Another Day in the Colony by Chelsea Watego review – a fierce manifesto for First Nations to flourish

Watego’s essays draw from other great Black thinkers to argue for a future based not in inclusion and hope, but self-determination

Reading Another Day in the Colony led me back to Jackie Huggins’ Sister Girl. Not just Jackie: I went back to Aileen Moreton-Robinson. I went back to Audre Lorde. I went back to bell hooks’ Talking Back and Feminist Theory. That’s the beauty of Chelsea Watego’s debut: it puts us in dialogue with work and women we’ve known and loved for years. Or, if you’re unfamiliar with them – to paraphrase the great scholar Alanis Morissette – women you ought to know.

Watego’s background is in health. Her work is informed by bringing Black people back into the conversations where they have often been ignored – Black women in particular.

Another Day in the Colony combines memoir, philosophy and analysis to tell us, quite simply: “Fuck hope”. This invocation is a critique of hope as complacency, the dream deferred.

What Watego seeks instead of hope is “the emancipatory possibility of not giving a fuck”. “Some people may think that calls to retire hope for nihilism are irresponsible,” she writes. “But what is irresponsible is to require us to maintain the status quo of keeping Black bodies connected to life support machines they’ve been deemed never capable of getting off.”

White critics may dance around the fact that they know this book is not written for white people. But why bother? There is power in having non-white people as the assumed audience. There is power in talking to mob.

For First Nations, this discursive confidence is ordinarily considered impossible; as though the marginalised don’t have the luxury of making assumptions. But if First Nations are sovereign – if, as Dr Lilla Watson tells Watego in this book, “we haven’t moved” and therefore “the violence we encounter for having held our ground is not of our making” – then shouldn’t some assumptions be possible? And shouldn’t one of those assumptions be that power and joy are possible now? Our existence – and, by extension, the existence of joy – are not marginal. Marginal to whom? Marginal to what?

The penultimate chapter, titled “Fuck Hope”, meditates on this question. It is a no-fucks-given laugh. As a critic my only response was to underline. I have nothing to add; it’s all true. “Fuck hope,” Watego says: why not? Hope, she writes, is something we can hold on to temporarily, a breath taken before diving: “It does not give oxygen to your lungs, it just stops the water from entering.” This murder is not a metaphor.

Divesting of hope does not mean giving up, Watego adds. It means accommodating the idea that, if joy and sovereignty do not exist right now, then they never did. But they did, and they still do. The force of this idea lies in how it gets beneath the skin. It speaks to us emotionally; we recognise its veracity in our bodies.

It is an idea Watego, quoting Paul Beatty, describes as: “Unmitigated Blackness”. “The Tarneen Onus-Williams ‘burn it down’ kind of Blackness.” Beatty calls it a “nihilism that makes life worth living”. However, as Watego goes on to say: “While there is something freeing about no longer giving a fuck, I don’t think I necessarily found the freedom in it that was promised, because the strength of not giving a fuck typically feels most possible once there’s nothing left to lose.” Still, it is “the closest thing to an embodied sovereignty that I have heard articulated”.

The guiding idea behind white supremacy is that whiteness is neutral. That it has humanity, a humanity in which everyone else is lacking. Those not imbued with this humanity, this “whiteness”, are seen as requiring rectification – or, as Watego puts it, paternal benevolence. The money allocated to First Nations “portfolios” is premised on colonial control, the fantasy that First Nations are, before anything else, a problem to be solved. It is a concept, Watego writes, “informed by the same racialised ideologies that enable them to forget that where they came from is not the land in which we became human”.

Two journeys, each separated from the other: a people who remain and a people who forgot – and who go on forgetting – their history in order to stake out a new one. Yet this history is never truly new. It is cultural amnesia; the white supremacist longing for a homeland that can never admit to all the homes it has left behind. The only home it knows how to inhabit are those belonging to others.

Watson, whom Watego mentions as one of her mentors in writing this book, might agree. Watego writes of Watson’s appeal that we “imagine a future as long as the past that is behind us”. “[T]he act of living demands of us a refusal, a refusal to accept their account of things and a refusal to let them rob us anymore of our joy, our life and our land”.

“She advised me,” Watego adds later, “that we were never to see justice, in that we will never have returned to us what they have taken. She then questioned me as to why I needed to win. Why was my being in the world predicated upon wresting something from the coloniser protagonist, knowing that it wouldn’t restore us whole? She reminded me that our being on our terms is winning, of the everyday kind.”

By the time I came to the end of this chapter – with only a few pages of the book left – I was shaking my head with appreciation. Reading Watego, I was reminded of how the Mohawk political scientist Taiaiake Alfred and the Anishinaabe feminist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson take a sceptical stance toward the idea of liberal evolution, or what Watego calls “the ’67 Referendum was a sign of progress” kind of Blackness. They seek not inclusion in settler-colonial society, but flourishing; a self-determination based on loving and resisting “as we have always done”.

This is flourishing on our terms. No sanctions. No permissions. No slaves. No masters.

Another Day in the Colony by Chelsea Watego is out now through UQP


Declan Fry

The GuardianTramp

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