The quest to find yourself and your place in the world might be a cliche but it is a quest many of us can relate to, quitting the unfulfilling job and embarking on a journey to answer fundamental questions of identity and belonging. Monica Tan’s Stranger Country, documents a personal 30,000 km solo journey around Australia to discover her own place within Australian culture and identity. I was initially interested in the travel dimension of the book but this account is much more than a simple travelogue, Tan confronts directly the issues surrounding Australian identity and diversity from her position as an Australian born Chinese. It is, as an antidote to a sense of alienation from the dominant cultural myths of identity that Tan embarks on her epic journey asking “Will I ever really belong to this country”. She particularly seeks to engage with Indigenous Australia and the 60,000 + years of cultural and spiritual connection that Aboriginal Australians have maintained with the land, despite the impact of colonialism.
Overhearing a German tourist claim; “Wonderful place, but they have no culture“, she wonders could he be right, Tan begins her journey heading out from Sydney via Goulburn on her way to the Lake Mungo region, site of the oldest known remains of modern man outside of Africa, a location of great historical and spiritual significance, establishing occupation of Australia by indigenous people that dates back at least 50,000 years and makes Aboriginal Australians the oldest continuing culture on the planet. Throughout her journey, Tan recounts her encounters with other travellers, tourist and national park guides and Indigenous Australians, all the time looking to find her own place within Australia’s diverse and complex culture. She is comforted to learn that people from her own cultural heritage have long had a presence in Australia and that Australia does indeed have a long multicultural history.
I must admit that the Mungo national park is on my own list of places I must try and find time to visit and Tan writes evocatively of the location:
There are certain places in Australia, where even if you aren’t from there, you can detect an emanating spiritual power. The region of shallow dry lakes in Mungo National Park is such a place. One need not be a member of the park’s three groups of traditoanla owners – the Barkindji, Ngiyampaa and Mutti Mutti peoples – to feel one is walking on holy, ancient ground. You could even be the first in your family to have been born on this continent, and a total dunce when it comes to Aboriginality, yet sense a presence in the park’s endlessly whispering trails of sand.
From Mungo Tan follows the Murary to Coorong, visiting the home of David Unaipon, the Aboriginal writer and inventor whose image features on the $50 note. Sometimes referred to as Australia’s DaVinci, a polymath, Unaipon is a fascinating figure in Australian cultural history. She then turns west to Alice, the Kimberley and the Pilbara regions, then onto Broome, before walking the 72 km Lurujarri Heritage Trail. Long walks do seem to hold a magical transformative power and it is on the walk that Tan starts to feel more of “a child of this country”. I must confess I was previously unfamiliar with the Lurujarri trail but it is something I would one day love to do myself. She then moves onto the Top End before travelling into Queensland and back down the east coast.
Tan makes a significant observation after a brief romance in the Northern Territory. She comes across another camper, Samuel, who conforms to a stereotypical Australian masculine identity, attracted to her fellow traveller, they form a fleeting relationship to find that beyond their initial attraction, they have some fundamental differences of opinion. It is in negotiating their differences that Tan makes the observation:
Our conversation moved on to more light-hearted matters. Our verbal sparring, had just died away,like when the bright flames of a fresh fire settle into a softly radiating heat. If only all the Twitter wars and Facebook blow-ups could find such a peaceful conclusion. On this trip I’d often noticed that while digital environments bred extremism, face to face conversations fostered natural empathy.
As a self confessed, trendy, Green voting, city dweller, some readers might disagree with Tan’s liberal views, perhaps finding they share more of Samuel’s view of Australia, but the important thing is our ability to have an exchange of views, in such a way that we do not lose sight of the humanity of people we disagree with. The loss of civility in disagreement and our apparent declining ability to consider alternative viewpoints, to empathise with others, is something that deeply concerns me about the nature of current debate, about just about everything. When did we become so intolerant and uncivil, surrendering dignity in debate. The digital environment is no excuse.
Tan admirably illustrates the old adage that travel does broaden the mind, it leaves us more knowledgeable but also empathetic. Tan writes with humour and deep reflection, making this book something much more substantial than a mere travelogue. Informative and entertaining, Stranger Country is quite a compelling read, a book I enjoyed very much and one that has given me some ideas for future travel for myself, while many locations were already on my list of places I would love to experience, like the Mungo National Park, the Lurujarri Heritage Trail was completely new to me and something I would consider a great privilege to experience. Tan inspires travel and offers insight into our sometimes confused and divided national identity, Stranger Country is a great read.