Your first book tells the story of your six-month trip through the outback. Why did you decide to make this journey at this point in your life, and why was it important for you to write about it?
Like many people, as I got older I discovered I valued the past more, in particular my personal past: the story, culture and traditions of my family and the country, or countries, from which I derive. It was while I was “reconnecting to my roots” in China, I had this absurd realisation that I knew next to nothing about another set of my cultural roots: Australia. As I write about in the book, I realised I couldn’t name a single Indigenous Australian nation—yet I could name dozens of Chinese minority groups. Australia had been home to rich cultural diversity for tens of thousands of years, but I had failed to go looking for it.
I don’t know if it was “important” I write about the journey. Only, that I felt I had experienced something unique and worth sharing, and I was eager to tackle the challenge posed by writing a book. Also, in much of the book I uncover a multiculturalism to Australia’s colonial history that has been swept to the corners of our national story. As a Chinese Australian, albeit from more recent stock, I felt I was an appropriate narrator to “reclaim” this past and restore its centrality. And as someone who falls outside of the blackfella-whitefella binary I might be able to provide an unusual lens through which to view Australian colonialism.
The title, ‘Stranger Country’ appears to be very apt, as the book details things about Australia that are unexpected, foreign, unfamiliar or contradictory. It also tells of encounters with people—strangers—that you met. Can you tell us a little bit about the title and why you chose it?
Your question hits the nail on the head as to why this title but I can expand a little on the former. All non-Indigenous Australians, even those that derive from convict blood, are relatively new to this continent. And that newness sits in direct contrast to the utterly remarkable ancient connection to country Indigenous Australia has. One of central questions of my book is enunciating that contrast and also posing the question: how do we non-Indigenous Australians learn to really call this continent home? Will we ever be anything but strangers to the land?
As a Chinese Australian, you write of being afraid that you would never love anything the way Aboriginals loved and knew their country. How did this fear evolve over the course of your trip?
Love, I realised, is a state of being that emerges from a practise. You develop love through intimacy, truth-telling and truth-listening, custodianship, and the simple act of being together: hiking, fishing, birdwatching, camping, breathing, smelling, touching, eating Country. I was very lucky to travel to places all over Australia where the traditional custodians I met were generous with their time and their willingness to share aspects of their Country with me. I was able to see that although I would never experience Country as they do, and I could never have the depth and intimacy of connection to country as they do, loving Country was not only an action accessible to all living beings but that it was important to do so.
Before the trip, you were a journalist at The Guardian. How did that job prepare you for the experience of investigating Australia’s history, landscape and people?
As a journalist I was given the privilege to be paid to travel and interview all sorts of remarkable Australians with great knowledge and insight into this country. I look back at my two years with The Guardian with some amazement at the history I bore witness to: for example, one week in 2015, I hopped on the Fiftieth Anniversary Freedom Ride through regional New South Wales interviewing the original Riders and the Indigenous Australians who took part in radical demonstrations of decolonialisation and desegregation in 1965.
At the start of the book, you question where you belong in Australia as a Chinese Australian and as a non-Indigenous Australian. Did the trip make you re-evaluate your sense of belonging?
The trip helped me separate in my mind Australia from the continent: to the point that by the end of the book I was calling our country “Project Australia”. Doing so implies that we are a work-in-progress, or under construction. Central to our coming-of-age will be treaties or some similar arrangements, and the “truth-telling” as called for in the Uluru Statement. Until then we will continue to struggle to reconcile to the land, its First Peoples, and the culture, spirituality and history infused with the land. By the end of the book I saw that as a card-carrying member of “Project Australia”, I have a responsibility (as all Australians do) to contribute to reconciliation.
You mention in the book that you felt closer to the country having faced its past. What did you learn about Australia’s history by going on this adventure?
If the nation was a puzzle box, the picture on the cover was of a fair-skinned, blue-eyed pioneer crouched over a boiling billy and a horse grazing nearby, the downtrodden Drover’s Wife, the loyal and brave digger, the sun bronzed lifesaver and cheeky, beer-swilling larrikin. But over the 30,000km I journeyed through the Outback, encounters with the reality of our history kept revealing to me a different Australia: in Gulgong, NSW I learned of suffragette Louisa Lawson and how Australia was one of the first in the world to give white women the vote; Australia has been one of the most urbanised countries in the world since Federation; Australia has been multicultural as long as it has been colonial.
I now have a remarkably different picture of Australia; one much richer, more complex and more diverse, than the one dominating our national storytelling.
During the trip you took up bird watching, and spotted many species on your travels. Can you tell us about this pastime and how it featured on your journey?
You are never alone when you have books or birds. It may not come across in the book, but throughout my six months on the road I went long stretches without substantial human company. As a consequence, I paid more attention to the natural world and became more attuned to it. Australia has some of the most incredible birds in the world and after buying a set of binoculars and Michael Morcombe’s comprehensive Field Guide to Australian Birds in Alice Springs, I began to get to know our avian friends rather well. Birdspotting or “twitching” is a pretty nerdy hobby, a bit like collecting comic books. You’re always trying to complete your set; and you get a special thrill from finding a rare one.
You teach Australian Studies at Western Sydney University College. How did your travels inform the way you teach the history and culture of Australia?
I strongly identify with my students: like them, I don’t think the Australian school system equipped me to really understand what happened during colonialism, nor familiarise myself with the richness and complexity of Indigenous Australia. I used to find Australian history boring. My trip (as well my work at The Guardian and research I did for the book), showed me otherwise, and it’s a pleasure to share that with my students. I regularly get feedback from my students that my classes are engaging and it seems to illustrate to me that contrary to popular opinion, our story is fascinating. If only we told it better, and more truthfully.
You can purchase Stranger Country from Allen & Unwin.