‘You’re a credit to your race and the human race.’
I heard a Townsville city councillor say this when he presented an award to a Torres Strait Islander some years ago.
Too many Australians don’t see me or my people as equal. Fuck, they don’t even see us as human.Aaron Fa’Aoso in So Far So Good
It is far better to make … testimonies our compass and to seek our bearings in the words of witnesses than to try vainly to orient ourselves with the unreliable charts supplied by covertly race-coded liberal or even socialist humanism, which … have offered very few ideas about how we might extricate ourselves … from racial categories or racial lore.Paul Gilroy, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture beyond the Colour Line.
So Far So Good: On Connection, Loss, Laughter and the Torres Strait, by Aaron Fa’Aoso, with Michelle Scott Ticker (Pantera Press, 2021)
In November last year I decided to go to the launch of Aaron Fa’Aoso’s memoir, So Far So Good, at Readings at the State Library of Victoria. I admit I wasn’t that keen to schlep all the way into the city, but considering Fa’Aoso’s television work, his passion for the Torres Strait (Zenadth Kes) and my personal history I decided to go. I was the foster mother of a Torres Strait Islander for forty-three years; for over a decade I had a Torres Strait Islander partner; I made three visits to Thursday Island, where I reunited my foster son with his birth family and where I also undertook extensive consultations with Mabuiag Island Elder Ephraim Bani on my various writings and collaborations with First Nations actors and musicians in film and theatre projects.
One reason for my hesitation about going to the launch was my many experiences of Islanders’ sometimes cryptic communication—cryptic so as not to offend anyone? So as not to divulge private or secret cultural business? So as not to reactivate trauma? Because of a lack of self-confidence? An example of this cryptic understatement can be seen in the song lyrics of ‘Nibe Nibe’ in King Kadu’s CD Listen to my Drum—‘My son’s mother’s people call him a native, I will say outright they have no insight’. A very mild way to speak about an aching personal racism. This was what I was expecting at the launch, but boy did I get a shock.
Fa’Aoso spoke with much humour and goodwill about his life, but also openly about serious and harrowing experiences, including poverty, the cumulative effects of bigotry and racism, the abuse of alcohol—‘I didn’t have an off button as far as drink was concerned’—and suicide, and he outed himself as a witness to and perpetrator of domestic violence. Having experienced DV at the hands of my Islander partner, needless to say I was seriously confronted and confused as to how to feel or react. Surprising myself, I applauded him! I realised, later, that I applauded both because I sensed a depth of shame behind his confession and because I understood the courage it was taking him to live with that shame—‘the dark cloud that stays with me’. This tenacious courage is one of the most powerful aspects of So Far, So Good.
Anyone who has experienced real shame knows how deathly it is, and the ‘shame job’ seems particularly deathly for First Nations peoples. A careful reader will find important and informative insights into how Fa’Aoso’s Torres Strait family, culture and history are the bedrock of his courage. He also had therapy: ‘Working on this book clarified a few things and led me to seeking professional help for my mental health’.
This personal healing work, combined with Fa’Aoso’s collaboration with the acclaimed biographer Michelle Scott Tucker, provides the dynamism driving this book. There must have been a great deal of trust between Fa’Aoso and Tucker, and the publisher Pantera, for Fa’Aoso to reveal so much of what’s behind the Islander stereotype—‘always laughing, joking, making everyone else feel comfortable’—and show his ‘tender, relaxed or sensitive’ side, and a great deal more besides.
I witnessed the debilitating effects of my foster son having always to be ‘the happy-go-lucky Islander’, when no one but me saw the suffering, pain and anger. I believe these ‘identity politics’ played a large part in killing him. When I challenged him on his bad diet and diabetes he yelled at me, ‘My mother died of diabetes! I’m an Islander, I’m going to die of diabetes!’ And that’s just what he did! Fa’Aoso writes that he didn’t understand ‘the depth and intensity of what I’d been carrying. I’ve had to suppress a lot because otherwise it would eat me up ’, as it did my foster son. This contemporary memoir by an Indigenous Torres Strait Islander will help change that ‘identity’ story.
Why does Fa’Aoso tell his story now? The reason is a shame and stain on this country, and not one that many whitefellas in their mid-forties would have for writing their memoir: early death. Fewer than 5 per cent of First Nations people are aged over 65, compared to 16 per cent of non-Indigenous (my foster son died two days shy of his forty-eighth birthday). ‘With those figures in mind, and those funerals too, I decided I needed to tell my story now … it’s entirely possible I’m near the end of my life. Because I’m black. Because I’m Indigenous.’ It’s unbearable—and, as Fa’Aoso exclaims, ‘Don’t you dare fucking look away!’
The book provides insights into how Torres Strait history and culture are lived today—to the life-affirming importance of family and its genealogy (‘Torres Strait is all about kinship connections—to land, to sea and to family’) and the maintenance of tradition and language. Exemplary of this are the chapter titles in Kala Lagaw Ya, the language of the western islands. Elder Ephraim Bani once explained the significance of this to me: ‘If Torres Strait languages become extinct or the culture becomes pure contemporary, our grip with our land will be loosened, our identity will become a torturing dream in the future’.
In the late 1940s it became clear to the people of Saibi, Fa’Aoso’s home island, that rising sea levels were making the island virtually uninhabitable. Despite the overwhelming oppression of racist bureaucratic legislation that limited Indigenous people’s movements, Saibi’s Traditional Owners managed to meet with the Aboriginal Traditional Owners around Cape York, the Gudang people, to establish the Islander communities of Bamaga and Seisia on the mainland. This is just one instance of Islander political nous and Indigenous negotiation discussed in the book. This history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional owner led negotiations has continued for decades, resulting most recently in the Federal Court’s formal recognition, on 30 November 2022, of native title over more than 2500 hectares of land and two million hectares of water in northern Cape York and the Torres Strait, fittingly the thirtieth anniversary of the Mabo decision.
Fa’Aoso’s stories are sometimes confronting. His fury about the unnamed, generic Blackfella image on the flora-and-fauna side of the $2 coin shocked me out of my white racial blind-spot. Once you digest this, you’ve then got to ask if the Xanthorrhoe plant beside him, colloquially known as the ‘blackboy’, is some kind of white supremacist in-crowd, in-code in-joke, or an ‘innocent’, Jindyworobakesque gesture? ‘We are all literally walking around with the evidence of layers of Australian racism jingling in our pockets’, says Fa’Aoso.
One story that made me laugh out loud was the hilarious game of football played between the lads of Fa’Aoso’s old high school St Augustine’s, many of whom were Blackfellas, and St Brendan’s team of rednecks from cattle stations west of Rockhampton. Eventually, fed up with the racist sledging, the St Augustine’s lads let them have it so thoroughly that the St Brendan’s team was afraid to even pick up the ball. ‘Run the fucken ball, you fucken mug!’ and so on. Then there’s Fa’Aoso’s delicious schadenfreude with regard to Brother Geoff, the principal of St Augustine’s. Brother Geoff had heaped praise on Fa’Aoso for the cultural work he’d done with the school dance troupe, but Fa’Aoso felt deeply hurt, like a ‘performing monkey’, when he heard that Brother Geoff had said, ‘He’ll be in jail in six months’. It was actually Brother Geoff who ended up in jail, for sexually abusing an ex-student.
In Nonie Sharp’s Stars of Tagai: The Torres Strait Islanders, under the subtitle ‘The Islanders meet the trespassers’ are the words of the Erub Islanders as they canoed out to Bligh’s cutter holding up green coconuts: ‘We are ready to exchange’. ‘But the newcomers were empty handed’, says Sharp, and she details the profound implications of this serious and dangerous breach of Islander law and protocol.
Ailanman has done his dance
he has transcended the violence of shame
he has danced a reversal
he is ready to exchange
These implications still resonate in the pages of So Far, So Good. Are we ‘newcomers’ still ‘empty handed’? Are we now ready to exchange?
If you want to know how Fa’Aoso became a well-respected actor, writer and creative content-maker for film and television, and owner of his own production company Lone Star, he gives you the good oil: ‘I saw with my own eyes that decisions are made by, and opportunities offered to, those who just turn up … you gotta just turn up’. Sounds simple! However, Fa’Aoso’s day-by-day, blow-by-blow account shows what an Indigenous person must overcome to follow this seemingly simple injunction—not only the complex violence of ubiquitous racism but also the total misunderstanding of the cultural necessity for genuine exchange.