Since coming to America from Australia I’ve really missed an active reconciliation culture. There are many awesome activist things that happen here, but reconciliation is something that it’s important to me. It’s like breathing, it’s a fundamental part of the country that is inside me and the land I belong to. Sometimes it’s hard to talk about, fundamental things are like that. I end up having these long, complex conversations that are probably mystifying at the other end. There’s still a part of me that feels empty when a meeting starts and there’s no acknowledgement of country, no respect paid to traditional custodians, the history and cost that gave us the opportunity to meet.
I’m really glad N.K. Jemisin has spoken about Reconciliation recently. She was brave enough to take risks, be imperfect and start a conversation. My tongue gets tied and sometimes it’s easier when people from outside represent things to the outside.
Former Australian Governor General William Deane once said “Where there is no room for national pride or national shame about the past, there can be no national soul.”
Even before he said those words that was the reality I lived.
I was eight when the initial results of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody came out. I saw a senior (white male) politician with tears in his eyes and throat talk about the disproportionate incarceration and death of Aboriginal people in prisons. He spoke about how terrible and unacceptable this was and how immediate action was needed. I was shocked. It hurt. I was also proud. That was my country, a country that did its best, made mistakes and owned up to them. My country was strong, my country was courageous and honest. That was my country.
When I learned about Aboriginal history, culture and dispossession in primary school and spent time learning from generous Aunties and Uncles I didn’t realize how lucky I was and how recent that was anywhere. I didn’t realize my school had made a commitment for a better kind of Australia. To me it was just what you did.
Treaty was our soundtrack and when the Mabo decision came through it was shocking to fully realize the depth of erasure that had occurred, to fully come to terms with it. Terra Nullius, an ugly word and it was good to strike it down and let light shine through. My country was strong and we did our best to honor the land… although we still didn’t have a treaty.
And then the Bringing Them Home Report came out when I was seventeen, the inquiry into the Stolen Generation. Government had just changed, but I remember reading this document and hoping they wouldn’t be blind to it. The Bringing Them Home report (like the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Inquiry) was full of vivid pain, but also full of tremendous dignity and generosity. It put together such a strong path of reconciliation, even if they didn’t follow all the recommendations surely they had to recognize the profoundly important principles at its core.
And the government of the day spat on this report. Little Johnny Howard freaked out and said he had to ‘protect’ us from a ‘black armband history.’ For the first time ever I felt shame about my country. His desire to ‘protect’ us from our past, from our soul, from a path to the future with clear eyes… it took me away from my country. I felt like my country was stolen, a paralyzing grief to discover that my country wasn’t strong and brave, my country was weak and fearful and petty and I still cry when I think of that moment, that long moment of screeching ‘protection’ that disgraced the country that owned my bones.
Fortunately I was not alone in my dismay. We signed sorry books. Hundreds of thousands walked across bridges. Hands of reconciliation were planted. We did this for years, continue to do actions that began in this dismay. We had conversations with colleagues and family members, we wrote to politicians, we acknowledged country, we thought about our actions, learned our history. While none of it is enough, nothing will or should erase the past, it changed the conversation and it enabled us to hold on with bloodied fingertips to the country that we loved and believed in. Kev Carmody (Uncle Kev, Dr Carmody) and Paul Kelley wrote the song “From Little Things Big Things Grow” about the Gurindji Strike. It helped keep me strong during hurting days when people three times my age told me change was impossible and that my Australia was a lie.
Reconciliation still has a long way to go, but I’ll never forget the day of the apology, one of those precious moments when the truth of my Australia shone through. The night before the streets and parks around parliament house were full of festivities. People drove for hundreds of miles to be outside Parliament House when it happened. Communities gathered together to watch it as a shared communal experience (and it was good to be in a large unimpressed group when the leader of the opposition gave his half-arsed apology, it was nice to feel like we outnumbered him).
On the day traffic was so dense that I had to park on the other side of Lake Burley Griffen and run like blazes to get across the bridge and to the gathering. The diversity of people who had come out to watch and support was incredible. Some people wore Sorry t-shirts in the mode of Midnight Oil at the Olympics. Some Aunties wore t-shirts that said “thanks” in the same font. It’s one thing to apologize, but to experience that kind of generosity in return broke any composure I had. I cried while grinning like a maniac. I still cry when I talk about the day of the apology. Some days are just that important, that emotional.
And Australia still has a long way to go and an apology is the start of a healing process, not the end (see this on health for example), but at least we can have a healing process. At least my country can be strong
The recent Migration Zone shenanigans make me feel sick. How many more children and adults will lose years to Manus Island? I love my country, but it is a painful love when cowardice and fear take the upper hand. But I know we’ve fought for our country before. I know can be a brave country, a country of strength, integrity and honesty in all its diversity. We must and can do better than this, even if our fingernails are bloody.
That is the country of my bones, and that is why reconciliation isn’t just an idea to me. It isn’t a story or a ritual or an obligation, it isn’t a black armband history. It’s belonging to country, it’s respect, it’s open eyes and wholeness. When it’s hard it’s only hard in the way that breathing can be hard and the idea of having it taken away from me makes me feel like I might die.
It’s hard to write about something so personal and important. I feel exposed and clumsy and awkward, but sometimes you just have to be brave and say what’s in your heart. It helps that I’m following after Jemisin’s courage calling for a better kind of SF&F consciousness and action. It makes me glad that people will know more about Reconciliation, and providing tools and inspiration for related causes is wonderful (did you know that USA’s Civil Rights freedom rides inspired Australian freedom rides?). I hope some light will shine through and maybe, somehow, this will be useful. In my stories the land is important and some of my stories have touched on this, but maybe writing this will help me go even deeper, be even braver. I hope so, it’s hard when things are so personal they are like breathing.
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