On Thomas Keneally: Writers on Writers
Black Inc., $17.99 hb, 90 pp
Hope is an intangible thing. It cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is like a path. Originally, there is none - but as many people come and go, a path appears.
Lu Xun, ‘My Old Home’
We both unsettled when the boats came.
Briggs, ‘The Children Came Back’
Let’s start with a portrait. The year is 1993. The book is My Kind of People. Its author is Wayne Coolwell, a journalist. Who are Coolwell’s kind of people? Ernie Dingo, for one. Sandra Eades. Noel Pearson. Archie Roach. And there, sandwiched between opera singer Maroochy Barambah and dancer Linda Bonson is Stan Grant, aged thirty. Circa 1993, Grant is a breakthrough television presenter and journalist whose mother remembers him coming home to read the newspaper while the other kids went to play footy. ‘[T]here was a maturity and a sense of order about him,’ Coolwell writes. The order belies his parents’ life of ‘tin humpies, dirt floors, and usually only the one bed for all the kids in the family’. They are unable to afford a football (Grant relies on rolled-up socks). His sister, one of three siblings, sleeps on a fold-out table. In one house, they have to chase away a group of occupying emus before they can move in.
A formative experience follows the family’s move from Griffith to Canberra: Grant gives a speech to his English class on poet (and relative) Kevin Gilbert. The teacher adores it; the kids are confused. Grant does not fit the stereotype of what an Aboriginal should be. ‘He was not going to be pigeonholed,’ Coolwell writes. Thirty years before Sheila Heti, Grant’s audience found themselves confronting a question that would come to preoccupy the young man addressing them: how should a Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi person be?
For fifty-seven years, Grant has sought to live life on his own terms. The bibliography begins in 2002, with The Tears of Strangers. It is perhaps his most successful work. Many of Grant’s preoccupations and approaches appear here, fully formed: the fascination with Jimmy Governor, on whom Thomas Keneally’s Jimmie Blacksmith character is based; the struggle with how Black and white Australia are implicated in one another (and eager to essentialise and dissemble their differences). Even something as simple and apparently inconsequential as a William Blake epigraph from ‘Auguries of Innocence’ will later appear, unchanged, in a Q&A episode, with Bruce Pascoe and others in 2021.
In 2016, Talking to My Country is published. Here, the authorial mode for which Grant has become primarily known arrives: channelling James Baldwin, passionately struggling with his country. Enlisting a small army of references to Enlightenment philosophers, he goes and tells it on the mountain – and on the TV, the front pages of newspapers, the radio. The previous year, he appears at the National Press Club. My people die younger, he says. Ziggy Ramo samples the speech on his début EP. Some three decades after he first appeared on Seven’s Current Affairs show Real Life, the gospel of Stan has begun featuring on hip-hop records.
A short reflection, On Identity, together with another book of journalism-cum-memoir, Australia Day, appear in 2019. In both he refers to author Kim Scott’s memoir, Kayang and Me (2005). It contains a question that has long troubled Grant: ‘You can’t be a bit and bit. What are you, Noongar or wadjella?’
‘It seems to me a cruel question,’ Grant remarks in On Thomas Keneally. ‘It comes with [...] assumptions of power: we will tell you who you are and whether you belong; we will determine your identity; you will answer to us.’
Though shorter than With the Falling of the Dusk, On Thomas Keneally is perhaps the better – and more provocative – of the two books. I would not deny that Dusk is a fine introduction to geopolitics for those unfamiliar with the countries Grant surveys, but it offers little novelty to those already acquainted. In On Thomas Keneally, the engagement with Grant’s real preoccupations, his Scylla and Charybdis, is sharper.
In rough order of importance, these are History and Identity. As he wrote in Australia Day, Grant comes from ‘the struggle for identity of a people whose identities have often been defined – indeed legislated – by others, with often devastating personal cost’. He is angry and he is weary – and wary. He fears becoming a ‘man of ressentiment’, for whom ‘the unquenchable thirst [is] for revenge; the refusal to let go; suffering [at] the core of his identity [...] a prisoner of his past, caught in a time warp’.
Much of the conversation around the On Thomas Keneally will come, I suspect, from its engagement with that warp. It sees Grant critique both an older (Bruce Pascoe) and younger (Tara June Winch) generation of authors. Pascoe, Grant suggests, is too ready to give in to the urge to perform, to play to the crowd: ‘I can see in him something of the old-time carny [...] a spruiker in a travelling medicine show’. He prefers, he says (pace his fellow 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards judge, Thomas Keneally), Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, ‘a dazzling work of fiction I considered of greater depth and literary worth than Dark Emu’. Winch, meanwhile, is criticised for playing it safe in her Miles Franklin-winning ‘identity novel’, The Yield (2019). Grant views it as overly reliant on post-My Place ‘homecoming’ tropes that seek to locate identity in the past – ‘the search, the return home, to reclaim language or name’. Grant cannot even bring himself to write about the grandfather and family of Winch’s novel without cordoning them off behind scare quotes. You can practically see the grimace on his lips when he writes: ‘Being Wiradjuri is not something I rediscover; our language lives in the now, not in the then. But for Tara – like Thomas Keneally, like Kim Scott, like the judges of the High Court – being Aboriginal belongs to a time past, a connection severed and then recovered and rescued; a time before modernity and held out of reach of modernity.’
Yet the influence of Bruce Pascoe across this continent, including among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, would be churlish to deny. Yes, his writing has been critiqued for relying on white referents. Yes, he is not saying anything that was not already known, either by historians or the First Nations he refers to. But those two sleights of hand are part of what has given the book such wide appeal and made it influential. Big Bill Neidjie might have more philosophical import; The Biggest Estate on Earth might be more cerebral; neither have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Interestingly, Grant’s critique recalls Mudrooroo’s of Sally Morgan not being Black enough: in both cases, the critique was mounted based on the idea that the books appealed too much to whiteness. Certainly there is some validity in this. But it also doesn’t account for how First Nations in some instances read and take up these books, as well as the influence they have on the wider reading public and their ability to shift and move the conversation in productive and unpredictable ways.
If readers are surprised by Grant’s criticism of other Aboriginal authors, they have not been paying attention. It is there in the very opening chapter of The Tears of Strangers, in the avid disgust and self-flagellation he registers toward his identity as a successful Black individual. The reasoning that galvanises these critiques has varied in emphasis over the years, but largely remained consistent. To take some illustrative quotes from ‘You Can’t Be A Bit and Bit’, one of On Thomas Keneally’s key chapters:
The white poets who ‘imagine’ Australia into being can’t escape their own illegitimacy, just like the nation they write about. […] We ask Aboriginal people to dance for us, paint for us, run for us, but we have never said to them: ‘This is your country, may we live here, please?’ […] Those Indigenous writers by my bedside are trapped in a conversation with whiteness. [...] These black writers are my people in a way that the other Australian writers on my bedside table cannot be. And yet ... I feel trapped here too. I feel compelled to choose in ways that suffocate me. […] the need to prove we exist to a people who don’t truly see us. We are called on to perform authenticity: to be recognised, we have to be recognisable. […] It is a role [Pascoe] seems to revel in, carefully cultivating his public image […] an illusion for a white audience […] [offering] white Australians something they so desperately desire: absolution. […] They can even imagine themselves as Aboriginal people.
This is the stuff of Grant’s nightmares.
Herein lies the paradox – elsewhere in his writing on the imbrications of Black and white, Grant poses a simple question: do we have to choose? Why not accept the fact of overlapping yet contradictory affinities without turning to a fantasised wholeness, an essence that erases and recolonises even as it offers comfort and belonging to the settler or Black artist happy to write and perform in bad faith: one with a view to an empty, too easy reconciliation; the other with a disingenuous sense of cultural essentialism and singularity. Grant won’t play the yidaki or make dot paintings or read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen or speak Wiradjuri because you ask him too, or thinks you might expect him to. But if he personally decides to do these things? Well, then he just might. His mode is distempered, angry, plaintive, perennially at odds with Black and white alike; an exile and journeyman, searching outside Australia for something of both his country and himself. One minute Grant will tell you of ‘a lost continent’ where ‘sovereignty resides in the First People; where we tell our stories in the first languages’; the next, insist ‘I have no need of authors, black or white, who tell me I must go back to find myself, that I can become whole in language or country or history.’ Grant, in other words, is someone who will tell you exactly who he is, just so long as he doesn’t think you are trying to tell him first.
There is an echo here of the boy in the Canberra schoolroom, railing against the ignorance of his classmates, the cool enclosures of terra nullius and narrow conceptions of Aboriginality – while also knowing that anger is an hourglass through which the sand threatens to never stop pouring. It’s Whitmanesque, really. Does he contradict himself? Well, then he contradicts himself. Or not: the implication, as I read it, is that although we have never lived a continent of Indigenous languages, of agreement between coloniser and First Nations, and perhaps never can – not so late in history, so late in the goddamned day – we still have to grapple with the broken and surviving histories we have inherited.
As Grant admits, briefly: ‘I too sell to whiteness.’ It is a shared entrapment, albeit one he has arrived at differently from Winch or Pascoe or Scott. He is fond of recounting contemporary French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s description of liberalism as ‘a jailer – but one who slips you the key’. This is the cosmopolitan ideal of cultural syncretism, allowing people to live with difference, to speak across incommensurabilities and to honour the multitudes that they contain: as individuals, families, communities, countries.
Yet if there is one word that might describe the cadence, the cumulative effect of Grant’s work to date, it is this: aggrieved. He’s not angry, just disappointed. ‘Don’t tell me, Tom, that you would not write Jimmie Blacksmith today. Don’t tell me it is not your place to write about Aboriginal people or in an Aboriginal voice. You have.’ Forget about asking permission – since when have other Australian writers bothered? We cannot police our imaginations, Grant says, paraphrasing Rankine. And what, Grant suggests, if we see them and our country more clearly because of it? The truth will set you free; but first it will piss you off. So let it, Grant says. Live with the difficulty. We don’t need to be completed or healed – just allowed ‘to live with all the pain; with all the broken bits’. As Natsume Sōseki’s protagonist is told by an old gentleman he encounters on a train in the opening of his 1908 classic Sanshirō, ‘Tokyo is bigger than Kumamoto. And Japan is bigger than Tokyo. And even bigger than Japan ... Even bigger than Japan is the inside of your head. Don’t ever surrender yourself – not to Japan, not to anything.’ For First Nations, and anyone else on this continent who wishes to keep their eyes open, sovereignty of mind is the biggest estate going.
Grant’s critique of Jimmie Blacksmith’s emptiness, his existential void, is that he lacks the keys to the estate. Blacksmith, he says, has no telos, no sovereignty of mind or self. He is a paid-up member of ‘that country we have never written’; of the Aboriginal peoples who did not exist pre-colonisation because they were, and are, a European invention.
Jimmie’s passport, to borrow the Derridean formulation, has yet to turn up in the mail. It never will. If it were up to him, the reader imagines, Grant would probably say that Jimmie has no need to wait; that the most colonial and racist part of that continent called Australia is its desire, since invasion, to always be waiting. It would rather assimilate or kill off First Nations, or attach itself to England or the United States, then face its fictions. To paraphrase the Nobel Prize Academy’s citation for Patrick White, a new continent is advertised as being written and introduced into world literature every day – when there is no new continent to write. No forest to clear; no Stan Parker to bury the axe. Australia is already full. So quit waiting, Jimmie, hoping your passport will arrive. As Murrandoo Yanner recalled Tracker Tilmouth telling his community (recorded by Alexis Wright in Tracker ): ‘If you think you’ve got sovereignty then don’t talk about it, act like it. [...] What are you waiting for? Are you going to kneel down and have the white man tap you on the shoulder with a sword and say, Arise ye Aborigine, I now recognise thee?’