In May 2017, as we approached the 50th Anniversary of the “Yes” Referendum about reconciliation for Indigenous Australians I was invited to a “Yes” event at the Australian, Film, Television and Radio School (or as it is lovingly known, AFTRS).
In so many ways, it was a confronting event.
You would expect, being housed in AFTRS, that it was about storytelling,and it was. Who tells the stories, what they tell, what is listened to, and what we truly hear.
Out the front, the conversation was led by Bruce Pascoe, Rhoda Roberts, and Deborah Cheetham, all treasured and revered Australian and Aboriginal Australian storytellers and leaders.
Facing a painful Australian History
Stories unfolded and as they did I ran the gambit of emotions. Firstly, I was exposed and nervous when faced with a question about Australian history. I know Australian history, but did I know the version that was being referred to, or was I ignorant? Then I was hurt, as stories of the stolen generation were told. I hurt for the mothers who lost their children. I’ve lost a child. I know that pain, albeit in different ways. I cried a few of those tears that just roll down your cheek without needing to be wiped away. I covered my mouth, held my breath and my heart broke again. I had ‘lost’ my son, in my arms, not had him stolen. That pain is always with you. I couldn’t imagine mixing it with fury as well. It is too much to imagine. I was also in pain because the colour of my skin was on the wrong side of that story. Then I was confused and unable to solve the confronting problem of a treaty, or the end of what is now more than a two-century-old war, that has never been resolved. Then, I was relieved, when the olive branch was offered that we could all ‘share’ Australian history. And confused, because I wasn’t sure we, or I, deserved it.
The only other time I have felt so confronted, and so lost, as to who I am and what I can do to help, is when I sat in the Sydney Theatre Company, and watched “Secret River”. I sat next to my friend, Shelley Reys, and two seats along, sat Adam Goodes, also Shelley’s friend. Both Shelley and Adam are also revered Australian Aboriginal leaders, although neither would make that claim. Secret River is, and was that night, a confronting story. I’d read the book alongside my daughters when they studied it at school, so I thought I was prepared. I wasn’t. At the end of the play, the main white character stood in the line to take a bow, tears running down his face, almost unable to stand. I looked at Shelley. She too was crying. So was Adam. Then a very odd thing happened. We stood for a standing ovation and everyone was applauding. In my heart, I wanted them to turn off the lights. Turn down the sound. Now was a time for reflection. Quiet. Silent. Reflection. Not raucous applause. We should have all sat in the dark and reflected for a moment. But it wasn’t to be.
The applause went on and on. When it finally subsided, we went to the “opening night” event in the room at the back of STC. We were offered champagne. And people talked about the lighting and the incredible philanthropy that had paid for the backdrop. It was surreal. Like we’d been watching a different play. Like no one else had seen the story we had just watched. Like we missed the point. It was just a play. But it wasn’t. It was history told sympathetically, when perhaps sympathy wasn’t warranted.
Those two nights, both embedded in the art of story-telling, have combined to form my “opinion”.
On this day, 50 years after “Yes”, when we still have so much to do, and at the opening of National Reconciliation Week, when there are so many important things being discussed, and coming up to the 25th anniversary of the MABO decision, when we’re still trying to work out everything that means, I have nothing to say.
I just want to listen.
To the people who’ve sat with this for generations.
I can’t ‘solve’ this.
Nor does anyone expect or want me to.
People have discussed every angle of this history, and this present, for more than two centuries, and there are still different views on where we might go.
I have no compulsion to find a solution. I don’t need to apply a two by two grid and solve this in a one-hour meeting.
I just want to sit and listen.
Do I want to understand? Yes, I’d like that.
Do I want to help? Yes, I’d like that too.
Do I want to be part of the solution? Yes, if can be, even in some small way.
I’m patient. I’ve stopped. I’m listening.
Now is not the time for my story.
Now is the time to listen to the stories of others.
Their voice. Their way. Their time.