Writer and activist Jeff Sparrow

He’s tall. Slight. Last buzz-cut grown just long enough to make his dead-straight dirty blond tuft. Skinny-fit jeans. But it’s the T-shirt that catches my eye: dark background, brightly emblazoned with the word “Rastafari” all in capitals. I’m looking at the T-shirt. He’s looking at me, looking at the T-shirt. If we’d met before, I’d have jokingly got my patois on. Cha, white bwoy tink im is tru-big Rastafari, huh? But I don’t. I just look. “Hi, I’m Jeff,” he says. “I’m chairing the panel today.”

I remind Melbourne writer Jeff Sparrow, the author of Radical Melbourne; Killing: Misadventures in Violence; and Money Shot: A Journey into Porn and Censorship, of this encounter as we meet nine years later. We’re sitting in a Caribbean restaurant in Melbourne’s inner west, scoffing ackee fry-up. “Jeez. Really? I don’t even remember that.” Sparrow smiles, ducks his head, shovels in a mouthful of goat curry. As former editor of literary journal Overland, his interactions with local writers over the years would number in the upper thousands.

“Remember the title of that panel? ‘Let’s Get Arrested’, it was. About political writing. And there was this activist, who stood up in the middle of the discussions and asked us if any of us has actually been arrested? And no one answered him. Then he stormed out, disgruntled?”

Sparrow scrunches his face up, attempting to recall. As it happened, he had been arrested. It was 1992, at a Melbourne National Union of Students demonstration to protest against the Keating government’s proposed abolition of Austudy. Sparrow, then a member of the International Socialist Organisation, was one of the organisers. There was a phenomenal turnout. About 3000 protesters breached police lines. A police van was surrounded. Cops were forced to release the demonstrators inside.

Twenty-five years later, Sparrow still looks shocked when he speaks about the dawn raids in which he and four other rally organisers were arrested. “It was terrifying, you know – 4am, everyone asleep. They came bursting in. They took us down to the police station on Russell Street. They had this massive surveillance operation set up, like half a floor. They’d taken footage of all of us. The interrogations were ridiculous, like something out of a movie: I put it to you, Mr Sparrow, that blah blah blah…” He laughs, but uneasily – as if a chill’s just snaked down his spine.

The group became known as “The Austudy 5”. The case against them was ultimately thrown out at trial. Sparrow admits to having been worried, but time has dimmed the anxiety. “We were middle-class kids, you know. I don’t think we were ever really in that much danger of going to jail.”

Sparrow was from a middle-class Labor-voting home. Private schooled. A fierce political awakening at university manifested in dedicated organisational involvement in a number of activist circles. He says that in the early ’90s the Gulf War and the recession made him and other activists want to get serious. In some cases, they abandoned their First World privileges and put their lives where their ethics were: travelling to distant and dangerous places to join good fights.

Sparrow’s brow is perpetually lowered. His eyes are muted with a blue window-tint that allows him to glare out more easily than it is for you to peer in. He looks deeply ponderous, even when smiling. “It’s unthinkable, the things we were doing then. In the context of today, and all of these… these draconian laws to supposedly curb terrorism. The hysteria...” He shakes his head, in genuine disbelief at the direction of the world.

His unflinching conviction and insatiable curiosity seem an exhausting load to bear, but they form the foundation of his nonfiction writing. His work is sharply observed, cleanly written, that difficult balance of sensitive and interrogative.

When we meet for our ackee fry-up, he’s just returned from a trip to the United States, researching for his recently published biography of Paul Robeson. He talks of the tragic unease of researching an African-American icon in Charleston around the time of the shooting massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a hate-crime in which nine African Americans were murdered. I get the feeling it was the activist Sparrow who was drawn to Robeson and Charleston, and the writer Sparrow who then carefully navigated the history.

It’s the activist now, taking a swig from his Jamaican Red Stripe beer, raising his voice above the thumping reggae beats to laud Robeson’s civil rights work, his musical legacy, his political engagement. It’s the writer who then laments the personal and professional costs Robeson bore for it.

But it’s the man in the Rastafarian T-shirt who sends me the riveting manuscript some six months after our dinner: loose-leaf A4 pages, bound with giant brown elastic bands, titled No Way But This. And it’s all of them together who prelude the book with Robeson’s 1937 declaration: “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 25, 2017 as "Sparrow’s art".

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Maxine Beneba Clarke is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil. She is a winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry.

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