In Conversation with Stan Grant

Grant and I spoke about Country — the notion of a place which transcends something as simple as geography. It is who we are, it is everything that we are.

When Queen Elizabeth II died, Stan Grant called her “the last white Queen.” For Grant, the Queen was a bastion of whiteness — the suffocating whiteness that justified the invasion of his country and the genocide of his people — but those enduring notions of whiteness “like Cleopatra or Helen of Troy, [are] now a thing of history. [The Queen] is a relic. It is time to bury her. Not just her body, but the very idea of her.” For Grant, and the thousands of First Nations people who continue to be crushed by the empire she symbolised for so many decades, the Queen’s death is not to be mourned.

Speaking with me, Grant described his powerful new book, The Queen is Dead, as “a journey into my history,” in which he explores the notion of whiteness — a spell, an evil magic that apotheosises empire and genocide. Grant painfully recalls the suffocating oppression of white institutions — stories of his grandfather being tied to a tree like a dog by police and left all day without food or water to swelter in the sun, stories of seeing Aboriginal men arrested for drinking alcohol and roped together and marched down the main street of his hometown, stories of family members who died as children, stories of cousins being sent to welfare, stories of aching hunger.

These experiences and stories are not unique. They belong to all of us. They are etched into the collective memory of First Nations people. It is a part of the enduring legacy of empire on this continent. The Queen was heir to that legacy — a legacy which enslaved, exploited, and subjugated hundreds of millions of people over many centuries. Grant makes the case that this legacy has left in its wake a world that is politically anxious and lacking a moral core. 

Grant explained this to me: “My father summed it up for me once. I asked him why he taught our Wiradjuri language to people who aren’t Wiradjuri. He said that language does not tell you who you are, it tells you where you are. In that simple sentence, he upended everything that Western modernity rests on — it’s all about the individual, all about who you are. The one thing in the heart of this chasm between us is that white Australians constantly ask themselves who they are and never ask themselves where they are. We cling to the Eastern seaboard. We have the flag of England in the corner of our national flag. We’ve imported a system of government from another country. We hold onto these vestiges of other places, and never allow ourselves to sink into the ground here.”

Grant and I spoke about Country — the notion of a place which transcends something as simple as geography. It is who we are, it is everything that we are.

Grant recalled, “I was back home recently, and I had this incredible feeling. There was absolutely no separation, not a sliver of light, between Baiame [Wiradjuri creation spirit], me, and the land that I stood on. That’s my relationship to Country. It’s the only place that I could ever call home, and I’ve found a way of carrying that sense of Country with me wherever I am in the world, and seeing the world through the eyes of a boy raised on that Country.”

Grant examines the impact of whiteness and empire around the world. He quotes historian Caroline Elkins in saying that “the empire’s velvet glove contains an all too familiar iron fist. From India to Africa to Ireland, the Pacific, the Caribbean and of course here, Australia, people from the other side of history have felt that fist.”

Grant walked me through his writing process, especially the difficulty he faced in reconciling his history with a need to move forward with love – the notion embodied by yindyamarra, a word from mine and Grant’s language of Wiradjuri.

“That crown had symbolised so much suffering for our people, and I had to confront that but I had to not lose myself at the same time,” said Grant. “I found through the book that it’s a journey from anger to resentment to betrayal, through to love.

“For me, writing is an expression of love — I don’t see any other reason to write. I don’t write to slay, I don’t write to convince, I don’t write to speak back. I just write to find that expression of love that comes from my people to a world that often has never loved us.”

I asked Grant about his inspirations — those people who must have informed his writing style and the way he approaches storytelling.

“James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison — these people are really important writers out of the black American tradition that have influenced me. But so have so many others — the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, the Polish Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, James Joyce may be above all.

“All of the writers I have mentioned have emerged from systems of political oppression. [Writing] is finding ourselves free and exploring the dimensions of freedom through language and through stories that allow us to break the chains of our histories, yet still carry who we are in the world. It’s an interesting and very delicate balance.”

And yet — for First Nations writers — the pen, the keyboard, the written word are all alien to us. Our culture is one of oral tradition. It is dynamic and alive. Our stories are passed down through generations by word of mouth. I asked Grant how he negotiates this contested space between our people’s traditions and the methods of communication imposed upon us.

“I try to incorporate that into the writing process, to get as close to the spoken word and my voice as possible,” says Grant. “What often happens in the process of writing is that you lose something between our soul and the pen. The act of writing, the mechanical process of it, inevitably gets in the way.

“To explore language and writing is an exploration of the soul but it’s also an act of translation. We try to make ourselves visible to people who can’t see us, and translate our experience into a language our oppressors can understand.”

Turning from the book to broader political discussions, Grant spoke about his trepidations as Australians face an era-defining referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

“For me, quite painfully, it feels like a judgement.I find politics to be a distasteful place. I’m not a political person. I like to think I’m a poetic person. So for me, increasingly, I’m looking less at the referendum and more at the day after. Because irrespective of whether people vote yes or no, we are still going to wake up in a nation still so deeply wounded, and we are all implicated in this moment. We come to it in different ways, but we are going to wake up and we’ll be in the same place — asking who we are rather than where we are.”

My conversation with Grant took place just days before the coronation of King Charles III. He expressed to me a sense of incredulity and disbelief at the absurdity of “this spectacle, this antiquated ceremony of coronation, which has no place in the modern world.”

“I write in the book that the white Queen is the last white Queen. Yes, King Charles is a white man, but he doesn’t occupy the space of whiteness that was so assured throughout the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth. I look at this all through the lens of absurdity, and I see how this speaks only to the past. It does not speak to us today, and it certainly doesn’t speak to the future.”

In closing, I asked Grant to tell me more about yindyamarra — the essence of being at one with your place in the world — and how Australians can adopt its tenets at a time where we are more politically divided than ever before.

“It’s a word that sits deep inside us,” says Grant. “It’s the generosity and the love that comes from our people, even to those who have shown no love for us.

“It’s a fundamental way of being that allows me to walk down the street in New York or Islamabad or Jerusalem with the same spirit of yindyamarra that I find on my own Country. It’s what whiteness has failed to find — with all the gifts of modernity, we’ve become so untethered and alienated from yindyamarra. It is a beautiful and fragile gift from the Wiradjuri people to the world.”

For many of us, Grant’s book will be uncomfortable and difficult reading. In part, because it is always a challenge to look our history in the face and hold our own. But also because we have always been complicit in, and benefited by, the dispossession and genocide of First Nations peoples. We have all, at one time in our lives, bent a knee to the Crown — to that iron fist that weighs on the souls of Indigenous people across the world. Grant said to me that his goal in writing The Queen is Dead was to “disappear.” To become insignificant, and vanish into the world he has woven with his words. And yet, there is a need for all of us to make ourselves significant in this conversation. By asserting ourselves, particularly as First Nations people, we rail against the crushing force of whiteness and empire which was upheld by the steadfast Queen Elizabeth II, and now rests upon the head of her son.

The White Queen is dead. May she be the last White Queen.

Stan will be speaking at the Sydney Writers’ Festival at Carriageworks in Eveleigh. He will be in conversation at Stan Grant: The Queen is Dead, at 1pm on Friday 26 May; in panel at Coffee & Headlines with the Saturday Paper, at 8:30am on Saturday 27 May; and in conversation at Reckoning, Not Reconciliation, at 2pm on Sunday 28 May. He will also be speaking at PHIVE in Parramatta, for Stan Grant: The Queen is Dead, at 5pm on Saturday 27 May.