By Laksiri Fernando –
I first came to know about this story from a new friend, Sisira Weragoda, found through Colombo Telegraph. Then of course I read it. This is a fascinating story particularly for the Sri Lankans who grapple these days quite emotionally with the questions of identity. It is a true story written by the main protagonist, Gordon Matthews, but it could easily be read as a novel without unflinching interest. At the beginning it may be little tedious, but then until the end it is a fascinating story of 229 pages.
A baby boy was adopted in 1952, named Gordon Matthew, by a well to do Melbourne family and what they knew for sure was that the young mother came from Sydney to deliver the baby and she was white. There were four different adopted children altogether in this benevolent family thereafter. Those days unlike today the only option for an unmarried woman with pregnancy was to arrange adoption if not going through the risky business of abortion. There were agencies in adoption service or business. Single mother proposition was unimaginable. This was also the period of white Australia policy.
Question of Colour
It was not clear at the beginning, but the baby Gordon was turning darker. Pop Brodrick, his mother’s father, was the first to pick it. He used to call the baby my ‘little Abo.’ “On another occasion, Mum had visited her family at their Melbourne bayside home. ‘Give my love to my little Abo,’ Pop had pronounced as my mother prepared to leave. Mum had reacted angrily.”
Mum was a gracious woman. She never really noticed. She wouldn’t have cared about colour anyway. In relation to Dad, Gordon had no idea whatsoever what he thought about his colour or racial background. Years later, Auntie Phil had asked “what do you think Gordon’s racial background is?”
“Pacific islander,” Dad had casually replied.
Gordon was conscious. During summer holidays at the beach he would be in stark contrast to his siblings. His brother and sisters turned pink while he turned dark absorbing the sun naturally. He used to examine himself in a mirror or study the family photos. This would not be the case in everyone. Some are more conscious than the others. It was not an issue among the little kids in the primary. Even if someone called him ‘Abo,’ it was like another nickname.
Things came to a crunch when the family went to England for a year. It was directly asked. He was attending secondary grammar. “One day one of my classmates mentioned that he had seen a television program about Australian Aboriginals the previous evening. ‘Are you Aboriginal, Gordon,’ he enquired out of the blue. ‘I was thinking about if after the program. They say the only coloured people in Australia are aboriginals and you’re not completely white are you? Where do your Mum and Dad come from? What nationality are they?”
This was the beginning of Gordon’s identity crisis. He wanted answers and they were not easy to come. Adoption was not a major issue, if not the race, because all other siblings also were adopted. Parents were also not an issue, like in some other cases, and they were good as the natural ones in love and care. The crisis became aggravated when he came back to Melbourne and attended the prestigious Scotch College, afforded by his parents. There he was hounded for his race.
“I don’t remember precisely how it began, but encouraged by a ringleader, as teenage boys so frequently are, a number of boys decided that calling me ‘Abo’ could provide entertainment. Soon I found that whenever I appeared during recess or at lunchtime, I would find myself subjected to a chant of ‘Abo’ which sometimes reverberated around the entire senior school quadrangle…Within a short space of time, ‘Abo’ was alternated with ‘Boong’ – scarcely an improvement.”
The harassment stopped after reporting to the principal, but the crisis continued. The saga affected his studies and adolescence life. He became sexually active very early and lost his virginity long before most of his peers. His relations with siblings changed. He was at the brink of falling into drinking but escaped. He scarcely managed to enter university in Hobart. There the life changed through an adopted identity.
One fine day, his political science teacher approached him and asked “I hope you don’t mind me asking this mate, but I’ve been wanting to know whether you’re of Aboriginal descent?”
“Well, I could be Aboriginal,” he replied hesitantly.
Eventually he was recommended for an ABSCHOL. His identity was resolved at least for the time being. His parents didn’t object having understood his ordeal and also realising he in fact could be Aboriginal. After graduation, he joined the Australian Foreign Service and he had an advantage as an Aborigine by that time in early 1980s. He served in Nigeria, and back home, he was involved in Aboriginal promotional activities. He was liked by his ‘mob.’
“Yet I kept worrying over the issue of where I stood now in relation to my Aboriginality. I had been accepted within both the Aboriginal community and the bureaucracy. The process couldn’t have been any smoother. One or two individuals in the Aboriginal community did question my origins, although only one negatively or aggressive way.”
Sri Lankan Descent
As time passed, his doubts again lingered. Now it was not about identity, but about his presumed identity. He traced and traced and sought professional help in locating his natural patents and finally found them in Iowa, the United States. None was aboriginal. His natural mother was Colette Darcy, an Australian white woman from Sydney, and actual father Vivian Edmund Gunesekara from Sri Lanka.
This is a fascinating story with so many mini-stories and anecdotes. Margaret’s story in Chapter 18 itself is fascinating who helped Gordon to trace his natural parents who was herself was an adoptee.
Vivian’s father was Sextus who had studied at St Thomas, Mount Lavinia, and played cricket and died in his twenties in a car accident. Vivian’s mother Sharmini was the eldest daughter of Nalin Jayasinghe, a successful businessman and a coconut planter probably living in Mount Lavinia. Vivian had studied at St Thomas as well as St Sebastian’s, Madampe or Moratuwa, before coming to Australia in 1948. “My father had not been forced abroad by persecution, war or famine, the classic themes of migration,” Gordon had noted.
There is much information given on Gordon’s Sri Lankan ancestry, but I would warn against anyone pursuing them. Don’t look for Gunesekeras or Jayasinghes in Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia area to find Gordon’s relatives! “Some names, places and identifying information have been changed to protect the privacy of certain individuals.” Why?
After tracing his natural family in Iowa with three siblings, one sister and two brothers, Gordon hits another crisis of identity. He wanted reconciliation with his own past. During a period where the word ‘reconciliation’ is so much used and abused in Sri Lanka, I think this is important. People, who go through considerable anguish, whatever the reason, need relief through telling their stories. One example is the ethnic war in our living memory. In the present case, “This book was an act of catharsis. I wrote it to make peace with myself,” Gordon has said.
In the process, however, he encountered some uneasy problems with his natural parents. When he reveals that he wanted to write his story, both his mother and father were not happy. “Despite my repeated assurances, they feared a true account would threaten their privacy and anonymity.” Therefore, it is clear that Colette or Vivian is not their real names.
Of course I picked this book because of its Sri Lankan connection. Right or wrong, we all are inclined to fancy about our personal connections. There is nothing much wrong in indulging in them in moderation! I was also delighted to know that after graduation from the University of Tasmania, Gordon had first worked for the World University Service (WUS) branch in Hobart, raising funds for scholarships in Bangladesh in late 1970s. His details and activities would have been in my old cupboard, when I took over as the Secretary for Asia/Pacific of WUS (1984-1991), few years later at the Geneva Headquarters.
Apart from the country connection to the Sri Lankan readers, there is a greater meaning in the book. As Gordon said, he wanted to “provoke people to think about the range of social issues involved: the plight of the several hundred thousand Australian women who had relinquished children for adoption; the situation of adoptees; the effects of racism and the circumstances of indigenous Australians” (p. 221). All these matters are dealt in the book in the most balanced, sensitive and humane manner. Most importantly, it is a book about the identity crisis of racist or ethnic nature.
When Gordon firmly discovered that he was not Aboriginal, he had to tell the other indigenous colleagues and the Department, fearing how they would take it. He first told Benny Mills, the first indigenous diplomat. “A flicker crossed Benny’s face then vanished.” Then he said, “I can’t believe what you’ve just told me…You must have been under hell of a lot of pressure for an awfully long time…Anyhow, you don’t have to worry. We won’t allow anything happened to you.” It was the same with other colleagues. The Department of Foreign Affairs also took it as a matter of fact. Gordon also noted:
“Emotionally part of me was still definitely Aboriginal. Although I was now Gordon Matthews, Sri Lankan adoptee, my connection with Aboriginal Australia continued and wouldn’t suddenly wither and die.”
He continued, Gordon Matthews, Aboriginal, Sri Lankan, and most importantly “An Australian Son.”