My family thought it was hilarious when I told them I was hoping to publish my life story. They laughed like drains. When they worked out I was half-serious they scoffed and told me that’s what old people do, old people at the end of their lives. Not a middle-aged bloke like me.
I laughed along with them, and the conversation moved on, but I was stung. Middle-aged? Me? I’m only in my forties… oh, hang on, wait. I thought about my closest friends, and about my uncles and cousins who were like brothers to me. In my mind’s eye they were young men, full of fire and life and laughter. Except that they weren’t, not now. Too many of them were cold in the ground, dead for any number of reasons and the few who were left were well on their way to, well, to the other place.
That fear that I wasn’t old enough to tell my own story meant that I delayed this project for years. I had some other fears too. Plenty of people will tell you that I’m not afraid of anything much, but the thought of telling my story made me uneasy. I was, frankly, scared of looking too closely into myself—I knew I might not like what I saw. So I kept putting this project off. I put it off while I worked, put it off while my life went on, and put it off while I attended funerals, so many funerals, of my friends, my family—and my wife. That one was the hardest.
But even while the people I loved were dying around me, it took a while for the penny to drop: my chances of living to a ripe old age were actually pretty slim. The Australian government agrees. Official statistics tell us that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men will, on average, live far shorter lives than non-Indigenous Australian men. The difference is almost a decade. That gap is even wider for those living in remote, and very remote, locations. Locations like the islands of the Torres Strait, for instance. At the 2016 Census the government reported that fewer than five percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were aged sixty-five years or over, compared with sixteen percent of non-Indigenous Australians. So what were the odds that I would become one of the five percent?
With those figures in mind, and with those funerals too, I decided that I needed to tell my story now. I’m not an old man—hey, I’m only in my forties, remember—but it’s entirely possible that I’m near the end of my life. Because I’m black. Because I’m Indigenous. Because I’m a proud Torres Strait Islander man who grew up, and lives a life, immersed in Torres Strait culture. Look at me. I literally embody my culture. It’s in the shape of my face, the colour of my skin, the way that I speak. It’s in my blood and my thoughts and more than anywhere else it’s in my heart.
I’m going to start my story with a fight, and some related drama, but that’s just a ruse to draw the readers in. The real story begins in my heart, and my heart belongs to some small islands off the northernmost tip of mainland Australia. My people there are warriors, that’s for sure, but we are storytellers too. I’ll tell the fight story so people can learn something about me but also to keep them listening; listening until they learn what I really think they should know.
Adhi kuikaimaw. Let’s begin the story.