Shifting ground

By Stan Grant

Indigenous writing in Australia is far from uniform, and is all the richer for it

Those Indigenous writers by my bedside are trapped in a conversation with whiteness. They answer back to white people; they talk about white people. Whiteness matters far more than it should, but it is unavoidable. These black writers are what remains after invasion – stolen land, stolen people, stolen language – so they write about recovery: their words, their culture, their family. They write about return. They are on a journey to discover themselves – discovery as rediscovery, Frantz Fanon said; they write to heal. To survive.

Gilles Deleuze said: “One’s always writing to bring something to life; to free life from where it’s trapped.” Deleuze called it “minority literature”, meaning not that it is lesser but that it is written within a major language. Deleuze was talking about the Jewish Kafka and “the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing in German, the impossibility of writing otherwise”. That is the first thing to know: to speak back to power, we must use the language of the powerful. The second thing to know about minority literature: “everything in them is political”. And third: “everything takes on a collective value”. So it is for Aboriginal writers, writing in a language that supplanted the languages of our ancestors, to make the most political statement of all: that we are here and that we are bound to each other.

This should be a home for me. These black writers are my people in a way that the other Australian writers on my bedside table cannot be. And yet… I feel trapped here too. I feel compelled to choose in ways that suffocate me.

“You can’t be a bit and bit. What are you, Noongar or wadjella?” (Kim Scott, Kayang & Me)

Noongar or wadjella? Black or white? Kim Scott knows he must pick a side. There can be no place in-between. As he wrote, “I felt compelled to obey. There didn’t seem to be any choice.” Scott’s work is about excavation: digging up the past to find a trace of himself. Scott admits he did not grow up in Aboriginal culture; he had to go looking for it to find somewhere to belong. It is a common trope in Indigenous literature (and I’m uncomfortable even using that term because it assumes a homogeneity that erases our difference from each other): the search, the return home, to reclaim language or name. Identity is always located in the past. Like Jimmie Blacksmith, they are people estranged from their “tribal” roots and not at home in the world.

Aboriginal people confront what anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli calls the “cunning of recognition”: the need to prove we exist to a people who don’t truly see us. We are called on to perform authenticity: to be recognised, we have to be recognisable. White Australia historically has defined what an Aboriginal person is. We must tick boxes and meet criteria of blood descent and community acceptance. I hate having to so definitively declare myself; it is not required of any other Australian. We are set a near-impossible task. The 1992 Mabo High Court decision is often hailed as a transformative moment that shattered the myth of terra nullius. It did no such thing. Native title exists within Australian law, not outside it. To be an acknowledged native title holder, Indigenous people have to prove an uninterrupted and continuing connection with their land in spite of colonisation. Australian law sees us only as people of the past.

Mabo has had a profound impact on Indigenous writers and Australian readers. White readers eager to reconcile with their history have embraced black storytellers. But on white terms. Among the most successful black writers are those who most resemble white Australia. They are fair-skinned suburbanites whose stories of a search for their roots appeal to white Australians who like to scour I want to be clear: I am not questioning the bona fides of these writers. I am one of them. I am aware that we open a space in the black world that white readers can enter.

White readers want to be healed, to be relieved of their burden of guilt. Truth-telling is invariably presented as a way of bringing white and black closer together. But it is truth without justice or consequences. Truth that comforts white Australia. The astonishing success of Sally Morgan’s My Place in the 1980s created space for others to follow. These are identity novels like The Yield by Tara June Winch, which won the coveted Miles Franklin Award. Tara is a Wiradjuri person like me and her book echoes my family’s story. Her novel tells of her protagonist’s search for a Wiradjuri dictionary written by her “grandfather”. As Tara acknowledges, she based this on the dictionary written by my father. The black “family” in the novel live near Poison Waterholes Creek, also where my parents live. There is a subplot of the diary of a missionary inspired by the diary of John Brown Gribble, who established the Warangesda Mission on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River in south-west New South Wales, the mission where my great-grandmother was born.

Tara mentions my family in The Yield and our family trees wind around each other. Tara did not grow up on Wiradjuri country and her novel reads like an attempt to be seen, to locate herself on Wiradjuri land, in Wiradjuri story and Wiradjuri language. Yet for a story that is so close to my own, I don’t recognise myself in her novel. She begins the book with a description of ngurambang – Wiradjuri land – she says when you say it you should taste blood in your words. I don’t taste blood at all; I taste family and love. Tara tells her readers language “is the way to all time, to time travel! You can go all the way back.” This is a novel for white people, and perhaps for those Aboriginal people removed from their communities. I can see how white people especially are seduced and comforted by the idea of someone returning to the past to find herself.

If we can just go back, we can make the pain go away. But I want to live with all the pain; with all the broken bits. I want to live without certainty. We may share history, Tara and I, we may even share distant blood, but I don’t share her idea of who we are. Being Wiradjuri is not something I rediscover; our language lives in the now, not in the then. But for Tara – like Thomas Keneally, like Kim Scott, like the judges of the High Court – being Aboriginal belongs to a time past, a connection severed and then recovered and rescued; a time before modernity and held out of reach of modernity. I respect Tara’s success, and I feel the depth of her loss and her need to put it right. But I could not help feeling diminished by her novel, just as Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith leaves me diminished.

Bruce Pascoe says Aboriginal blood matters only as much as you want it to. It matters a lot to Pascoe. There are many Australians with Aboriginal ancestry who don’t fashion that into an Aboriginal identity. Indeed, some may think it impertinent – if not offensive – to do so. Bruce Pascoe will tell you he lived the first half of his life as a white Australian. If DNA is a guide, he says, he is “more Cornish than Koori”. He studied as a white person. He wrote as a white person. His work was critiqued by white reviewers. Pascoe was even criticised for lacking authenticity. Now he has embraced his oft-suspected but buried Indigenous ancestry.

Pascoe is a fascinating and unique writer. His book Dark Emu: Black Seeds has become a bestseller. Dark Emu has inspired a stage play, a children’s edition, a TV documentary. He gives speeches and lectures and works in the academy as an Indigenous scholar. Pascoe is widely touted as Australia’s most influential Indigenous historian. It is a role he seems to revel in, carefully cultivating his public image. His white hair has grown out, his beard is longer. He has an air of self-conscious mysticism, a Zen-like aura that I’m sure many believe adds to his authenticity. Pascoe has taken to being photographed with a red headband: a traditional signifier of the Aboriginal man of high degree. He has been criticised by some Aboriginal people for adopting a pantomime Aboriginality. It looks too much like putting on robes, playing dress-ups.

We all perform our identities to varying degrees, and I don’t want to interrogate whether Bruce is or is not Indigenous. I have met him on several occasions, and I found him to be a good bloke. He has done some language work with my father. Dad speaks highly of Bruce and that’s enough for me. If Bruce says he has Indigenous heritage, I have no reason to call him a liar. I understand, though, why some Aboriginal people are sceptical. They are wary of interlopers. These “Jackies come lately” touch a raw nerve. Blackfellas have bitter memories. They recall their white-passing pale-skinned cousins crossing the street to avoid them. Those were hard times. Harsh discrimination and segregation laws meant Aboriginal heritage was frequently denied. Swarthy grandma was passed off as “Spanish”. Of course some people made shameful decisions just to survive. Then there were those stolen from their families, and for their descendants it can be a long road home. Identity – who is and who isn’t Aboriginal – is blackfella business. It is not Andrew Bolt’s business.

I am much more interested in what Pascoe’s success tells me about Australia. Pascoe is an “invention” not unlike the way Jimmie Blacksmith was Keneally’s invention. I was struck by something the historian Tom Griffiths wrote. He called Pascoe a “storyteller in the old style”. Griffiths is not one to waste words. He is telling us something important: that the storyteller is different to the writer. Philosopher Walter Benjamin said, “The storyteller’s traces cling to a story the way traces of the potter’s hand clings to a clay bowl.” That may be true too of the writer; the novelist. But the writer requires the reader and reading is a solitary experience; we may sometimes share it with others, but our deepest thoughts are ours alone. Who we are – our unique, individual desires, thoughts, dreams, fears, hopes, secrets, our imaginations – lift the written words off the page and give them life. The novelist is inseparable from the reader. The storyteller is the embodiment of the story itself. This personification is why people come to listen. The crowd falls under the storyteller’s spell. The storyteller is transparent to the transcendent. The light on our dark path. The storyteller takes us to a land of magic and wonder to reveal essential truths. As Benjamin told us: “The first true storyteller was and remains the teller of fairy tales.”

Pascoe is shrewd. I can see in him something of the old-time carny. He’s a spruiker in a travelling medicine show. He is a conjurer. Pascoe invites people to disbelieve their eyes. The white man vanishes and behold, the black man appears. It doesn’t work on Aboriginal people; we’ve seen it before. He seeks – and receives in some quarters – a black imprimatur. But he knows he has nothing new to reveal to us. This is an illusion for a white audience. Crucially, the conjurer is not a conman. Pascoe is not deceiving his audience. Far from it. They believe because they want to believe.

Pascoe knows this. Listen to how he describes his Aboriginal awakening: “as if I have been led at night to a hill overlooking country I have never seen”. He is smart enough to play on the mythical archetype: the hero called to the forest, who must find the grail and return to save others. Pascoe has spun his own myth, replete with days in the wilderness; overturning the gatekeepers of received wisdom; his moment of revelation; and, crucially, his heroic return. He’s had a vision and through him we can be led to his Australia never-never land.

Pascoe offers white Australians something they so desperately desire: absolution. Through him, they will see their country anew. In a speech at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, he said “we have to find new ways of talking about the past”. Through him, the wounds of history will be healed. Just like him, his audience can connect more deeply to this place. They can even imagine themselves as Aboriginal people. Pascoe tells them belonging is in the land and the land is in us.

Tom Griffiths saw this up close. He was in a lecture hall with young people on a dark winter night all hanging on Bruce Pascoe’s every word. They were enthralled. Griffiths said at the end of the speech they erupted in an ovation lasting several minutes. Griffiths doesn’t say this, but he witnessed a transformation. Through the magic in the room Bruce Pascoe one-time white writer becomes Bruce Pascoe Aboriginal storyteller. As Walter Benjamin says, the “storyteller assimilates what he knows … into all that he is”. The wick of the storyteller’s life, Benjamin wrote, is “entirely consumed by the gentle flame of his story”.

In 2016 I sat on the judging panel for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, alongside Thomas Keneally, when Pascoe was nominated in the Indigenous writer category. Keneally and our fellow judge strongly supported Pascoe, but I resisted, arguing instead for the merits of Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, a dazzling work of fiction I considered of greater depth and literary worth than Dark Emu. In the end we agreed that Pascoe and van Neerven should share the prize. In any event, Pascoe went on to win the prestigious Book of the Year award. Perhaps my judgement was wrong. Of the two books, Dark Emu has certainly had the greater cultural impact.

The effect has been seismic. For many Australians Dark Emu shifted the ground beneath their feet. The book has been praised for deepening our understanding of and collective interest in the pre-colonial history of this land. Dark Emu is not an original work. Pascoe’s “revelation” that Indigenous people were the first bakers and early farmers has been no secret to those who have cared to look. Studying physical anthropology at university more than thirty years ago, I learned how the skeletal remains of Indigenous communities from Victoria’s river system revealed traces of disease consistent with sedentary, settled lifestyles. They had formed fishing villages, lived more closely together, in greater numbers, in more permanent dwellings.

But Dark Emu is not an excavation of the past; it is a revelation of our present. Pascoe is the visibly white-skinned writer uncovering a buried Aboriginal past in the way he has uncovered his own buried heritage. He re-creates an Aboriginal utopia of verdant fields, miles of stooked grain, housing estates, roasting duck, industrious women happily baking while children play and men husband animals. He is saying to the white reader: “Look, they were just like you”: farmers, fishermen, bakers. Like Tara June Winch’s The Yield, Dark Emu is a book embraced enthusiastically by white people. Indeed, it is a book written by white people: Pascoe’s primary sources are the journals and observations of white “explorers” and “pioneers”. Pascoe’s Aboriginal society is seen through white eyes. The white witness is unimpeachable.

Pascoe has often said that if white readers would not believe Aboriginal people, surely they will believe the white explorer. Dark Emu ceases to be Aboriginal history and becomes an Australian history: a foundational story in the growing narrative of a shared heritage. This Aboriginal agrarian society becomes visible to whiteness. Pascoe makes it accessible to white people. Are these Aboriginal people at all? Or are they prototypically Australian? In Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe offers Australians the hope of a nation healed. Dark Emu is part of the project of reconciliation. It performs the function of a welcome to country: an act of generosity that offers settlers a more profound sense of belonging. And, just like being welcomed to country, it doesn’t require white Australians to acknowledge Aboriginal sovereignty. I suspect that white people have flocked to Dark Emu because, like a welcome to country, it soothes them. It asks so little of them. It expiates their guilt because Aboriginal humanity – previously disparaged as savage and primitive, previously brutalised – now becomes something utterly familiar. “Home” and “hearth”, as Jimmie Blacksmith said. With it, a man is “beatified”.

This is an edited extract from Writers on Writers: Stan Grant on Thomas Keneally. Published by Black Inc. in partnership with State Library Victoria and the University of Melbourne.

Stan Grant

Stan Grant is the ABC’s international affairs analyst, and vice-chancellor’s chair of Australian-Indigenous Belonging at Charles Sturt University. He won the 2015 Walkley Award for coverage of Indigenous affairs and is the author of On Thomas KeneallyThe Australian DreamAustralia DayThe Tears of Strangers and Talking to My Country.

Read on

Cover detail of Andrew O'Hagan’s ‘Mayflies’

There is a light

Andrew O’Hagan’s ‘Mayflies’ and what might endure from our irresponsible but spirited youth

Scott Morrison in the sheds after the NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the North Queensland Cowboys in Sydney, July 25, 2019

Birth of a larrikin

The disguised rise of Scott Morrison

Black Summer at Currowan

Lessons from Australia’s worst bushfires

Image of Paul Kelly

Unfinished business

Every Paul Kelly song so far, from worst to best