On Stan Grant’s radical hope
Stan Grant strides towards me. It is easy to see why the television camera so loves his face. We meet at the plush Sofitel Hotel in Melbourne, where tea is poured from an elegant pot. Halfway through our conversation, the NSW honorary consul for Mongolia comes up for a chat. He seems in awe of Grant and tells him that his children are great fans: they’ve watched his speeches on YouTube. He thanks Grant for appearing on TV with him once. “Give my regards to President Elbegdorj,” Grant tells him. “He’s a good friend of mine.” He has been since Grant’s days as a CNN correspondent based in Beijing.
We have come to discuss Grant’s new book, Talking to My Country, published in March. The book was not planned at all. It emerged out of the electric response to an article Grant wrote for the Guardian in July last year at the height of the Adam Goodes affair. In 2013, controversy erupted when the Sydney Swans player called out a 13-year-old spectator for describing him as an ape. Worse was to follow. In a moment of elation and pride at a match during the 2015 Indigenous Round, the twice–Brownlow Medal winner and Australian of the Year did a war dance. Maoris do war dances. So do sports teams at elite private schools. Swimmers roar, chests wide open, fists punching the air. Dominance displays are commonplace in sport. No one takes exception to them. Unless they are expressed by an indigenous person. When Goodes, in that moment, gloried in the proud warrior culture of his ancestors, there was a furore. Relentless booing drove one of the greats out of his beloved game.
“The Goodes booing debate enraged me, sickened me, saddened me and made me feel at times helpless. Here was everything I thought – hoped – we had left behind,” Grant tells me.
“Our citizenship and sense of belonging are conditional on the fact that we never complain. It’s like Obama. We will let you get to the White House, but don’t remind us you are black. Any time he or Michelle did so, it was ‘How dare you!’ and seen as ungrateful. Same thing for us. ‘Look at what we have done for you. We’ve put you on the stage, let you play football. How can you be so ungrateful?’”
Rather than confront Australia with the racism, however, Grant made a sideways move. Instead of interpreting and condemning what those crowds meant, he explained what he and other indigenous people heard. He invited non-indigenous Australians to step inside his skin.
Grant’s response, which has been shared more than 100,000 times, was one of those cultural happenings that flash out of the banality of ordinary politics and command attention. It was eloquent and anguished, expressing both just and disciplined anger, and a sorrow and depth that caught imaginations. Identities, he writes in Talking to My Country, “are often not sheets of armour but an eggshell that can shatter at your touch”. There have been times when he has believed what some Australians say about him, although he is ashamed to admit that, “because I come from strong people”.
Most compelling, however, was the way Grant offered up his own pain. It is impossible to understand the emergence of his distinctive voice without understanding where that vulnerability comes from.
It was amid the sand and silence of Mongolia that it finally happened. On the wide open steppes there were no trees or landmarks, just relentless driving winds and the undulating earth stretching on and on. In 2011, Grant, then a highly successful television journalist for CNN, had been invited to travel with President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj to his ancestral home and experience the traditional life of these tough, wiry horse people. They slept in gers, drank mare’s milk and ate marmot. There was a bizarre swimming race in which the president awarded himself a 50-metre advantage over Grant, because Australians are all supposed to be great swimmers. It should have been a vivid respite from a flattening work schedule, and a tribute to the recognition this Aboriginal boy from Griffith had achieved. Instead, Stan Grant’s world cracked open and fell apart.
Grant worked all over for CNN, in the Middle East, Afghanistan, North Korea and China. He had made a name for himself in Australia as a journalist for a number of media organisations, including the ABC, and had hosted popular tabloid TV programs like Today Tonight and Real Life. The phone call inviting him to work for CNN had come out of the blue in 2001. The network had seen something unusual in the reporter who had the gift of storytelling, and he more than fulfilled their expectations. In areas shattered by war and terrorism, his reports showed something more than destruction. He found stories that aroused people’s empathy and spoke to a common humanity.
“There is my career before CNN and after,” Grant writes. “I was never again the same person … No longer did I meet people with wariness. I had been liberated by the world.” For the first time, Grant encountered a world of equality. “Out here I was a person, a man of strengths and weaknesses, with good days and bad but not a man pre-judged according to his race.” His colleagues came from all over the world and from many different ethnic groups. None of that mattered. What mattered was that you did your job well. “Identity is a two-way street. We need others to see us as we see ourselves.”
But something else was working inside of him too. In this most unlikely of places, Grant found himself “battered by the storms of a history I’d left far behind”. He writes that “the road to Mongolia and my moment of reckoning was long”. His spinning out had begun with not sleeping. He became obsessed by time, with deadlines and strict timetables, as if measuring the minutes might ward off the chaos threatening to engulf him. When he worked in Beijing he had to get to the gym at exactly 6 am. Then he found where the cleaners left the key and started going even earlier. By the time people started arriving in the morning, he was already training.
Grant had been renowned at CNN for his ferocious hard work. It had a driven element to it, a desire, he says, never to be thought out of his depth. He would sleep lightly for a few hours, wake up his team and get cracking on another story, ready to cross live. But now he never seemed to stop, and hardly slept at all. His temper frayed over minor things, and he’d blow up at his wife, fellow journalist Tracey Holmes, over nothing. A punishing work ethic became an uncontrolled mania.
The CNN psychiatrist he consulted advised him to stop work immediately, citing the trauma of reporting from war zones for so many years. Grant decided to take this one last assignment in Mongolia. But once there, he became anxious, waves of panic washing over him. He was tormented, “flooded with despair and a gut-churning sense of loss”. At night he feared he would not make the next breath as a great weight pressed on his chest. Sleepless, he wandered the empty steppe restless and alone.
As a CNN correspondent Grant had seen terrible things. Suicide bombings, bodies with heads blown off, “the stench of blood so strong you could taste it … death waited at every turn”. He met children with dead eyes trained by the Taliban to be suicide bombers. Inside a car wrecked by a bomb he saw a “blood-smeared bookmarker with a Qur’anic verse praying for a safe journey”. Yet in refugee camps and war-ravaged areas, he also saw people finding the courage to go on living, caring for their families, rebuilding their shattered lives time and again. Why, he asked himself, did they not just surrender?
Those words were also an echo from his own past. What those scenes of horror triggered were memories of trauma in a different place, among the ghost gums and dry sand lakes of Wiradjuri territory in central New South Wales. In bearing witness to the consequences of devastating conflicts, a long-buried, delayed grief over what had happened to his people streamed out of his unconscious with uncontrollable force. He kept ringing Holmes and weeping. “Why, why have they done this to us? They were so good,” he would say to her, referring to his mother, father and grandfather. “They were so beautiful and Australia had kicked them down.” So many of the boys he had grown up with were dead before their time. Others lived on the margins, impoverished or claimed by drink and drugs.
In Mongolia, Grant fell “under the weight of my history”. The faces of the horror he had seen overseas had “merged with mine and the faces of my family”. Grant was diagnosed with acute depression, and he observes that it is a disease one third of indigenous adults suffer from.
“All my life,” he says, “was leading up to this point.”
Talking to My Country opens with Grant taking his youngest son, as a kind of initiation, to a waterway in Narrandera, New South Wales, where a casually marked sign reads “Poison Waterholes Creek”. In the 1830s local settlers had laced the water with poison. Many Wiradjuri men, women and children died, their “bodies left strewn along the banks rotting in the sun, a warning to others”. Grant wants his son, privileged, affluent, attending a private school, to understand this part of his history.
With the attainment of success, one temptation might be to turn away from the past and “just move on”. Grant’s inner world, however, is marked by the fidelity of remembrance. Grant writes that he was “born into what anthropologist WEH Stanner called ‘the great Australian silence’”, and he repeats Stanner’s statement that the fate of the land’s first people was buried under “something of a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale”. Nothing makes Grant happier than to see his children flourish alongside children of all nations. “But I always find myself drawn back to the darkness,” he writes. “Sadness has always felt so much more familiar and so it is safer. We can live in its confines. We can laugh in its face. But it is preferable to happiness. Happiness feels like giving in, it feels like surrender. Happiness feels like the past is over and done with and I am not yet ready for that.”
One of those things that Grant cannot forget is that on a wall of a dormitory at Cootamundra Girls’ Home there was a sign that read, “Act white, think white, be white.” The girls’ home was where Stan Grant’s great-aunt Eunice Grant was taken, and her name replaced by a number, 658. She was one of 1500 children who were separated from families in the 20-year period from 1912. Number 658 became a servant to white farming families. After “getting permission” to marry the man she loved, Aunty Eunice found happiness among her people, living on a Condobolin mission with her husband and six children. But she died young, of the rheumatic fever she contracted at the girls’ home that had supposedly “saved” her from neglect.
It would be a mistake to think that Grant’s experience growing up was the same as that of Aunty Eunice, even as the evidence of the dispossession and its consequences were all around him. Grant’s family were homeless for 12 years, living out of a car as they travelled the back roads of southern New South Wales in search of work for his saw-miller father. Among the hardship, Grant tells me, there was in his parents, Stan and Betty, a stoicism, a steadfastness, “a bedrock of love and stability”.
It was education, “more profound and indelible than anything taught in a classroom”, he writes. “I am formed more fully from these early years than all the decades that have followed.” His parents, no matter what the difficulty of their lives, stuck to the discipline of raising kids, gave everything they had, never gave up. Grant sees that tenacity and resilience as an act of extraordinary courage.
It is not a sentimental portrait, however. In his first book, 2002’s The Tears of Strangers, Grant tells of his father’s beatings. While Grant’s mother always defended the quiet, sensitive boy, his father felt he was too soft and lacked the toughness needed to survive. He did not hit him often, but when he did he left welts, and once threw him across a room. “My father wasn’t brutal; like too many of his generation he was brutalised,” Grant writes. His father was given many beatings by police in Redfern and still trembles at the sight of a flashing blue light.
Yet the most tender moments in Talking to My Country are also about this time. Sitting alongside his sleeping siblings, tangled together in the back seat of the car on their way to a new town, Grant would watch his mother in the darkness lighting a cigarette and gently putting it to his father’s lips as he drove. He would listen to the rise and fall of their voices as the cigarette’s glow illuminated their faces. His mother, the family storyteller, “has the soul of a poet”. She loved the violence out of his father, Grant says. “Softened now by the god of second chances”, he has “refused to be defined by the harshness of this world”.
Grant’s father lost the tips of three fingers while working in mills. After coming home he would sink into bathwater stained by blood, and close his eyes, exhausted. His eldest son would wait for him anxiously, fully aware of how precarious their survival was. “If he didn’t come home, we were finished,” Grant tells me. He did not run to him, however, nor was he swept up in fatherly arms. Their relationship was never like that.
However poor they were, there was always room for cousins and for Grant’s maternal grandfather, Keith Cameron, “the most important person in my young life”. As a boy, Grant often sat on the verandah with his grandfather as he read the racing guide and listened to Three Way Turf Talk on the radio. Or Grant would wait in the darkness to rescue him when he stumbled home drunk. Pa worked as a nightman, emptying the outdoor toilet cans before plumbing came to the country. One night he dropped all his money into the shit hole while drunk, but calmly rolled up his sleeve and fished it all out, washing and hanging the money to dry on the washing line. Pa carried a small case full of memories, including the photo of a beautiful white woman called Ivy.
When Grant writes, quoting the lines of the African-American poet Langston Hughes, “You are white – yet part of me, as I am part of you,” or tells Australia, “we are better than this”, he could be thinking of his white grandmother. As a teenager, the blonde, blue-eyed Ivy was thrown out of home by her mother. Finding herself homeless, she remembered the handsome Aboriginal man who used to whistle at her. She joined him in his tent on the banks of the river, and they were together for more than 20 years. She had 12 children and buried three of them.
By any standards, a white woman living with a black man at that time was audacious. Ivy considered herself “a white Aborigine”. About to give birth to a black child, she wasn’t allowed into hospital in the town, so had to be driven to the next one. Her pram was searched by police because they assumed she was running grog. She had never touched a drop in her life. Later, she sent coins wrapped in a handkerchief to all her grandchildren on every birthday. She would proudly say of the young Stan, who by early teenage years was an avid follower of politics on the news, that he would be prime minister one day.
Grant says that as a child he was preternaturally alert to the world. “I was incredibly sensitive, incredibly aware of what was going on around. Even among my siblings I felt like a generation removed; thinking, staring out a car window at a world outside our grasp.”
As the eldest, he says, he felt the pressure to be a “good child, really, really good … I couldn’t bring any trouble into my parents’ lives because they already had enough.” He was a watchful boy, anxiously counting as his mother shopped in a store with a food voucher, “adding everything up, so we didn’t go over the amount they had given us”.
At school, as early as five years old, he collided with the humiliation of being indigenous and dirt poor. He remembers the smell of second-hand jumpers with another boy’s name in the collar, being hauled out of class and inspected for lice, his lunchbox examined, intrusive questions about his home life. No white child was treated like this.
He had 15 changes of school before his teenage years. Schooling was so disrupted that anything sequential, like maths, was made difficult. But he sought solace in reading, in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, in Charles Dickens. “I loved the language,” he says, “read it really early, then Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner … but James Baldwin was the most important person I ever read.”
By “about 12 or 13, I was picking up this love of story, and was fascinated by news”. But his parents were also the source of an alternative history – like the poisoned waterholes – left out of the school history books that described the glorious white civilisation and those they had conquered: “dark-skinned wandering tribes who hurled boomerangs and ate snakes”.
Grant tells me, “I remember the day vividly when the principal told us there was no place for us at that school.” He was 15 when he and fellow indigenous students were hauled into the principal’s office at Griffith High School, and reminded they were now at a legal age to leave. Just then, however, his father moved to Canberra for work. There Grant encountered a fine teacher, John Bevan, father of the former Australian cricketer Michael Bevan, who took him aside. Grant’s white middle-class schoolmates already had their futures mapped out for them, Bevan said, “but where you end up will depend much more on you”. It was a watershed moment. “It stayed with me and lay at the heart of much of what followed, that it has to come from me.”
Another such pivotal moment came not long after Grant finished school. He was working at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra, photocopying and bringing in the mail. It was there that Marcia Langton, then an “aspiring academic”, encouraged him to go to university.
“Marcia took me aside and said, ‘This is not what your parents have sacrificed for. You should be proud of who you are, where you have come from. We are a proud people, we are not defeated. Our culture is not destroyed, you need to look beyond this …’”
Before that moment, Grant recalls, “no one had really opened those windows for me. It wasn’t in my DNA.” Thoughts of university were impossible “if all you identify with is a boxing tent and manual labour”. By 1981 there was free education and some financial support, but “most importantly, Marcia and others had been through this and could show us what was on the other side: ‘No, it is not that scary, I’ve done it and you can do it.’”
Grant was accepted to the University of New South Wales, where he encountered black activists and scholars. For the first time he was able to systematically study his people’s hidden history. But a life has a songline – an underlying pattern – and he had not yet joined all the dots.
How to find new and good ways of living in the face of what has befallen an indigenous people is the subject of philosopher Jonathan Lear’s book Radical Hope: Ethics in the face of cultural devastation. It is a book that Grant deeply admires. Lear tells of how, just before his death, Plenty Coups, the last great indigenous chief of the Crow Nation, said this: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere.” The chief had a visionary dream, prophesising the coming destruction. In the dream a bird, the Chickadee, a symbol of canny wisdom, shows the way forward: to listen acutely without submitting, to observe and learn new ways of being. But “in all his listening he tends to his own purpose”, adapting, surviving, but finding new ways of preserving what is valuable in indigenous culture. Lear distinguishes between “mere optimism”’ and “radical hope”. Optimism can be an evasion, a distortion of reality. It takes more courage to be realistic, to retain a truthful remembrance of a painful past, and yet maintain hope for what is possible, to still find powerful ideals to live by, to know what to let go and what to preserve.
That same spirit of creative adaptation, the essence of that dream, is deep in Stan Grant. He has returned home to Australia, where, in addition to being an anchor and international editor for Sky News, and the Guardian’s indigenous affairs editor, he hosts a daily current affairs program, The Point, on National Indigenous Television (NITV). In late 2012, for the launch of NITV as a free-to-air national station, he travelled to Mutitjulu, in central Australia, “the first target of the so-called intervention”. Grant was not blind to the dysfunction in front of his nose in Mutitjulu. In a car wreck, among the broken bottles, he saw “the decaying carcass of a dead dog … baring its teeth in what looked like a menacing grin”. Grant writes that “if any image summed up this collision of community, neglect and government policy this was it”. He felt “angry and sad”, and asked himself the perennial question, “What is to be done?”
It was not, as Grant adamantly tells me, for the army to carry out a heavy-handed top-down intervention. “The approach is surely not to come in and remove the agency of the people themselves. You don’t empower people by disempowering them … telling them when to go to bed or where to spend their money. The history of indigenous people is the history of the imposition of the state … I don’t think our non-indigenous parliamentarians even grasp who we are as a people: the complexity, range of experience and different socioeconomic groups.”
Grant has had talks with both sides of politics about running for parliament. It is still on the cards in the long term, but he thinks it is unlikely, given the tight time frame, that he will stand for the July federal election. In the meantime, he is already “in politics”, he says. He has just been appointed to the Referendum Council, advising the prime minister on the campaign to recognise indigenous people in the Constitution. (His predecessor, Patrick Dodson, resigned to run as a Labor Party candidate for the Senate.) “I’ve realised that the classical role of detached broadcaster is too tight a fit for me now. I’m in advocacy.”
Grant acknowledges that he is simply joining many other voices that have been contributing to a conversation on indigenous matters for a long time: those of Dodson, Marcia Langton, Chris Sarra and Noel Pearson among others. Like Pearson, Grant is interested in the work of South Australian academic Maria Lane. In a study published in 2007, Lane examined sources of achievement among indigenous people and traced back their educational, social and family experiences since World War Two. She found clear evidence of a bifurcation, of what she called the “welfare-embedded population” and the “open society population”. It was within the latter group that higher educational and occupational achievement was found. This group came from families who were willing to move away to regional centres or larger cities for work, grasping opportunities, living lives engaged with the broader Australian society.
“I’m a product of the open society model,” Grant explains to me. But he distinguishes his understanding of the term from what a conservative might mean by it.
“Where I part company from conservatives, who likewise emphasise responsibility, effort and merit, is their lack of understanding, and denial, of our identity as indigenous people. It is as if at a certain point you will just disappear into a comfortable middle-class life.
“I am still absolutely connected to who I am. It’s not fabricated. It is real.”
Grant’s Aboriginal identity is central, as the events in Mongolia demonstrated. “I am a Wiradjuri man in New York and Beijing and Jerusalem. I have never lost that connectedness.”
Since his time in Mongolia, there has been developing in Grant a desire to devote his life to the betterment of his people. Grant could so easily have gone on overseas as a successful journalist and never returned home. As I watched NITV over many nights, I could see something of what he hopes for. Its programs have an openness and engagement with the world, covering a huge range of issues, but from a distinctively indigenous perspective. In each one there is the opposite of the cult of forgetfulness: remembrance. Our nation’s hidden history, past and present, shifts from the margins of news services to the very centre. But there is something else powerfully present too, an inspiring assertion of pride in what is valuable in indigenous culture.
Grant’s people back home in Griffith were “really, really proud when I stood up and spoke about us … Having their story heard was about removing pain.” Grant also connects with people by eloquently framing the issue of the dispossession for non-indigenous Australia too. He tells me he thinks “there is something moving, shifting in this country … People are ready to look again at the dispossession, to have a conversation about it.” Without that conversation, Grant feels the Australian dream will be forever hollow. But he also tells me that everything he says to Australians comes from a love of this place and its people. Inviting all of us to imagine a new kind of Australia, one that is “better than that”, “where you are in us and we are in you”, that is his radical hope.