Having lived in many countries for at least a number of years on each count, I know how difficult it is to truly understand another culture, even where a common language exists.
It is even more problematic when a writer seeks to ‘explore’ complex sub-relationships within the foreign culture, such as that of indigenous Australians. I would venture to suggest that however great Will Self’s writing skills and capacity for observation may be, occasional visits, even a number of years in one place, combined with a great deal of reading, will never bring him close to understanding Australians in general nor the complex and varied nature of the diverse indigenous Australians and their communities.
It is in essence, given the controversial nature of the problems still faced by some indigenous Australians, a minority, unfair to toss around claims of ‘fourth world conditions’ for Aborigines and mentioning sickly children, without providing some balance in regard to these situations. A balance which is not required for Australians, and I recognise that was the original audience, but, as an international writer like Self, with an international audience, is required if he is to be fair to Australia and Australians.
It has become fashionable to ‘bag’ Australians in general for the fact that a small minority of our 670,000 indigenous out of a population of 23 million plus, are still struggling, some of them desperately, without mentioning the huge amounts of money, time and effort which Australia still invests in trying to resolve these problems. Problems, I would add, which anyone who spends time in Canadian and American indigenous communities, knows are not particular to Australia, but sadly, seem to be universal and perhaps for the same reasons.
It also ignores the fact that more indigenous students are graduating from university than ever before. In 2006 there were nearly 20,000. And the fact that most indigenous Australians are in mixed marriages, indicating porous social boundaries, if indeed any exist, and minimal racism on both sides.
To a reader with no knowledge the inference in ‘sickly children’ and ‘fourth world conditions’ is that Australia does nothing to help those in need. This is patently untrue. Australia spends over $12billion annually in trying to help indigenous Australians.
More to the point, sickly children are not the result of a lack of funding, care or concern by the Australian Government or the Australian people, but of lack of care by parents in dysfunctional communities. Most indigenous who are struggling are struggling because they have been encouraged and supported, to live in remote communities which have no real future for them or their children and which are seedbeds of social dysfunction where domestic violence, child abuse, child sexual abuse, child neglect, alcohol and drug addiction are tragically commonplace.
Most indigenous Australians do not live in fourth world conditions and those who do play a part in how they live. That may not be a palatable fact in this age of somewhat delusional political correctness, but it is a fact.
I would also venture to suggest that, having lived in Britain and with English and Scottish ancestors and a Cockney grandfather, as an Australian I have a greater capacity to intuit and understand English culture and land than do those who come into Australia with no ancestral capacity for understanding, and minimal years spent in what is a huge continent of enormous mystery and grace.
As an Australian, who may or may not have indigenous ancestry, because intermixing and intermarrying has been going on since 1788 and it is possible to claim Aboriginality if one has no more than one great-great grandparent, which is highly likely, I also know that when Australians criticise Aborigines they criticise behaviour and not race. When they criticise Aboriginal ‘culture’ they criticise the violence and dysfunction.
Universally, Australians value and appreciate the brilliance of Aboriginal art, myth and other aspects of culture which the early colonists worked hard to record and preserve and encourage. Many of us understand that Aboriginality is a core part of our Australianness and that our dry, laconic sense of humour and laid-back, easy-going qualities are probably inherited and absorbed from our Aboriginal ‘nature.’
Many of us have spent time in the outback and as a nomadic culture, have lived around our continent. We may mostly be living on the coast but we also explore our land with deep and abiding appreciation and awe.
To be Australian, indigenous or not, is to have a reverence and appreciation for the land itself. To that degree we are all indigenous. You do not need Aboriginal ancestry to sit in the bush and understand that this fine red earth beats beneath you and that the ancient, rubbed down hills are calling in a silent language which needs no response. We know that this land is older than any other and it is worn by aeons of time and it holds us lightly. We are custodians.
I doubt I am alone, as an Australian, in being weary of foreigners passing judgement on this country and our culture and our society, when, as someone who has lived around the world, including the UK, but also India, Europe, North America and in four African countries, I know that we are doing as well as most and better than many.
We are far from perfect and this land is and always has been a challenge and a mystery, but those of us who live in it and love it, know that some mysteries can never be fully understood and are not meant to be.
So thank you Will Self but I hear more of your story in your words than the story of my country or its people.