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‘On Identity’ by Stan Grant

grant_on_identity

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.

 

 

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17-24 June 2019

Who Runs This Place (ABC) I’m enjoying this series. This time, Richard Aedy looks at The Lobbyists, those groups who use contacts in government and the lobbying miasma that surround it, in order to get what they want. Of all of the flaws of our democracy, it’s the power of lobby groups that disconcerts me the most.

The History Listen (ABC) Two programs this week. The first, The War We Forgot was really good. It examines the loss of Australian civilian life in Rabaul in 1942. I knew that New Guinea was an Australian protectorate after WWI, but I hadn’t realized how ‘Australian’ in was, in a very colonial sense. For example, did you know that people living in Rabaul were listed in the Queensland telephone directory? The mental image of an eleven year old boy holding the hands of his parents as he was shot as a spy by the Japanese stays with me. Well worth listening to.

But I was less enamoured of The surprising story of Wong Shee Ping. He lived in Australia after the gold rush and wrote the first Chinese-Australian novel, which gives a sympathetic insight into the predicament of Chinese women in traditional family structures. However, the author’s life seemed to fly completely in the face of his enlightened attitudes. A bit too Who-Do-You-Think-You-Are- ish for me.

‘An Aboriginal Son’ by Gordon Matthews

matthews_australianson

1996, 230 p.

There are spoilers in this review

In his short disclaimer about” changed names to protect identity etc.” at the start of this book, Gordon Matthews writes:

This book was an act of catharsis. I wrote it to make peace with myself.

The motivations for writing a memoir are many and varied, and I suspect that ‘catharsis’ is quite a common one. However, I’m not sure that all catharsis needs to be put into print. I closed this book feeling complicit and somewhat sullied, and I wondered why Gordon Matthews published this book.

At one level, I can understand it. Identity, or the search for it, is one of the touchstones of modern life. In Australia,  there is heightened awareness of the Stolen Generations of indigenous children after years of Royal Commissions. In this book, with the small black and white photograph on the back cover of a cheeky, curly-haired boy who certainly looks aboriginal, we think that we are reading the story of an adopted child who learns later in life that he is part of the Stolen Generation. But that’s not what happens (and here’s the spoiler, so look away now!). Adopted by a middle-class white family; teased by his private school ‘friends’ who call him ‘Abo’; conscious always of his difference, he is encouraged by an Aboriginal Liaison Officer to apply for a university scholarship and eventually gains a designated position as Australia’s first indigenous diplomat. Then he finds out the truth: that his father is Sri Lankan, not Aboriginal, and his whole identity falls apart. Although his Aboriginality was not a deliberate hoax, he knows that he cannot continue to claim an indigenous identity that he does not hold.

I was slightly surprised by his telling of how he came to embrace  and be embraced in what he thought was his own Aboriginality.  It seems at one remove from the broader Aboriginal community, seeming to be based mainly within the university and bureaucracy. Is this because he is in Canberra, perhaps? I’m not sure quite when the actions in this book took place, and maybe things have changed. As I understand it, indigenous identity involves both family connections and genetics (rather ironic given how ‘blood’ ratios have historically been used as such a weapon) and acceptance by the community. It is only near the end of the book, when he has admitted that he is not indigenous, that his relationships with the community come into sharper focus.

Secure and happy enough with his adopted parents, it is his search for racial identity in particular that impels his search to find his birth parents. He is curious about them, but not as individuals in their own right, but as the key to his racial understanding of himself. He eventually finds them in America. After giving him up for adoption, they married and went on to have other children. Gordon finds  not only both parents grieving their relinquished first child, but also blood siblings who have been completely unaware of his existence.

The relationship with his birth mother was tense, despite his parents’ joy at finding him and embracing him as part of their family. Contact between him and his family cooled. His birth parents did not want him to publish this book, and it was at this point that I felt I wanted to drop the book from my hands. This was such a fragile relationship, and he was asserting his right over his own story at the risk, I suspect, of alienating and losing this new family that he had found on the way to discovering his racial identity. Pigheaded? Self-sabotaging? Selfish?

The book raises complex questions about identity, race and family. There is a distance in the telling, both at an emotional level and in the slightly stilted language. Whatever he might have been as a diplomat, Matthews is not a ‘natural’ writer.

I can find nothing on the internet about what happened next to Gordon Matthews, or his family.  The silence is a little unnerving. I have no idea how the publication of this book was received by his family at the time, and I wonder if, more than 20 years later, he would say that it was worth it. I guess I will never know.

My rating: 7

Sourced from: Council of Adult Education. It was the June book for my bookgroup.

 

Movie: Peterloo

I was rather disappointed in this film. It felt like a clunky, poorly-written stage show, with  buffoonish parodies of the villains. It was a very wordy film, probably because much of the speechifying was taken from the orations at the time and, as one of the characters says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about”.  Many of the working-class characters felt like parodies- as if they were in a Monty Python movie.

However, it wasn’t all bad. The approach towards the protesters was more nuanced, picking up on the differences of political strategy and levels of education, and the tension leading up to the Peterloo massacre was well held. It was odd that there was no explanation of the fall-out from the massacre – perhaps because only 18 died? – and the consequences were political in terms of more repression, which doesn’t fit well into a “what happened next” paragraph?

I think I just expected more from a director of Mike Leigh’s stature.

My rating: 3/5

Movie: Destroyer

Counting up on Wikipedia, Nicole Kidman’s filmography comes out at more than 60 movies.  She can be forgiven, then, for the occasional dud. But Destroyer isn’t a dud, and she is brilliant. Told in present day, where Kidman plays haggard, dysfunctional cop Erin Bell, the film flashes back where she plays that same cop some 30 years earlier, operating undercover in a gang that holds up a bank with tragic consequences.  There’s a fair bit of violence in the film, both in the present day and flashback sequences, and rather too much of ‘old’ Kidman staring impassively at the camera. The makeup is excellent, as ‘young’ Kidman doesn’t look all that different to how she looked 30 years ago in her early films.  Certainly, there’s little of the cool sophistication of many of the characters she tends to play now.

My rating: 4 stars

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 16-25 May 2019

sausagesizzle

Bunnins Sausage Sizzle Wikimedia

History Listen. We’ve just had an election here in Australia, and just about the only commentary that I can bear to listen to at the moment is the History Listen’s ‘Unauthorized history of the sausage sizzle.’ More than just the democracy sausage, it includes Lions and Bunnings sausage sizzles and a brief history of the humble snag.

 

 

Somewhat more serious is their episode ‘Escape from Iran‘ where the narrator tells her mother’s story of escaping from Iran after the revolution on account of her Baha’i faith, and the family’s life in Australia.

Grenfell_Tower_fire

Grenfell Tower Fire Source: Wikimedia

The Documentary (BBC) This is a wonderful trove of podcasts! Flat 113 at Grenfell Tower is a wonderful (if rather distressing) piece of story telling about the fire that engulfed the 14th floor of the Grenfell Tower building in London. Taking just one floor (and yes, I know that Flat 113 was on the 14th floor, even though the numbering suggests otherwise- just a symptom of the questionable renovation of this public housing), the podcast traces through the sequence of events and mis-steps that led to several deaths in Flat 113.

Order!Order! is a look back at the Brexit question. Somehow 31 October is drawing closer again and still the whole sorry saga goes on.

Bolivia’s Mennonites, Justice and Renewal tells the story of the extremely conservative Mennonite communities who have established themselves in Bolivia since the 1920s. Almost Amish in appearance, they speak a form of low German, and they eschew modernity (although, as the documentary points out, there are now break-away communities which take a more liberal and modern approach).  In 2009 more than 100 women and children reported rapes within the community, for which a group of men were convicted, but within the traditional Mennonite groups there are attempts to have the sentences overturned.

Slavery’s Untold Story. Did you know that the Cherokees held slaves? After the Civil War, these slaves were liberated as ‘freemen’, but in recent years as people of Cherokee origin are encouraged to reconnect with their culture, a document from the 1860s is crucial in establishing claims to be admitted as full members of the Cherokee tribe. The waters are muddied by the casino money and entitlements that attach to Cherokee identity, and prejudices against African American appearance amongst people who also hold Cherokee heritage.

99% Invisible. From the 1950s up until the collapse of Communism, Russian theatre-goers were exposed to a steady diet of Bollywood movies. Part of it was that the Russian government wanted an alternative to Hollywood, but this documentary suggests that there might have been cultural affinities between Russia and India as well.  From Bombay with Love is well produced and interesting.

New Books in History  The podcasts here are very low-tech, and involve a historian talking about their recently released book. In Reforming Sodom: Protestants and Gay Rights, Heather R. White looks at both the liberal, reforming Christianity in the UK and US of the 1970s onwards (think: Unitarian Universalism and ‘Love Finds a Way’; the churches’ response to Stonewall etc) , and conservative Pentecostal Christianity of more recent decades (think Israel Folau), and their differing responses to homosexuality.

 

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 May 2019

Forest 404 (BBC) I don’t know quite how I got onto this, but somehow or other it ended up on my phone. I don’t even quite know what it is: I think that there are stories, (of which this Episode 1 is the first) that are linked to soundscapes and related talks. Anyway, this first episode is set in the 24th century when a librarian, Pan, is charged not with conserving but destroying sound files from the 21st century, which are taking up too much storage space. After the Cataclysm (which waits to be explained), data storage space was recognized as finite, so all the sounds of the past, e.g. a Barak Obama speech, the words when man first walked on the moon etc, are being expunged. Then Pan comes across a recording of a rainforest, and even though she doesn’t know what it is, she finds herself drawn towards it.  I don’t know if I’ll persist with this, but the concept of ‘sound’ as artefact is ideal for the podcasting medium.

99% Invisible. Pharmaceutical companies direct their energies towards diseases where they are going to make profits – big profits. This program, Orphan Drugs is actually from November 2018, and it looks at the drugs that pharmaceutical companies decide not to continue manufacturing, even though they may have been life-changing for a small number of people. It tells the story of Abbey Meyers, whose son suffered with Tourette’s Syndrome, who finds herself as an advocate for orphan drugs, trying to lobby government and drug companies to continue to make these no-longer-lucrative drugs available. Of all people who stepped in to help with Jack Klugman and his brother, from Quincy M. E. (remember that?) who used the program to highlight the issue. But, as Abbey Meyers, be careful what you wish for. The resultant Orphan Drugs legislation, which she spent decades lobbying for, has had unintended consequences.

dopesick_macyConversations (ABC) And while we’re on the subject of Big Pharma, the estimable Richard Fidler interviewed Beth Macy, the author of Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America.  In ‘Taking the Pulse of a Dopesick Nation‘, she tells the story of how drugs like oxycontin etc. were falsely marketed as being slow-release and therefore non-addictive, as the memory of the dangers of prescription medicine receded and ‘pain’ began to be seen as a treatable condition in its own right again in the 1990s.  The information that came with these prescription drugs warned not to break the coating of the pill, because, as it happened, it was only the coating that made them slow release. Ironically, she sees the only solution in treating addiction as a medical problem and using other drugs as a way of treating the ‘dopesick’ feeling after coming off these drugs, because abstinence and all-or-nothing thinking just doesn’t work. Very interesting and makes you disgusted at the lack of morals of Big Pharma.

While I was there at Conversations, I also heard Susan Orleans (who wrote The Orchid Thief) telling the story of the burning of the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986 – something that certain escapes my memory. Did you know that when books are wet, they either need to be dried out within 48 hours or frozen? That’s how thousands of books ended up in meat storage freezing facilities for years. You can hear it at ‘When the Library Burned

And although there was nothing particularly new in it, ‘How a milkmaid with cowpox changed history‘ was quite interesting in that it brought together a lot of stories about disease and vaccination.

Background Briefing The Night Parrot is the Holy Grail for bird watchers, and there have been a number of programs on the ABC celebrating the ‘discovery’ of the Night Parrot by bird watcher John Young. But in this program ‘Flight of Fancy: the mysterious case of the Night Parrot’, there are now real questions about the veracity of this ‘find’, and I can only assume that Our ABC did its legals before broadcasting this program, made by Ann Jones from ‘Offtrack’.

The Documentary BBC World Service Well, this was depressing listening from two very different places in the world. ‘Polands Partisan Ghosts‘ is about the adoption by the far right of the ‘Cursed Soldiers’ who were responsible for murder and arson in the time immediately following the Second World War. ‘India’s Forbidden Love‘ is about inter-faith and inter-caste marriages that are running up against the prejudices of the past, fanned by increased religious/national identity. Poland and India couldn’t be more different, but the rise of intolerance cloaked in nationalism right across the world frightens me.