In Australia’s COVID-19 winter of 2020, Melissa Lucashenko (in Brisbane) spoke via the internet with Natasha Cica (in Tasmania), co-editor of Griffith Review 69: The European Exchange, about concerns around culture, justice and legacy that connect Australia and Europe. Can we be optimistic about the future of that relationship and learn from the complexities of its past?
MY FATHER’S BACKGROUND is genetically Ukrainian and culturally Russian, I think. I never knew that until I was an adult – I always thought it was plain Russian. Russian was his first language; he didn’t speak English until he went to school. His older brother was born in Shanghai on the trip out from Russia – via Siberia, then via Shanghai. They travelled to Australia in 1925, and Dad was born in Brisbane in 1926.
Is that part of who and what I feel that I am? Yes, and no. I changed my name back from its Anglicised version to Lucashenko back in my early twenties. Both of my parents had been keen to assimilate, for different reasons. In my bio, I describe myself as Goorie – Aboriginal from this part of the east coast of Australia – and of Bundjalung and European heritage. I do that for two reasons. First, pre-emptively, so the Andrew Bolts of this world can’t get a free kick at me. Second, and more importantly, I do it because I heard Russian spoken in my family home and I grew up with aunties asking me to eat borscht. So I don’t want to pretend that I don’t contain multitudes. And being Aboriginal encompasses being multicultural. This can be across different Aboriginal cultures, or it can be about Aboriginal cultures combined with colonising cultures.
Do I feel the Russian, or Ukrainian, part of me is ‘colonising’ in Australia? Not exactly, partly because Brisbane was well and truly colonised by the British by the time my Russian rellos got here. They certainly had white privileges, and I have benefited from that, materially. As far as culture and psychology goes, what’s going on here in the Russian diaspora and European/white culture in general doesn’t feel like me, not at all. My step-grandfather was Czech. When I was growing up, he called my oldest brother a boong. He wasn’t the only Eastern European in my family to talk like that, either.
What can we Australians say back to Europe now, in 2020? I’d answer – Aussie Aussie Aussie, oi oi oi! [laughs uproariously]. In what sense aren’t we a colony? The best thing I can say about all of that is that the modern nation state of Australia is an adolescent entity, with all the aggression and self-doubts and bluster of an adolescent – and the defensiveness. It’s only when that adolescent understands that there’s a 100,000-plus-year-old civilisation to learn from and build on, and understands how to behave justly, that Australia will have something constructive to say to the rest of the world. We – not Australia, I mean Aboriginal cultures – can teach the world about democracy. We invented democracy and democratic power-sharing long before the Greeks. I wrote about this in an essay for Meanjin about five years ago. And there’s a really good piece in that new book After Australia that’s just come out of Sydney, edited by Arab Australian Michael Mohammed Ahmad from Sweatshop, the Western Sydney literary movement. The piece is by Ambelin Kwaymullina, a Palyku writer and lawyer from Western Australia. I’m not sure if you’d call it a poem, or poetic prose. She talks about the values and potential of everyone in Australia. You know, about behaving in a civilised fashion. If we talk beyond just colonial violence and look at the violence inherent in the relationships between settler Australians, and with everything – she contrasts that with classical Aboriginal culture. Europe came to Australia talking about the Enlightenment at the same time as they kicked off the heads of babies. If we want to talk about what we can give back to Europe, we can be a mirror. If we want to talk about civilisation, let’s talk about what it really is. Let’s not assume it’s absent here – even though, in a large part, it is absent here.
Are there similarities between the situation of the Roma in Europe and Indigenous Australians? I know a Wiradyuri bloke with a Roma wife. I think there would be a lot of parallels, parallels around marginalisation. I am sure that Roma people and blackfellas would have that in common. I am not sure how much of that would come from the experience of being a blackfella or Roma, and how much would come from the imposition of white supremacy and lack of political economy. Oppression is not culture, after all.
I was googling before and found a quote by William Dalrymple – an idea of Europe as ‘infinite riches in a little room’. The example of the Roma and their role in the development of European culture could unpack who gets to define and claim those riches, in cultural or material terms. And of course Europe is full of riches, because it’s taken them from everyone else! The Kwaymullina piece suggests otherwise, but it’s so far from reality that Europe could pause and look at Aboriginal civilisation and say, okay, here is a model for how to live. That Indigenous Australian cultures can inform our sustainable lives, in peace, reflecting the values that homo sapiens created over 100,000-plus years. This may sound ridiculous to outsiders; I don’t think the possibility has even been considered. Because what could Blak people from the Southern Hemisphere possibly have developed? is the thinking. But we had 100,000 years to work this stuff out. We got there first.
I’M SPENDING THE next few months writing about the history of Brisbane, colonisation and its future, and the pre-existing civilisation. I haven’t had a European audience in mind. I only imagine an Australian audience. And we all know who really reads books here – fifty-five-year-old women who aren’t ready to take up crocheting! So in the novel I’m writing at the moment, I’m writing about Europeans, mainly Irish and Scots, in the early time of this colony. One’s an early colonist in Brisbane, Andrew Petrie – an interesting figure, who emigrated to Brisbane in 1837 from Scotland [via New South Wales] and died in the 1870s. His family’s transformation into Australians will be one key point of the book, the place they found as Scots in Australia in those early decades of colonisation. I am going to steal some of the sensibility for that from Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson, which won the Miles Franklin. I read her book last year as part of my doctoral research. I was really moved by it, especially the ending.
What’s the crux of the shift, from being European to Australian? That’s an interesting question. I remember when I was in the United States in 1997 at a conference – I had no real concept of myself as Russian, and I still don’t – and there was a Russian speaker at this conference. I thought, if my father was a woman and an academic, it could have been him sitting there. She reeked of my father. I also realised, oh my god, he really was a Russian – but he’d tried desperately to be a dinky di Aussie, except when he was around Europeans. And he’d camouflaged himself from me as his daughter. A true chameleon. Maybe an Australian [who isn’t an immigrant] doesn’t have to do that.
So back to what Australia might show or give back to Europe – it depends which version of Australia we are talking about. The answer might be, we could learn from the First Nations and show the world what civilisation actually looks like. What successful multiculturalism looks like. Or, we could show or give back things that are a lot more negative.
What does civilisation actually look like? It’s about people understanding that peace is a process. And that empire-building is not possible without incredible violence. In Australia before colonisation, there were 400 to 500 nations or language groups. We had established boundaries between and diplomatic relationships with each other, and complicated religious ties through songlines – songlines are an instrument of governance. The operation of the songlines within classical Aboriginal culture meant nobody thought of invading another people’s land – possibly because they had had such a long span of time to work things out. I say this to people and they scoff and say, it’s human nature to envy and invade. Yes, it sounds utopian. I say, well, imagine someone coming to you and saying in disbelief – how can you live in a suburban street with neighbours and not want to constantly break each other’s windows and break down each other’s fences and steal from one another? That is the analogy for how we see mainstream Australians imagining our traditions, and scoffing. It’s not that it’s impossible or unthinkable. It’s just antithetical to what the British brought to Australia and what we [in contemporary Australia] have inherited. (Axel Munthe wrote of the Indigenous Finns, the Sámi, in relation to this.)
By ‘classical’ Aboriginal culture, I mean the Indigenous cultures that preceded the arrival of James Cook – the values and practices of Aboriginal religion and governance – which remain today, but in modified forms depending on where you are in Australia. I’m driving around right now in my Hyundai near a shopping centre in suburban Brisbane. If you were here, within five kilometres of where I am, I could take you to meet half-a-dozen initiated Aboriginal men. And I live my own life according to the values of Aboriginal culture. Those are values of egalitarianism, of caring for country and everything that makes up country, which is more than just rocks and earth and water; it is everything. Again, this is what I am writing about in my forthcoming novel. I want to show that these values aren’t abstract, they were and are pedagogies of which white Australians have little or no concept. They are [grounded in] values that arise out of 100,000 years of learning. This is only just dawning on mainstream Australia.
I think contemporary Germans are more interested in this than Australians for reasons of their own, which might be romanticism, combined with a response to their own traumas of the twentieth century. I hope it’s more than just romanticism.
Successful multiculturalism in Australia will be one built on a treaty, recognition first and foremost of Aboriginal sovereignty, and reparations. From that, it will involve a freedom for people to practise their own home cultures, including within a body of overarching laws that reflect Aboriginal values. This happens to a small extent in some remote Aboriginal communities, where outsiders come in and are expected to adhere to Aboriginal law as well as white law. But this is piecemeal, and Aboriginal people don’t have the political power to enforce their law. The Garma Festival on Yolngu land in the Northern Territory is one example of what things can look like. Visitors are free to speak their own languages but are not invited to trample all over Aboriginal land. This kind of approach would lead to a more just, harmonious Australia. It would lead to peace that is sadly lacking. The British came here with guns and chains and whips – that was their idea of law. That’s what they had to do to bring their so-called civilisation to Australia. That’s just a joke to us, that idea of civilisation.
Do I feel optimistic about where it’s all headed? Mildly, some days. One source of optimism is classical Aboriginal culture – it gives me cause for hope and also great strength. Which is just as well. All people except sociopaths – and people who allow themselves to be manipulated by fearmongers – long for peace, good relationships with other people and a just world. So yes, I am optimistic – but I have to work at it. As Peter Ustinov pointed out, we don’t have the luxury of pessimism. We really don’t. It’s either act or get out of the way.
One of the reasons I’m optimistic is that native title has not yet played out. It’s been a partial and inadequate and, in some ways, really damaging development for us – but economically it will lift a portion of Australia’s Aboriginal population out of dire poverty, and probably already has. Politically, native title means that mainstream Australia can let down some of its massive psychological defences and start to see us as something other than the enemy or as the subjugated. That can sidestep a toxic and unproductive relationship. It is going to take place across our lifetime.
Is there else I want to say? Aussie Aussie Aussie, oi oi oi! [more laughter]. And give the Crown land back – immediately, if not sooner.
And start treating people decently, all people. There’s a line in Carpentaria by Alexis Wright: one of her characters is looking with scorn on the white town, saying it’s not rocket science – treat people decent. The powerful white people in Australia don’t even treat each other decent.
Fuck me, Natasha, they’re slow learners.