Following on from Stan Grant’s 2016 memoir Talking to My Country comes Australia Day, an eloquent and neatly organised series of essays that examine how two centuries of British cultural and political hegemony have impacted Australia’s First Nations People.
Stan Grant, a Wirdadjuri and Kamilaroi man, tries to weave into a harmonious whole the differing parts of his identity: First Nation, personal and Australian citizen. A lover of European thinkers such as Hegel and Kant, some of whom he admits were terrible racists, Grant nonetheless admires their philosophical brilliance. The question remains: how to appreciate the triumphs of European culture, law and politics when your people’s history is one of dispossession and loss? The First Fleet didn’t bring European Enlightenment, but dispossession, disease and death.
It is this unresolvable tension that is at the centre of Australia Day, making it a work of acute personal struggle. Grant stretches his intellect and compassion in order to reconcile his admiration for Australia’s law, political culture and good citizens with its treatment of First Nations People. In the end, the attempt can’t proceed much beyond being an act of cognitive dissonance. The pain and suffering Grant feels, for his family, his ancestors, his people, is a wound that can’t heal. Many pages are spent weighing emotional and philosophical strategies for dealing with the legacy of dispossession, but none will work. What makes the pain so much greater is the blithe attitude of the non-Indigenous. There is a critical lack of understanding of what it means to be a First Nations Australian.
Grant provides many personal stories that highlight ongoing humiliation. Family members being arrested on the most spurious of reasons, Grant’s experiences at school, where he was asked why his skin colour was so dark. And then the trauma of the Don Dale detention scandal, a tragedy that hits home as the victims were the same age as his sons.
The book’s arguments are made all the more potent by Grant’s luminous prose and clear thinking. He has thought and read deeply on race, history, trauma and nationhood, providing thought provoking discussion while referencing an impressive array of other writers. Australia Day is both erudite and passionate.
Stan Grant lays down the challenge for non-Indigenous Australians. We need to learn to walk in someone else’s shoes. Our ignorance alone is the cause of so much suffering. To heal the divide calls for listening and an open heart. Australia Day offers an opportunity that must be grasped.
Australia Day, by Stan Grant. Published by HarperCollins. RRP: $34.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books