The last stop before home on my six-month trip around Australia was Warracknabeal, a tiny little town in the Wimmera region of Victoria. Wotjobaluk country. My maternal grandmother’s house was on the outskirts of the town, near Yarriambiack Creek, a distributary of the Wimmera River. She died over a decade ago, but my mother and aunt had kept the house, still filled with many of Grandma’s belongings, and they offered it to me as a writer’s refuge for the tail-end of my trip.
It was the winter of 2010 and the drought had just broken. All around the country, long-parched fields now slushed with rain, creek beds and dams that had been cracked trenches and dustbowls for years were now so inundated with water they were coughing it back up over their banks. I remember those few weeks in my grandma’s kitchen as some of the coldest of my life, which, given that a few years earlier I had lived through a Polish January, just goes to show how heat and cold are infinitely relative. After a year in the tropics, that Victorian wheat-belt winter went straight to my bones. I craved sleep constantly, every day struggling against the urge to hibernate. I don’t think I’ve slept so much since I was a teenager.
That August, Canadian band Arcade Fire released an album called The Suburbs. They are the kind of band that are simultaneously critically acclaimed and widely loathed – an indie rock outfit that found spectacular first-album success. The Suburbs was their third: an understated, slightly too-long, and unequivocally Gen Y record. I couldn’t stop listening to it.
It wasn’t as if I thought every song was great, but the music created a certain kind of mood that suited me. Maybe it was because I had set up camp alone in a house that still had my childhood holidays still sitting on the mantlepiece, or maybe it was because an inevitable part of travel is self-reflection and re-evaluation. This particular trip encouraged particular kinds of re-evaluation, and to come back to Warracknabeal at the end of it seemed like a good time to compare everything I’d just experienced with the world I used to know growing up.
I was a teenager in the Howard years. He came to power when I was just finishing primary school, and I can’t think of the era that followed without remembering that pervasive sense of uncertainty and dread that poisoned so much of public life. Even before that, Kennett’s gutting of the public service had meant kitchen-table announcements about the possibility of having to move to the country if my firefighter father should lose his job. To my mind at the time, it felt like I and everyone I loved was just one new law away from a life of obscene poverty, or forced procreation, or persecution for whatever difference was considered the most threatening at the time.
And it didn’t seem to get any better. I remember the bitterness in our classroom arguments in 2001, after the planes hit the World Trade Center and then again after the Tampa arrived. I remember screaming accusations of bigotry and racism at a classmate from the opposite side of the room, and choking on my own anxiety and rage when the teachers tried to calm us down. I remember how so often it felt like we were growing up not into a world full of choices – as we were told – but a world full of already-worn grooves. Trenches dug for us to file through. I remember being haunted by the thought of packing groceries for the rest of my life – that I would forever be nothing but a cog in the machine, essential but replaceable, valued only insofar as I could perform this mindless but repetitive function. I felt trapped, bored because I felt trapped, and confused because that boredom was undercut by the most profound sense of urgency – the kind of fire that comes from knowing there is something fundamentally wrong with the world and if you don’t try to make it right, make it better, make it out, it will eat you alive.
It felt a bit like this:
There are people who like to bitch about my generation. Regardless of class or context or individuality, they present us – and dismiss us – as self-satisfied, self-centred, ignorant and profoundly ungrateful. It enrages me. I understand why those stereotypes exist but that is not the same as accepting their implications. Perhaps every generation is doomed to rebel against and be resented by their predecessors, whether for rejecting the previous generation’s values or for embodying them too well. (If my generation is self-centred, is that not the inevitable outcome of growing up under neoliberalism? If my generation is politically apathetic, is that not understandable given a lifetime of public alienation from the concerns of mainstream government? A generation that grows up with an all-encompassing market and limited capacity to organise becomes mired in liberalism and wary of collectivity and community – is it really so hard to understand why?)
It’s easy to dismiss one’s teenage experiences and revelations for being under-theorised, somewhat socially myopic and hormone-driven – even though they often are – but it’s a mistake, in my opinion. If major political change is going to happen in this country it’s going to need my generation and those coming after us, and it’s going to need to understand not only where we came from but how it made us feel.