Just occasionally, you read a book that you know will stay with you for a very long time. It may tell an amazing story, or move you, make you think or make you laugh, or be beautifully written.
Born-again Blakfella does all these things.
Jack Charles is one of the Stolen Generation, being removed as a baby from his mother and soon sent to live in the Box Hill Boys' Home run by the Salvation Army, where he is abused. He is told that he is an orphan, a lie, and is the only Aboriginal child in the home, "a lone blak child among two hundred white faces".
The whole of Born-again Blakfella is the story of his struggle to regain what was his birthright; connection with his family and culture. Being institutionalised and abused continues to affect him throughout his life, curtailing a significant love relationship, making him feel like an outsider.
It's impossible to 'get over' something like that, as if it were a minor hurdle placed in the way, rather than an attempt to deny a whole culture, stolen child by stolen child.
Born-again Blakfella charts Charles's resilience and ability to pick himself up and "keep moving on", from making himself "as small as possible" in the children's home as a means of survival, to his eventual place as an Elder within his community. A great strength of the book is the detailed description of various worlds Charles has lived in.
He tells us how cat-burglary demands the ability to talk to dogs, captures the various sounds of work and music in a glass factory, outlines the social expectations at dances, reflects on the demands of pottery, and deals with strategies for surviving in jail or while acting. His status as a renowned theatre and movie actor often comes in handy during his many escapades and jail spells.
The book is as near as you can get to hearing someone telling you his story in person. Charles and Namila Benson have achieved a beautiful clarity of prose.
In the prologue, for example, the author recounts in anecdotal style how he would sometimes exit the scene of a robbery. He would "put on my dandified, jolly-good-ol' chap air, playing the perfectly down-to-earth, nothing-to-see-here, friendly neighbour". Charles was sometimes described to the police as African-American, rather than Aboriginal. He goes on to say that "(t)oo many folks equate Aboriginality with the stereotype of the blakfella silhouette in the distance, balancing on one foot".
The book links the personal story of Charles's not being seen with the blindness of many white Australians to history and the ongoing side-lining of Indigenous people. That it is so readable makes it all the stronger in conveying these ideas. The story of the life and death of Charles's brother, Archie, also stolen from their mother, is unnerving in the way it captures the callous treatment of a vulnerable man in the prison system.
The author's record of his attempts to protect his brother while he is also in a different prison at the time is agonising.
Serious stuff indeed. But there is also a wicked stream of humour that intertwines itself with these aspects of Born-again Blakfella. The alternative meaning of the word "Moomba" (the name given to an annual festival in Melbourne) is revealed in the book, and this throws a whole new and hilarious meaning on that event (no need to give that away here; you'll have to read the book). Charles's knocking on a jail door to be let back in, the story of an early botched robbery, or the useful super-size of the Victorian premier Daniel Andrews, are just a few more of the humorous moments.
Charles's story emphasises that with every success, he (and other Indigenous people) still face "clumsy, casual racism". For example, after receiving a major award, Senior Victorian Australian of the Year, a taxi driver does not trust him to pay a fare. This is, unfortunately, a wide-spread problem for Indigenous people across the board, never mind those who are recognised as Elders and respected in the arts community. And even today, he is still discovering aspects of his story; he found out who his father was as recently as 2017.
Jack Charles: Born-again Blakfella does what the best autobiographies do - link the author's experiences to historical and political events in a way that makes them vivid and memorable.
Near the end of the book, Charles writes that "if you can't see a problem, you can't identify or understand it". His autobiography is a vivid and timely story, which deserves to be read by every Australian.
- Penelope Cottier lives in Canberra and writes poetry as PS Cottier.