This is an open story, it is in process. The process is a bit like path, and I’m not entirely sure where it’s leading. Along this path I think about family, identity, refugee week and reconcilliation week. These things converged. They got tangled. They probably could do with an extra tidy up, but here we are. Let’s walk down the path.
I’ve been sitting with some thoughts. Walking with them. I don’t know what to do with the thoughts. I write them. I worry about them. If I share them, am I clouding space that should be free for other voices.
“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at risk of having it bruised or misunderstood” [i]
A little while ago I finally got my hands and eyes on a collection of words by Audre Lorde. And now I’m thinking about words and silence. I come to Lorde late. I come to her via Sara Ahmed. So, I thank Sara for her commitment to wilfully reference women.
“I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you” [ii]
I attended an online rally tonight, hosted by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. The words of a man in detention in Brisbane came directly to me, as I sat safely at my desk. 7 years ago, I knocked at your door. I feel so broken because I don’t have the authority to open the door. I can write. I can petition, pester, pray, post on Facebook. I wish I could open the door.
It is currently refugee week. Before that it was reconciliation week. I sit in my room and stretch my mind back to the 21st of January 2020. I’m attending a session at theAnglican Deaconess Ministries summer school called ‘How to take the Aboriginal Hand of Friendship.’ It’s led by Brooke Prentis, Waka Waka woman. Now the CEO of Common Grace. On the floor behind me is an AIATSIS map of this place now called Australia. I realise I’ve never really looked at it. Absorbed it. Thought about what this map might teach me. I’ve come to this late. In the middle of this session she asked us to group together and ask each other to tell our stories, but not in terms of our jobs or where we study, but in terms of people. Who are your people? Where are they from? Not as accusation, but an invitation to know someone. Brooke suggests that we see reconciliation as friendship.
I’ve spent some time trying to re-inhabit a family story. Three of my grandparents were born in Eastern Europe and migrated here, to – as Brooke says – these lands now called Australia. I have become comfortable now, claiming my three migrant grandparents. A Polish man. Two German-speaking Jews. Once they were in Sydney, one of them, Edith, but we didn’t call her that, named her sons – my father and his brother – after local Christian churches. Their birth certificates state their religion. Jewish. But Edith has crossed it out. She’s written the word ‘Christian’. My grandfather – her husband – changed his name. Got rid of the umlauts. And that is why my name is not Schrötter.
I’m 17. I spend the year creating a giant artwork for my HSC that I eventually call ‘More than an XX’. It’s two large panels, each with a collage of family photos arranged into the shape of an X. I accompany this with two horizontal boards that contain pictures of me alongside clippings from magazines, photos of celebrities, covers of Baby Sitters Club books, my friends, my church youth group, an ad for subzero. I think that I’m trying to work out how to collage phenotype and environmental influences. I’m actually curating the performance of my identity.
I throw out my HSC artworks. I’m 35.
2nd July 2020 ‘Alas for the times’…
In my bookshelf there is a book called I have not seen a Butterfly around here. It is a collection of poems and pictures by Jewish children in Terezín. I go and get in and flick through it for the first time in years. I wish I could remember clearly, that day, in Prague, 10 years ago when I bought it, when we found the names of Edith’s family on the wall of the Synagogue.
The Old House
The old house stands here forsaken,
In silence, in slumber.
How beautiful this house was once
How beautiful then, standing here.
It is forsaken,
mouldering in silence
Alas for the house!
Alas for the times.
Franta Bass. 4/9/1930 -28/10/1944[iii]
18th June 2020
I remember grumpy me, 10 years old, 12 years old, 15 years old. Not understanding multiculturalism. Not feeling like I had a culture. Feeling angry at something I couldn’t define. Feeling frustrated that I had no food to offer at those picnics they host in primary school, because culture and difference is reduced to food. Bite sized. Easy to swallow difference. Not having the words to say or to see that I had so easily and uncritically slid into the norm. That I was the norm.
I have become comfortable claiming three migrant grandparents. Sometimes, I want to make a big deal of them, pretend I’m somehow less White, because somewhere at some point there were two migrant Jews who came by boat. That somehow this might excuse me from Australia’s colonial past. Except that I just get to be ‘Australian.’ No hyphens. I’m never Czech-Australian or Austrian-Australian or Polish-Australian. I just get to be. I get to be and live this life, on this land, that was, and is somebody else’s land, because I benefit from being White.
And I go to church, so I would feel like an imposter if I said I was Jewish-Australian
And obviously I have four grandparents.
I have to own up to the fact that grandparent four is descended from British colonisers. How joyously little me used to declare the absence of convict ancestors, as though that meant something. As though it was an achievement to be related to the man who built the road over the Blue Mountains, except he didn’t build it, he didn’t do the work. But he did other work. How much I wish little me had understood more. Understood more sooner. I have come to this late. I’m sorry.
A cousin sends me a message on Facebook. I notice you’re raising good questions about Lachlan Macquarie, he says. We should also be looking into what our ancestor, Macquarie’s acquaintance did.
The thing is, when you do something very public, like, for instance ‘build’ the road over the Blue Mountains, you don’t get to disappear namelessly, do you William Cox. William Cox built a road. He built a road through Dharug Country. He made it possible for British people to mercilessly tear through Dharug Country and then invade Wiradjuri country too. Possible. Easy. I have to accept that. I have to do something with that.
I also have to say, this is who my people are. All four of my grandparents are my people.
2nd July 2020
So many doors were opened to them and now to me. Some willingly, some reluctantly. (Of course, there are closed doors too, and they account for my being here as much as the open ones)
And Brooke has asked me, and so many others, to take the Aboriginal hand of Friendship.
I don’t know where the path goes now…
[i] Lorde 2007 , ‘Poetry is not a luxury’ in Sister Outsider, Penguin Classics, p.29
[ii] Lorde, A 2007 , ‘Poetry is not a luxury’ in Sister Outsider, Penguin Classics, p. 30
[iii] Volavková, H (Ed) 1993 . I have not seen a butterfly around here: Children’s drawing and poems from Terezín. The Jewish Museum, Prague.