I am above Australia now at 30,000 feet. Even from here I can feel the pull of this land: my land. I have woken from the steady hum of the plane as we pass over the red centre of Australia. It is always startling to me how the landscape resembles a dot painting. How remarkable it is that people who had never flown had such an intimate understanding of country. The art of central Australia expresses a sense of place from every angle. This is what 60,000 years has given us.
When I departed from Beijing – thousands of kilometres away – I had my headphones on. A song was playing, ‘Walking in the Green Corn’ by Grant-Lee Phillips – a native American singer – it talks about the simple joys of freedom and home. The lines of the song resonated deeply, though it wasn’t corn I was returning to but canola and wheat. These are the colours and crops of my country. Soon I will be home.
Another song now plays in my head. It surprises me, it seems to have come from nowhere as I was staring at the dirt and spinifex far below. It is Archie Roach – an Aboriginal singer and songwriter and to my mind one of the most beautifully pure voices this country has ever produced – singing the words of ‘Beautiful Child’. I am lost in these lyrics of memory and tears.
Memory and tears: I was coming home to it all.
Archie sang of the pain of our people. He was taken from his family as a boy and raised in foster homes. He had spent years lost and homeless. There were too many cold nights warmed with grog. He lived inside the darkness of our country. But Archie lit up this world and revealed the small lives that so many had never seen.
His song ‘Took the Children Away’ became the soundtrack of the Stolen Generations – ‘snatched from their mother’s breast said this was for the best – took them away’. Australians were opening their minds and hearts to people like Archie. How could anyone not? A gentle soul singing with no bitterness; this wasn’t about politics, it was about people. Our humanity had been denied. Our children had been taken under a policy that believed they would be better off white. Archie brought them home. Soon a prime minister would apologise. Listening to Archie always moved me to tears. It would come from deep within me.
It was an open wound no space or distance could close.
Archie’s songs captured all of our experience: prison cells, missions, boxing tents, uncles and aunties, tarpaulin musters, Fitzroy and Redfern and Musgrave Park. I knew this was real, because I knew these people; this, was me. I had gone so far from this world. I suppose I had wanted to escape it. But we never do.
At 30,000 feet flying over my country, I felt like that boy in Archie’s song, growing up far too soon. I had grown up too soon, far beyond my young years. I was back now in Australia; back with those memories of the boy I used to be. There are moments that are locked away in some vault in my mind. I recall books I have read. I replay songs I have heard. Snatches of conversations from years ago can feel like yesterday. People long gone echo as if they are just in the next room.
Perhaps it is because I spent so much time alone as we moved from town to town that all of these disparate things resonate so deeply. I lived in my mind. Even among my siblings I felt a generation removed; thinking, staring out a car window at a world outside of our grasp. So we packed and unpacked. Sometimes I wished we would stop. My sister and I played a little game where we imagined a perfect life. We would ask what would we do when we finally got a home. She would talk about watching a colour television. I would dream about lounging on a new sofa. But this was just a fantasy. My reality was my family – a revolving door of cousins and aunties and uncles and that was ultimately enough.
Some towns stand out more than others. Some memories fill me with greater joy: riding my bike outside of Jindera or playing in the wheat silos or walking along the burning train tracks leading to the pool in Griffith. There are sad memories too: a friend who was electrocuted playing on the roof of his house or my neighbour who was accidentally shot and killed as he carried his rifle to hunt rabbits. But I never stayed long enough for any joy or sadness to linger. There was always another town. I just kept moving.
Eventually I found a place where I could breathe. It was far from my home. The world had unexpectedly opened up to me. For the first time in my life I felt free of race and history.
Yes, these other countries had their own hatreds and divisions; many remained defined by what separated them: India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, Israel and Palestine. But there I was an observer. I didn’t own these struggles. No longer did I meet people with wariness. I didn’t have to suspect the motives of friends and colleagues. When asked where I was from I could answer Australia and be proud of it. When the inevitable follow up question came: what race are you? I could say I was an Aborigine and say it without caution. I had no concern about how these strangers would react because we didn’t meet across the contested space of our shared past.
I have always been torn between the sadness of my history and the beauty of my country. Sometimes I can feel that the land itself understands this struggle. When I am alone by a river or driving across a plain I can hear this land talking to me, and it is always subdued. There is a magical connection that shows itself in unexpected ways. As I was writing this book, I received a handwritten letter. It was from a man who grew up on a property next to the Grant family homestead in Canowindra. This was the place built by my Irish convict ancestor on land he had seized from my black forebears. The man said he used to wander the land as a boy collecting old Wiradjuri artifacts. He said he had lost all of them except one. It was, he said, a beautiful stone axe and he wanted me to have it. I had never met this man. He had no idea I was writing this book. But I like to think that somehow my ancestors had chosen this moment through this man to talk to me. They wanted to be with me, to tell me that my connection to them could never be broken.
I have that axe now and it sits so comfortably in my hand. There is a groove where my thumb rests. It feels like it could have been made for me. I can imagine the painstaking hours spent smoothing its sides, grinding it to a fine point. It looks almost too good to use, more a piece of art than an implement. Perhaps it had been traded over time, passed from one hand to another until now it rests with me.
I called the man who sent it to me. He told me about growing up around Aboriginal kids. He went to school with them, played football alongside them. He said it wasn’t until many years later he learned that the school bus didn’t run to the missions; if the black kids wanted to go to school they had to walk in all weather. He said he realises now just how many obstacles were placed in their way, how many little things he took for granted that made life just that much more difficult for his Aboriginal schoolmates. He is saddened now, he says, to see the high levels of unemployment, the drinking and drugs that have ravaged that community. In that small way with that axe he had made his connection, given something back and for me opened a window into the generosity and spirit that can exist in our country.
Connections: these things that sustain me. I enjoy the little things, my family and music. I love to feel the sun in my face.
I love the feel of diving into cool water. I love my mother’s cooking. I love that my father is still with us. Nothing makes me more proud than to see my children with their friends – kids of all colours and backgrounds – comfortable and free. But I always find myself drawn back to the darkness. Sadness has always felt so much more familiar and so it is safer. We can live in its confines. We can laugh in its face. But it is preferable to happiness. Happiness feels like giving in, it feels like surrender. Happiness feels like the past is over and done and I am not yet ready for that.
* * *
Australia can be painful, but leaving for the first time, when I was in my early thirties, felt devastating. It seemed utterly unnatural. The night before my flight, I stood in the backyard of my cousin’s house and stared at the sky. It was one of those warm autumn evenings before the cold begins to bite. Inside my family had gathered to say goodbye but I had always preferred the quiet moments alone with my thoughts. I could feel my heartbeat quickening with the realisation that in twenty-four hours I would be on the other side of the world. I wondered if it would look the same. Would the stars shine this bright? I knew there’d be no smell of eucalyptus and wattle. My cousin came up beside me. ‘Will you miss it?’ he asked. Yes. God, yes.
Nearly twenty years have passed since that night. I have seen war and death and disaster. I have met presidents and terrorists. I have seen inside countries cut off from the outside world. In these countries power controls people’s minds. Armies grow strong while women and children starve. I have seen a country once considered the sick man of Asia re-emerge as a rival to the greatest superpower the world has ever known. Foreign affairs analysts are not wrong when they say the twenty-first century will be defined by the contest between China and America.
I had been liberated by the world. Out here I was a person, a man of strengths and weaknesses, with good days and bad but not a man pre-judged according to his race.
I was working for one of the largest news networks on the planet. These were the greatest days of my career. I worked with people from all over the world. My cameramen were Iranian and Canadian and British and Australian. My producers were Ethiopian and Chinese and Pakistani. These were my brothers and sisters and we would have laid down our lives for each other; I truly believe that
I have known people who were killed in the field. One man who worked as an intermediary between the Taliban and us, who used to bring us videotapes, was murdered in his front driveway. Another reporter went missing to be found days later beaten to death and dumped on the road outside Islamabad. Reporters were kidnapped and tortured and beheaded. I made it back but I was not the person who left. I was battered and bent, probably broken in places. I had looked for an escape and found it in work and foreign places. Yet home – no matter how estranged I had felt – was always here. Now, 30,000 feet above my country, my head was filled with the songs of my people.
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