Dr Worreddy and GrandmaOne of the motivations for moving to southern Tasmania in 2004 was to be closer to Bruny Island. Colin Johnson's (Mudrooroo's) 1983 novel, Doctor Worreddy's Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World, set largely on Bruny Island, seemed to have exerted a magnetic pull on me, providing an imagined history that I felt I could connect with.
This pull, towards the Bruny Island of this historical fiction, I now realise, was due to unresolved questions in that part of my heritage occupied by my paternal grandmother. While my paternal grandfather was born in the South West of England, eventually migrating to New South Wales just prior to WWII, my maternal grandmother descended from English convicts, and her de facto husband and father of my mother held a Scottish heritage, occupying a spectral presence in my life due to his disappearance as he succumbed to alcoholism after service in WWII, Grandma's heritage was and is hazy.
She was adopted and hailed from somewhere near Grenfell, in western New South Wales, moving to Narraweena, opposite a Church of England, on the northern beaches of Sydney's north shore after WWII where my father, uncle and aunty were raised. When Dad and Mum raised us three kids we lived 5 minutes away from Grandma and Grandfather and, working hard to start their new family, my parents would entrust me to Grandma and I remember spending days with her as a young boy. While she was needy, troubled and bitter, I was still being spoilt, as the first grandchild often is, feeling warm and doted on.
Then, Dad and Grandma had a falling out--they'd had a tense relationship, full of contests and struggles--when I was about 7 and that was the end of that. No more milk arrowroots dipped in milky, sugary tea. No more Sunday School.
As kids we tend to experience time as an opening out, wide and expansive. Summers feel like years, days can last for a season. But in my memory Grandma died not long after this falling out. Maybe it was a couple of years later. I'm not sure.
We never spoke of her again. It seemed like a relief that she had passed away--she was never satisfied with her children's achievements, and was disappointed with life. Nothing was good enough . . .
A shameful heritage?
Talk that Grandma was probably adopted because she had an aboriginal mother was slow to emerge in my extended family. A cousin begun to tick the Aboriginal box on forms from which her children stood to gain some advantage, and my Aunty and her kids and even my brother's features and darker skin colour started to register as noticeably aboriginal. Searches for proof failed to locate definitive evidence. We'd left it too long; anyone who might have known what led to her adoption was dead. Maybe there are diaries or journals that provide some confirmation of what we believe. As far as we know she wasn't part of the 'stolen generation': something less institutional had probably occurred, and a moral and shameful problem had been dealt with in a benevolent fashion at a private and confidential level. The problem solved by adoption.
Maybe her bitterness was in discovering her adoption. And where did all that shame go? Did she carry it into her life? Did it inform her affective world in such a profound way that there would never be any relief from its atmospheric pressure; no overcoming a social and historical structure of feeling through protestant denial and the drive to work-based social ascension for your children.
What was the intergenerational heritage of these structures of shameful feeling? What cultural forms arose and were deployed to try and personally assuage and overcome historical shame?
Questions of Aboriginal identity and heritage remain highly contested in contemporary Australia. Certain jobs, university and school places and scholarships are earmarked for Aboriginal applicants. Applying for these places or funds necessitates confirmation of identity, which can be sought by satisfying three criteria: proof of descent, self-identification and recognition by the local Aboriginal community organisation. In some cases, this third step is not a requirement.
For some Aboriginals, claims to membership by those with white skin is illegitimate: how can you be Aboriginal if you haven't grown up with the experience of being marked as Aboriginal? There is an assumption here, which is that the fairer skinned person hasn't been identified as Aboriginal. Someone raised in an identified Aboriginal family will be marked as Aboriginal, and may also have been inducted into the Aboriginal cultural, social, political, legal and religious systems and practices of their country and people.
Clearly, I can't claim Aboriginal identity. How could I?
To be Aboriginal in Australia is, for some people, to be in a state of crisis; in dire need. To be fair-skinned, metropolitan, and university educated is utterly incompatible with being Aboriginal because real Aboriginals require support and those who are dark-skinned, regional and poorly educated should not have to suffer while the relatively privileged receive the advantages and benefits intended for those in need. This is a powerful argument; one that can be turned towards an attack on fair-skinned Aborginals and thereby on any Aboriginals who are not deemed to be in need.
Commentators like Andrew Bolt have exemplified this sort of attack, effectively arguing that skin-colour equates with privilege (either its lack or surplus), ignoring the degree to which an individual's life experiences cannot necessarily be read off their skin colour. The goal of attacks like Bolt, it seems to me, is to de-historicise the complex affects of colonisation, re-inscribing the meaning of Aboriginality onto the dark skin of Aboriginals now. Here the Aboriginal is pre-modern, in need of intervention, close to extinction.
For some people, ticking the box for Aboriginal identification on a form, is less about their painful experiences of being interpellated or recognised as Aboriginal, and less about a neo-liberal bid to exploit that section of their portfolio of human capital lying like old blue chip stocks in their genetic heritage, than it is about a question or pressure in their sense of heritage. There is no profound unsettling of identity or dire need.
That part of my heritage occupied by my Grandma lies off the map. There is no actual country she came from, only ones that are imagined, like Dr Worreddy's on Bruny Island. This is not to say there is no heritage or legacy: an atmosphere of personally lived historical shame and learning how to time the dunking of milk arrowroot biscuits without oversoftening them.
PS These thoughts partly inspired by SBS TV's Insight program from this week: Aboriginal or Not.