The X the Nation Built

1.

We should always speak out loud on the crimes of war and empire. Between the words that echo in our chambers, there are national spaces for silence or the nation as a space that silences. For me, ANZAC day articulates a kind of hegemonic quieting. A single (yet collective) white finger presses up against my lips on the 25th of April. A silence to erase from our speech a comment or two on the violence that made this nation a nation. It is well known. You do not need me to say this aloud. But, the imaginary nation operates through both an invisible web of affiliative connections, unknown and known emotional internalisations, unwittingly complicit thoughts (or lack of) and its associations about self and other. Nations are built on what is said and what is not said; on who belongs and who does not.

I wish to write then on belonging but not, to write on the complex ways in which colonialism always reimagines an us/them. Colonialism and its cousin nationalism have always created simple political categories. Yet as it creates these it also resists the margin’s use of simplicity to name the ‘coloniser.’ We the ‘colonised’ must always be deep and thorough, full of facts and dates, full of measure in our exploration and exposition of the colonial impact, for it problematises any slip, problematises simple descriptions about whiteness and our resistance to racism as emotional not intellectual, problematises even the once solid ‘coloniser’ and ‘colonised’ binary.

It simplifies us, but demands we complicate our speech, our position, and it is true: my identity (as a non-black person of colour on indigenous land) diffuses and intersects with whiteness. My resistance plays out within the rhizome of imperial contacts, I must acknowledge that I write this with energy that comes from someone who feeds off the land, as a settler who sits in a library built on the land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. But, what might it mean to speak against colonialism and while benefiting from what its nationalism built?

2.

The way he stared at me that day remains with me till this day. I think I was 17. I was shopping alone at Coles when at 11a.m everyone stopped. The P.A announced that we together would honour a minute of silence for our fallen diggers. It took me by surprise. It so happened that when we stopped on that ANZAC day, I stood facing an old white man. He stared at me without a single movement from above his glasses; chin up, for the full minute, like a statue with eyes. I do not think he meant to be menacing. But, I still remember the stiff upper lip when other details have long faded. I felt caught in his glare, felt uncertain of how to act. He was so stoic that he refused to put down his shopping basket during that minute.

He made me conscious that I had.

It is amazing as a young ‘Australian’ (and yes I put the word in scare quotes for I really do not know) how much I became my surroundings, absorbed from around me, me.  Soon I found myself using my own upper lip to champion our nation’s past. That day at Coles, I frowned and looked solemnly downwards. But, then I glanced up quickly to see if the old man was looking in approval at my performance of respect.

There is something else I remember, a part of me, a hidden ‘X,’ that remained resistant and unintegrated. Half way through the silence, I felt resentment for us not honouring others. I felt resentment about the way in which silence gives contours to certain kinds of violence, builds solid things from this violence, builds walls, all the while erasing other forms of violence.

I remember having to hold one hand with the other because for some inane reason I dared myself to wave at him, to break his concentration. I wanted to smile, poke a tongue, unfreeze and disrupt, or say Salam Alaykum. It was childish and regressive, maybe, but why, why the urge for such things, why the urge to break the silence and the stare? Why an X?

My relationship with ANZAC is best described as one hand of mine who fights the other to not expose that X of me that remains unAustralian or that which still wishes to put the word in scare quotes. I want to speak, to swing and throw the X back, but I temper myself, and often stare back in silence at those who stare at me. I rationalised that day: it is the soldiers. It is not their fault. I ought to respect those who fell even if I do not respect those who pushed them to fall. But every part of my political consciousness knows these words are an excuse by me to silence me; a silence that makes me, me, who pushes down the X; a me who knows that empire cannot be cleanly divided into celebrated soldiers and manipulative politicians. One intention erasing the other; the heroic intention of soldiers used to erase the violent intentionality of colonialism. We know the ways that violence hides itself.

So on that day I first encountered a resistance that had no words. On that day I felt my first urge to disrupt ANZAC, an urge that was intuitive and not learned from a book. My body as an Other has absorbed multiple stares from above glasses, and if you were to wring it of my brownness, an X, the unintegrated, the resentment leaks free.

The intuition to resist his silence remains with me both as a site for inspection and scholarship, and as the point of my reflection in this short piece. For on that day at Coles all I knew about ANZAC came from the film Gallipoli that I had studied in year 12. My image of the digger was Mel Gibson on a donkey with the pyramids in the background and little else. I remember in class as we watched Peter Weir’s film a jolt of pride came to me at seeing both my identities in the same film. I looked around to tell classmates that is where I am from. Yes, the film foregrounded the story of Australian mateship and the Egyptians were but props and prostitutes in the background, but that Egypt was there at all meant something. My joy existed until a class mate asked me, his voice sneering with a mixture of racism and sexism, if one of the prostitutes was my great grandmother.

3.

Every ANZAC day I remember that old man at Coles. He comes to represent the face of a nation and I thought of him last year as one of the many debating in outrage at Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s insolence.

4.

Nationalism does not work in a direct linear and vertical way. It is not just a top-down order that comes from the institutions – government, military, national teams, schools – in which it establishes itself and which establish it. It operates laterally and sporadically. It sometimes loses control. Within every national myth, a seed of its own trauma escapes. An X that remains in the background eventually grows like a smudge on the screen to reveal how the real can never be fully absorbed or seen. It can never enter fully into the symbolic reality of a pure national ‘us.’ I am the supposed shameful descendent of brown women forced into sex work, whose bodies formed the background to a story of heroes. So much of the colonial language breathing life into the ANZAC spirit has failed to give us words for the pain and suffering of those in the background. There is always something left over: an us who is not ‘us.’ There is always a residue that we cannot turn into meaning.

Consider how the ANZACS embody a unique Australian spirit, one that is a century old. The official World War I correspondent C.E.W. Bean noted that Gallipoli was the crucible that gave birth to the Australian nation. He used the imagery of the Australian Bush to forge the Aussie character as a one of rugged resilience and an egalitarian masculine mateship. World War I would be its stage and losing thousands of lives in a failed campaign demanded a redeeming myth. It has thus become common to claim that Australia was baptised in the blood and fire of Gallipoli. A nation’s character was to be proven solid by the bravery of its soldiers. Indeed, nationalism is but a composite of repressed wishes, impulses, desires and traumas. But, is it not fascinating that when Australia was looking for a unique story to tell itself about itself it stole again the land it colonised. It stole it symbolically. And, here we find another hidden X in the ‘unique’ Australian story: the bush. The rugged beauty of Australia’s outback evokes an imagery of the land, and in evoking this it also evokes theft. The remnants of Australian settler colonial violence remain and conjure different meanings. For, in every national myth, if we stare close enough, we find the nation’s shadow self. The Bush refuses to integrate into the fiction that indigenous land made white heroes.

Lest We Forget Australia Day. Lest We Forget the Frontier Wars.

5.

The story of ANZAC tells one story by holding down the hand of the other. A myth that resists full signification, because it is a delicate and fragile lie that needs a stern stare back at those who stare at it. Yassmin’s arguments were not necessarily full, or strong. It was one line. But, this is not about her. It is about those who stare at her. Despite having nothing in common with her politics, having felt let down by her and by so many other outwardly Muslim spokespersons who erase the racism that built this country in their pursuit of playing good migrant, I suddenly felt compelled to support her from the backlash of a politics that stares at us. It takes only a line to make everything crumble. For Indigenous peoples first, and other people of colour second, have always been the shadow of the nation. Their bodies and our lives carry the burden of the nation’s hidden X.

6.

To return to my question, then: what might it mean to speak against colonialism while benefiting from colonialism? The key value of speaking of the X is to show that the repressive structures of imperial power are never absent. That they stare at you at Coles, and then, when you are alone, they stare back at you from within. They operate rhizomically rather than monolithically; at one glance I am a brown settler, at another I am a displaced indigenous person from another land, at a third, I am complicit in whiteness’ silence when I say Lest We Forget.

It is why I write in fragments and incomplete thoughts, because is as much an exercise of self-reflection and opening up one self to interpretation as it an exercise about starting back and stating the certainties about how racism harms.

We should always speak out loud thus, on the realities and crimes of war and empire. But, between the words that often echo in chambers there are national spaces of silence or the nation as a space that silences. To speak of the X or the excesses of what remains within us unnamed and tamed and in fragments is to emphasise the presence of power in our sense-making processes, it is to speak of a struggle between conflicting histories, is to listen to that side of us that wishes to resist, and what side of us wishes to remain silent, for lest we remember to forget how we are told to remember and forget.

 

See also

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Yassir Morsi is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and Philosophy at La Trobe University. His first book, Radical Skin/Moderate Masks: De-radicalising the Muslim and Racism in Post-racial Societies was published by Rowman and Littlefield International in August 2017. He is a columnist for The Guardian.

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