The stories we tell influence who we are.
The way we respond to people and places influences our journey in life.
“Identity as a story”
Kayne’s life took a turn for the best when he met Adam Hughes as part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters youth program. Initially, growing up in a dysfunctional family with a drug addict mother and her thuggish boyfriends, Kayne ended up a rebel without a cause. He went to 19 different primary schools and hung around skate parks looking for trouble. This all changed when he reluctantly joined the program, befriended Adam and started to become part of a decent, loving supportive family. Turning his back on his mother and her coterie of exploitative boyfriends, he became aware of a life he did not want to lead, and the groups he knew he had to reject.
Evidently, Kayne’s journey in life from rebel to ordinary motorbike apprentice shows that our journey in life not only takes a variety of paths, but its twists and turns and ebb and flow are influenced by friendships and groups, by mentors and peers, and by teachers and parents. These different narratives intertwine and relate to each other creating and weaving different stories that determine who we are, from where we come and whence we go. Such stories help us understand how we belong and how we fit into the social networks that are critical to our understanding of self.
Likewise, in his poem, “The road not taken”, Robert Frost depicts the narrator’s choices in life and the stories he tells about the fork in the road. The ability to take a different, “less-travelled” path enables him to tell a different story and that “has made all the difference”.
As Patti Miller in The Mind of a Thief reminds us, the stories we weave about identity are not just about the solid ground upon which we stand, but metaphorically we recreate this ground in many emotional and imaginative ways. In these “hills, valleys, creeks, dry dusty paddocks, gum trees and she-oaks” Miller recreates her childhood under the “dome of the childhood sky”. The way we collate these stories and interpret their potential has an enormous impact upon how we see ourselves and how we seek to connect with others. Also, the truth about someone’s identity can change according to who is telling the story, and what stories are prioritised. In other words, as Miller says, it is the weaving of one’s stories that separates one individual from another. Despite “being born and growing up on the same land” or “even having the same genes”, every individual’s “stories could so easily be different” and such a difference “determines where the cloak of identity is hung.” “I knew for certain, that identity and connection could only be found in the telling. It wasn’t the threads of the story that really mattered, it was the weaving of the threads.” (239)
Likewise, the stories connect us not only to physical places but help us make sense of our origins. Mythical and spiritual stories that shape and inform a person’s life are critical to their sense of self and their position in the world. For example, Wayne Carr and the Wiradjuri tribe, the most “feared tribe” in the west, remember their close relationship with their mythical ancestors through the Baiame dreamtime story. The whole of the Wiradjuri nation was born in the Valley which is the origin of Baiame who “came out of the sea in the east on his emu feet, a giant of a man with his two wives and stroke up through the Valley and he created it.” (238) Passionately and proudly, the knowledge of his 10,000 year old ancestors “coursed through him, made fire in his veins and his heart, (and) illuminated him.” The story of Baiame is so critical to the origin of the tribe that it determines identity and determines how one relates to place; it also becomes, at its origin, the justification for the land rights claims.
Our hierarchical place and position of authority and power in the group influences our identity in myriad ways. For example, leaders and mentor figures have a different sense of identity and will relate to each other and to members of the group in different ways than younger and more inexperienced members of the group. Kayne and Adam bring to their relationship their different identities born of their hierarchy within families. This relationship, though, is not just about solace and growth for Kayne. Even Adam recognises as he helps and shares his life story with another, that the “power of friendship is life changing”.
Significantly, an aborigine’s identity is not just based on the biological family but also on the clan, the skin groups and the aboriginal language group into which they are born. Wayne, like most of the traditional aborigines belongs to the Wiradjuri clan which joins them together through language, but also through kinship laws. The clan also determines their relationship with the land and “who has the right to speak for it”. (155) In other words, some leaders have greater power than others because of their traditional place in the clan and their traditional links to ancestors. The close link between language, culture and identity continues to motivate many aborigines to rediscover and perpetuate their own unique language. As the Senior Therapeutic Practice Leader, Katrina Power suggests, “it is always important to speak one’s own language because it is who they are, it is where one belongs.” Ms Power is a member of the Kaurna community in South Australia who is determined to keep their indigenous language alive.
If stories are critical to who we are and how we relate to place and people, we must ask who is creating the stories? Whose stories are we following? Whose stories are the most important ones? Are we part of the main story in society or are we part of the secondary, marginalised story? This relationship is critical to how we belong to broader social groups. As Miller discovers, the story of the Irish settler is prioritised over that of the indigenous inhabitant and mythmaker.
Miller knows that she is part of the “main” story and Wayne’s identity is relegated to the margins. According to Patti Miller, she is able to create and recreate with confidence. Patrick Reidy, her great-great-great Irish grandfather, seized the land in 1867 and was a member of the original Town Common Committee (216). Her story is one about power, control and opportunities which nourish a healthy self-concept.
Contrastingly, Wayne and the aborigines are part of the marginalised story who are fighting for their rights to self-determination. They live on the margins of society and their identity reflects this marginalised sense of place. As a result, Wayne undergoes a “crisis” of identity, partly because of his inability to value his indigenous origins and because of the “wound that never heals”. As an aboriginal Wayne’s loss of connection with land and community and his reduction to the “sole” sad story of the stereotypical indolent lazy savage, leads to a complete loss of self worth. The aboriginal story in Wellington is one of discrimination and alienation. According to Race Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane “racism hurts its victims in real ways . . . Those exposed to racist abuse will testify that it can inflict mental and physical harm. It can wound your very dignity as a person. It is something that diminishes people’s freedom and their ability to participate in society.”
Wayne’s story closely parallels Kayne’s as he seeks to construct a jig-saw puzzle of contrasting and contradictory stories. The story of love and support in a substitute family opened Kayne’s eyes to a different world – a world of care and concern. Interpreting this story in a mature way, he says, “I thank my mum for showing me a path I don’t want to go down and I’m really grateful for the love I have now.”
Likewise, as he successfully recreates and reclaims himself, Miller comes to realise that Wayne’s story is unique; Wayne “merges” with his story in a way she never will. She wonders, “did that mean Wayne knew who he was and I didn’t?” (234) Both Patti and Wayne, Kayne and Adam, Katrina and Evelyn, seek to reinvent themselves through their life stories, and their connection to people, to place and to their past.
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