EACH DAY AT sunset I sit on my fourth-storey balcony in Oman and look out over the pastel-pink town, waiting for the pigeons. They always come at the same time, a huge flock of them weaving deftly through the sky, each brisk turn harmonious, and perch on the concrete rooftop of a distant building, waiting to be fed.
An Omani man – let’s call him Ishmael – opens the small gates of the rooftop roost and his birds flutter in, the gate closing just as the call to prayer, issued from numerous mosques, ushers evening into the streets.
There’s a disabled boy (cerebral palsy?) living across the street from my apartment block, two streets away from Ishmael’s house. The boy’s house sits next to a vacant dirt block where, of an evening, the local kids play soccer. They don’t let the boy play, though – they throw rocks at him and shout words in Arabic that I don’t understand. Every night this happens, and he just stands there, deflecting stones with his long white robe, glancing up at the pigeons. Hours later, back within the high outer walls of his compound, alone, he will pace back and forth, screaming, until one of the women of the house (his mother?) will walk out, hastily adjusting her headscarf (because she knows I can see), and drag him back inside where his screams will cede to slow, rhythmic grunts, their bass amplified by another layer of mudbrick.
Maybe the disabled boy is Ishmael’s abandoned son? I wonder. Maybe Ishmael took a new wife, moved down the road, and now, the guilt like…like a pool of quicksand, he releases birds into the sky, hoping his son will see and, in doing so, cast a rope down to redeem him? Is that it? And so I sit, watching and writing, in my rendered cement-and-steel tower in the Omani desert, wondering if maybe, finally, I have inhabited the other.
The short answer is: no, probably not. But a better question: why do I want to? Here is the long answer.
I WAS BORN on Palm Island.
That’s a lie. My brother and sister were, and I lived there from the age of one to six, but I wasn’t born there. I tell people I was though, when the occasion suits, which is often. I was born in Gosford, but I identify as someone born on an Aboriginal island in Far North Queensland – the most violent place in the world, according to The Guinness Book of Records 1999. Whiteness, for me, was never enough. I wanted blackness. I wanted the dark and primitive subaltern soul.
I wanted tougher feet. I watched your feet glide barefoot over the glass shards stuck in the summer tarmac melt, dodge the corry-iron jagging through the spinifex. I watched your rheumy hands, strangely ghostly, threading ganghooks down the jetty. I looked at my own hands, trembling and bleeding, and cursed the inferior white skin that marked my limbs as pussies. We maybe stole a bike that night; at least you did – I already had a bike at home. Maybe you stole my bike.
The big, white house off Mango Ave.
‘Iced tea anyone?’
‘Oh, it’s so dreadfully hot!’
Mum would be sewing on the veranda, Dad hosing the blood out of the boat, the nurses in the flats next door counting the days until they could leave. I’d be counting the catch: four trout, two mackerel and one wild goat, the guts of each sticky on Dad’s hands. Not bad for a weekend on neighbouring Curacoa Island, where Dad shot goats while I shot beer cans, then fishing on the way home. ‘We eat well this week!’ Like we ever didn’t.
We are saltwater people, freshwater people, island people, forest people,
And I was one of your mob. I took your rivers, your fish, your kids and your culture, and now I want your skin. Nothing for me to feel bad about: I am you. You are my Lacanian mirror – it is you who makes me real.
But I was only five. The late-night screams from down the canteen – the ‘fuck you cunts’ and sirens; the smashing bottles and cyclone warnings – these were all just sounds to me, as ubiquitous as the hollow knocking of a boat moored to the jetty. I’d be out with you fellas throwing rocks at wild horses, setting traps for ghost dogs, pushing tyres into the aquamarine, diesel-scented Pacific. I wasn’t thinking about race, let alone Lacan. The holidays were ending and we still hadn’t caught the ghost dog. My parents said that it wasn’t real, that it was just a legend. I argued back: ‘That don’t mean it won’t get ya.’
But the dog outwitted us. Some say Tommy killed it down by the cemetery, others that it hopped the barge to Townsville. Or maybe my parents were right. Either way, it hasn’t stopped me from writing about it ad nauseam. Primary school, high school, university, now: my amateur oeuvre reads like a highfalutin’ manual for the trapping of spirits.
No man is an island but if I were, I would be Palm. In those few infant years the air was thick with stories – the historic woven through with the personal, the mythic conversing with the real. Nearby, Fantome Island – once a leper colony and burial ground – was for us a nice camping spot where, at low tide, we could see the antennae of crayfish spindling the water’s surface. There was the plane wreck at Pencil Bay inside which we sat and, in the absence of explanation, ascribed the wreck childish catastrophes, filling its rusted fuselage with demons and ghosts, daring each other to stay after dark, each of us knowing that we wouldn’t because that was when they got ya. ‘Youse heard what happened to Ricky?’ We’d heard, all right. The ghosts got ’im. ‘Um-ma, dem deadly.’
And there was the real. Stories of madness and abuse and institutionalised terror – all in the name of ‘protection’ – so extreme as to make our gothic adventures seem like fairy tales. But I didn’t know those stories then; I only knew them as the island’s myths, which, of course, the real had formed, like the refraction of heated air forms a desert mirage. The mirage stayed with me. If only I could’ve grasped it, reversed the osmosis, I would’ve, perhaps, seen things as they were; instead, the mirage concealed more than it illuminated, hid that which formed it.
Much later, as I watched the Cameron Doomadgee death-in-custody case unfold from my rented Queenslander in Brisbane, it struck me how little I’d understood anything about Palm Island. I left when I was six, but that small amount of time had formed such a disproportionately large part of my biography, my identity, that it shocked me how little I knew about the reality of the place that made me. But could I have known? Had I been older? Could I have understood the very real fear that produced that island of ghosts? It wasn’t my fear, it was yours – there was little chance I’d be locked up and bashed to death for swearing. My fear was in the plane wreck, the ghost dog, the mirage, and it was on those myths that I hung my identity, safe from the perils of the real. Without direct experience of your lives – the bruised and battered, the black – maybe I can never really know anything about life on Palm Island? I can relate the experience of an outsider, a child, but never inhabit the place as you did. But that’s not it, not entirely. Solipsism does not a happy coloniser make.
WE ARE FRESHWATER people.
My family moved to an area called Invergowrie, which sat right atop the Great Dividing Range, twenty kilometres west of Armidale, NSW. My dad had cleared the stringy-barks ready for our arrival. Amid the black snakes and bushfires, the ‘droughts and flooding rains’, we etched out our home. The dams were dry and there was nowhere to fish. Instead, we hunted the blackberries that were scrawled across the farmland as if by an angry child, spreading like fire under fences, hiding snakes and rabbits among their thorns. Years later during high school, on my mate’s property down the road, we would get paid ten bucks an hour to spray the blackberries which, by now, had begun to swallow up large swathes of land. We’d shoot ’roos at night with my mate’s .22 and bash rabbits to death with sticks. We’d then get back in the tray of the ute, tap the roof twice, and sip Bundy from the bottle on the way back to the homestead.
We are forest people.
Our relationship to the land was that it was something to be used, moved over, grimly tolerated or fought against. We’d have picnics at the pine forest, smoke cones out at Booroolong Creek – but there was never any question of symbiosis. Our bitter dispute with the land was ameliorated by the fact that we owned it. The blackfellas at school, your mob, didn’t own fuck all. And if you did own anything, a new Commodore maybe, it was with scorn that the whites stared – ‘bloody boongs and their handouts’. Being black here, I quickly learnt, didn’t mean strong feet and agility, it meant not being white, which came with a whole host of other consequences that seemed predicated on the one fact that, beforehand, I had so enviously coveted. So I became white. Not that your lot would have me anyway. In place of a rich, recently troubled history, in place of tough feet and community, in place of Dreaming and country, I was given something not to be scoffed at: the run of society. But couldn’t I have both? Only through philosophy and the arts, I would later discover, was there the possibility of unity.
I was born in an Aboriginal country, therefore I must be considered Aboriginal.
All through school something pulled me back to blackness, to the mythology and history, to the stories, but then, after puberty, it became apparent that it wasn’t necessarily blackness I was pulled towards, but difference.
THE MORE YOU celebrate difference, the more you seek it out. I found it in late-night episodes of Queer as Folk, followed by my footy-field admission the next day that they ‘really nailed that shower scene’. To admire the artistry of two men fucking in the shower didn’t make me gay, I declared. My friends didn’t find that argument convincing. But I wasn’t gay. I liked Allen Ginsberg, that was all. There was a certain poetry to homosexuality; one which seemed far removed from our scrum practices and smokes behind the cricket nets. Later, after finishing high school and moving to Brisbane, I hopped between the city’s gay clubs, soaring with the angel-headed hipsters of Fortitude Valley, getting close enough to feel men’s stubble against my cheek, only to go home and snuggle up to the missus – by then, I had admitted that I wasn’t gay, I’d come in, but that didn’t stop me from acquiring what little tidbits of gay culture appealed to me. I was rapacious. Unquenchable. I found, in Brisbane’s club and rave scene, places where the difference between me and the other dissolved into a never ending feast of acronyms – MDMA, K, LSD. But that was just the weekends.
During the week, shit got theoretical. In Brisbane, I went to university. Arts. This was my first encounter with the term ‘other’. Anyone who’s been within earshot of a humanities department in the last thirty years has heard the term. Like the call to prayer through my window now, it rings out triumphantly, proclaiming the others’ virtue then, by some act of inverse transference, blessing with the same virtue the person who’d uttered it – and the effect was magically multiplied if the word ‘narrative’ appeared nearby. I was taught to respect the other, to revere the other and, shock horror, to represent the other. After all, the author wasn’t important – he’d died in twentieth-century France – so the value in a work was to be found only in the work itself. Of course, I lapped this up: here was my chance – finally, I could hide my white-manliness beneath a fictional mélange, a colourful veneer that both stoked my creativity and satisfied my humanitarian mission. My colonial project was complete.
The other corroborates him in his search for validation.
Finally, I was validated. To borrow, through representation, the other’s viewpoint, their character, their hopes and their fears, I was defining my own character, and doing it with little thought of responsibility. After all, mine was a humanitarian cause, a rope thrown from my tower to the unfortunates below, and whatever thrill or vindication I felt was my rightful entitlement. Fanon might ask me: ‘Do you have no inherent values of your own?’ I would answer: ‘What? Beyond helping you?’
A few times a year we’d head out to doofs in the hills around Maleny or down near Byron. There’d be dreamcatchers, drumming circles, smoking ceremonies, didgeridoos and tribal tattoos – now that our gods were dead, we were coming for yours. For us, the regalia of culture was something to be borrowed for the weekend, something to prop up our acid trips, to lend a kind of gauche authenticity to our secular metaphysics. We would stomp the ground barefoot to the trance of Israeli DJs, at festivals with names like ‘Rainbow Serpent’, celebrating our collective consciousness, hyper aware that, by Tuesday, we’d be more alone than ever. But you were never alone: we envied you that. You had your ancestors, your history, your community, your struggle. But we had your instruments. Through our appropriation of the aesthetics of your culture we were displaying our loyalty to your cause. Who were you to deny us this? We too needed a Spirit, a Dreaming – couldn’t we borrow yours?
Existence precedes essence.
Sartre told me I was free. Free to create my own identity, my own values, my own morality, and in doing so these values would emanate outwards, changing the system entirely. You are not your skin, your gender, your songlines, your country – your essence comes afterwards, based on your actions; you are a blank canvas, just like I am, upon which an identity must be eternally built.
So now can I play your bloody didg? Since, in doing so, I am helping to create a more virtuous world, free from the limiting constraints of such arbitrary notions as race, gender, and sexuality? What about class, you say? Well, I’ll tell you about class!
Afraid I was becoming a little pretentious, I dropped out of university and moved to Melbourne. Like that would help.
I got a job in a bottle shop, the main requirement of which was having a footy team to barrack for. Living near Collingwood, and being, of course, a revolutionary voice of you, the proletariat, I chose the Pies. Each day – in between stocking fridges and running deliveries to the workers at the docks – I would stand around talking footy with the battlers of Port Melbourne, all of whom were watching helplessly as their once working-class suburb was being rapaciously gentrified. I would read Bukowski or Carver on the tram ride home, sipping cheap bourbon from the bottle, and spend the weekends in dimly lit pubs, flitting between the footy and the pokie rooms, imagining my experience as not dissimilar to the recently paroled tapping for the jackpot, the junk-sick on Smith Street.
Every other Thursday I’d line up with you at Moreland Centrelink, topping up my pay. My bond was paid by emergency housing, my fridge on loan from the Salvos – on paper, I was a healthcare-card-carrying member of the lower classes, but only on paper. That’s not to say I wasn’t poor. But I was only poor in a fiscal sense. I could quote Sartre. I could play the system. Just like it’s said that the super-rich never have to pay for anything, the well-educated are the best at acquiring the benefits designed for those less fortunate. Case officers would see me as a welcome break in their shift: someone who wouldn’t swear at them; someone who’d filled out the forms correctly. ‘I used to write myself,’ they would say. ‘Best of luck out there. Anything else I can do for you today?’
Actually, there is. I’ll take the fridge.
But I was, as always, a tourist, my life little more than an ironic excursion through the lives of others. I could never really be black, gay or poor – just the fact that I wanted to be was beginning to seem repulsive – so I accepted, at the age of twenty-five, my position in society, and embraced the privileges it bestowed, assuming that, as long as I was conscious of this privilege, I was acting in good faith.
I travelled around Australia, reading French philosophers out the back of truck stops in the Pilbara, hoping their words rang true in such empty, anomalous places. I needed them to be true. I ended up working at a pub in Kununarra, far-north Western Australia. The pub had two bars: one for whitefellas, the other for your mob, called the Animal Bar. As cleaner, I was given access to both.
The Animal Bar only sold mid-strength beer and was never open for more than three hours at a time, but it was always the livelier of the two. The chairs were bolted into the cement, and the whole bar was washed daily with a high-pressure hose. Upon finding that the two bars were assigned different toilet paper, I made it my mission to always give your mob the triple ply and the whitefellas the single. You didn’t notice my deed, but that didn’t matter. My actions would emanate. After all, mine was a humanitarian mission – a (naive?) attempt at assuaging my guilt. But couldn’t there be something deeper? I knew I couldn’t be you, so I wanted to help you – even if you didn’t ask, notice or care – but in the process I was becoming more like you. I was rough and resilient, not attached to any specific place, but attached to place as a concept; fond of a drink and a good yarn, of footy and fishing. Through some kind of transmission, made possible by the continued experience of the aesthetics of your culture, I had somehow incorporated your diffuse character into my own. We’ve been telling your mob to become whiter for years, it was about time the process was reciprocated.
With the merging of the self and the environs, a particular form of human arrogance simply falls away.
But the arrogance remained. While you’re talking about country, I’m talking about you.
I WANTED MORE. I went back to university. I travelled. I sought out other cultures, other identities, like a wildlife smuggler travelling to distant lands, returning with only the best, the most valued, the most beautiful. I lived in Vietnam for five years and then moved to the Middle-East, where I sit now, watching the sun set over your sand dunes, choosing what to take.
We are desert people.
I’ll take your patience, resilience, and connection to land. And you – you fabulous hedonists – I’ll take your creative abandon and a dash of exquisite pretense; and from you, comrade, I’ll take an honest, stoic striving. These are all generalities, of course, but such are the ingredients of identities. (Aren’t they? Please?) If I choose, like Nietzsche did, the betterment of man as my overarching purpose – personified in his Übermensch – then I see, in our cultural pluralism, the perfect conditions for the Übermensch to arrive. But is this an honest answer? It has to be, because I’ve none other to give – and perhaps it’s in that very conundrum that my true identity lies: it is a yearning for justification, a displacement, a turmoil, about which the only true and fixed thing to be said is that it is privileged. If you asked my father who he was, he’d probably say: a teacher, Labor, Catholic, Australian. But a white man? ‘Well yeah, but that’s bloody obvious!’ And he’d ask: ‘What about goodness, honour, courage, fairness – aren’t they enough?’
Not for me. Traditional virtues lacked the cultural cachet I required. I was told I could be anything, but found that such choice prohibited being anything at all. Ah, the curse of whiteness!
We have our highest dignity in our significance as works of art. It’s only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence, and the world, are eternally justified.
Nietzsche’s words are like a life rope, pulling me from a pool of quicksand. I grasp at them, straining with all my power for something that might be true. Recovered, I look out over your pastel-pink town. A mirage shimmers over the distant dunes, from which appears the flock of pigeons. The mirage brings back memories of life on Palm Island and the ghost dog we never caught. I didn’t learn to see through the mirage, to reverse the osmosis. Instead, I chased it, never remaining in one place long enough to be a part of what created it. All I saw were stories, aesthetics. But philosophy saved me. Justified me. Ishmael and I are very different, but in our existence we are united. In our urge to create, to make others see us, to forgive us, to understand us – in this urge our difference dissolves into a resplendent flock of pigeons. So listen: when I’m watching you from my pastel-pink tower, sketching out our birds, I am doing so for something no less noble than the betterment of man.