MY FRIENDS TAKE a breath, lean across the table and assume the tone of Richard Dawkins explaining dinosaurs to intelligently designed Christians. They believe that in my promotion of Aboriginal achievement I'm simply being loyal to family or wanting to take a belligerent stance on our country's identity and history.
Houses, crops, agriculture, sewing! Their frustration is benign, their love for me is no less, but they think I've gone too far this time. Writers are supposed to be mad and they are to be coddled for it like a warped aunty. They are also supposed to be heretical but they are not supposed to defy everything we were taught about Aborigines. They must not be encouraged to refute the national story.
We sit there, against the backs of our chairs now, a little disappointed with each other's company. Perhaps disappointed is too strong. Disconcerted might be the better word. We are looking at each other across a gulf of incomprehension. We are concerned that one of us is a liar and the other a denier.
I am one of Andrew Bolt's disappointments. I didn't know I had offended him until a friend sent me a copy of the column in which I was pilloried by Bolt for deciding to be black. People expect me to be outraged but my inclination is to wish I could have a yarn with Bolt over a beer. Except he doesn't drink beer, I'm told, just good red wine. Sad, the impasse we have just because histamines play havoc with my arthritis.
I can see Bolt's point, and the frustration of many Australians when pale people identify with an Aboriginal heritage. The people he attacked for this crime, however, had an unfortunate thing in common: their credentials were impeccable. Any good reporter could pick up the phone and talk to their mothers about their Aboriginality until the chooks go to roost.
If I had been part of the group who took Bolt to court for impugning their heritage he would have had a field day. My mother's dead, and even if she had been alive she knew precious little about her heritage. He would have found that my cousin had discovered the woman we thought was our Aboriginal ancestor was, in fact, born in England.
Having got that far I hope he would have delved deeper and found that both my mother's and father's families had an Aboriginal connection. I was amazed to find that the families knew each other in Tasmania years before my father met my mother at a Melbourne Baptist church.
But was it an accident? The two families lived close to each other in Melbourne, in the same street in Tassie, and had Aboriginal neighbours in both places. Aborigines signed as witnesses to their weddings, and various members of the families went back and forth across Bass Strait to marry back into the other family, including some first cousins.
I'm sure Bolt would find it fascinating. It mirrors the turbulence of postcolonial Australia and explains why so many Australian families have a black connection. Why should I deny them, I would plead, they fascinate me, the very nature of their survival is heroism in a cardigan. My great-grandfather died two streets from where I lived and I never heard anyone in my family mention his name. His mother had a traditional Aboriginal name. Aren't you intrigued by that, Andrew?
I'm not saying people whispered ancient secrets in my ear or passed on sacred knowledge; what I was told amounts to a bald analysis of Australian history and society, and the injunction to watch and listen to the land, to respect the fact that we do not command the earth. I'd like to explain to Bolt that my mother told me the same thing and I'm not sure if that is Aboriginal thought or just her general modest decency.
My insight into Aboriginal Australia is as abbreviated as my heritage has allowed. It is as if I have been led at night to a hill overlooking country I have never seen. I am blindfolded but at dawn the cloth is removed and I am asked to open my eyes for one second, any longer and I will be killed, and then asked to describe that country.
An impression is what you would get in that second. Detail? Very little. You would be left with a feeling of the country's nature and for the rest of your life you would be searching the span of a second's memory. An impression – a shallow base from which to lecture others; a humble heritage. Humility was always valued in our family, beyond wealth or influence, and you don't shake those legacies easily.
I had to learn my Aboriginal history and I had to learn Aboriginal etiquette by making mistakes. It has not been a painless journey filled with the excitement of acceptance and inculcation into the mysteries of a secret society.
I reckon Bolt and I would have a terrific yarn. He came from Holland as a child and learned to be an outsider too. I reckon I'd be fascinated by his childhood, how he coped as an alien. But I'd be impatient to tell him how I was perplexed by my father's mild acceptance of my discoveries. I'm sure Bolt would want the same question answered that I do: why had no one but a rogue uncle spoken of this before?
Obviously someone, or several people, had been covering tracks, but my father's affirming nod to me after I'd spoken about our Aboriginality on ABC Radio hit me for six. I'd left him listening to the radio in my Volkswagen as Terry Lane and I did the live-to-air. Terry had a way of getting guests to confide. That's journalism, Andrew!
I walked down the old ABC stairs expecting to have the best blue with my father since he saw me on the news during the Vietnam moratoriums. But, no, just the mild nod and after that we were closer than we'd ever been. I treasure a photo from that era in which he's nursing my son and my dog is asleep on his feet. He's doing the accounts for Australian Short Story magazine, a venture he could never imagine would succeed. But he did lend me $10,000 to prop it up.
He only told me one story and I've written it word for word in my novel, Earth (Magabala, 2001). It's almost the only thing we know of that past. After uncovering the lattice of our Tasmanian days I have a few more questions to ask him. Like, how much did you know, Dad? Perhaps you and me and Andrew could sit together: me with my Boag's, Andrew with his superior red, and you with your Lan-Choo because you and Mum were still saving the labels for the full dinner set.
Dad's gone but I could talk to Bolt easily and without the least rancour because I think it's reasonable for Australia to know if people of pale skin identifying as Aborigines are fair dinkum. No one likes an imposter. Of course we should extend the same rigour to the Irish, Jews and Christians.
What I'd like to say to Bolty – because surely we'd be on nickname terms by then – Bolty, I'd say, why didn't you ring their mothers? Are you crook on them because they identify as Aboriginal or because they're successful Aborigines?
Australia could be confident in leaving the matter of identity to the Aboriginal community because it is far more rigorous in its assessment and does so simply by utilising two quaint scientific tools: genealogy and the telephone.
MANY AUSTRALIANS ARE curious about Aborigines; some, like Andrew Bolt, are alarmed, and some with solid Christo-socialist credentials get agitated at my kitchen table and lean their arms upon it and implore, at a closer, more insistent distance: houses, crops, agriculture, sewing? I've gone too far; I've exaggerated in my desire to defend the race. They understand defending the beleaguered, many do it on a professional basis, but they like to think that, true to their professions of law, welfare or education, they never go outside the realm of fact.
Houses, crops, agriculture, sewing? They've read their explorers, they claim: Mitchell, Sturt, Giles, Eyre, Grey. They lean in closer to urge the wayward student-defendant to reconsider. These are my friends, we know each other's families, and they have a genuine desire that I not perjure myself.
I argue that they have not read Mitchell, Sturt, Giles, Eyre and Grey; they have read about them. They've read what other Australians found fascinating about their discoveries and it wasn't anything about the Aboriginal people. If those explorers weren't looking for inland waters and vast pastures they were looking for gold and a line for roads and telegraph lines; they were not looking for an Aboriginal civilisation.
The story that most gets up the noses of my friends is of the crops on the Warburton River, the permanent houses, the happiness, the prosperity. Surely if such existed we would know about it, they declare – we studied the birth of Australia at university. Double majors in history, two degrees!
I had been hoping they would be delighted by the story but it offends or embarrasses them that they have never heard of it. This is neither their fault nor the fault of any one Australian. It is how we've grown up. A certain view of history believed by our parents and buttressed by our education. This is what I believed until 1981.
Older Aboriginal people listened keenly to my family story and assisted with connections where they could, but as the years went by they became frustrated by my ignorance, my acceptance of the Australian story we are taught to believe. With controlled impatience they explained what had happened to their families; they pointed to events on my own family path where the history of Australia had shattered my family, shamed them, made them forget there was ever a black aunty.
I listened in disbelief, protective of the education of which I was so proud. My cousins, sister and I graduated from university, though we came from a family where secondary education was virtually unknown. Our grandmother revelled in our success and insisted that we treasure it. We loved her, and because we were warmed by her pride we decided to find out from where she came.
I made notes and listened as patiently as I could to the elders but was astounded that fellow Australians could have such conflicting views of the past. I slunk off to the libraries hoping no cousin would find me checking on their mother's story. My cheeks flushed crimson as I turned page after page of the histories, police records, genealogies, settlers' diaries, explorers' journals. I'd been sold a pup by the best university in the land, not just in the history classes but in education, economics, geography and science.
The Australian story we accepted with such equanimity is unbelievable after rudimentary examination: just go back to what the first European explorers described. The story with which I try to inspire my friends is from Charles Sturt's journal of his desert expedition beginning in 1844. His second-in-command is dead, the doctor is critically ill with scurvy, and Sturt is almost blind from that and other illnesses. Their horses can barely walk. Sturt climbs a tall dune and is hailed by four hundred Aborigines. He is startled to find happy, healthy humans in a terrain that has claimed the lives of many explorers and has reduced his party to a tottering, vulnerable rabble.
The people have never seen a horse but after they have sated the thirst of the stumbling explorers they turn to the strange beasts and reach out the coolamons so their fellow living creatures may drink. Sturt comments on this courageous and generous act. The explorers, with their teeth loose and gums inflamed from scurvy, are invited to dine on roast duck and cakes baked from the grains the Aborigines have been harvesting. In the desert! Then they are offered their choice of three new houses in the village. Houses, crops, agriculture,baking?
We can accept that the world is round, that the globe is warming and smoking causes lung cancer but we cannot seem to accept as true or pertinent what the explorers witnessed of Aboriginal society and economy. European science has produced marvels and its foundation principle is curiosity. Why are we not curious that Aboriginal people could cultivate crops in the desert? Why do we pay no attention to the dams and irrigation techniques employed? When our farmers are so threatened by droughts, salinity, erosion and crop diseases, why do we not investigate the crops and farming techniques developed over thousands of years to accommodate the challenging characteristics of this continent?
Some have speculated that many colonists were so outraged by Aboriginal customs and the absence of Christian practice that they felt compelled to reject everything of Aboriginal provenance. And that unease has survived until the present day. Our understanding of quantum physics and medical science is unrecognisable to the knowledge we professed two hundred years ago and yet we continue to scoff at the prospect of an Aboriginal civilisation.
What about the unconscious? Could it be that in a Christian-democratic country the one possible justification for taking the country from the Indigenous population was that they were unworthy of its possession? Some colonists thought that positioning Aborigines in Australia was one of their God's rare mistakes.
How many charities in Australia support indigenous populations in Africa? How benign do we feel when we buy an Oxfam goat for the benighted of other countries? How niggardly are we in the provision of aid to the race we have dispossessed? At home we don't buy goats – we send in the army.
I DIDN'T PLAN to write history. I'm a storyteller. I thought that literature, while not much use to a practical world, was the best I could do to honour my grandmothers' and grandfathers' legacies. But then, in telling stories, I discovered their hidden stories, and as they were already dead I had to ask other Aboriginal people. The rest is history.
There are a dozen or so Australian scholars upon whose work I rely and I dread to think what our country might become without their courage. These people have withstood disdain and ridicule for their opinions, for their wilful misrepresentation of the country's soul. I'm a fiction writer so I'm expected to be deranged, but the others are academics and must have felt the isolation on the nation's self-convinced campuses.
One young scholar complained to me that he had been warned not to quote the work of the heretic Bill Gammage. Gammage recently released a book, The Biggest Estate (Allen & Unwin, 2011), and in my dream every Australian would read it. After reading my next book, Dark Emu: Agriculture or Accident.
I think of Gammage sitting at a lonely university café table quietly reviewing his own work. He spends a lot of time in Estate anticipating the scorn of fellow academics and preparing his responses. No doubt some of his friends have leaned across tables, urging him to reconsider his heresy: houses, crops, sewing, sowing?
Another landmark scholar has become so disaffected that he has removed himself from the campus entirely and studies alone. His books are now published in plain covers in London. What a shame to let the Old Dart do our controversial publishing and thinking on our behalf.
I love my country. I am relieved to live in a place where we can go down the street to get milk and expect not to get shot at. And yet I am surprised that in a country of such gifts and intelligence we have edited our country's history so that our children will never question our right to the soil and will learn to express surprise at the ingratitude of those we dispossessed. They will be astounded, confused and belligerent at the very mention of Aboriginal achievement. Houses, agriculture, sewing, baking!
Justice holds up the scales of judgement and wears a blindfold so that no partiality is allowed. In Australia we prefer our children to dispense with the scales of justice and make do with the blindfold. The rest of the world can see the donkey ears above our blinkers: it is only here we believe they are invisible.
Level 4, Griffith Graduate Centre
South Bank, Campus – Griffith University
Sidon Street, South Bank 4101 Australia
South Bank Campus, Griffith University
PO Box 3370, South Brisbane 4101, Australia
Phone: +61 7 3735 3071
Fax: +61 7 3735 327