Today our book is officially out in the world.
Three years ago today (yes, exactly today – I checked!) Aaron and I started talking about working together on this project. I can’t tell you if this book is any good – that’s for others to say – but I can tell you that I gave it everything I had.
We were introduced by the literary agents who represent us both – Jacinta Di Mase and Danielle Binks, from JDM Management. Aaron had some really powerful things he wanted to say; I had some ideas about using his personal story as a framework to discuss the wider issues he raised; and on that fairly flimsy basis we agreed to start work. No contract, no financial exchange, just a mutual willingness to see what we might achieve.
We recorded hundreds of hours of interviews. I travelled to Cairns and then up to the remote Northern Peninsula Area, travelling to and speaking with Aaron about the places closest to his heart. I met the people closest to his heart too – his family and his friends.
I always knew that being selected to tell Aaron’s story was a privilege but along the way I learned that the flip side of privilege is responsibility – it became my responsibility to tell his story to the absolute best of my ability. I had some wobbles along the way, too. I wasn’t always sure I could do justice to the important things Aaron had to say, the vital stories he wanted to tell. Because some of the telling was incredibly difficult.
Aaron’s life has been haunted by grief and shame. Grief at the loss of his father and grandfather when he was six years old; grief at the suicide of his wife when he was thirty-two, when they’d only been married for a month. And shame about his failures – his failure as a child to protect his mother from the violence of her new partner, and his own experiences, as a young man, as a perpetrator of domestic violence himself.
“This is brutal,” said Aaron to me. “I’ve never spoken to anyone about these things before.”
I worked out that if he was brave enough to do the telling, then the least I could do was to ensure that the words on the page did justice to his courage and his pain. I learned how to ask good questions, useful questions that elicited interesting answers. I learned that the best questions often had me a little afraid of what the answer might be. And Aaron always answered; never passed, never fobbed me off, always complied when I circled the conversation back to the hard parts, back to the mental pain points. He was never afraid to do the emotional deep dive.
“I’m guessing I’ll lose some work as a result of this book,” Aaron said, “lose some opportunities, possibly even lose friends because it won’t sit right with them. It doesn’t sit right with me either, it won’t ever sit right with me. I was a piece of shit, and I was despicable. If I could go back, I’d have removed myself from the situation, but I didn’t and here’s what happened. I can’t shy away from it. But I can tell you the truth about it.”
“One thing I’ve learnt,” Aaron continued, “is that if you tell the truth, it remains in your past. Tell a lie, and it’s always going to haunt your future. And I have enough ghosts in my life already.”
So in working with Aaron I learned, over the several years it took to write the book, how to listen with empathy and without judgement. I also learned when to shut up, to leave a silence for him to fill or not, as he chose. I learned how to create an environment of trust by first establishing an interview process he could trust and how through that process, he came to trust in me. I also learned that tough men cry. And that the toughest do it unashamedly, openly and often very gently. No heaving sobs, just a quiet tear and a look of utter despair.
Finally, I also learned about optimism. That despite Aaron’s setbacks and failures, he remains one of the most optimistic and enthusiastic people I know. As a result, his thoughts about colonialism, racism, trauma and the way forward for the Torres Strait communities are full of positive power and emotion.
Aaron’s personal story is remarkable. And it’s appalling that, after all this time, his is the first memoir by a Torres Strait Islander ever to be commercially published. But the real strength of this memoir lies less in Aaron’s story and more in his insights into what it means to be an Australian black man in the 21st century.
Writing this book with Aaron changed me. You should read it, it might change you too.
Don’t take my word for it though – see what Her Royal Fabulousness Deborah Mailman AM has to say!
‘Aaron doesn’t shy away from his most intimate feelings which makes this an honest and deeply affecting story. It’s a love letter to family, community and culture that is full of laugh-out-loud moments, heartbreaking lessons and the importance of what really matters in this life. Truly inspiring.’ Deborah Mailman
‘I don’t know anyone who’s lived such a life. This is a compelling read. Of a man who’s endured so much so early. Of a man connected to his people and fiercely proud of who he is. Who’s come out the other end an artist. A pure storyteller who, because of his trials, has found a compassionate voice full of dignity. Inspiring.’ Matt Nable