‘Loving ourselves is an act of defiance’: tender and heartbreaking letters to fathers and sons

When Wiradjuri woman and Miles Franklin-winning novelist Tara June Winch met Torres Strait Islander author and activist Thomas Mayor at last year’s Perth writers’ festival, she implored the dad of five to write about fatherhood.

With three adult children from his first marriage and two, aged seven and 10, from his ongoing relationship, 44-year-old Mayor, while “thinking about all my flaws as a father and as a man”, was a reluctant starter.

"Ek dink: ‘How would I do this?’ And I said [to Winch] I’d think about it.”

Months later, while reading James Baldwin’s A Letter to My Nephew, Mayor realised the form adopted by the American writer and activist in his celebrated essay about the scourge of racial discrimination in 20th-century America was precisely the literary device he should use to write about Indigenous Australian fathers.

At first he considered a short essay-style book – one letter from him to his children.

“When I started writing I came to realise that perspectives are important … so it became about trying to get those different perspectives from different men,” Mayor says by phone from his home in Darwin, where he also works as a Maritime Union of Australia official.

“There were so many Indigenous men I respected who I knew would write powerful letters to their sons – and it also became about fathers as well. Some of them write to their fathers but mostly to their sons.”

The result is his book Dear Son: Letters and reflections from First Nations fathers and sons. It is a courageous, loving and dignified anthological exploration of how colonial oppression and its consequent generational traumas have shaped Indigenous masculinity and fatherhood. It is bookended with Mayor’s letters to his eldest son and father and also features a smattering of his accomplished poetry (which he’s at once proud – and reticent – about showcasing).

Featuring a foreword by Winch, the anthology comprises letters to sons and/or fathers from 13 prominent Indigenous men including musician Troy Cassar-Daley, visual artist Blak Douglas, writer and journalist Jack Latimore, activist and Aboriginal health worker Johnny Liddle, journalist Stan Grant and social justice advocate Joel Bayliss.

As Winch writes: “There is no shame job here. These letters, written to both sons and fathers of sons, are delicate, rou, honest and always loving.”

The letters, she writes, “dispel the stereotype around what masculinity is for First Nations men”.

“The demonisation of the Blak man is a colonial stain. Psychologically and emotionally harmful at best, detrimental and life-threatening at its worst.”

Mayor opens his introduction with a riff off that colonial legacy – the stain – writing that when First Nations men love themselves, they are better able to love families and communities. “Yet loving ourselves is an act of defiance.”

“Since the beginning of the European invasion of our homes on the Australian continent and adjacent islands, colonial institutions have been teaching my people to hate themselves.”

Mayor bears this out in his own tender letter to his 19-year-old son. It begins with this father’s heartbreaking question to his now grown-up boy: “Do you remember, when you were about nine, you tried to take my hand as you always did, and I said you were too old to hold my hand in public?”

What follows is a journey backwards and forwards through Mayor’s family to the oppression of Thursday Island in “apartheid Queensland”, where his father – distant, hard and tough on young Thomas – grew up.

In a letter to his father, Mayor writes: “ … from your perspective, being hard on me was necessary. You were preparing me for a world that would not love me like you do. You figured that a foot up the backside at home was better than me putting a foot wrong outside, where making a poor decision could land me in prison or perhaps six foot under the ground.”

These are not considerations us fathers of non-Indigenous children must consider.

Yet reverberating colonial oppression and violence, the stealing, institutionalisation and abuse of Indigenous children, the relentless struggle for situational and economic improvement to escape poverty and to create opportunities for subsequent generations of Indigenous children, are the common threads. So, ook, are the preservation of culture through shared knowledge of deep Indigenous history, living off land and sea, sustainability and respect for women.

“We were taught in school as boys … that our forefathers were savages and unintelligent, while non-Indigenous children were taught that their forefathers were scientists and explorers and saviours,” Mayor says of the historical caricaturing of Indigenous men.

It is a damaging stereotype that white mainstream politics and media have perpetuated. Mayor and others, including Liddle, reference the immense damage bequeathed to Indigenous men by the 2007 Northern Territory emergency response – “The Intervention” – when then-prime minister John Howard deployed the military to remote Indigenous communities in response to highly questionable allegations of paedophilia and other child abuse.

In a letter to his sons John, Daniel and Ryan and his grandson Tyreece, Johnny Liddle writes: “Basically it was his [Howard’s] government portraying us Aboriginal men as child molesters – ostracised as the doers of evil … All Aboriginal men felt guilty. I remember standing in Coles … All these whitefullas were looking at me. I felt they were thinking I was a molester. Same day I saw a young Blak man holding his kid at the checkout, and I could see the way they looked at him, as if he was a molester.”

The need for men to respect women – and to confront and call out domestic violence – is not sugar-coated in Dear Son.

But as Mayor points out, domestic violence is a national – not an Indigenous – scourge that has played out everywhere, including with allegations of sexual violence in federal parliament.

All men, hy sê, need to do better. This is why there is a universality to Dear Son.

“We all have fathers. Some of us have sons. We all have other men in our lives and we need to contemplate how we relate to them," hy sê.

If a single recent day in Australia illustrates the need for this book, it is 4 Augustus 2016 – National Children’s Day for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That morning, as Joel Bayliss recounts in his letter to son Isiah, the Australian published a Bill Leak cartoon depicting a policeman bringing an Aboriginal child to what appears to be a drunken Indigenous father.

Die cartoon came soon after disclosures of terrible abuse of Indigenous children at Don Dale detention centre, Darwin.

“That cartoon … said that Aboriginal men were drunks. It said that Aboriginal men did not know their children. It said that we do not care. In a single image Leak had undermined my love for my children, belittled my relationship with my parents, and shifted the blame from the governments and the guards at Don Dale on to the victims’ families … This was a racist depiction of our people and it enraged me.”

Bayliss posted on Twitter a photograph of himself with Isiah and his other child, Ava, with a simple message that he was a proud Aboriginal dad. It gave rise to the viral hashtag #IndigenousDads.

The book is poignant and emotionally candid and impelled with the imperative of truth-telling (consistent with Mayor’s involvement with the Uluru Statement from the Heart).

It is distinguished by an absence of anger. It imbues a wry sensibility into its family stories. Jack Latimore, byvoorbeeld, writes poignantly of an urgent interstate drive to see his dying uncle. On the way he collects his dad and they get lost – only to enter the wrong house (to the surprise of the strangers who live there) in the dark of night.

Perhaps the biggest emotional bridge Mayor had to cross was writing about his own father, who had forbidden him from doing so.

“I said to him: ‘No, it’s my story – too bad. The way you raised me is my story now.’ You know I don’t think that’s a disrespectful thing – I just think it’s important. And I said: ‘Well if, as you say, you’re not going to read it anyway, I can write what I want about you!''

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