To find out how the story ends, we need to understand how it began. How have our brutal beginnings endured to this day, and how do we reckon with our history of dispossession? When did we start to see ourselves as a bunch of battlers, larrikins and top blokes in the land of the fair go? And what fibs, both big and small, help our leaders stay in power? Stan Grant shares an opening address on Australia’s foundational myths.
A transcript excerpt of a podcast recorded for MWF in 2021.
Where do I begin? A way back in time before we measured time in days and months and years? When time was a story. I can touch this time. It is still there. Timeless. And everywhen. Yes, that catches it. Everywhen. It is there in the trees and the rocks by the riverbank. And in blood. My family. All of them, no line between the dead and the living. No time that is past or present. I begin there. I begin at Lake Mungo, the site of Australia’s oldest human remains and among the world’s first ceremonial burials. I have slept under the timeless sky and stars and sat among the dried-out lakebeds and shell middens. I went there with family, blood, each of us tied to each other and this place.
Where do I begin? In a land far from here, in Ireland two centuries ago, and a young man who escapes the gallows and is put on a boat to this place. He brought my name, the sharp angle of his face. He brought a rebel’s spirit that lives in me. It never saw Ireland again. He died here, an old man. Still an Irishman, not yet an Australian. I begin in Ireland. I begin there in a time of horror and death. Famine and curfews where Irish Catholics, my ancestors, were locked away. Brutalised. Heads displayed on spikes. I have walked Irish streets and heard the whispers of the ghosts of Belfast. I am tied to that place.
Australia, do I begin there? Blood and name and history—these things are bigger than a nation. They outlast a nation. We sail our ships, and we find each other. We are cast adrift on time, and we set ourselves down, and we call that home. A Chinese friend once said, ‘Home is the last step on our ancestor’s journey. And then, we take another step.’
I have worn the dust of many lands. Home has been London and Hong Kong and Beijing and Abu Dhabi and Islamabad. There are bits of me there forever still, where I have laughed, cried and loved. That is home. Wherever my wife and children have been with me—that is home. You see, home is not permanent. Not for me. It is not something I can own. It is not something I can call my own.
Beginning. There is no beginning. And there is an endless beginning. Home of exile, give me exile, give me restlessness, give me uncertainty. Please don’t, please don’t, please do not give me identity. Please don’t, please don’t, please do not give me certainty. Please do not tell me what I am or who I am. Please do not talk of race or culture or nation. Please don’t. Please do not put me in boxes. Catholic or Protestant. Hindu or Muslim. Shia or Sunni. Hutu, Tutsi, Rohingya, Buddhist, Black, White. Where we find boxes, we find hate.
The Indian philosopher Amartya Sen calls these solitarist identities. We define ourselves; he says, not by who we are but who we are not. We cling to our tribes, and we tear ourselves limb from limb. I’ve stood in too many bombed out marketplaces and seen too much blood to have any time for identity. Belonging, give me belonging over identity because I have belonged in many places, amongst many people. Identity, let’s banish the word. A writer should have no identity, so said John Keats. That’s okay with me. James Joyce wanted to go in search of the unconstructed conscience of his race. Yes. James Baldwin went to France to write free. Toni Morrison sought to write herself free from a genderised, sexualised, racialised world. No, not write herself free. She was free. Her humanity defied the category of others.
Beginnings and endings. Who can say where we start or finish? I know that I am here, and I know I’m part of something that stretches way back and way forward. I know that I’m temporary, that all things must pass, and I know that I’m permanent too. Never-ending.
This morning, I walked on the rocks by the ocean near my home and I saw a pod of whales passing by. Just their waterspouts in the distance and then a mighty tail rising out of the water. And in that water and on those rocks was a truth that can’t be measured on a plaque or a calendar. Somewhere in the everywhen, the white sails are visible in the distance. The strangers are coming. Two hundred years of time melts away, and I am standing on those same rocks looking out on those same seas, and I am on those boats. I am banished from my land, and I am set a course for a new home. I am on that shore, staring out at those strange shapes in the distance. Those sails and ships I have never seen before. And death is coming. And the end of certainty is near. And it is unstoppable. And I hear old names. Bennelong. And Pemulwuy. And Patyegarang. And Barangaroo. And John Grant, an Irishman who, in chains, would board a ship still to come and bring my name. Something is ending as something is beginning for everyone in that moment.
I see a trickle of water through the rocks making its way to the ocean. And there is a timelessness there. Nature taking its course. I’m reminded of one of the great films I’ve seen, Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line, a story of war and destruction. An island paradise turned into a place of horror. And as the American soldiers sail away, a flower pushes itself up from a rock. Nothing ends.
Who am I? Where am I from? Who are my people? Why do I need to even ask? Beginnings and endings. Why do we need them? I have never felt like starting a story. I know I can never complete one. I can only add my voice, a voice that is not the same today as it was yesterday or will be tomorrow. I can only join my voice to all those other voices in a story without end.
Stan Grant is a Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi man. A journalist since 1987, he has worked for the ABC, SBS, the Seven Network, Sky News Australia and CNN. In 2015, his bestselling book Talking to My Country won the Walkley Book Award. He is currently International Affairs Analyst at the ABC.