When I was eleven, I saw my younger brother fight his first fight. It was 1994, and we’d been home in Australia for six months. He sat straddling the boy’s back, pounding his head into the granitic sand. I don’t remember any sound, just the exhaustion in my brother’s face, and the gritty slide of the granitic sand as I ran.
We were Australian. We were more Australian than anyone else I knew. We’d sung the Vegemite song for centimes on the narrow village schoolyards of the south of France, heartland of Le Front National. We’d struggled to hold on to our Australianness in the freezing, down-at-heel villages of the Welsh English border, where electricity was still modern. Australia was a mythic place of long hot tarmac roads and thundering storms, of burning eucalyptus and space. It was home.
Even when we’d spent so long away that we’d forgotten our own language, when we’d sit crying on the floor, not being able to remember the name of the loose, threadbare cotton things we held in our hands that you had to put on your foot before you put on your shoe—chaussette, chaussette—we were ‘the Australians’. And we were always outsiders.
Many months before, thousands of kilometres away, we’d packed our most precious possessions into suitcases that we’d put into the roof of the house before we departed. We told each other stories about them constantly, and their magical contents. The memory of those suitcases was everything to us. They were Australia.
We talk about Australia all the time, as if it’s eternal, enduring. We think we’ll know it when we see it. But we don’t. We can’t agree on whether the nation is a product of modernity, of industrialism, or if it’s linked to an ethnie, and reaches back into the mists of time; whether it’s inevitable or contingent; whether it’s an expression from the bottom or an imposition from the top. If it’s all of these things, or nothing.
Tired claims are often made by commentators who distinguish between an ‘ethnic’ eastern idea of nation and a ‘civic’ western idea of nation, but the reality is that 90 percent of the world’s states are poly-ethnic, and the claims they use to legitimate themselves change from one decade to the next. All nation-states are crazy attempts to solder a binding story onto exploding structures. No state elides perfectly with its assumed ‘nation’. Ask any one of the world’s twelve million officially stateless people, who all know very well that the nation is something the state uses to staple itself to the land with bitumen and blood.
All through my growing up, and in the years I spent as an expatriate in my early twenties, people would ask me ‘what are Australians like?’ What they wanted to know was: Are you a cheese-eating surrender monkey, like the French? Do you like your guns loud, like the Yanks? What are the myths you build your future on? What is inside the suitcase in your attic, growing crisp and hot in the long summers? What is an Australian?
It’s an interesting trick. Do it. Imagine an Australian.
There. Now, who did you imagine? It was most likely a man, a digger, slouch hat, larrikin grin. If you’re more outback-minded it might’ve be a bushranger, or an early settler. If you’re totes modern, a football player.
All of these images might be a truth, but they’re not ‘the’ truth. They’re single stories that obscure and mystify, and sometimes downright lie. To shut us up, and stick us down. The shattering experience of the First World War has been revived and thrown in with every other war Australia has fought, to the degree that ANZAC day has become a celebration of nation rather than a commemoration of tragedy. It didn’t happen ‘naturally.’ Paul Keating did it. On purpose, in 1995, when he revived a flagging ANZAC day through the mammoth spectacular of the national ‘Australia Remembers’ campaign.
Likewise, we’re not bushrangers anymore. Over two thirds of Australians live in major cities: we’re one of the most urbanised countries in the world. And Australia’s most popularly played sport? According to the latest national sports census it’s not AFL; it’s netball. Chiefly a women’s sport. So when you imagine sport in Australia, you should be imagining women on a suburban netball court, with a cheering audience of ten. But in spite of all this, chances are the mythical Australian who just flashed through your head isn’t a woman, isn’t urban, isn’t of Asian or African descent, and definitely isn’t a conscientious objector.
‘Australian’ is a trope. A symbol of something else, a story. And so is ‘Australia’. This place that is so important to us that we have laid down our lives for it, this place from which we have pushed people away and stood silent as they drowned. When we talk of Australia, the ‘idea’ we come from, not the place, it risks becoming so emotionally fraught that we forget this one key fact: we’re imagining it. We’re imagining Australia.
© Ruby J Murray