Life was tough and poor as an Aboriginal kid in No Go, in remote Queensland. Tjanara Goreng Goreng navigates the treacherous waters of her childhood, immersed in the legacy of 200 years of brutal treatment of her mother’s people that has left its suppurating scars deep in their psyche. Tjanara’s parents believed that education was the only way to break through systemic poverty, and found ways to send all five children to school that were at once desperate and fraught. A disempowered people are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse – in her case, by the Catholic clergy.
A strong-willed, successful student and athlete, after graduating from university, the times were ripe. She found her place in the new era of federal policymaking: land rights and self-determination, initiatives on health, education, and social justice that were spearheaded by Charlie Perkins and his bright young people. Tjanara was at the nerve centre of Australia’s political life, shaping policy during the most exciting and innovative period in Australian politics.
But she struggles to escape the dark side that leads straight back to her heritage – her experiences as an Indigenous Australian: the abuse, the daily acts of cruel racism, the despairing plight of her people, the addictions to numb the pain. Rising to a management position in Social Policy within the Prime Minister’s Department, the ideological landscape has taken a tectonic turn under the Howard government. When fraudulent claims are cooked up to give the government an excuse to send the military into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, she courageously blows the whistle, and is sacked, charged and convicted for breaches of the Crimes Act relating to disclosure of confidential information; and is bankrupted for her actions.
Always the professional, engaged in numerous ways to help her people, her own damage leads her on a search for healing: from psychotherapy to Aboriginal knowledge to Indian meditation and spirituality.
Szego is captivated and captivates us with this extraordinary Australian whose irrepressible, playful wicked humour leaps off the pages, even as we glimpse the personal and communal pain and despair at times in a life that sweeps across the breadth of the land and its history.