White me

IN THE COURSE of an average Australian lifetime, a white lifetime, face-to-face communication with Indigenous Australians might be fairly limited. In my own case, five fairly talkative decades have yielded only three brief conversations. The first was with a sister and brother, Esther and Terry, students at an outer-Melbourne high school where I taught in the 1980s. They must have thought my earlier attempts at engagement a bit tedious because they rolled their eyes when I approached them in the playground. I spoke about the need to eat something a little more nourishing than lollies for lunch. 'Like what?' said Terry. 'Like a salad roll, maybe.' 'We did.' 'Oh. Well, that's good.' Esther offered me a jelly snake and off they hurried, wishing to be where I was not.

The second conversation took place in the early 1990s outside the supermarket in Smith Street, Fitzroy, when a man by the name of Mickey with a fabulous sense of entitlement demanded a hundred dollars for his autograph, which I hadn't requested. I said no. Mickey said, 'Better idea. Buy me a flagon. Can yuh?' I bought him a flagon of Seppelts from the supermarket's bottle shop and he sauntered away singing the chorus of 'The Gambler', his trademark tune.

The third conversation, on a St Kilda tram, was more protracted; was, in fact, five conversations, but since the entire five employed the same words, the same questions, the same responses, I think of them as just the one. At that time, the mid­1990s, a group of Aborigines had established a type of tent embassy in Cleve Gardens, at the intersection of Fitzroy Street and Beaconsfield Parade, right beside the route of the number 16 tram and not far from St Kilda Beach. The park was dominated by a number of ancient Moreton Bay Figs, and under these trees a construction of cardboard, orange blankets and black plastic sheeting was reassembled after each episode of windy weather. It was the contention of those occupying the little park that the Moreton Bay Figs rightfully belonged to the Wurundjeri people, as did all of the land on which the City of St Kilda stood. The High Court decision in the case of Mabo v. Queensland (No. 2) was only four years old, and the Native Title Act still younger, but the Cleve Garden Aborigines apparently felt that their moral right to the little park should at least be advertised.

I caught the number 16 tram on the Esplanade above Luna Park at 3.20 each weekday afternoon. At 3.24, the tram made its scheduled stop opposite Koori Park, as the Moreton Bay Fig plantation had come to be called. For five consecutive days, a guy I came to know as Danny in an unravelling Rasta snood, an Everlast tracksuit and French Star sneakers sprinted from the park, jumped aboard the tram, travelled three stops to St Kilda Junction, then jumped off. Why he needed to board the tram and travel a kilometre at 3.24 each day I never discovered. The tram was rarely full and Danny was always able to find his way to where I sat reading EP Thomson's The Making of the English Working Class in an impressive edition with a bright red cover. Our conversation went like this.

Danny: You like readin'?

Me: Yep.

Danny: Name's Danny.

Me: Robert. [Handshake]

Danny: Got a place back there.

Me: In the park?

Danny: S'good. Close to the beach.

Me: Ah!

Danny: Saw yuh yesterday, didn't I?

Me: Yep.

Danny: Got any spare change? [Danny pronounced this as one word, 'sparechain']

Me: Sure. [I handed over a couple of two-dollar coins.]

Danny: On ya, bro. Gotta get off. See yuh!

Me: See yuh!

These few conversations, and no more. Aborigines do not come to the parties I'm invited to; do not eat at the restaurants I frequent; do not appear at any of the professional gatherings of writers I attend; do not sit beside me at the cricket or the football; do not live next door to me in Carlton; do not enter the supermarkets at which I shop, nor any other venue of commerce familiar to me; do not share a class with my children; do not date me, marry me, bear my children; do not send me emails about books I've written; do not telephone me. If an official Australian version of apartheid were in force that restricted contact between white me and black them, it could hardly be more effective in its mission than this accidental apartheid that makes me no more than a blur to the original inhabitants of my native land, and they so unfamiliar to me.

This needn't bother me, this lack of contact with Aborigines, but it does. It bothers others, too. If you have a native land, best strive to know its complexity; what it gets right, what it fucks up; its fears, frenzies, phobias; its rewards. There are a number of muddled stories of my native land that I've known since I was a kid - gold in the topsoil here and there, sheep everywhere, a man in a metal suit with a six-shooter, men in slouch hats dying in droves in the North Aegean - that alter over the years but remain engaging. But the story of the black men was always a shambles for white me. The black men were here when the ships came, but in a way they were not; they were pissed off, but patchily, never forming a magnificent army of national resistance; they lived in the desert and understood things that a white man could barely fathom, but the things they knew - the path taken by an escaped convict who had left no tracks at all, where to find water where there was no water - were fascinating, yes, but not fantastic. A teacher in my high school in rural Victoria told the class that the North American Indians were more advanced than the Australian Aborigines because the Indians rode horses and used bows and arrows. I shot up my hand. 'What about the boomerang?' The teacher replied, 'A boomerang is a stick.' His retort set a tone of mild denigration that has troubled me ever since. It seemed wrong that our teacher had not taken the opportunity to make the black men more vivid to us.

What became more vivid was not the black men themselves, but the injustice that burdened them: the land from which the Aborigines had harvested such bounty had, by a process that blended insinuation and armed robbery, been gathered up by a determined people even more advanced than the North American Indians. Dispossessed, abused, humiliated, demoralised, they became the people I was unable to know or understand other than in the context of argument. My politics took over as the governing reference of my commitment to fathoming Aborigines. But allowing my politics to fashion the questions I asked had shortcomings. 'Injustice' became a slogan. Everything I read about Aborigines had to find its home under a heading. A sequence of slogans is not a narrative.


AT AROUND THE time of John Howard's dismissal of any obligation to issue an apology to Indigenous Australians for a couple of centuries of abuse, I was living with a woman who spoke with Aborigines every working day of the year. She ran an outreach agency in Collingwood where the majority of her clients were homeless blacks, and before that she'd managed an Aboriginal community in Western Australia. Her clients adored her, but on a bad day might still toss about terms like 'stupid white cunt' and threaten to have her kneecapped. The abuse didn't bother her; the more inventive insults delighted her. She said, 'It's just the dope,' or, 'It's the piss.' What I knew about Aborigines remained a mess, but I was feeling my way towards a Pearsonian model of tough love. I thought her forbearance left her open to exploitation and felt offended on her behalf. She told me once that she'd spent months looking for a house for a black couple and their baby, only to have the family wander off in a week.

'In a week! Don't they care how much trouble you took? Doesn't that drive you nuts?'

'No. Stop talking about it.'

She came to wince at my responses to incidents like that. They made me seem impatient and ignorant, and it was at that time important to her that she should like me. I was a version of the concerned white man who wants Indigenous Australians to prosper, but who quickly becomes exasperated when they don't. When my friend said, 'Stop talking about it,' what she wanted me to understand was that my goodwill was an easily exhausted resource, and unreliable. Her own way of thinking about Indigenous Australians had nothing to do with mere goodwill. She had overcome the temptation to place Aborigines in a category of the marginalised, or in a category of any sort. They were, to my friend, as various in character as non-Aboriginals, but burdened in a way remote to the experience of non-Aboriginals.

In each of us there is a neglected graveyard of the convictions that once excited us, convictions interred with the questions that expressed the liveliness of our interest. One of the overgrown headstones in my personal graveyard reads, 'The Inevitable Victory of the Proletariat!' and another, 'You Can Live on Lentils!' But we retain our original enthusiasm for maybe two or three early convictions, and return to them, in a struggling way, again and again. The predicament of Indigenous Australians vexes me. I think for some time I have wished Aborigines to flourish by being more like me. I've wanted them to buy houses in the shining place where I live, and hail me at the supermarket, join me on the sofa at parties and say, after a genial howdy, 'Global warming, fuck me, what do you do?' In spite of all that I know of their burden, all that I've read, I seem to have an irreducible conviction that it will all be okay if more Aborigines would only read Kant and Hume and Sartre and maybe a selection of contemporary writers of fiction I'd like to foist on them. My criticism of the federal and state programs (well intentioned, some of them generous) that are supposed to benefit Aborigines has been that they are unimaginative, but my own schemes for Aboriginal advancement are just as unimaginative, although in a more imaginative way.

I MET A man at a dinner party, an ex-AFL player, who'd spent some years travelling to Aboriginal communities in the far north to talk about Australian Rules football. By this time my slogans had evolved into theories, in reverse of the usual process that sees theories expressed as slogans. I'd sucked the raw and the cooked out of Claude Levi-Strauss and the nourishment produced a brainwave: the intractable cognitive structures of Indigenous Australians make it impossible for them to negotiate the alien binary structures of European culture. The 'gift' of a house does not establish the reciprocal challenge of valuing the house, because the gift of a house contradicts the social urge to take off at will; reciprocation would amount to alienation of liberty. I put this formidable coup of reasoning together with the argument of Alan Moorehead's The Fatal Impact (white man, big ship, tropic climes, booze, syphilis, catastrophe) and uttered these words, with which I must live, to the footballer: 'Primitive people are doomed from the moment that a white man extends his hand and says, """Good morning, I intend you no harm."' The footballer wanted to know to whom I was referring when I said, 'primitive peoples'. Isaid, 'Aborigines,' and he changed the subject.

I remained attracted to the theory (discredited by cultural anthropologists, as I learned) because it appeared to establish fate as the greatest of all culprits in the playing out of the tragedy. Politically, philosophically, fate is a bimbo, but a goddess in a literary context. I began to think of the Aborigines as a tragic people who might be represented in a whopper novel as an Arcadian race honouring their god with dance and song even as the well-armed priests of a fresher, fiercer deity anchored their ships off shore.

The conception had shortcomings outside the literary context - it suggested that the Aboriginal people were doomed, and that the richness of their heritage, the vigour and variety of all that they imagined, their deeds and ambitions would be unavailing, would be swept away in a diaspora of unrelieved suffering and misery. But the suggestion was forgivable because they would live in art forever, these condemned people: live in the novel. Tragedy immortalises. Oedipus, the regent of a dopey little state in the blithering long-ago, is now famous in song and legend, and in the annals of psychopathology.


FOR ME, FOREVER, data is what it is and never what it might be. And this is true even when the data catalogues atrocity. The number of European Jews who were murdered by the Nazis before and during World War II is horrifying, but numbers are not a narrative any more than are my slogans. In his memoir If This Is a Man Primo Levi created (and 'created' is a crucial word) a narrative of suffering and human wretchedness that bows your head to your chest with sorrow. And your head stays there, in a certain sense, for the rest of your life. What we honour with our sorrow is in part the success of the writer in fashioning his story, and the writer himself, herself, honours those he or she writes about by writing well.

The superficiality of my theories about the situation of Aboriginal Australians persisted until 2009, when I was encouraged by a friend to read Howard Goldenberg's recent memoir, Raft (Hybrid). Goldenberg is a Melbourne-based GP who has spent part of each of the past twenty years serving as a locum in Aboriginal communities all over Australia. Raft is his record of the joy, the madness and the sorrow of those twenty years.

Goldenberg's grasp of the predicament of Aborigines is distinguished from my own in this important regard: he knows what he's talking about. His work has taken him to more than forty Aboriginal communities in five states, most of them represented to the broader Australian community as sites of despair, which some are. Goldenberg finds the language to describe the despair in ways that eclipse my enthusiastic conception of a structuralist black tragedy: 'When I arrive in Hall's Creek, I am greeted by a passing parade of silent figures...floating noiselessly like spirits along the streets of their own town...At night it is the opposite, the people are heard, but dark-skinned in the moonless dark, not readily seen. They cry out hoarsely, harshly, sounds of abuse, the odd scream, cries punctuated by peels of riotous laughter.'

A tour of the underworld demands composure, and Goldenberg maintains the poise of a consoler whose responsibilities extend to bearing witness: 'Elijah...can barely speak or move his facial muscles. He cradles an ice pack against his right temple and cool towels swathe his forehead and cheek. I remove these coverings and find blistered skin and raw patches where the skin falls away in sheets...His aunt who has sat impassively by him, now speaks: "He copped a kicking. They kicked him all over. Then they threw a kettle of boiling water over him."'

And: 'A nurse asks me to see Zachariah. He came in with a spot of pus on his left elbow. When she started to mop up the bead of pus with some moistened gauze, the skin fell away...The more the nurse cleaned, the deeper and wider became the exposed area, until the bones of the elbow were exposed...'

And: 'A phone call from the local Aboriginal Health Centre warns of the imminent arrival of a man who fell asleep and rolled into a fire and stayed asleep. When they bring him into the hospital, he is barely awake. We roll up the charred fabric of his trousers, exposing a white "sock" of pallid, bloodless muscle tissue that has been cooked.'

Goldenberg is aman liberated in his sympathies, inthe same way that my friend in the outreach agency was in hers. He diagnoses a patient, Jonathan, with a respiratory illness so severe that the man must be flown from his community to the hospital at Alice Springs, nine hundred kilometres away. Goldenberg attends Jonathan on the flight, mopping up the vivid green sputum that his patient sprays over himself and his doctor in his paroxysms of coughing. A week after delivering Jonathan to hospital, Goldenberg telephones to enquire about his one-time patient's condition and is told that he has left the hospital, discharged himself weeks or months too early. 'Doesn't it drive you nuts?' I said to my friend, and she said, 'No. Stop talking about it.' Goldenberg ends the story of Jonathan by quoting the nurse who answered the phone:'Heleftthismorning.Jonathan's goinghometo his owncountry.'

Witness to some of the most appalling things happening in Australia at any given time, Goldenberg lets the horror speak for itself. At one settlement, a young man dances for the visiting Prime Minister, but later plunges into a booze-fuelled ecstasy of violence:

'That night, the young dancing man drinks, fights with his young wife. She too has been drinking. The man stabs her many, many times. She falls, apparently dead. The violent young man goes into the bush with a rope and he hangs himself.

The young woman survives.

Now she faces a new danger: her husband has died following a fight between them. She hears that the clan elders deem her culpable in his death, and decide she must face the death penalty.

She can never return to her husband's camp or clan. She must fly to refuge on the remotest island of her own clan.'

The mayhem, the madness, the pity of it bows down even those who have made it their mission to buoy the raft on which so many desperate people struggle to survive:

'I witness scenes that distress even veteran workers in these communities. In Mutijulu once, Imet a nurse who said, "I'm leaving, my time is up."

I wondered whether she had completed a contract.

"No," she said. "You know when your time is up."

"How do you know?"

She looked away, fell into silence, then replied, "The horror. You can't take any more."'

Any doctor serving the Aboriginal communities of remote Australia is in something of the situation of a medic in a nineteenth-century wound-dressing station. The casualties keep coming, the damage to flesh and organs is awful, and the hopelessness of it all must become overwhelming. Goldenberg worries aloud about the small benefit (in the greater scheme of things) of his time and skill in this war of self-harm: 'I have found myself uncomfortable in many ways. I have felt helpless, and confused by my helplessness; irrelevant and occasionally absurd. I have experienced shock and moral disorientation. Numb hopelessness followed, then a phase of toxic resignation. Later came a calmer state of acceptance, which left me open to encouragement; and mostly now I maintain a poised refusal of acceptance.'

The steady patience of Goldenberg's ministrations does not go unrewarded. He experiences the grace of gratitude from people who have grace as the only gift they can offer. He is listened to raptly on Elcho Island when he sings a Hebrew psalm, his own gift. And he is sometimes permitted to come close and gaze on the remaining, still perfect fragments of men and women whose ancestors thrived in the best of all possible worlds.

GOLDENBERG'S BOOK TAKES its title from Rod Moss's 1990 painting depicting a number of identifiably Aboriginal figures, men and women, in an arid landscape, a ramshackle corrugated iron humpy in the background. Moss's painting quotes Gericault's 1819 masterpiece Le radeau de la Méduse (The Raft of the Medusa), displayed in the Louvre. Gericault's picture shows the last of the survivors of the foundered French vessel Méduse adrift on a raft in the South Atlantic after memorable incompetence on the part of the ship's captain. Le radeau de la Méduse is work of profound pessimism; all of its suggestions direct the viewer's thought to the perfidy of individuals and classes, and to the savagery that lies coiled within us. Moss's work is not pessimistic; rather, the viewer is asked to reflect on the sorrow of it all, and the pity. A female figure in the foreground cradles a male figure who may be dead, may be dying, may be just completely out of it. Two figures behind gesture towards the horizon above the arid plain, or else toward something missing from the picture. But nothing in the picture suggests that any of the human figures is pleading for rescue, or expects it. If there is any sense of something desired, it is that which is missing, whatever that may be.

Goldenberg's book, disguised as a casual collection of episodes in the Never Never, is actually a deeply considered work of art that honours Aboriginal Australians with its craft and its humility. It brings to the literature of the Aboriginal burden a peculiarly Jewish sensibility, a Jewish comprehension of what people are compelled to endure. Exposed to that sensibility and craft, I understood what a further decade of employing slogans and fashioning theories wouldn't have revealed: that Indigenous Australians have not been waiting with bated breath for me to work it all out to my own satisfaction. I realised for the first time that it's not about white me.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review