The Imaginary Eco-(Pre-)Historian: Peter Read’s Belongingas a Postcolonial ‘Symptom’

by Ken Gelder

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I want to read Peter Read (if you can excuse the repetition there) as a ‘symptom’ of postcolonial Australia at the moment: as someone both typical and peculiar. He is typical because he speaks, too confidently, both to and for ‘Australians’. Listening to the views of some ordinary people (mostly country-based) and several close friends, he writes the kind of contemporary histories he imagines all of us can recognise. He also speaks the now-familiar but no less utopian language of ‘sharing’ the country. He is pro-reconciliation and brings Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people together in his own work. Like most national historians, he also is a nation-builder: the stories he tells about Australia are usually positive and uplifting – or, at least, affecting (or, as one reviewer recently put it, ‘spine-tingling’). He especially likes emotionally fraught stories, ones that might even make his readers weep. Nation-building, reconciliation, an appeal to ordinary Australians and an often bleary-eyed, affective sentimentality: each fits neatly together in this typical contemporary Australian fantasy, a version of which we have recently seen played out at the Sydney Olympics.

But Read is also peculiar – and I use that word not least because of its links to issues of property (from the Latin peculiaris,of private property). His subject is what he calls the ‘deep relationship’1 with country – a relationship expressed both emotionally and (loosely speaking) archaeologically. And he wants this ‘deep relationship’ to exist here and now, for ‘non-Aboriginal’ people. In postcolonial Australia, non-Aboriginal people – settler Australians – have often been cast as unsettled(because they have only been here a short time, because they themselves are fractured and disparate, because they are made increasingly aware of Aboriginal claims to the country they live in, and so on). Read remains in this context since his description of the nation relies entirely on the differences between ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘non-Aboriginal’. But this is where reconciliation returns with a vengeance. The latter category is taken literally by Read, where to be ‘non-Aboriginal’ is to lack the very thing Aboriginal people are seen (or wereseen, before dispossession) to have: a ‘deep relationship’ to country. Read’s task, then, is to take away the negative connotation: to remove the ‘non-‘ from ‘non-Aboriginal’ and to do away with those differences – but on one side only. Aboriginal people remain Aboriginal, but settlers become indigenous.

This is, indeed, a peculiar situation, although it has its own quirky genealogy – stretching back to fantasies about ‘white blackfellows’ in the 1930s and 1940s, in art and, in particular, in poetry (which Read approvingly invokes in this book). But not so much in history. Only recently have historians enacted the fantasy of indigenising the ‘non-Aboriginal’. Tom Griffiths comes close to it in his work on ‘white locals’ in Hunters and Collectors (1996), a book about the ‘prehistory’ of history that aims to give the discipline itself a ‘deep relationship’ to country. More recently (in the Australian Humanities Review), Griffiths – who Read monumentalises in his own book, along with a few other historians (‘Heather’, ‘Henry’, ‘Lyndall’) – has listed other para-historical works that fantasise about ‘deep time’ in Australia, seeing them, interestingly, as postcolonial and prehistorical simultaneously. These para-histories rely on orally transmitted narratives, on presence, and on a strongly-felt sense of place (which is then universalised). All of these things are then combined to make ‘non-Aboriginal’ Australians feel suitably indigenous. They are also eco-histories, rightly standing against environmental degradation but then romantically reconceiving the country as ‘Nature’ in order then to sanction the kind of emotional expressions of attachment they yearn for.

I call these writers ‘eco-(pre)historians’. Their ‘non-Aboriginal’ Australians are necessarily conceived as ‘ordinary’ to distinguish them from the ‘elites’ (the rich, the bureaucratic, etc.). It was only a matter of time before history itself, a discipline in decline (all the more reason to monumentalise its practitioners), embraced this mindset – as we see, for example, with John Molony’s The Native-Born: the first white Australians(2000). This book is a bizarre tribute to a ‘non-Aboriginal’ underclass who are rendered innocent of colonisation: ‘it is not…the first white Australians’, Molony cheerily claims, who we ‘ought to hold responsible for the initial act of white invasion and its later consequences’.2 Having wiped away their responsibility for dispossession, Molony then takes the ‘native-born’ as a kind of meta-category – under which Aboriginal people are duly subsumed. The peculiar ideological project behind this kind of history-writing is thus laid bare. By taking out the ‘non-‘ from ‘non-Aboriginal’, these writers want settler Australians not only to become indigenous but tosupplant Aboriginal people in the process. What looks like an innocent tribute to an apparently neglected class of people becomes in effect a ghastly return to some kind of ‘white Australia’ policy – or perhaps, to give it a postcolonial spin, we should say: a ‘white (Aboriginal) Australia’ policy. To his credit, at least, Read’s own chapter on the ‘native-born’ – a bland reading of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal country and western – at least tries to retain difference as an active principle. All we can say here is that the cheesy view of ‘sharing’ the country (what Read in this chapter awkwardly calls ‘belonging-in-parallel’) jostles for space alongside the urge to make settler Australians ‘Aboriginal’.

At one point in Belonging,Peter Read interviews a landscape artist, Mandy Martin. He tells us confidently, Mandy Martin knows Aboriginality’.3 To know ‘Aboriginality’, whatever that may mean, is taken as a sufficient condition, as an end in itself – but it works in Read’s book as a way of making Martin more properly ‘Aboriginal’ than Aboriginal people themselves. She is the owner of a large rural property in New South Wales: one of Molony’s ‘native-born’, but certainly not part of any underclass. She understands that Aboriginal land claims have to be ‘negotiated’, but she also feels that many of the Aboriginal people she sees ‘are just as I am’.4 Her ‘belonging’ is expressed partly through the ongoing protection of her property from environmental degradation, and partly through a sense that her own settler genealogy is now well enough established to enable her to stand defiant against Aboriginal claims. Peter Read then offers this comment: ‘You say to Aboriginals, Yes. I’m paying homage to my great-great-great-great grandfather, it’s mine as much as yours. You have a better political case than I do, but I’m not just giving it up, because if I don’t love it as much as you, then I should just give it to you’.5 Martin, less seduced by this archaeological flight of fancy, ‘wouldn’t put it like that’. The idea of ‘giving it up’ simply isn’t on the agenda; indeed, Martin’s view is progressive, developmental, soundly anti-romantic. Yet she does have something to offer Read, not just her love of the ‘landscape’. She tells him that negotiations with Aboriginal people for land is fine, if we do it ‘one to one’.6 Read agrees: ‘we must talk to each other as individuals’, he wisely intones. We thus see another ideological feature laid bare in this kind polemic, which regards Aboriginal land claims themselves as bureaucratic, divisive: too ‘Aboriginal’. The idea is, instead, to sit down for a chat, to make it ‘personal’ (which is why he never talks to Aboriginal claimants, lawyers, Land Council members, etc.).

Read does indeed sit down with someone and make it personal, linking up, much like Dante and Virgil, with Dennis Foley, a Gaimariagal man from Sydney. They are pictured on the back cover, squatting down together. Foley and Read come from the same place: Foley narrates ‘his living Gai-mariagal culture on site after site of my own childhood’.7 Made aware of the deep history of the place he occupied, as well as the extent of Aboriginal displacement from it, Read becomes closer to Foley (rather than estranged from him). Like Dante and Beatrice now, Read returns to Foley – ‘my shadow brother’ – at the end of the book. The tone is euphoric, utopian, paradisiacal, with Read recognising the fact of dispossession but reserving the right amongst non-Aboriginal Australians to belong to Australia’s ‘deep past’. ‘My sense of the native-born has come – is coming’, he says breathlessly, unclear about whether paradise is already here or just around the corner. He joins hands, interestingly, with Veronica Brady in this last chapter – working up to some kind of spiritual ascension. This is postcolonialism-as-fulfilment, but only for white Australians. This is reconciliation, but only on ‘non-Aboriginal’ Australia’s terms: to make this class of people even more settled than they were before.

In fact Read’s earlier book, Returning to Nothing: the meaning of lost places(1996), enacts a particularly disturbing strategy in relation to all this – as a first step on the road to settler paradise. Here, he looks at what he calls ‘place deprivation’ for non-Aboriginal Australians – the experience of loss through a range of events, some spectacular (like Darwin’s cyclone Tracey) and some bureaucratic (like the loss of pastoralists’ land under a changed jurisdiction). What is interesting is that Read expresses the settler experience of ‘place deprivation’ in exactly the same way that one might account for the Aboriginal experience of dispossession. The one mirrors the other, in other words. Of course, we see this mirroring these days in the unlikeliest of places: in the light comedy film The Castle,for instance, which moves from the threat of settler ‘place deprivation’ to the utter relief of settler possession in which a ‘house’ becomes a ‘home’, all on the back (in fact, retracing the footsteps) of the barely acknowledged precedent of Mabo worked out in the High Court. In Read’s book, a New South Wales high country pastoralist, Granville Crawford, is similarly threatened with eviction from a property he was – almost – born into. In his defence, Crawford writes some poetry expressing his love for country he is about to lose (Read approves of this). Finally, Read then asks this interesting question: ‘Are the attachments of Granville Crawford and the mountain pastoralists in some ways comparable to those of Aborigines?…A supporter…wrote, The mountain people share with Aboriginal people a deep sense of belonging. The High Country is their sacred ground. Cattlemen refer to their grazing runs as their country, not just their land’8 – much like in The Castle,where the house is really a home. Anticipating his later, emotionally-charged question to Mandy Martin, Read then adds, “Granville Crawford reflected: I don’t know how much the Aborigines loved this country, all I know is that I could not imagine them loving it any more” (ibid., 69) – meaning, I take it (although the quote is fascinatingly ambiguous), any more than me.

Read’s account of a ‘deep relationship’ to country is presented here as an Oedipal struggle, where ‘love’ (and poetry!) only come to the pastoralist when he is evicted. That is, a ‘deep relationship’ is literally borne out of place deprivation. This can be expressed another way: the non-Aboriginal or settler transformation of land into country, of a house into a home, is enabled only through the experience of dispossession.What is ‘shared’ with Aboriginal people, then, is not just that ‘deep relationship’ but the very experience of dispossession that enablesthat relationship: settler and Aboriginal people, through this strange mirror effect, have dispossession in common. Dispossession is in fact necessary in order for such belonging to occur, which explains why this book came first and Belongingcame afterwards. The first chapter of Returning to Nothingis about another pastoralist, a mother, Margaret Johnson, who herself experiences ‘place deprivation’ when she hands over her property – Windamere Station – to her son. This chapter again rehearses the poetics of ‘deep belonging’ to country, all in the context of impending loss as Mrs Johnson resettles elsewhere after so many years on the farm. ‘It’s still mine’, she says, ‘but it belongs to someone else’.9 Read’s method is to let people like Mrs Johnson speak for themselves; although he is both emotionally and ideologically charged, he is not particularly analytical. So he misses the opportunity to read this woman’s complaint in relation to the Oedipal struggle he is charting – and indeed, in Belonging,he forgets about this struggle almost entirely in his effort to return wholeheartedly to country (to Mother). But something a little different is occurring in Mrs Johnson’s lament. She is neither deprived (this is notlike Aboriginal dispossession) nor fulfilled (this is nota ‘deep relationship’; it has indeed been interrupted). We can note instead a dialectic that Read barely bothers to pursue, which may come to speak more adequately to the contemporary postcolonial predicament – a dialectic involving the simultaneityof deprivation (estrangement) and fulfilment (belonging) in relation to country. Mrs Johnson folds together a sense of her own ‘dispossession’ (the mother has to leave her property) and the confirmation of her inheritance (it is, in fact, her son who replaces her – that ‘someone else’ the mother has nurtured and yet for the moment, strangely, seems not to recognise). It would be difficult to imagine a more abject, and in fact, more uncanny expression of settler triumph.

Ken Gelder is a Reader in English at the University of Melbourne. He is co-author, with Jane M. Jacobs, ofUncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation(Melbourne University Press, 1998) and, more recently, editor ofThe Horror Reader (Routledge, 2000). This review was funded by the Literature Fund of the Australia Council.

1 Peter Read, Belonging:Australians, Place and Aboriginal Ownership(Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 119.
2 John Molony, The Native Born: the first white Australians(Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2000), 5.
3 Read, 163.
4 Ibid., 167.
5 Ibid., 168.
6 Ibid., 170.
7 Ibid., 22.
8 Peter Read, Returning to Nothing: the meaning of lost places(Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 69.
9 Ibid., 20.

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