The writing of a story can be a cathartic process, and the event of having your writing published is akin to winning a Formula One Grand Prix or finishing a marathon…or so I’m told.
I’ve begun writing a novel on numerous occasions. I have attempted this by hand, computer and even, most recently, via a typewriter. I have tried so many times to put down story to paper because I believe I have a story to tell and that I have the skills and talents necessary to carry it out.
All this is fine for me. I could spend the next twenty years perfecting my story. At this point there is no extreme urgency to having my story told. Many white upper- and middle-class people see the writing and publication of their memoir as a rite of passage, and yet most of those are just creatively-told stories of more hegemony, more white privilege and more ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’ masculinity.
Is this really the purpose of telling a story?
Is it really about how one upholds the values of the ruling classes in a society set up to assist you in doing just that?
What if my story were different?
What if I had neither the skills nor the resources to tell a story that had the potential to change the world?
What if my story included the imperative of imminent death? How would that change my approach to having my story told?
In West Papua, such an imperative does exist. The Indigenous Papuans are in a war of independence with Indonesia, which claims sovereignty over West Papua, or Irian Jaya as they call it. There are currently Indonesian soldiers making their way through the mountains, killing Papuan men and having their photographs taken with the corpses of their victims. Villages are razed to the ground, crops destroyed and people scattered into the forest to seek shelter.
This type of action against the Papuan peoples has been happening since the Act of Free Choice in 1969 when, according to the Indonesian Government, the West Papuan people decided to give up their sovereignty to become Indonesian citizens. In reality, 1025 men were selected by the Indonesian Army, brought to Jaya Pura (the capital) and asked for a show of hands as to who agreed to cede sovereignty to Indonesia. This vote was performed in front of United Nations staff, but also in front of the armed soldiers who had hand-picked the men.
At the University of Canberra, a world away from the highlands of West Papua, I took a class titled ‘Providing Positive Learning Environments’ where two of the key ideas presented were around happiness and empathy. The argument from the lecturer, Dr Thomas Nielsen, was that a teacher can encourage the human quality of empathy to grow in a student by providing opportunities for the student to feel empathy.
While still holding the office of Prime Minister, Julia Gillard was asked to take a trip to Manus Island to inspect the Refugee Processing Centre there. The hope was that the trip, and the experience of meeting with some of the people attempting to have their refugee status recognised, might encourage empathy on her part for the people living there and the conditions in which they are living.
Last year, I was reading through some of the submissions that were made to the Inquest into the Stolen Generations. I could not have stopped the tears that flowed had I wanted to. The intense pain and disconnection of the authors from their families and communities was self-evident. And I wondered how it was that the people carrying out these acts against the children and families could not see, even in the moment of the act, that their actions were cruel or mean or hurtful or meant to cause harm.
How is it that people are so blinded by belief that they fail to experience the grief of the person upon whom their harmful acts are perpetrated?
And then I was reminded of my childhood. I was a member of a family who took in a foster child and I remembered my cruelty towards my ‘brother’ and towards my own sister at that time. I remembered making my brother stand directly in front of me to apologise (for what, I cannot recall) before punching him in the face. I remembered threatening to kill my sister’s rabbit while my parents were both at work when I, an eleven or twelve-year-old, was left to supervise the household.
I thought that if I could remember – if I could reach into the depths of my soul and pull out an explanation for what it was that caused such hatred – I would be better able to understand the hatred of others.
I cannot explain my actions.
There is no rational way to tell the ‘whys and the wherefores’ of those times. Instead, I wonder now whether the people who were involved in perpetrating the ‘stolen’ part of the stolen generation (those who are still alive) feel the depths of guilt that I have felt over my childhood cruelty, and the pain and shame of their actions, just as I have. I wonder when those Indonesian soldiers return to their homes in Java or Sumatra, return to the homes of their mothers and fathers and wives and children, do they remember their acts with shame or with pride?
Through my acts of hatred towards ‘the intruder’ in my home, the one to whom I should best have been showing hospitality, the one who had already been so deeply injured by his experiences, I took away his chance to have his story heard. I deprived him of his past and inflicted further pain.
In a similar vein to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay has put together a list of ten things that all humans need. Mackay suggests that the one, basic human desire connected to all the other nine is the desire to be taken seriously. That is, each of us is driven by the desire to have someone take notice of us and to acknowledge us as valuable human beings.
If Mackay is right, every act that seeks to belittle, humiliate or subordinate another is an act against that person’s basic human desires. Those acts, then, are also probably in contravention of the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights.
In her article, Human Rights: Minimum and Maximum Perspectives, Professor Eva Brems posits that governments are aiming just above the minimum standard, or ‘borderline’ between abuse and non-abuse, when it comes to human rights. Her reasoning behind this is that there is more benefit to not being responsible for human rights abuses than there is in achieving high standards of human rights.
Even by this standard, that borderline is fuzzy. It must be interpreted according to the ‘restriction clauses’ that relate to each part of the Declaration. And it is the state that is most often left to do the interpreting, against its own laws.
This, then, is a new story to tell.
We should be championing the states that achieve higher standards. In Australia, though, that is not the way things are done. Any time an inmate in a prison gets a television, the press goes into a frenzy and the telephone lines light up on the talk-back radio shows with people decrying the unfair state of things. How much more anger and angst would there be if an asylum seeker were to not be held behind barbed wire?
What benefit is there for any government to aim higher?
So, it is towards that fuzzy line that they plunge in an attempt to be seen to be ‘doing something’ to ‘stop the boats’.
Coming back to the story, what right do I, a white middle-class male in a wealthy country with a roof over my head and three meals a day on the table have to tell my own story or blow my own trumpet? Should I not, rather, seek out the stories of those who have no way of communicating stories themselves?
But wait. There is another way.
If the telling of stories has the possibility to encourage empathy in those who hear or read them, then can we not write stories that seek to achieve this aim? We can write the stories of those who come as refugees to our country, as Glenda Millard has done in her Kingdom of Silk books that portray a family who live above the ‘Colour Patch Café’. They have come from a country where war has made it untenable for them to remain. Although they are not the central figures of the books, one of the series presents the way that the small community of ‘Cameron’s Creek’ welcomes the family and makes its own stand for peace.
We can create picture books that tell of neighbourhoods that work together to build communities, like Bob Graham’s A Bus Called Heaven, where a couple of guys doing graffiti are co-opted into the recovery of a bus left abandoned in the street. Or Liliana Stafford’s Amelia Ellicott’s Garden, where the inhabitants of a block of flats helps an elderly lady recover her garden after a storm. People of different races, religions and backgrounds are brought together in pictures of peace and harmony that give hope that hatred and war do not have to be the answers to difference and lack of understanding.
These books show us the possibilities of acting to search out events that reach the heights of human dignity rather than trying to scrape the bottom of the barrel.
They each tell of characters who take the chances they are given to bring people together.
They each tell of moments of choice and chances to break down walls that keep people apart.
They each tell of healing past hurts rather than exacerbated wounds.
So…this is who I will be.
A lifter of spirits, builder of communities and teller of the stories of those who have not been allowed their own voices.
And there is an urgency about the telling of these stories because who can tell when a story can change a heart, encourage peace or save a life.
Who knows when a story I write might be the last story a person tells.
Time to start work.