Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Talking To My Country

Grant_Talking

Talking To My Country by Stan Grant

The ideal book review is written by someone who knows more than the author. They set the story in context, they point out missed connections, and tie it to a broader story. This is not one of those reviews. I know precious little of what Stan Grant speaks, and understand even less. Not only in the history spoken of, but in some ways how the author connects to that history is also foreign to me.

Talking to My Country is part memoir of his family, part plea to understand what his people have been through. Early on I found myself somewhat arguing back, treating this as a politics book and looking for him to provide policy answers. But the quality of Grant’s writing soon calmed that impulse and by the end, I was grateful for having had a chance to simply listen to the experiences of his family and how he and his people have felt about Australia.

What fascinated me most in this powerful book was the relationship between the author and history. Grant escaped Australia for many years, yet felt compelled to return and re-immerse himself in the culture and history of his people. He knows this history is painful and enraging, and yet feels it vital his son truly understands. He feels Australia has moved on, and yet incidents like the booing of Adam Goodes make him fear nothing has changed. And despite being a highly successful man of the world, he finds himself in the land and practices of his family long before.

Grant’s desire to escape is perhaps the one thing I best understand. In the face of generations, centuries of hurt and humiliation for indigenous people, who wouldn’t want a future elsewhere? You don’t have to be in pain to take that approach either. For children with even a reasonable start to life, the future is often the only focus of merit. It represents an opportunity to make something of yourself, to create an identity and record worthy of respect. To be free of history is both the desire of those most weighted down, and those most at liberty to wander.

And yet, for those who have suffered from history, it is precisely that weight which many find salvation in. Grant tells a remarkably similar story to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Both describe a youthful journey of finding an identity through an wholehearted embrace of their people’s history.

One example of this, though one I found slightly confusing on a personal level, was Grant’s story of his great-grandfather. Bill Grant was a man of whom he knows little except that he lived out his days ‘on a mission set up to ease the misery of the remnants of the Wiradjuri; now homeless and adrift in his land’. Grant visits the site of the mission and discovers ‘In a small book listing the names of the people of Bulgandramine mission I found something else,something that makes sense of the life I have lived. It connects me to my love of words and stories. In this book there is a listing for Bill Grant. Next to it is one word: storyteller.’

Grant is a hugely successful figure. He has worked as a leading figure in Australian newsrooms and across the globe, and is a giant of his industry. When he raised the possibility of running for political office, no one doubted that he could do it, and do very well at it. So why does he feel his life did not make sense before (or perhaps makes more sense now) when he discovers that an ancestor was also a storyteller?

Grant is not alone in valuing a connection between the tendencies of those in his family tree with his own. Many across the ethnic and cultural spectrum do the same. But I am not one of them. My grandmother tells me we are related to A.B Facey (author of “A Fortunate Life”). But I don’t feel this says anything about whether I can write, or my love of writing. I feel that information tells me nothing about me, yet for Grant a similar piece of information is vital to him.

Grant comes closest to explaining the importance of his connection with history when recounting his return to Australia, after his time at CNN and struggles with depression. “Sadness” he says “has always felt so much more familiar and so it is safer. We can live in its confines…Hapiness feels like giving in, it feels like surrender. Happiness feels like the past is over and done and I am not yet ready for that” (p164). Perhaps this gives some insight. I still don’t quite understand, but I feel I can better empathize thanks to Grants efforts to try and explain.

Like any true journalist, Grant’s writing is best when grounded. As we get closer to today, invocations of people and pain become all the more poignant and powerful. The story of his grandfather the war veteran humiliated on ANZAC day is particularly moving. Returning to his parents the second time around, deep into the book, we get a much more complete sense of their struggles, from the hard early life, through to small humiliations like being ignored for service in a café last year. There is a pounding rhythm to Grant’s writing, that when focused on specific people and moments, provides a pushing, breathless beat that has real power.

I don’t know enough about the history and situation of the indigenous people of Australia. In truth, part of me doesn’t want to know, given the terrible statistics and sense of hopelessness of seeing real change anytime soon. But perhaps more important than the general public knowing the numbers is that our society develops a greater empathy and sense of understanding of what this ancient culture has gone through. And the fact that after 115 years of history in the nation which claimed their lands, they are still trying to find a voice and be heard.

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