Book review: Talking to My Country, by Stan Grant, published in 2016 by HarperCollins AU
I first encountered Stan Grant earlier this year when his speech from the IQ2 debate on the Australian dream, presented by the Ethics Centre, came into the spotlight. Grant’s speech focussed on the deep roots of racism in Australia and its detrimental impact on the potential to achieve the Australian dream. ‘The Australian dream’ has come to stand for the chance to achieve prosperity, to be given a ‘fair go’ and to become part of the broader cultural and social life of the country. However Grant showed how this dream has always been — and remains — out of reach for Aboriginal Australians. Grant challenged some of Australia’s national myths, contrasting them with historical perspectives from Indigenous peoples and contemporary experiences of racism, reminding us of those historical events that Australia wishes to forget.
Grant’s book Talking to my country is an extension of this discussion, a call to account and a demand for understanding and recognition.
The book is written in a direct style; it is addressed to you, to me, to Australia, to all of us. From the first page, we become aware of the pain that has given life to the ideas that Grant writes about. Grant is open with the reader, sharing his feelings of anger about the fear and injustice that he and his family have borne. His voice, at once frank and lyrical, draws the reader into the history of his family, from his great-grandfather to his son. He describes the suffering and the struggles that they have all endured as Indigenous people in a colonial system, where the odds have always been stacked against them. Our expedition through this historical landscape is littered with stories of genocide, unjust arrests, inexcusable subjugation and generational poverty.
Many of the stories in the book are first-hand accounts as Grant recalls his experiences of growing up in the 1970s and seeing the boundaries of race rapidly crystallising around him, at a time when there seemed to be change on the horizon. Recollecting the seminal moment when he and other Aboriginal children were told that higher education was not an option for them, Grant points to history’s long shadow that falls on contemporary Indigenous experiences.
‘It is in these moments — minutes in our lives but repeated over and over — which poison our souls and kill us as sure as the waterholes poisoned on the frontier killed our ancestors. It hasn’t changed; laws can outlaw discrimination but they can also harden the bigotry in the minds of some people.’ p. 45
The breadth of tone in the book is extraordinary, shifting as Grant describes experiences ranging from harrowing to joyful. Grant is a storyteller and the rich language reads like the Beat poetry of Ginsberg; as I read I found myself waiting earnestly for each new thought to be distilled. The book is essential and urgent, seething with injustice, buoyed by the hope that we may one day bridge the divide that exists within our society. Though the book brings to light some hard truths about us as a nation, it is told from the perspective of someone who has been at the raw end for a long time and chooses to love Australia anyway.
‘The truth for me is that I love Australia and I must love its people. I have dear friends who are white and I love them. And I love the mother of my son. I love more easily than I can forgive. So we must learn who we are, and see ourselves as if for the first time.
All of this is our story. These are events and faces and pages of a history still unwritten, a story of a place and its people; the sins and triumphs and how all of it has formed us.’ p. 6