Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 11, 2019

On Identity (2019), by Stan Grant (Little Books on Big Ideas)

Stan Grant’s contribution to the Melbourne University Press Little Books on Big Ideas series is called On Identity.  I’ve read a few others in the series: David Malouf’s On Experience; Susan Johnson’s On Beauty; Germaine Greer’s On Rape; Paul Daley’s On Patriotism and On Fairness by Sally McManus.  I like these books: one can read them in an hour but they deliver ideas to think about for a lot longer than that.

Not so long ago, Sue at Whispering Gums reported on Mark Kenny in conversation with Stan Grant and that was why I pounced on this book as soon as I saw it in The Bookshop at Queenscliff. (I was in too much bother with a whiplash injury to do a blog post about that: it will have to suffice to say that I had a lovely time at Bloomsday and many thanks to the bookshop for putting it on.)

This is the blurb for On Identity:

Stan Grant asks why when it comes to identity he is asked to choose between black and white. Is identity a myth? A constructed story we tell ourselves? Tribalism, nationalism and sectarianism are dividing the world into us and them. Communities are a tinderbox of anger and resentment. He passionately hopes we are not hard wired for hate. Grant argues that it is time to leave identity behind and to embrace cosmopolitanism. On Identity is a meditation on hope and community.

Grant takes issue with identity politics because it has become a battleground.  It holds the battle for power, our politics or ideology, our faith or our atheism, all our love and hate.  In that space we become strangers, even strangers to ourselves. 

James Ley comments on the same problem in his review of Nam Le’s On David Malouf (from the Writers on Writers series published by Black Inc). Discussing the issue of authors and critics having to choose whether identity is relevant or not to the author’s work, he writes:

In this apparent double-bind resides a difficulty for author and critic alike. Ideally, such questions [of identity] should be seen as neither determining nor irrelevant. But in practice they can be treacherous to negotiate. In the decade since The Boat was published, the cultural politics around these issues has only become more fraught. The communal realm of culture appears increasingly balkanised; protocols around literary representation have sharpened; the discussion of art is frequently couched in proprietorial terms. Identity and personal experience are often taken to be authoritative, the only valid means by which we might assess a text’s value and legitimacy. (Above cultural constraints: Nam Le on David Malouf, by James Ley, SMH, May 3, 2019)

Stan Grant feels that he would not need to tackle identity as an issue in a perfect world, but identity has been foisted on him.  He is a self-identified Indigenous Australian who counts himself among the Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi, Dharrawal and Irish, and it’s important to him that his identities embrace all and exclude none.  This is only partly because he could never choose what he wanted to be: he was labelled with names such as ‘Aborigine, half-caste, Aboriginal, Indigenous, and other labels he won’t dignify by repeating them.  Official names for people like him have over time determined their destiny: in his own family a great aunt was taken from her family because she was a ‘half-caste’.  At other times in Australian history being ‘black’ meant that life or death was chosen by others.   And yet, as he says, as for so many other Indigenous Australians, to be born black meant always having to explain myself, because I wasn’t really black at all.  If I am the sum of genes, I’m as white as I am black.  

[Readers will remember Anita Heiss’s powerful Am I Black Enough For You written after her Aboriginality was questioned.]

Grant admits that as a young man, he looked away from everything that was not Aboriginal, but then (quoting Wordsworth) found the ‘shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing boy.’

Identity becomes a prison-house. We are locked in with only those who are deemed to be our own for company.  It is the prison-house of our own imaginations—these fictions, these stories carefully woven from collective memories, memories that are not even one’s own, but we are convinced are more real because of that. Collective memories are the most evocative memories of all.  They are handed down with the authority of ancestry and how can we doubt our ancestors? (p.59)

But now, with the passing of the years, he does not want to choose between a black or white identity because that means denying some members of his family, his White grandmother in particular.

While I think know that there are some Indigenous people who feel differently about this, I agree with Grant that it’s an important conversation to have.  In a play that I’ve just read, Black is the New White by Nakkiah Lui, one of the characters points out that that the majority of Indigenous people marry non-Indigenous people.  If we assume that the stats she quotes are correct, that means that there are many people of mixed heritage and some or many of them may also be struggling with the rigidities of contemporary identity politics too.

It is difficult to convey the richness and sophistication of Grant’s essay because he weaves the thoughts of poets, writers and philosophers into aspects of Australia’s Black History and his own personal history.  But I wonder whether he might have made a more convincing, more accessible case if he had written in simpler language, less poetic, and less dependent on the reader being familiar with the allusions he chooses.

Author: Stan Grant
Title: On Identity
Publisher: Melbourne University Press, Little Books on Big Ideas series, 2019, 95 pages
ISBN: 9780522875522
Source: Personal copy, purchased from The Bookshop at Queenscliff, $14.99


  1. Lisa,

    You make some interesting points about journalist Stan Grant’s commentary on Identity as fluid and autonomous. I agree with Grant that it is important not to privilege a racial identity marker or ancestral line but to celebrate every facet of one’s identity and experience.

    I haven’t read Grant’s published writings yet, but I viewed him on different platforms on Youtube. He has a lot of interesting, thought-provoking ideas on Australian society and its treatment of Aboriginal people. In delivering a speech, I remember Grant referencing the text, Between the World and Me by African American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. I find it interesting in your review Lisa that you mention the author’s multidisciplinary approach to examining the issue of Identity. Grant seems to glean central ideas from black and indigenous scholars and critics. In other words, Grant’s diasporic approach to tackling social and political concerns in Australia allows readers to think more critically about knowledge, status, autonomy, and identity through unfixed contexts.

    Lisa, your point on Grant possibly making his writings more accessible to professional and general readerships was effective. I personally think that in order for writers to bring awareness to relevant topics on society, its useful to make writings on it accessible to most, if not all readers.



    • It’s such a very difficult issue, Sonia, and one that I feel quite conflicted about. I’m tired of gender politics and I don’t like anyone ascribing attitudes or behaviour or privilege to one’s skin colour or ethnicity. I’ve worked against that all my life.
      So yes given that ‘identity’ has become such a fraught issue I do think it’s important that it gets discussed in ways that are accessible to everyone.


  2. This sounds both fascinating and well worth the read. I have been particularly interested in this and similar concepts lately. I think that some focus on identity is both natural and healthy. But when it becomes too much of an obsession the result is destructive. In my opinion, here in America, and in some other places, we have an extreme right that has embraced a kind of white identity politics. The result has been terribly harmful. On the worldwide stage, on the left, we have something that I have been writing about that only sees identity, to the exclusion of all else. This is leading to all sorts of trouble. I agree that everyone could use some cosmopolitanism. I might give this book a read.


  3. […] See Janine’s Review at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip and my ANZ LitLovers review. […]


  4. […] Lisa (ANZLitLovers) and Janine (Resident Judge of Port Philip) have also posted on this book. […]


  5. I love the slightly different approaches you, Janine and I have take to this LITTLE book – but it does have BIG ideas resulting in so many different ways to talk about it. I could have written so much more, as I’m sure could you have.

    BTW the trouble with gender politics is that gender is still political (like most of the other identity issues we face). When you see for example what’s happening re abortion in the USA, you know that women can’t relax. It’s soul-destroying.


    • You’re right, of course, women can’t relax, but it’s time to hand the baton on. I think the young women who inherited the freedoms we fought so hard for have taken them for granted, and it’s up to them now, to protect those reforms.
      America is a democracy, and in a democracy you can mobilise, you can persuade others to share your opinion, and you can get your candidates into congress and the state legislatures and get the legislation you want. American women have let this happen, and if it happens here it will be for the same reason.


      • Hmmm … I think that whoever wants to work with the baton should do so! And probably the wider the range of people involve the more effective they can be? There are a lot of young women who are feminist – my daughter and some of her friends certainly are. They may not be out with banners but I know they are talking, reading, commenting, creating, voting, etc through the prism of feminist ideas.


        • Maybe they are, and maybe they’re active. But there’s not enough of them, and they’re not powerful. And things will, as you fear, slide backwards as women have allowed them to in America, unless enough of them care enough to grab that baton.


          • I guess I don’t want to get into blaming women for things slipping back? Why is it all on women to protect these rights – as if it’s not an issue for men too. (I know why, practically, of course, because in the end women carry the burden, but that’s not how it should be, and I therefore don’t want to blame them?)


            • I’m not blaming them, but it’s not much use expecting anyone else to be *as* vigilant IMO.


              • No it’s not much use I completely agree, Lisa, which is the basis of the problem really isn’t it … Our general lack of humanity and ability to see beyond labels – woman, man, black, white, Christian, Muslim, etc. The more all people “fight” for all people the better.


  6. Lisa, I think ILW is great, but you have overwhelmed me with material! You’ve seen my argument (or prejudice!) about Stan Grant on WG so I won’t reprise it here, and will do my best to catch up while I have 2 or 3 days off. Interestingly, I didn’t do as much reading as I might have while stuck in Melb. Not just because I was visiting Mum, but because I get tense waiting for work and find it difficult to concentrate. That’s my excuse anyway.


    • Sorry! It wasn’t intended to be that way, I chose six, one for each day, and then other books came my way. But do not worry, they will all be there together on the reviews page, biding their time.
      (But in the meantime, buy a copy of The Yield anyway. That is a must-read book!)


  7. […] On Identity by Stan Grant. […]


  8. […] On Identity, by Stan Grant (Little Books on Big Ideas) […]


  9. […] On Identity, by Stan Grant […]


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