‘On Identity’ by Stan Grant


2019, 95 p.

This essay is published as one of Melbourne University Press’ Little Books on Big Ideas  series. The essays, all of which are titled with “On….” have stellar authors, sometimes writing in their areas of expertise (e.g. former Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane ‘On Hate’ or Germaine Greer ‘On Rape), sometimes not (e.g. David Malouf ‘On Experience’, Anne Summers ‘On Luck’).

Stan Grant, journalist and commentator, has dealt with the themes on this ‘On Identity’ essay through his other recent publications as well with Talking to My Country in 2016 and Australia Day in 2019. The biographical outline at the start of the book (which I assume he approved) describes him as a “self-identified Indigenous Australian who counts himself among the Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi, Dharrawal and Irish.”

In this book, Grant pushes back against being asked to tick the box which appears on so many forms asking ‘Are you Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander?” By ticking the box, he writes, he is forced to deny the other parts of his identity- most particularly his white grandmother who was exposed to the virulence of the racism of the 1940s when she married his indigenous grandfather.

It is so simple I can say it in plain English and in one sentence: I will not be anything that does not include my grandmother. I don’t wish to be anything that sets me apart from my wife, or any of my ancestors, long lost to history, but whose blood still flows somewhere in me.  I will not put a mark in a box that someone has decided contains me. That box shrinks the endless mystery and possibility of the universe. I will always choose the side of love. (p.83)

As he points out, the question ‘Are you Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander’ is one that the nation pushes back onto the individual (p. 16).  John McCorquodale, the legal historian counted sixty-seven definitions, and Grant cites a series of statements from the High Court of Australia in the 1980s and 1990s that tried to definite Indigenous identity. He writes of the author Kim Scott, whose book Kayang and Me traced his own search for Noongar identity.  While claiming to be captivated by Scott’s work, Grant admits that he reads him now “with both eyes open and I realize that we are worlds apart” (p. 40)  Grant writes he has been long troubled about identity:

…how easily it morphs into tyranny. Scott is being asked if he is black or white, he can’t be both…It comes with the same assumptions of power: we will tell you who you are and whether you belong; we will determine your identity; you will answer to us. (p 26)

Instead, he claims love and freedom- something that he doesn’t find in Scott’s work.

This is a very poetic book, woven through with allusions to various writers and philosophers – none of whom are cited directly or referenced, so you just have to take his word for it. There is certainly the resonance of The Preacher in his writing, which I find rather off-putting.  Paradoxically, I read this book because I was preparing a talk to my Unitarian-Universalist fellowship on the theme of ‘identity’, a topic that I’m even more confused about now than when I started.  The book reads out loud beautifully (particularly for a spiritually-inclined gathering), but then I found myself wondering “but what does that actually mean?”

None of us likes to be defined by one thing only, and we are all aware of our own complexity and contradictions. Perhaps identity, and its attractions at various stages of the life cycle, is a malleable thing that is useful in different senses at different times. It has a personal meaning, but at certain junctures its political and historical uses are more pertinent.  Sometimes identity has a ‘conversion’ aspect, as when someone ‘comes out’, ‘comes to Jesus’  or discovers an indigenous heritage of which they had been previously unaware.  At such times, it is understandable that one aspect of identity overshadows the rest. Moreover, often the simplistic tick-the-box questions of indigenous identity or having a disability have funding and political implications that have been hard won.

As you can possibly tell, I found myself confused by knowing what to do with this book. Janna Thompson in ‘The Identity Trap’, at Inside Story, has done a much better job than I could ever do of grappling with this small, slippery volume.

My rating: 7/10 ?

Sourced from: Purchased at Readings.



7 responses to “‘On Identity’ by Stan Grant

  1. Yes, that is a very good essay, though I don’t agree with her conclusion about Folau.
    My review of this is scheduled for tomorrow, and I found it difficult to write: I think that he didn’t have a clear idea of which audience he wanted the essay to reach, and got a bit carried away with the poets and philosophers. As you say, elegant to read aloud, but I predict some of the audience listening to it will be wondering what it means…
    I haven’t read Australia Day yet, but I hope to get to it before next year’s ILW.
    Thank you for your contribution, it’s much appreciated.

  2. Pingback: Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ Litlovers 2019 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  3. Pingback: Stan Grant, On identity (#BookReview) | Whispering Gums

  4. I’m fascinated by your comment that the book reads well out loud. Did you read it out loud? It wouldn’t have occurred to me to make that comment, though it does read nicely!

    Re your comment that none of the writers are cited directly or referenced, I didn’t mind that because I saw this as a personal essay rather than an more academic one. (A bit like Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic?) I love checking out citations (I mean I do look at them, not that I often go the next step and actually located them and read them) but I didn’t mind the lack here, because of the form as I saw it.

    Re Lisa’s comment re audience – I’m guessing the audience, given this series title and the publisher being MUP, is expected to be “educated” readers with an interest in philosophical topics? It’s probably not geared to a more popular audience, if this doesn’t sound too snooty? So hard to find the right words.

    • residentjudge

      Yes, we did read out loud pp 19-23. It sounds very sonorous and somehow ‘churchy’. I felt that there were too many references to other writers for a personal essay. Where he used other people to weave into his own opinion (e.g. his discussion of Kim Scott), he did give enough background and context for a reader to ‘get’ what he was saying. But where he used other people just in passing, it felt like an academic essay without the foundations.

      • Ah yes, that’s a beautifully written section – lots of literary rhythm in it.

        As for the rest. This is exactly how he was when I heard him in conversation. References to other writers just rolled off his tongue, one after the other. I was impressed by the way he has read and interpreted all these writers and synthesised their ideas into his own thinking and theories (but that he can reference them still so that he knows exactly which idea came from where.) Because of that experience, I saw this as a personal essay. I bet he can do all the academic referencing necessary if he were writing for an academic audience or publication.

  5. Almost all discussions on identity end in confusion. Why? Volumes have been written about the topic by the humanities without arriving at a satisfactory conclusion. There is no need to regurgitate the arguments. They are now redundant because science can define the term at the personal level and the group level.

    The definition developed by the Oxford English dictionary was: The sameness of a person or group at all times or in all circumstances; the condition or fact that a person or group is itself and not something else. Unfortunately, no one in the humanities was able to define what “sameness” means and the definition was set aside because it was unworkable.

    Science has overcome this problem and is able to provide an objective definition that suits all situations and is applicable across all disciplines. For more information see my own Reddit article: Can science define our identity?

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