There is a well-meaning musician who performs intermittently in Central Australia. When he plays his hit song, he tries to augment the lyrics by chanting the word ‘strong’ in local language. In fact, he is singing a similar word that means urine. Presumably he thinks the audience’s laughter connotes delight rather than derision.
Benign intentions, botched communication, a messy outcome. Interactions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians have been ever thus. Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers (2003) made the case that the British incursion at Sydney Cove involved goodwill from pivotal figures on both sides, undermined by mutual misunderstanding. And, of course, the small matter of taking land.
Twenty years ago, in a research paper on the so-called ‘history wars’, Mark McKenna wrote, ‘The most terrible events in the past can be used as a source of positive affirmation if they are addressed in an honest and open manner. All history is useful.’ In From the Edge, McKenna limns the liminality of European settlement in a country that had been occupied for millennia. By exploring of four stories from very different parts of the continent, he derives some truths that are widely applicable.