One exists in a universe convincingly real, where the lines are sharply drawn in black and white. It is only later, if at all, that one realizes the lines were never there in the first place.

— Loren Eiseley, All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life

All non-Indigenous readers and writers exploring the Australian experience, past and present, should heed Amy McQuire’s caution that the ‘most disturbing element of the White Witness’s testimony is that it can be a form of violence’. Similarly, Jeanine Leane: ‘Theft is embedded in the settler psyche and the dominance of settler identity politics depends on its continuity, and the control of how others are represented.’ And Alexis Wright:

The truth is, we have simply become other people’s subject matter in the stories they tell, and pay the high price of their foolishly playing around with the Aboriginal sense of self, aimed at dismantling our knowledge and belief in our rights, to have us question our truths and our times.

Fifty-five years ago, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) criticised white liberals as people who ‘think first of themselves, of their feelings of rejection’ and asked:

Can they stop blaming us, and blame their own system? Are they capable of the shame which might become a revolutionary emotion? We have found that they usually cannot condemn themselves, and so we have done it. But the rebuilding of this society, if at all possible, is basically the responsibility of whites – not blacks.

Amnesia Road by Luke Stegemann is dense and discombobulating: a solipsistic book about the geographic, historical, moral and ontological heart of the country. It is not blind to the issues articulated by McQuire, Leane and Wright, and in its idiosyncratic way it takes on the task adumbrated by Ture. It documents the majesty of the land and the ravages of colonialism, argues for cross-hemisphere links with massacres in Andalusia, and pursues a line of political argument unlikely to win favour with the people most likely to be its readers. It is generous and unforgiving by turns. It confounds. To co-opt and corrupt Barthelme’s dictum about writers, the reviewer in this case is the one who, having read the book, does not know what to think.

Which is slightly inaccurate; my thoughts on the quality of the prose are unmuddied. In the first portion of the book, Stegemann puts a frame around south-west Queensland – little known, little visited, little celebrated – and paints its particularities, sharing the wonders of the landscape through ornate ecopoetics. He gives us ‘the harping dark’, ‘a skyline of old man saltbush crinkle’, ‘morning, with its glistening significance’, ‘a crow, in its polished funeral suit’. Standing within ‘the impossible intaglio of nature’ and singing its wonders, he has the preternatural image-smithing facility of Michelle de Kretser, enacting poet Catherine Vidler’s process of ‘sustained marvelling’.

Stegemann grew up within the Anglican church, which may have embedded the insistent Old Testament rhythms he uses intermittently and effectively – the accretion of detail, the incantatory momentum. Successive clauses in Amnesia Road build one on the next, creating a sensation of implacable progress:

A country at last both naked and secret; a mad river system which is the skeleton of the continent laid open; the veins of a bloodshot ochre eye; the back of a sandy brown hand, sun-aged, ribbed with channels where life distributes life along the lengths of the organism; its ribs are there, its teeth, its skin pore maze.

The enthusiastic use of lists suggests Stegemann’s childhood Lectionary contained a lot of readings from 1 Chronicles. Lists of town names. Lists of fauna. Lists of outback sounds, rivers, shire names, First Nations peoples. Sunset colours. His nouns do a lot of the heavy lifting. And yet when Stegemann writes approvingly of forgotten colonial poet Alice Duncan-Kemp – who ‘thrillingly breaks rule after rule of conventional national prose, which eschews rococo’ and is ‘fearlessly in love with words, colour, texture and mood’ – it could be self-description. In this era of greyhound-lean prose, Stegemann’s baroque stylings make him an outlier. Witness his indulgence of colons and semi-colons:

How quickly the lovely golds and mauves of early evening vanish; what had been shadows of the daylight hours become presences: unworldly yet also feral; grey forms of native wildlife, or the bristling dark of the wild boar; the stealth of the wild dog, beyond taming.

Even here, amidst the dazzle, he chooses to tilt the reader off balance. A glorious evocation of land that ‘never stops its bark and hiss, its millimetric wax and wane, its grunt and creak and very human sigh’ is followed next paragraph by a warning that ‘[w]e might be wary of the process whereby landscape becomes writing – the elements lost in the transition, elements too garrulous or gossamer that will not pass into the realm of words.’ It is a curious admonition when the artistry of the surrounding sentences seems to demonstrate something opposite, a foreshadowing that Stegemann is not here to simply tell the reader things she wants to hear.

The middle portion of the book catalogues the murders of First Nations inhabitants of south-west Queensland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Stegemann maps this genocide against the swingeing killings of civilians in rural southern Spain in the twentieth century. The author currently lives on Bundjalung and Mununjali Country, but previously spent many years in southern Spain. He demonstrates that in Queensland, Andalusia or anywhere else, systematic violence has brute factors in common: unfairness, terror, cruelty; a universality of suffering in the face of state-sanctioned killing.

The asymmetry of the conflict along the Australian frontier has been acknowledged, however quietly, since the beginning. In May 1788 at Sydney Cove, not four months into the life of that settlement, George Worgan wrote in his journal about the murder of two convicts by local people, and the likelihood that this was revenge for mistreatment. He said that it was Governor Phillip’s ‘opinion, with many others, that the Natives are not the aggressors’. In 1835, Richard Windeyer wrote of non-Indigenous guilt about the miserable treatment of the First Nations inhabitants, calling it ‘this whispering in the bottom of our hearts’. Knowledge of the wrongness of the genocide, feeling deep unease about the immorality, and just muddling along anyway, ignoring the spiritual sickness: this has been the Australian way for a very long time.

An anabranch, to use a Stegemann word: some years ago, I spent a few days looking through uncatalogued archives in a back room of the Outback Heritage Centre in Longreach. I was sifting for settler stories, with no specific link to massacres or the Frontier Wars, but that subject matter was unavoidable. Bald newspaper stories, coy diary entries, oblique references in books. Not all of these reports would meet the standards prescribed by Keith Windschuttle and his miserable history-as-forensic-accountancy acolytes, but the profusion of incidents was undeniable. A newspaper account of murdering seven local people on the Walsh River in 1884 was headlined ‘Potting N*****s’. (Word used in full; bowdlerisation my own.) A letter from 1932 detailed the shooting of seventeen ‘Myall blacks’ outside Cooktown, concluding with the point-blank murder of a surviving woman for making too much noise in mourning. The diary of well-known outback figure Riley Williams describes the abduction and implied rape of a girl.

Stegemann has trawled many libraries in Queensland to compile an overwhelming list of murders, massacres and wrongdoing, ‘the ash mixed in among the national foundation stones’. The piling of incident upon incident is devastating, but there is also a huge danger for the non-Indigenous reader, as Aileen Moreton-Robinson has discussed, of construing the First Nations victims as passive, something both inaccurate and disempowering.

When Stegemann turns his attention from Queensland to outrages perpetrated in Andalusia in the Spanish Civil War and thereafter, he provides accounts of specific humiliations and degradations, pre- and post-death, of civilians (often women). Minute details of these outrages are known because they were reported, read and remembered – for example, the appalling accounts of gang rape in several villages were written by a New York Herald Tribune correspondent, who was there on the ground as a witness.

At face value, this is very different to offences committed away from prying eyes, in the vastness of the Australian interior, but my Longreach experience, Stegemann’s library fossicking, and the work of myriad researchers points to extensive written evidence of local outrages. As a nation we have spent a couple of centuries in denial of this archive: denying its existence, or its authenticity, or its current relevance. It is pertinent that the Andalusian crimes were detailed in the press of another country, cementing the details and bypassing the local desire to suppress and forget – the amnesia that Stegemann diagnoses.

Willed forgetting is one thing. Measurable impact is another. Stegemann makes the devastating point that

Three generations on from the Andalusian killings, children are born into relative freedom and prosperity; three generations on from the killings of south-west Queensland, Indigenous children continued to be born into poverty and discrimination. Though pain is essentially immeasurable, some wounds are broader and deeper than others.

It’s a tough task to empathise with the perpetrators: those who disrespected, brutalised, even murdered First Nations people in the service of installing pastoralism on sacred land, or those troops hired to inflict carnage on the townspeople in southern Spain. The difficulty, as Stegemann notes in the context of Andalusia, is that these crimes against humanity ‘were the work of normal men, who were also deranged men’.

If we do not identify with the perpetrators, and cannot imagine any possible circumstance in which they could do what they did, then we are not obliged to accept any connection. Not me; not my responsibility. Amnesia is leveraged into a national commitment to take no action, admit no truths. Understanding the humanity of the perpetrators, that we are all in this together, is fundamental to making any progress on historical and contemporary injustice.

Many non-Indigenous Australian writers have cautioned against the tendency to moral simplification. In the Bicentenary year, Manning Clark claimed:

In radical literature the white man has replaced the capitalist as the chief villain in human history. Our history is in danger of degenerating into yet another variation of oversimplification – a division of humanity into goodies and baddies.

One of Clark’s intellectual heirs, Don Watson, argued:

Difficult as it is to resist them sometimes, the purpose of recognising that people behave differently for different reasons is not to enable us to make comparative moral judgements. It is, rather, to make historical ones: to find the drama where the void is, to see how like us they are.

Clark and Watson, even if approaching the issue from opposite directions, agree that categorising historical figures as all good or all bad removes all room for nuance, and thus closer identification. Sarah Krasnostein notes in The Believer that ‘[w]e are wired to seek coherence; will reflexively choose certainty over accuracy.’ This is a dangerous practice in history. Stegemann phrases it this way, in terms of the Australian situation: ‘an entire class of people, “white settlers”, are collectively found at fault, a condemnation that pays no heed to the bewildering complexities of human behaviour.’

Ashis Nandy has posited that the effects of colonialism are reciprocal between colonised and coloniser. Failure to envision or treat First Nations people as equals results in the coloniser brutalising her own psyche. Nandy writes, ‘the colonizers are at least as much affected by the ideology of colonialism, that their degradation, too, can sometimes be terrifying.’ Attempts to alleviate this moral misery require colonisers to invent convenient fictions. The colonial rulers of India, for example,

could not successfully rule a continent-sized polity while believing themselves to be moral cripples. They had to build bulwarks against a possible sense of guilt produced by a disjunction between their actions and what were till then, in terms of important norms of their own culture, “true” values.

Nandy’s thinking concurs with Edward Said’s theory that the exotic is a product of representational systems of colonialism. This approach emphasises the sins of the past and, in an unexpected twist, bleeds into the dehumanising modern pedestal-placement of First Nations people by some progressives. Stegemann’s take is acute:

Conveniently, one either vilifies or beatifies, as if it were not obvious that Indigenous people, no matter how different their cultural beliefs, were just as capable, being human, of kindness and treachery in equal proportion to any other human population on the planet.

Every unhappy nation, as Tolstoy didn’t say, is unhappy in its own way. We insist on the specificity of our sufferings, which helps us find much greater reasons for division than unity. Spanish artist Santiago Sierra discovered this when he proposed immersing a British flag in blood donated by First Nations people from this continent, to be displayed at the Dark Mofo arts festival. It wasn’t just that this was clumsy and offensive; the sharp reaction also seemed to contain resentment that an outsider would presume to muck about in Australian business. Yes, it’s genocide – but it’s our genocide, damn it. Amnesia Road proposes a different lesson.

The book begins with beauty, then moves to a remorseless cataloguing of killing on two continents, before an unexpected jag into polemic. Before critiquing Stegemann’s more controversial assertions, I should outline my own standpoint, acknowledging the truth stated by Leane that the white imagination is blind to ‘its own cultural standpoint that is neither neutral nor universal’. I am a non-Indigenous member of the inner-city liberal elite. I have spent many years travelling within Australia, especially in the Northern Territory, working on Indigenous-linked projects. I am grateful for the connections I have made and the experiences I have had, but could not argue that the money I have been paid has been justified when measured against outcomes. I have a strong suspicion, fuelled by the writing of Peter Sutton, Kim Mahood and others, that well-intentioned non-Indigenous ‘helpers’ – like me – are doing more harm than good, at least in remote communities. I have stronger relationships to remote people than to urban activists, which influences my resistance to pan-Indigenous statements or initiatives. I do not believe in Reconciliation: there was never conciliation to start with, and I don’t see that First Nations people get much out of the deal. I believe multi-generational trauma is an enormous, ongoing and unrecognised harm. I believe that fawning reverence from people like me for First Nations people, holding them to lower standards of behaviour and apportioning higher acclaim to any and all expressions of culture, is fraudulent and dehumanising.

In the last quarter of his book, Stegemann changes tack to lash those people, like me, who are ‘talking down to the rest of the nation’, indulging in the ‘contemporary fashion for holding our European history at arm’s length, of being conspicuously “uncomfortable” in modern Australia.’ Guilty as charged. He claims ‘questions that exercise urban activists appear remote, even irrelevant’ in the bush, and contends that the approach of urban activists doesn’t work.

People cannot be told they must be ashamed, not least as such an instruction logically comes from those who have anointed themselves as morally superior. People will not follow instructions if what is being taught is the performance of shame.

Instead, Stegemann privileges the wisdom of ‘majority Australia’, especially those who exist outside metropolises. ‘In the twenty-first century, rural Australia is increasingly understood as a site of colonial, ideological and ecological crimes’, whereas he encounters it as a site of ‘camaraderie and sharing between white and Indigenous people that is “authentic” precisely because it does not exist as a marker, or proof, of one’s social awareness.’

Is he right? My experience would suggest that the answer is a tentative and partial yes. I have seen examples of authenticity and reciprocity in black-white relationships outside metropolitan Australia, but those relationships are often contingent, unequal, transitory – whereas the structural inequalities are ongoing. Yes, I weary of the piety of inner-city liberals who do not have close and equal relationships with First Nations people, and can see how limp that might look when considered against the temporary colour-blindness of rough men in boxing gyms (where Stegemann’s experiences tally with the findings of sociologist Loïc Wacquant in the boxing gyms of South Chicago) or footy teams – but this is hardly the whole story.

Advocating for the inherent goodness of rural middle Australia is an approach more commonly associated with populist politicians, but Stegemann is committed to it. In a rare moment of over-writing, he snarls:

These people are considered to have no part to play in the construction of a modern nation: let them stay, many seem to say, with their manners butchery and troglodyte, beyond the sinister chained gates, the spent shotgun cartridges, the beer-heavy utes and grunting, tattooed women.

This is an expansion of the argument made in Stegemann’s previous book The Beautiful Obscure:

In Australia debate around reconciliation occurs among the educated professional class: the topic does not engage many of our immigrant populations, or indeed many Indigenous, or Australia’s working poor.

After excoriating the irritating tendencies of progressives, Stegemann offers little in terms of a way forward. His only suggestion is the endorsement of the Uluru Statement from the Heart as

a bold step forward into a new, collective sense of purpose, a statement that will both elevate Indigenous Australia to the status it has always deserved, at the same time as being an amnesty for the excesses of European Australia. A starting point for an entire new framework from which to support Indigenous autonomy.

It seems an optimistic, even facile response to the enormous problem he has delineated. Is this a fatal flaw in the book? Well, no. He is at least sparing us solutionism. The Closing the Gap report, quantifying abject failure year on year, is a national embarrassment, but obliging Stegemann to join the serried ranks of experts offering never-to-be-implemented remedial strategies just because he has dared to outline past outrages and present problems seems unreasonable.

I am perplexed by the space Stegemann gives to lashing political progressives, but I never doubt his sincerity. It would have been easier for him to bark the orthodoxy as it is understood by those people most likely to be his readers. And perhaps his views are closer to some progressive First Nations thinking than might be comfortable for those of us fretting away in the urban centres. For example, his observations on ineffectual metropolitan do-gooders accord with Alison Whittaker’s sardonic identification of ‘the beaming grin of “the good whites”’, or Gomeroi academic Jared Field’s tweet, ‘Give me a country racist over a left wing liberal almost any given day.’

Stegemann’s backing for the Uluru Statement from the Heart suggests that First Nations voices should dictate the way forward. Cobble Cobble woman and constitutional lawyer Megan Davis has explained that the Uluru Statement was issued ‘deliberately and purposefully to our fellow Australians because we know the limitations of the political class.’ Stegemann writes that ‘racist extremists on the right, and the perennially distempered on the left, are best ignored in favour of that other, majority Australia, of people who have nothing but goodwill for their neighbours, of whatever stripe.’ That statement builds on a false equivalence to arrive at a utopian fantasy about the goodness of middle Australia that matches no empirical evidence of the way that cohort thinks and acts. Perhaps Stegemann is right and there is more goodwill in less enfranchised people than my inner-city friends might imagine, but this is not reflected at the ballot box. While it is true that this is the sector of society where Australian elections are won or lost, it is the activists from either end of the political spectrum who drive change, seeking to sway a sufficient portion of the relatively disengaged middle.

Again, when Stegemann suggests that ‘the Welcome to Country – to cite but one contemporary adaptation of Indigenous tradition – is largely a product of Western bureaucratic ethnography’, my first thought is that he could have sought some safety from criticism by referring instead to Acknowledgment of Country, but that does not match his crash-through intentions. Then I remember the well-known First Nations woman from Sydney who arrived in central Australia and complained about not being given Welcome to Country, not understanding that this is not something Anangu do. When I checked with a local Elder, she said: ‘Why would we do that? We know whose Country it is.’ A gnomic response that repays prolonged consideration. And then I think of how Stegemann’s point here curves around and finds correspondence, if not concurrence, with Bundjalung descendant Evelyn Araluen’s poem ‘Acknowledgment of Cuntery’.

Whatever progressives might think of Stegemann’s sledges, the fight he is picking is with a certain segment of non-Indigenous Australians, not First Nations people. He stands against bullying wherever and whenever it is found, regardless of the political orientation of the bully. His south-west Queensland excursions mean he meets plenty of people on the right, even the far-right. He says of one café proprietor:

I wasn’t interested in her politics, and even less in policing them. Who knows what demons rest in others’ minds, and whence they rise? Who knows, for that matter, where there might be unsuspected angels?

This empathy, and common sense, feels like a sign pointing a way forward – which makes his unwillingness to extend the same approach to leftists who live in cities perplexing.

One of his boldest arguments is that the formulation ‘always was, always will be’ does not stand up to historical scrutiny because ‘whole nations, have always and everywhere been subject to conquest, invasion, takeover, changes of ownership or control’. He does not resile from this, but offers an olive twig – if not a whole branch – by suggesting that non-Indigenous occupation might not last forever, either.

From within its long centuries, Islamic Spain must have seemed eternal; now we can see it as an 800-year episode in a longer arc. Perhaps the white presence here in Australia, in the sweep of millennia, will be something of a blink.

The western secular scientific view is that we are all just different configurations of stardust. Atoms last; particular constructions of atoms do not. Belief systems change, the climate intervenes, peoples disappear. If you are non-Indigenous, what do you really mean when you say ‘always was, always will be’? And if you mean those words literally, how do you accommodate that day-to-day? It is a useful provocation.

Something else that doesn’t last is language. Stegemann’s assertion of the importance of language, in a land where most of the words in use in 1787 have disappeared like the water in exhausted inland waterways, is plangent. The forced disconnection of First Nations people from Country is a

loss – theirs primarily and principally, ours in hindsight – [that] might be intimated, imagined, analysed, but cannot truly be calculated. What language vanished, language that contoured a vanished landscape? What words of celebration, naming and worship dissolved into the expanse; words faded and lost, words spoken or whispered for the final time in the cross-hatched struggle of the nineteenth century?

And, need it be said, throughout the twentieth century and deep into the twenty-first. Amnesia abides.

Works Cited

Loren Eiseley, All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life, Scribner 1975

Kwame Ture (writing as Stokely Carmichael), ‘What We Want’, The New York Review of Books, Vol. 7 (September 22, 1966)

Donald Barthelme, ‘The Art of Fiction’, The Paris Review, Issue 80, Summer 1981

Catherine Vidler, chaingrass, SOd Press, 2016

George Worgan, Sydney Cove Journal, The Colony Press for The Banks Society, republished 2010

Richard Windeyer, ‘On the Rights of the Aborigines of Australia’, text of lecture June 1844, from transcript held Mitchell Library, Sydney (NPL MA 1400)

‘Potting N******s’, Queensland Figaro, Brisbane, 15 November 1884, p.28

Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Talkin’ up to the white woman: Aboriginal women and feminism, UQP, 1999

M. H. (Manning) Clark, ‘The Beginning of Wisdom’, Time Australia,25 January 1988

Don Watson, Watsonia: A Writing Life, Black Inc., 2020

Sarah Krasnostein, The Believer, Text, 2021

Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism, Oxford University Press 1983

Loïc Wacquant, Body and Soul: Ethnographic Notebooks of An Apprentice-Boxer, Oxford University Press, 2004

Luke Stegemann, The Beautiful Obscure, Transmission Press 2017

Alison Whittaker, ‘So white. So what.’, Meanjin Autumn 2020, Volume 79, Issue 1

Evelyn Araluen, Drop Bear, UQP, 2021