this date would hand January 26 over to white nationalists, but he applauds that the change-the-date campaign has ensured that no-one can now come to the day without knowing the issue, without knowing the angst it encompasses. Indigenous people have changed how we see this day, and we all share deeply that first injustice.

He then asserted that our right to protest that day is a rare thing – and it’s because we are a liberal democracy. Grant argued that antagonism is the life blood of the nation, that being free “to antagonise” is the fundamental principle of liberal democracy. The challenge is to hold these antagonisms in balance.

Considering how the current impasse could be resolved, he talked about ways that the day could be imbued with new significance: wouldn’t it be good if a treaty were signed on this date, or that Australia became a republic?

Returning to the idea of identity, he believes the problem is that we think first about identity rather than policy, but, he argued, powerful communities will always look after identity. What we need is good policy to fix our socio-economic burdens. And that, on this Australian election day, seems a good place to end!

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
13 May 2019

Stan Grant, Talking to my country (#BookReview)

Stan Grant, Talking to my countryHistory is, in a way, the main subject of my reading group’s October book, Stan Grant’s Talking to my country. I’m consequently somewhat nervous about writing this post, because discussions of history in Australia are apt to generate more emotion than rational discussion. I will, though, discuss it – through my interested lay historian’s eyes.

However, before we get to that, I’d like to briefly discuss the book’s form. Firstly, it’s a hybrid book, that is, it combines forms and/or genres. In the non-fiction arena, this often involves combining elements of memoir with something else, like biography, as in Gabrielle Carey’s Moving among strangers (my review). In Grant’s case, he combines memoir with something more polemical – an interrogation of Australian history, and how the stories we tell about our past inform who we are and how we relate to each other.

Secondly, and probably because it’s not a straight memoir – Grant wrote his memoir, The tears of strangers, in 2002 – the book is structured more thematically than chronologically, though a loose chronology underlies it. For example, his discussion of the lives of his grandparents and parents doesn’t happen until Part 3, and then in Part 4 he discusses the government’s policies for handling “the ‘Aboriginal problem'”, particularly that of assimilation (or, more accurately, “absorption”.) This structure enables him to focus the narrative on his theme, so let’s now get to that.

The book opens with an introductory chapter titled, simply, My country: Australia. In it, Grant sets out why he wrote the book, which is to convey to non-indigenous Australians just what life is like for indigenous people, to explain that although history is largely ignored it still “plagues” indigenous people, and to tell us that the impetus for him to finally write the book was the booing of indigenous football player Adam Goodes in 2015. And here, in very simple terms, Grant states his thesis:

This wasn’t about sport; this was about our shared history and our failure to recognise it.

He goes on to explain that while some tried to deny or excuse it, his people knew where that booing came from. From my point of view, it’s pretty clear too.

“the gulf of our history”

Now, I’m not going to summarise all his arguments – or the stories of his and other indigenous people’s experiences – but I do want to share some of his comments about history. As Grant is clearly aware – and what Australian isn’t – history is politicised, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. My generation, the baby-boomers, grew up learning that Captain Cook discovered Australia and that Governor Phillip established the first settlement. If Aboriginal people were mentioned, it tended to be in passing. They were merely a side-bar to the main story. We may have learnt about the missions (and the “great” work they were doing) and we may have learnt in later years of schooling that many indigenous people lived in poverty, but we weren’t told about the massacres and violence that occurred, and nor was it ever suggested that we* had invaded an already occupied land. However, as we now know, these things we weren’t told are incontrovertible facts, supported by evidence.

Some, unfortunately, still ignore these facts and some try to interpret them differently, while the rest of us accept them but feel helpless about how to proceed. And this leads directly to Grant’s underpinning point, which is that we – black and white Australians – meet across “the contested space of our shared past”. Elsewhere he states it a little less strongly as “the gulf of our history”. I love the clarity of these phrases. They explain perfectly why discourse in Australia regarding indigenous Australians can be so contentious and so often futile. Grant’s point is that we can’t progress as a unified nation until this space is no longer contested, until the gulf is closed or bridged.

Grant puts forward a strong case based on experience, anecdote and hard facts (such as the terrible, the embarrassing, statistics regarding indigenous Australians’ health outcomes, incarceration rates, etc) to encourage all Australians, “my country” as the title says, to understand why, for example, when we sing the national anthem – “Australians all, let us rejoice” – indigenous people don’t feel much like joining in. What do they have to rejoice about? Where is their “wealth for toil”.

Suffice it to say that I found this a powerful book. While in one sense, it didn’t teach me anything new, in another it conceptualised the current state of play for me in a different way, a way that has given me new language with which to frame my own thoughts.

By now, if you haven’t read the book, you’ll be thinking that it’s a completely negative rant. But this is not so. It’s certainly “in your face” but Grant’s tone is, despite his admitting to anger, more generous. His aim is to encourage us white Australians to walk for a while in the shoes of our indigenous compatriots and thus understand for ourselves what our history, to date, has created. He believes that good relationships do exist, that there is generosity and goodwill but that, as the Adam Goodes episode made clear, bigotry and racism still divide us.

Late in the book Grant discusses the obvious fact that this land is now home to us all, that many of us have been here for generations and “can be from nowhere else”. Rather than rejecting “our” claims to love this place, he writes that this should make it easier for us to understand indigenous people’s profound connection to country. He writes:

I would like to think that with a sense of place comes a sense of history; an acceptance that what has happened here has happened to us all and that to turn from it or hide from it diminishes us.

And so, rather than telling indigenous people that “the past is past” and “to get over it”, it would be far better, far more honest, far more helpful, for us non-indigenous people to say, “Yes, we accept what we did and understand its consequences. Now, how should we proceed?” Is this really too hard?

Stan Grant
Talking to my country
Sydney: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2016
ISBN: 9781460751978

* And by “we”, I mean, as Robert Manne explains it, not “we” as individuals, but as the nation.