Book Review: Tell Me Why by Archie Roach

Rating: 5 out of 5.

While reading Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, which is a phenomenal book (review here), I kept thinking that every Brit should read the book. I mean, everyone should read it (it’s honestly phenomenal) but especially Brits. It is a book steeped in British history, and focused on Britain as a whole. Which is understandable, since the author is British. And when I’d finished it, I had this incredible urge to learn everything I could about my country’s history.

My country is Australia, in case you didn’t know.

And Australian history is just as painful, just as horrific, just as bloodstained as other nations.

So my goal has been to read as much as I can about it. My first stop is Archie Roach’s memoir, Tell Me Why. Archie Roach is an Indigenous Australian musician, and was a part of ‘the stolen generation‘ as a child. It took me a little bit longer than usual to read the book, because at times it really was not a fun read. Important, yes. Very. But fun? No, not the whole time.

I have brothers and sisters, but no one ever told me.

It opens up with a punch. Young Archie finds out the family he’s been living with for years is not the only family that he belongs to. He receives a letter from his sister, telling him their old mum had recently died, and she thought it about time they meet.

But it wasn’t as simple as that.

The address on the letter mentioned Sydney, and he was in Melbourne, and young, with no money of his own. But, even though he couldn’t do anything about it right then, the letter still stirred up thoughts and feelings and long-lost memories in his mind. He started to question everything, and his new focus was to get out and find his family. Not that he didn’t love his foster family – his mum and Scottish dad. But a whole part of him was missing. There was a whole other life he didn’t even know about. He had to go out and find out as much as he could.

And so he did.

The memoir follows his entire life, from that moment he got the letter, until the present day (well, 2019 when it was published). He lived such a full and varied life. Truly, a rollercoaster life. He did eventually meet with his true family (those who were still alive) and their conversations were riddled with heartbreak and plain confusion.

“This all happened for no reason,” he said. “Why did they do all this to us? Why? Tell me why?” Alma and Myrtle joined, too, and it became a chorus: “Why? Why? Why?” […] Was there a reason? Why was I taken away? Why were we all taken? Why would they leave Dad on the floor of a prison cell? Why was Mum left to become so sick? Why did we have to spent our lives searching? I had no answers. 

The stolen generation is a true stain on our country’s history pages, and reading about Archie’s lived experience is concrete evidence that it was the wrong decision. You’d think that most people would agree with it, would say that ‘of course the stolen generation was a bad government policy and a horrible move‘, but you’d be surprised the kind of things people believe. And it’s those kinds of people that need to read memoirs like Archie’s, to see from the perspective of someone who still feels the trauma of it all, whose children still feel the trauma. Even the families of those taken were affected for life.

“Things were different when you kids got taken away – quiet. On those quiet days, you could hear the echoes of you all running amok in the forest or playing games or singing.” […] I hadn’t thought much about what it was like for those left behind. 

Archie also details his fight against alcoholism. It was a tough slog. I read chapter after chapter where he’d choose alcohol over something else, over and over again, and I felt drowned and suffocated by it. But those chapters represented years and years, decades of his life that only happened because of how his life began, how the government stole him away from his home and his people, tried to pretend this was good for him, for all of them. Archie himself writes, eventually, he just felt that was his lot in life, what he was meant for, how he was destined to live and die – by the bottle. Because that’s all he saw around him. The scarce opportunities, the glances from the cops as they walked by, how “every policeman in the country seems to have the same cadence, the same character in their voice when talking to [Indigenous Australians]“. He had all bug given up hope. He had good days, and bad days, but the alcohol helped to turn everything into a triumph, or, at the very least, a comedy. And he was, at last, surrounded by his people – they looked like him, they spoke like him, they had all been affected by similar pasts.

They were all fighting the same battles.

Like in 1988, on the 26th of January, a day the government had dubbed Australia Day – to celebrate the colonisation of our nation. Archie and his new family, and Indigenous Australians all over the country, filled into buses and made their way to Sydney to protest the day.

I loved Australia, modern and ancient, and I was happy to celebrate our nationhood with any Australian who wanted to celebrate with me – but not on the day that my people started being killed. Not with my people still dying to this day in prisons and on the floors of pubs and empties. 

Archie found his people, and with that strength, they fought against the so-called celebration – a celebration which seeks to discount all the history before the colonisation, that seeks to wipe the bloodstains off our history books, that seeks to paint Australia as a peaceful nation, that has achieved so much, through only hard work and integrity. Reading about this protest in Archie’s memoir surprised me because, growing up, Australia Day was always called just that. I never knew of a protest in the 80s to change it. It’s only been in the last decade or so that there’s been a real push to label it what it actually is – Invasion Day.

Anyway, I digress…

Back to Archie.

In between all the different challenges and battles, he met Ruby, a shining light in this book. I didn’t see any pictures of her, but I could just imagine her smiling at me. She was full of this spirit and strength, so palpable, even only described in ink. And his life began to morph and change. There were still battles – some of the biggest of his life – but also true triumphs. His music was present throughout the memoir – even though I’ve only just mentioned it – as each chapter starts with the lyrics from different songs, but in the second half is where he really focuses on it, and it’s just wonderful.

The way he’s framed this memoir is remarkable, and is one of the reasons this book is so memorable. The first half details all his early years, and it’s smothered in confusion and doubt and angst and depression. There are some happy times, and he met many beautiful souls throughout this time. But even in between the happiness, there’s lashings of sadness, even if young Archie couldn’t see it himself. And then the second half comes and it’s filled with such light and joy, and so much success – some of feels so miraculous because, as a reader, you’ve been on this journey. You’ve wondered if he’s ever going to get to the other side of some particular battles, mourned the loss of his friends, some of his family, poured one out, as they say. And then, so many incredible things happen, it made me laugh and cry at the same time. Because he’s been through so much. His body and mind and soul had suffered so much torment. To see where he ended up, all the things that he’s achieved, is truly heartwarming and incredible.

Thirty years ago we were marching for justice down the city streets, but now we were telling our stories in concert halls. 

Of course I gave this book FIVE STARS. How could I not? It is filled with Archie’s battles, some small, others really big; some he and his people lost, some they won. Things get really bleak near the middle – so much so, I almost had to stop reading for the night. But I powered through because, if it’s hard for us to read, imagine how hard it was to live through. We owe it to all those who’ve been through such horrific things to read their stories and understand their plight, to empathise with them.

Each new perspective from which we read expands our world view, and helps us to know others better. And our goal, as people of the human race, should be to understand one another as well as we can.

The more we understand one another, the better the world will be. Which is why this isn’t where my learning is going to stop. I hope to continue learning, to keep reading and listening. And I think you should too. Wherever you’re from in the world – learn the history of the world, and definitely learn the history of your own country.

Further reading:

Archie Roach |Archie & Ruby | The Stolen Generation | 1988 Protest | Australia Day or Invasion Day? | National Sorry Day

Indigenous causes to donate to and support:

World Vision | Charity Guide | Indigenous Organisations & Campaigns to Support | ANTaR

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