By Claire G. Coleman
I don’t change my mind often … that’s actually far from true depending on how you define “change my mind”. It could be said, in fact, that my mind is so often in flux, my beliefs are so flexible I often have no firm sense of changing from one opinion to another. I think of it as learning.
My mind changes itself constantly, as I learn, thoughts arising and old thoughts and prejudices falling to the wayside as easy as breathing. I can give an example, a simple one, someone once pointed out that a phrase is ableist, and I nodded internally and resolved to never use it (when I am pretty sure I never had), it was simple. When I am wrong about something I am delighted to be corrected, even thankful. My mind is always changing.
Claire G. Coleman: I was someone else and I could no longer even understand the person before. My dreams, my aspirations, my personality, and even my identity had changed.Credit:Nhung Le
There was a time, however, when my internal world changed so profoundly I could never be the same person again. I did not change my mind, for I am one with my thoughts. Instead what happened is my mind changed, and that was the end of it because I am nothing but my thoughts.
I am writing this in the days around my 48th birthday, seven long years from when my life changed so profoundly that I can’t really remember the person I was before. In the days around my 41st birthday, I was on my ancestral Country, with my partner and my parents, visiting family graves and the unfamiliar places that were once a part of my family. Country was a taboo place, dad told me, the Country around where his father was born had seen so much death it was dangerous to even breathe the air, to get the death stuff on you.
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Two weeks after my first visit I returned, down the winding forest roads, from the country where giant trees roam back to the low-lying Banksias and white sand of my family homeland. I was there for the opening ceremony for a memorial to the massacre in that place, a massacre that my family knew about but had depersonalised. Even the Wadjelas in the town and region knew, but history and the government would not admit to it.
There were two oral histories regarding that massacre, that of the Wadjelas (who did the killing), and that of my Noongar people; both were recited and spoken of at the memorial opening. The Wadjela story was short on details: “Noongar mob killed John Dunn and his family killed the people who did it”. The paucity of details should have been a clue there was more to the story. Noongar people also told our story, including an elder who claims my family. Those stories carried all the missing details, the name of the girl who was raped by John Dunn, the name of the Noongar man who had speared Dunn to death, the names of the many Noongar the colonisers slaughtered.
That day built a wall on my personal timeline – before that day I was one person, living one life, after that day I was someone else and I could no longer even understand the person before. My dreams, my aspirations, my personality, and even my identity had changed.
Novelist Claire G. Coleman.Credit:Joe Armao
There were two seeds planted in my mind and soul that day that grew into who I am now, that tore me down and rebuilt me, that changed my mind, my personality, my identity, my aspirations forever. The first was: Aboriginal history and stories are not just stories, they are not a distant story that has nothing to do with me or my life, they are mine, they are my history, they are my family. The massacres were not something that happened to some distant people, distant in space and time, they happened to my family.
The other thing I learned was: story is the most powerful tool and the most dangerous weapon in the world. Stories build culture and culture is all we are, not we as individuals, rather every culture – gangs, governments, organisations, institutions – has a culture and a story. Change the story and you can change the world. Terra Nullius, my debut novel, was born from what I learned that day.
I have spent most of the time since that mind-altering moment looking for the right story, the one that can change the culture of the nation that envelops my sacred land, the story that will change people so they will want to change the world – to save the world. I believe the story is out there, or stories, that will change people so profoundly there will be no reason to change the world because it will have already changed.
I have had my moment, when a story changed me, when I didn’t have to change my mind because it had already changed in a flash of insight, incubated in a story, back in 2015 in my ancestral Country. There must be a way to give those insights to others, there must be a story that can hit other people like lightning, so they don’t have to change their mind, because it had already been changed.
That is my life’s work, to find the story that will change your minds, so you will change the world. I have found that story in some cases, for some people, people have told me of the moments when my work has changed their life, changed their world, changed their mind so profoundly they can barely remember who they were or how they thought. The work continues, it always will.
When I think back I can’t even imagine the person I was before that sunny day in the trees on the south coast of what is now called Western Australia. There is, however, something I understand profoundly. On that day my mind changed, so who I am changed, you could say my world changed because our world is how we see it.
My mind changed, my mind is me.
Claire G. Coleman is a Noongar woman and author of novels Terra Nullius and The Old Lie and the nonfiction collection Lies, Damned Lies. She is a guest of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, whose theme this year is Change My Mind. The event runs from May 16 to 22.
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