Creative Nonfiction

looking back to the future

2 March 2015

The concept of ancestry is often thought of wholly in terms of personal identity – a specific bloodline and a family name passed down the generations. But to what extent is personal ancestry wrapped up in national identity?  It’s inevitable that living through a period of time means being touched by the significant events of that era. This intersection between the personal and the national often dictates what we know of the past and how we understand ourselves.

Recent episodes on SBS’ Insight called Bloodlines brought together the descendants of significant WWII figures. This included Hidetoshi Tojo – great grandson of Japanese President Hideki Tojo – and Niklas Frank, son of Hans Frank, Governor of Nazi-occupied Poland. For these individuals, their sense of self is permeated by their ancestors’ actions and they still feel the ripples of previous global events in their daily lives. Tojo speaks of grappling with the legacy of a grandfather who lost the war and was executed for war crimes.

“In Japan (my grandfather) was the biggest taboo subject during the post war period, so there was an atmosphere that made me feel uncomfortable talking openly about my forebears. […] I tried to run away from my identity.”

However, the family name is more than just an identification trait. It also serves as a reminder for self-reflection within a broader social context. Tojo explains the significance of family legacy:

“The Kanji character for Hide is only used for the first son and I am the 18th in the family line. I also have a son and my father told me that I didn’t have to carry on the tradition, but I passed it on to him because I wanted him to think more about his own name.”

In a similar experience, Frank speaks of being haunted by the legacy of his father, who, as Hitler’s associate, authorised many of the decisions concerning the establishment of concentration camps.

“Well, I’m travelling on the ticket of a mass murderer […] there is always this dark cloud behind me.”

He carries around a photo of his father’s body, stating:

“It makes me strong not to follow him.”

It is not just in these extreme and infamous cases where historical events have also touched personal lives. Christine is a second generation Australian of Italian ancestry. For her, there is an acute awareness of family history and the narrative is told through a very personal lens. She explains,

“The story goes that in the days of the war, my family spent half a day scavenging for grass to eat, and in the remaining half, searched for twigs and branches to burn. Lipari, their hometown, is but a tiny island that received little provisions. […] My aunt, as a girl in her teens, travelled three months by boat to arrive in Australia. […] This aunt, now approaching her 90s, has passed onto us many stories of our ancestry, up to four or five generations back, including the temperament of the people, their occupations and their marriages.”

Her family’s story is conveyed by word of mouth and becomes embedded through retellings. The presence of details experienced first-hand means the story surpasses objective facts to become an empathetic narrative.

For some people, however, this narrative is absent. Sometimes it’s simply disinterest. Biological roots can be ambiguous for various reasons, from circumstances of birth or adoption. In other cases, narratives can be repressed out of grief, or dismissed as incompatible with shifts in nationality. Language is also a barrier which can divide generations. Melanie is a second generation Australian with Chinese ancestry. She has an interest in her family’s past – but it’s not always accessible.

“It’s kind of amazing your grandparents were born somewhere totally different to you and at your age were totally different […] so they do have a lot of stories to tell. But the language barrier with my grandmother is frustrating in general.”

Sites like ancestry.com provide a means to bridge gaps in family history. The site offers access to documents like war records and marriage certificates. However, these seemingly neutral documents can facilitate the conflation between national and personal history. Much of ancestry.com’s promotional material emphasises English heritage and highlight certain events in Australian history such as colonisation and the First and Second Word Wars with the overarching legacy of the ANZACs. These events are mapped onto personal histories through an almost nationally ordained paper trail. Interestingly, a study conducted by the site suggests Australians are particularly proud of ‘black sheep’ convict ancestors. Statistics like this reveal just how deeply the national narrative permeates the sense of self.

The consequence of this national framework is that some ancestries are affirmed as being nationally relevant, and by implication, suggests that others are not. This becomes a disparity for those who can’t position themselves around this specific cultural identity. In more general terms, stories which are deemed to reflect badly upon national identity are often hidden. Most pertinently, attempts to reconcile the effects of the Stolen Generation are sometimes hindered by lost or destroyed documents, while contemporary shame means the attempt to move away from the legacy can result in the silencing of it. In cases where the national framework overwhelms the personal, individuals are prevented from accessing their past.

If national narratives so greatly inform individual understandings of ancestry, then the question is what kind of paper trail are we leaving for future generations? What records will surface in their search of family lineage?  More war records? Identification numbers from detention centres? Uncovering someone’s past is a huge task – but perhaps not as huge as the way we go about shaping their futures.


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