Tales from the Table: Stories from the Indigenous Hospitality House makes this rich, big, slippery word come alive through poetry, storytelling, reflections and essays. Its various contributors are all current and former residents or partners in the Indigenous Hospitality House (IHH), a Settler/non-Indigenous household in Carlton North that opens its doors to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people visiting Melbourne hospitals.
The project developed in response to calls from health care workers at various Melbourne hospitals for more accommodation options for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people visiting town. Since opening in 2001 the IHH has received over 1750 guests, and has sought to provide a peaceful and homely atmosphere for as long as each guest needs while in Melbourne. The house is occupied by between five and seven permanent residents and has space for about six or seven guests. While the house serves as a place to stay for guests, its other, equally important purpose is to make space for Settler/non-Indigenous people to explore the issue of identity on stolen land. This is something residents participate in through daily life, but also includes volunteers who help out with the evening meal, and participants in monthly learning circles and other events.
The book traverses topics such as getting enough personal space in what can be quite a large and changeable household, to reflections on feminism and the didgeridoo. A common thread through the entire book is the way it tackles topics familiar within academic and policy circles in a down to earth and personal manner. This is a key aspiration of the IHH: a place where truthtelling and reconciliation becomes personal.
One illustration of this is the way the IHH has dealt with a key question: “how can non-Indigenous people offer hospitality on stolen land?” This is a common criticism when people first hear about the project, and, as this book makes abundantly clear in a gentle way, is based on a false understanding of true hospitality. As Chris Booth writes, reflecting on God’s hospitality in contrast to our own:
often we’re used to hospitality as an exchange… [and] if we are going to think about hospitality in terms of exchange, it is actually we Colonist Peoples who have been doing most of the taking… Yet most of the time we have still received so much welcome from our guests at the IHH… this can be a good reminder that it is actually we who are the guests.
Another way the book simply illustrates a commonly ignored concept is when it talks about ‘whitefella business’. When we talk about ‘reconciliation’ we often talk about things Indigenous Australians do, or ways they need to ‘catch up’ with the rest of Australia. But that is to demand that the majority of change and work take place in, be done by, and sometimes with, only 3% of the population, while the other 97% carries on. It is to neglect the fact we are beneficiaries of the theft of this land and that we, the 97% need to understand our relationship to this land, its first peoples and its history not as ‘normal’ but as a set of relationships built on theft.
We non-Indigenous people have unfinished business of our own. And while this term can sound menacing, threatening or uncomfortable, the heart of the Indigenous Hospitality House, as this book illustrates, is to make reckoning with that business personal. It involves sitting with grief, coming face to face with suffering and seeing our own need for healing. Ultimately, this enriches us and informs our discipleship in this time (post-colonisation, post-apology, pre-treaty) and this place (Australia, Narrm, Melbourne).
Tales from the Table is gentle, relaxed and sometimes humorous. It demands to be read alongside a good cuppa and offers insights big and small to all people. It is not a book to pore over like a textbook, but to soak up like a rich, down to earth conversation. We at the Indigenous Hospitality House hope that this book will help people to think about their identity on this land, in this society. We encourage people to use it not only for personal reflection and entertainment but also a conversation starter in wider circles.
By Tom Allen, Indigenous Hospitality House.
Tales from the Table: Stories from the Indigenous Hospitality House. Various Authors. Independently published in Melbourne; 149 pages; $30.
Please contact the Indigenous Hospitality House: Ph: (03) 9387 7557 Email: email@example.com
Price is $30 for pick-up from the house and $35 for postage within Victoria. Other postage options negotiated as necessary.