Book Review: Stranger Country by Monica Tan

Erich Mayer

Monica Tan wanted to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be an Australian and whether she could ever identify as such.
Book Review: Stranger Country by Monica Tan

Monica Tan's Stranger Country.

Monica Tan decided to explore some of the remoter parts of Australia by herself for six months, so she packs her Toyota RAV4 with a tent and other essentials and takes to the road.

During the course of her 30,000+ kilometer journey, she meets many Indigenous Australians and other Australians, and sees a lot of the country. She pens 18 journals during her wanderings, takes many photographs, and undertakes a lot of research. The result of this expedition  is Stranger Country – a fascinating amalgam of descriptions of some remote and beautiful parts of Australia, sightings of native animals and birds, insights into fragments of Indigenous history, conversations with interesting people, and frank revelations about herself. 

Tan is particularly interested in Indigenous history and culture, and Aboriginal Australians’ understanding of their country. She tells someone she meets ‘that for all the diversity of the Aboriginal nations I had travelled through, from Wiradjuri to Warlpiri, what remained universal and constant was this deep love of their land. They loved the land as though it was family and seemed to know every rock, tree and cloud.’ So Tan is devastated by the havoc created to the land and its people by non-Indigenous Australians.

Tan wanted to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be an Australian and whether she could ever identify as such. ‘Will I ever really belong to this country? As a Chinese Australian? As a non-Indigenous Australian?’ she asks herself. ‘I didn’t set out to definitely answer such questions. My goal was far more modest: I just wanted to know Australia.’

The first leg of Tan’s trip is from Sydney to Adelaide via Goulburn and Mildura. She then goes north to Alice Springs and, after some significant detours, heads to Broome and Darwin. She explores the far north in places like Pine Creek, Katherine, Mainoru and Macassans Beach before heading for Mount Isa and Croydon, Cooktown and Cairns. Finally she heads back to Sydney via Brisbane and the Kanangra-Boyd National Park. There are times when she leaves her trusty RAV4 and travels on foot or in someone else’s vehicle. A map is provided and Tan explains that some of the places not on her itinerary were excluded because she had previously visited them. 

As Tan encounters more and more Australian wildlife, she becomes particularly interested in birds. She provides readers with an interesting list, sorted by region, of the almost 100 birds she saw on her trip.  

By journey’s end, she realises she need not, and should not, play the ‘good immigrant’.

She writes: ‘I had just as much right to define Australian as any other, and if there remained national associations with whiteness or Britishness, masculinity, conservatism, anti-intellectualism or pastoral life, I instantly redefined what it meant to be Australian merely by being myself.’

Stranger Country is an excellent travelogue, but it is so much more than that. It is a lesson in Australian studies of a kind few of us have had the good fortune to experience. While Australian history goes back some 60,000 years, it has been largely ignored in our school education system, at least until recently. But for those readers who would like to improve their knowledge of Australia and its Indigenous people, this book is a very palatable primer.

Rating: 4 ½ stars ★★★★☆
Stranger Country
by Monica Tan

ISBN 9781760632212
AUD $32.99
Publisher Allen & Unwin
Imprint Allen & Unwin
Publication Date March 2019
Page Extent 336
Format Paperback - C format
Subject True stories: discovery / historical / scientific

About the author

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog humblecomment.info