Every year, in the lead-up to January 26, the spill of media becomes overwhelming, with newsprint, sound bites, social media and talkback radio all debating the legitimacy of this contentious date. It is interesting to note that Stan Grant’s book is called Australia Day and not Invasion Day. As a Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi man, he might understandably lend his support to the latter in recognition of colonisation and trauma. But his book is a passionate, earnest and, it has to be said, idealistic and hopeful attempt to douse the heat of identity politics, and to find a way beyond cultural warfare.
In 2016, the veteran journalist and broadcaster published his Walkley-winning memoir, Talking to My Country. At its heart was a meditation on how your skin was your fate, how Australian history was riven by racism. While he was writing that book, the country’s most prominent Indigenous AFL footballer at the time, Adam Goodes, was vilified for calling out a teenager’s racial slur. In his author’s note to Australia Day, Grant explains:
I wanted to tell Australia how this country could make us feel; how it could lay us so low. As I wrote then, Australia’s “wounds rest deep and uneasily in our soul. I am the sum of many things, but I am all history”.
Australia Day is a companion piece to Talking to My Country insofar as Grant tries to grapple with this very assertion. Although the book is not an outright volte-face, it is nonetheless a softening of his earlier essentialist claim, and tries to address anew what it means to be Australian. Grant canvasses “land, family, race, history and nation – five things that go to my identity”. The chapters on these ideas bleed into one another; they are messy provocations and you get the sense that Grant is still working through his arguments before he arrives at the concluding section, “What to Us Is 26 January?”
The book is also Grant’s bid to break free from the bondage to history, which he’d believed he was beholden to. He reminds us that his name was “shipped here in chains”: his ancestor John Grant, an Irish rebel, was transported to this penal colony; John’s legacy is a family, “not just Aboriginal and no longer Irish, but something entirely new”. Grant’s mixed genealogy is partly why he is uneasy about the battleground that Australia Day has become. He asks, in a tone both plaintive and frustrated, why it “must pit my ancestors white and black in some conflict without end. It is a fight with myself; I can’t possibly win.”
So, Australia Day: there are those who clamour for a change of date, others who wish to maintain the status quo and others still who agitate for its abolishment. Grant’s position is unambiguous: when the flags and banners have been taken down, the question we should all be asking is, “How do we move forward?”, not “Whose side are you on?”
His belief is that peace will only occur when we see ourselves in each other, together in this “creole garden that we call a nation”. That it seems a wistful and nebulous concept makes it no less powerful for its utterance. Grant does not dispute that history shows humans are hardwired to make war against each other, nor does he want collective amnesia for past wrongdoings. Rather, his plea is for liberalism: not to forget or surrender but to think deeply about how the world’s conflicts have been fuelled by too much memory and a deepening of the fault lines. He puts himself squarely in the narrative of loss, humiliation, pain and outrage that he has inherited from his Indigenous forebears, but at the same time he does not want to be forever defined by never-ending historical grievances: history tells us who we have been, he says; it shouldn’t determine who we are.
To this end, the book is a delicate balancing act for reconciliation, for a synthesis of black and white. “Can I live in the Enlightenment and the Dreaming?” he ponders. Again and again he ties himself in self-referential knots about being Australian and Aboriginal at the same time, wondering why he even believes these two states are mutually exclusive, or whether the choice was beyond his control. He points out that “the freedom to choose was taken from me when Australia had already settled on what I was: black, a half-caste; I was not born into Australia. My identity was already determined and I have spent a lifetime working my way free.” But Grant’s struggles are not just his story alone: they are the story of Australia. When a nation is founded on great injustice, how do we find peace?
Perhaps one way is by eschewing certainty and recognising that the country is in transition from what has been to what is to come. Grant makes good sense when he says he is suspicious of the loaded term “identity”, referencing Kafka in comparing it to “a cage in search of a bird”. In the quest to find commonalities and build its community, one tribe can be pitted against another: Grant recognises he has to live with that tension, but tires at having to choose between the shore or the ship – those two key emblems of Australia Day.
The book is eloquent, nuanced and insightful; true to the twisted branches of his family tree, Grant quotes both black and white philosophers and thinkers: pillars of Western democracy such as Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill and G. W. F. Hegel, as well as Indigenous leading lights such as Marcia Langton, Tony Birch and Ellen van Neerven. Australia Day began, as he says, “when a people of steam and steel met a people of flint and bone and wood”. Contradiction is the essence of being Australian.
Recognising this fact will not necessarily bring us peace but it will at least go some way to promulgate understanding. To this end, Grant suggests we need to continue the conversation and to write a new Declaration of Country. There is no mistaking the ineffable sadness and anger that courses through this book but, crucially, there is also a sliver of hope.
HarperCollins, 272pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 25, 2019 as "Stan Grant, Australia Day". Subscribe here.