31 – ‘Remembering Babylon’ by David Malouf

Am I Australian?

Technically, yes. I went through a very tedious ceremony a couple of years back (with my then-five-month-old daughter screaming through most of it), and I got my certfiicate, a photo with the mayor and a native plant which, although able to survive local conditions, was unable to survive complete neglect and is now quietly rotting somewhere in my garden.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I am as Australian as the people who were born here. I don’t have all the cultural and social background that they do. And compared to the aboriginal inhabitants of the land down under… Well, I don’t think they’d think much of my claim to being Australian. Anyway, what does that actually mean?

David Malouf, himself the son of immigrants, explores the idea of belonging and land in ‘Remembering Babylon’, a short book which briefly describes an event which takes place in 1860s North Queensland. Three children, playing on their property, see a figure approaching them and think that it is one of the natives. In fact, Gemmie, the man who has come out of the bush, is neither a ‘blackfella’ or one of the settlers; he was a ship’s boy who was abandoned in the north of Australia and then taken in by the aboriginal tribe that found him.

Gemmie is given shelter by the family of the children who found him, but the rest of the small community of settlers are, well, unsettled by the newcomer. Gradually, their fears overcome them, and when Gemmie receives a visit from his tribe one day, certain pople decide that enough is enough..

The settlers, many of them from Scotland, have left their lives in dirty, crowded conditions back home, to create a better life for themselves, something which they could never aspire to in Britain. In the expanses of Australia, far away from the state capital of Brisbane (which was itself, at the time, merely a small town), the new Australians feel threatened by the old Australians. Their attachment to the earth seems to threaten the stability of life for the farmers, who know that their land was, a matter of years ago, untamed and part of the unknown wilderness. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see it reverting to its prior state.

The Aborigines are shown as having a deep attachment to their land and an understanding of how to live on it (something we are shown through the eyes of Gemmie, who has become part of the tribe despite being a white man). However, the white settlers are shown to be no different to the natives, in that they too seem attached to their land. The McIvors often think about Scotland and the plants and landscapes they left behind (even the eldest daughter, Janet, who has never been there). Of the main characters of the novel, only Gemmie, who willingly abandons his British life, and Frazer, the local botany-obsessed vicar, appear to understand the importance of adapting to the alien land.

A story of long ago, and yet very, very relevant today. Almost 150 years on, the white population is not that much closer towards understanding the land they now live in and its traditional owners. In many parts of Australia, there is very little intermingling and co-existence, and the Aboriginal community is still comparatively disadvantaged today. However, the idea of conflict between new and old Australians is not limited to the issues of the 1860s. Ever since the first fleet arrived, people have been sailing to these shores to start a new life, not all of them from the preferred country of origin. Although the old White Australia policy, with accompanying language tests to keep ‘undesirables’ out, has long gone, many people are still concerned about outsiders (outside their culture, at least) affecting their lives. Recently, boats with people smugglers and refugees have begun to enter Australian waters again, forcing politicians and ordinary people alike to examine their beliefs on what makes you Australian and who should be allowed to enter our country.

Am I Australian? Yes, and so are all the people who have just arrived, who were born here, whose ancestors have been here for millennia. What does that mean? Well that’s a question for another day.

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