STAN GRANT Talking to My Country. Reviewed by Kathy Gollan
The contradictions of being black in Australia, shown so vividly in this book, are there right from the beginning, in the dedication to ‘my grandmother Ivy and my wife Tracey – white women who have loved us’.
Talking to My Country is described as a meditation on race, identity and history. That’s a big brief, and it’s hard to pin down quite what this book is – part polemic, part memoir. Grant describes himself as a storyteller and the book is crammed with engrossing stories. It’s also an angry book, with short dramatic sentences, as if meant to be read aloud. It can feel disjointed at times because of this double duty. As well, anyone who has read his memoir The Tears of Strangers and his articles in the Guardian will find there’s some repetition here.
But overall it’s a fascinating read and you’ll end up with a greater sense of the wearying toll of a lifetime negotiating the contradictions of being black in Australia. This starts from his birth, as the young Stan Grant travels with his parents, brothers and sister (although his siblings are rarely mentioned in the book) from town to town around New South Wales and Victoria as his father seeks work:
I was aware always that we were marked by something more than poverty; that no amount of hard work, honesty or decency would untether us from our destiny. We lived in Australia and Australia was for other people.
This could be a crushing burden for a young boy, and Grant was anxious and watchful. His experience of whites was generally negative: being pulled out of class by government officials to be examined for signs of neglect; looking out for the cars of the welfare men; fighting with the white boys after school. The white world represented fear.
And we see how close he was to even worse trauma – his grandfather was the son of a man who had survived the devastating frontier wars – wars that the children were reminded of every day when they went to school past Poison Waterholes Creek and Murdering Island.
Grant shows clearly how well-meaning government policy can so easily be trumped by on-the-ground racism. In the late 1970s the Federal Government was paying a small allowance to Aboriginal kids to help them stay in school. But the 15-year-old Grant, and some of the other Aboriginal children, were called to the principal’s office and told that it was time they left; higher education was not for them:
The light went out of the eyes of my cousins and schoolmates … quietly and inevitably whatever fire and spark had existed, now extinguished. Their lives became like stagnant pools of water. With nowhere to run they were slowly polluted.
His family did benefit from a policy that gave out Aboriginal housing grants and for the first time they had a home, in Canberra, where Grant’s father worked in a sawmill. Here the school experience was alienating in a different way – he felt like an exotic specimen. But the boy who read books was smart and watchful, found some mentors and was on his way, away from his poverty-stricken background, to become Stan Grant, television presenter, and later reporter for CNN International. Spending ten years overseas, he didn’t come back for the funeral of Ivy, his mother’s mother, the white woman who lived in a tent with Keith, a Kamilaroi man, and raised nine children.
Grant’s eventual search for his ancestors fills a couple of chapters of the book. The story of his surname is quite hard to untangle, symptomatic of the devastation of Aboriginal society after white arrival. John Grant was an Irish rebel transported to Australia who became, after emancipation and pardon, a very wealthy man. He settled around Bathurst, to run sheep on the land of the Wiradjuri people, expropriating 4000 acres of that land.
John Grant had 12 children, but Stan Grant’s great-grandfather Bill wasn’t counted among those, although he bore his name:
Bill Grant’s life itself traces the contours of the story of this country. He was born onto the fringes of a people facing a predicted extinction and raised on a property owned by a former white convict he believed to be his father. He ended his days on a mission set up to ease the misery of the remnants of the Wiradjuri; now homeless and adrift in his land.
Bill’s son Cecil lost his mother young, and some of his siblings were taken away by the welfare, but he went on to fight at Tobruk and become a stalwart member of the church in Griffith. On Anzac Day the police tried to prevent him entering the pub with the other diggers.
The final chapters are about Grant’s journalism. His sense of being on the outside, his family’s peripatetic life and their love of stories were all things that helped make him a good journalist. There were career highlights, like introducing Prime Minister Keating to the crowd at Redfern, and the disbelief and joy when he heard Keating utter the famous words ‘… we took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the disease, the alcohol; we committed the murders …’ – the first apology, and all the more powerful for being unannounced and not stage-managed.
But Grant’s years with CNN International, the atrocities he witnessed in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other war zones, the poverty and despair, eventually took their toll.
Two weeks hunting and fishing with the President of Mongolia should have been another career highlight, an easy story and a reward for all those years on the front line. In fact it was a nightmare as he was in the grip of acute depression – the sadness and anger he had been living with and avoiding all his life came home to roost and he stopped sleeping.
His account of how it all came crashing down on the edge of the Gobi Desert, while being challenged by the President to a swimming race, would be hilarious if it wasn’t so scary. It must have been terrifying to live through and for his loved ones to witness.
Moving back to Australia and a less frenetic life in 2013 has been good for Grant and his family, but it has meant facing the contradictions again: ‘I still find myself uneasily charting a course between personal success and the plight of my people.’
The 2015 booing of Adam Goodes, the AFL footballer who was Australian of the Year in 2014, brought him out swinging in a series of very moving speeches which you can find on YouTube. Like Noel Pearson, Grant is a fine orator.
He is, though, essentially an observer, not a politician and it’s hard to believe that he’d enjoy the experience. He doesn’t pretend to have solutions, even in moments of high irony such as when, soon after his return to Australia, he travels to Mutitjulu in the Northern Territory to launch National Indigenous Television. It was, as he says, a day for politicians and rock stars, there to celebrate the successes of Aboriginal actors and singers and their increasing presence on the nation’s screens. Observing the community, the broken bottles, upturned cars, the decaying carcass of a dead dog, he notes ‘… when I looked around Mutitjulu I realised that I had seen better, more functional refugee camps in war zones than this’.
This book won’t give you any answers to this terrible irony, but it will give you a much better sense of how it came to be, and how so many things that white people take as their birthright have to be negotiated and earned by Indigenous people, even the most successful. And how right Stan Grant is to be proud of his parents, his Wiradjuri father and Kamilaroi mother, who gave him such a strong sense of himself, and the confidence to negotiate his complicated identity.
Stan Grant Talking to My Country HarperCollins 2016 HB $29.99
Kathy Gollan is a former executive producer and editor for ABC Radio National.
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