An interview with Stan Grant

June 2021, no. 432

An interview with Stan Grant

June 2021, no. 432
Stan Grant (photograph by Kathy Luu via Melbourne University Press)
Stan Grant (photograph by Kathy Luu via Melbourne University Press)

Stan Grant is the ABC’s international affairs analyst and Vice-Chancellor’s chair of Australian-Indigenous Belonging at Charles Sturt University. He won the 2015 Walkley Award for his coverage of Indigenous affairs and is the author of On Thomas Keneally, The Australian Dream, Australia Day, The Tears of Strangers, and Talking to My Country.


If you could go anywhere tomorrow, where would it be, and why?

I have always been attracted to places with great bookstores. Obviously Paris, London, New York, but I’ve also found great hidden treasures in cities like Jerusalem, Yangon, and Islamabad.


What’s your idea of hell?

Haha. I am with Sartre – hell is other people! Not that he hates other people or that one should lock oneself away, only that we are trapped in the gaze of other people. It is why I bristle at ideas of identity, as if we can be reduced to a singular or simple idea of who we are or who we should be.


What do you consider the most specious virtue?

Hope. I have never bought that oft-quoted line that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice. That isn’t the world I have reported on or seen. If it bends at all, it bends towards power that exploits hope and defines for itself what the limits of justice might be. I am with the great African American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, who spoke of a hope not hopeless but unhopeful. We need to work for hope.


What’s your favourite film?

The Godfather Part II: masterful storytelling. Robert De Niro’s performance of the young Vito Corleone, following Marlon Brando’s ageing Vito, is superb. My favourite Australian film is The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978).


And your favourite book?

My favourite changes all the time. Right now I am in awe of Christos Tsiolkas’s Damascus. The power and propulsive energy of that book – with the deep philosophical, theological, and ethical questions – is a rare achievement. I love the poetry of Czesław Miłosz. I love Yeats and am constantly stunned by Turgenev. I have gone through a stage of not being able to read anyone but Yiyun Li, who deals so powerfully with grief and history. But my all-time favourite? Well, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. I read it when I was in my teens, and it has never left me.       


Name the three people with whom you would most like to dine

Jesus Christ, James Baldwin, and Mungo Lady.


Which word do you most dislike, and which one would you like to see back in public usage?

I dislike the word ‘identity’. To borrow from Kafka, it seems ‘like a cage in search of a bird’. Whatever happened to ‘forgiveness’? We live in such a prosecutorial age, with endless grievances pitting us against one another.


Who is your favourite author?

Baldwin has probably floored me more than any other. He has also been a guiding star. And he is always unpredictable.


And your favourite literary hero or heroine?

When I was a kid, probably Tom Sawyer. Later, Stephen Dedalus. To ‘go in search of the unconstructed conscience of my race’ – yep, that will do me.


Which quality do you most admire in a writer?

I love writers who see the world poetically, ones who make us search and reach, and don’t give us an easy ride. And I love simplicity of language.


Which book influenced you most in your youth?

I was raised in the Black church on the mission of my childhood. The bible was unavoidable and influential. I got a gift of a book of Greek mythology when I was about ten. It gave me nightmares and opened a world of transcendence.


Name an early literary idol or influence whom you no longer admire – or vice versa.

I don’t really judge writers that way. Everything I read influences or inspires or challenges me. I suppose I have admired but struggled with James Baldwin, who seemed to lose some of his power and the great quality of love he brought to his novels when he became a much more overtly political writer. Give me poetry over politics any day.


Do you have a favourite podcast?

I love music and I am really enjoying a podcast called Discover, which pulls apart classic albums. I am also a philosophy nerd: there is a fantastic podcast called Why Theory, with two philosophers just talking and posing questions.


What, if anything, impedes your writing?

Too many other demands on my time.


What qualities do you look for in critics, and which ones do you enjoy reading?

I prefer to read long essays about books: the type of thing that appears in the New York Review of Books and, of course, ABR! I like critics who engage with the ideas rather than impose their own.


How do you find working with editors?

A breeze! Maybe I am just lucky.


What do you think of writers’ festivals?

I love having long discussions and hearing from other people. I like being challenged.


Are artists valued in our society?

No. We value bankers more than artists. That’s part of the reason why we’re in such a mess.


What are you working on now?

My first novel! Hush hush.


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