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Searching for Australian identity

By Tony Smith - posted Monday, 2 July 2012


As individuals we become more interested in genealogy as we mature. The same probably applies to us collectively. Now that the baby boomer generation is the time to research its ancestry, there is likely to be a growth in the industry. Hopefully, stories relaying the backgrounds of Australians will be more meaningful than dubious tales about celebrities wondering who they are. The more that genuine stories of 'ordinary' Australians find a public voice, the better.

There are a few reasons why we are fascinated by the life stories of others. First, the lives of other Australians, regardless of ethnic background, place of origin or recency of arrival, make up the story of this nation. Second, in many cases there are common themes. Third, even where there is great distance between their stories and ours, parallels of experience make us nod our heads and feel comfortable about our own lives.

Both Patti Miller and Ann Nugent have written books about their ancestries. While both try to understand their formative influences, the stories differ markedly in subject matter and style. Ann Nugent searches for the history of her paternal grandmother, Anne Hutcheson (1863-1934). The story gives insight into the experiences of women who braved the hazards of a nineteenth century ocean voyage to begin a new life in Queensland. Patti Miller ponders her relationship to the land in Central West New South Wales, with questions centring on the sense of belonging felt by local Wiradjuri people, especially those around the town of Wellington. Nugent always knew that she carried the genes whose earlier manifestation in Annie she sought to describe. Miller was stunned to be recognised as kin by some Aboriginal 'Aunties' and was told that "The whitefellas and the blackfellas have two different stories about who's related to who in this town."

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Where possible, both Miller and Nugent trace documents to tell their stories. Miller reproduces entries from missionaries' diaries to give some understanding of the views held by newcomers towards the Wiradjuri people and how these views determined the ways that the local people were treated. Nugent provides pictorial evidence in photographs, headstones, wedding records and newspaper articles. While she speaks to people who could speculate about the way life may have been in London's slums, Townsville or outback Winton, her approach differs markedly from Miller's. Aboriginal people have an oral tradition and so Miller took great pains to gain the confidence of those with the knowledge she sought, and to faithfully reproduce their conversations.

A common theme underlying the works is conflict, which was discovered in Winton and in Wellington. Nugent's grandparents experienced western Queensland in the tumultuous 1990s. During an economic downturn, shearers resisted attempts by landowners to reduce their wages. Relations grew so tense that there were fears of a violent incident to rival the bloodshed of the Eureka Stockade in the 1850s. Both our best known song and our largest political party had their origins there and then. 'Waltzing Matilda' relates the fate of a man who was hunted down following the burning of a local woolshed. The Australian Labor Party formed because working class people realised that unions alone could not guarantee their rights.

Miller's curiosity was aroused by the pioneering land rights claim over the Wellington common in the 1990s. Although the claim had been settled by state legislation, Miller found that some local Aboriginal people believed it had been granted to an inappropriate group. Eventually, in the post-Mabo climate, the terms of the claim were changed. Miller treats this conflict with great care and balance, noting that as a child she did not realise she was growing up on Wiradjuri land. Most Australians, except for very recent generations, did not know that our homes, schools and playing fields were on Aboriginal land. Miller's search has affected her deeply.

Both Miller and Nugent are courageous in their use of the authorial first person. They employ the only honest approach in writing about such subjective matters by writing themselves into the story. Miller, who teaches writing, has a light touch that establishes the integrity of her interview material. Nugent, an editor of literary journals, records her emotions poetically. In most chapters she expresses her reaction to being in places that had been significant to her grandmother: "Behind her the mangroves suck and wheeze. She does not care. Her feet are on the ground."

There is something spiritual about walking with our ancestors. Even where we have material evidence such as a teapot or a photograph, we stare at these artefacts in the hope of intuiting something about the people we resemble. If we have anything in common with these people who lived before us, we want to locate it because this is the essence of our own identities. Ann Nugent concludes that she would feel safe if her final resting place were in the dry western soils near Annie. Patti Miller continually foregrounds the Aboriginal connection to the land and the spirituality of place. While each book has a seemingly narrow focus, both works are welcome additions to the literature around yearning to belong in Australia.

Patti Miller The Mind of a Thief (UQP) Pb 294pp. ISBN 978-0-7022-4936-5 & Ann Nugent Leaving the Rest Behind (Self published) Pb 117pp. ISBN 978-0-646-55340-5.

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About the Author

Dr Tony Smith is a writer living in country New South Wales. He holds a PhD in political science and has had articles and reviews published in various newspapers, periodicals and journals. He contributed a poem 'Evil equations' to an anthology of anti-war poems delivered to the Prime Minister on the eve of war.

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