Stan Grant has been on too many planes, and had his passport stamped too many times. As he lists the cities he's lived and worked in, you can almost feel the jetlag setting in. "I've been posted all over Europe, a stint in London, Hong Kong, Beijing, the Middle East, I spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, Pakistan and of course, Iraq covering the war," the 55-year-old Grant says, his accent unchanged by his years abroad. "I'd been out of Australia for half my working life, almost 20 years."
As a senior correspondent for CNN, Grant has witnessed conflict on a grand scale. "I was outside Bin Laden's house when he was killed," he says casually. But travelling from trauma to trauma had burdened him with a unique perspective on the origin of struggle. "Across all the stories that I reported on, the conflicts were rooted in two things: a deep sense of historical grievance, and a struggle of people to be seen, heard and recognised," he explains. "We're all living under the weight of our history, and then I come back to Australia, and I see what's happening to Adam Goodes."
Covering war and violence, that's stuff eats at your soul, you can't get those images out of your head. I spent 10 years smelling blood, tasting it in the back of my throat.Stan Grant
Grant's return to Australia in 2012 coincided with the beginning of a dark stain on our sporting history. In May 2013, Goodes lined up for the Sydney Swans against Collingwood during a sold-out match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It was the AFL's Indigenous Round, a milestone for the proud Adnyamathanha and Narungga footballer. Goodes played like a man on a mission – three goals, 30 possessions – he was best on ground, no questions asked. But late in the final quarter, the match would take a turn when a 13-year-old Collingwood supporter labelled Goodes an "ape".
The slur would set off a domino effect of debate and division that resulted in Goodes' eventual retirement from the game he loved in 2015. "Adam's story resonated with me because Adam is black and white, and I am black and white. I've got a white grandmother on my mother's side," explains Grant, whose father,Stan Grant snr, is an elder of the Wiradjuri tribe. "It triggered a deep emotional response from me, as it did for most Aboriginal people; it reminded us of the wound of our history and that this can still happen. And it can happen to someone like Adam Goodes, who was Australian of the Year."
That emotional response from Grant would manifest itself in a talk given at the National Ethics Centre in October 2015. In the speech, during an IQ2 debate titled "Racism is Destroying the Australian Dream", Grant held a mirror up to the Australian public and forced them to examine their reflection. "I can't speak for what lay in the hearts of the people who booed Adam Goodes. But I can tell you what we heard when we heard those boos. We heard a sound that was very familiar to us," Grant exclaimed. "We heard a howl of humiliation that echoes across two centuries of dispossession, injustice, suffering and survival. We heard the howl of the Australian dream, and it said to us again, 'You're not welcome'." The video of Grant delivering the speech soon went viral. "It took him by surprise," Grant's wife, Tracey Holmes, reveals. "But it was just so raw and real, people felt that and responded."
The momentum led Grant to Goodes, and the result is The Australian Dream, a documentary out this month. Written by Grant, with Goodes driving the narrative, it is more than a tale of a talented footballer; it is the story of us told through him. "The documentary speaks to the broader question of our history and the question of race and racism in Australia," Grant says. "But it also combines Adam's struggle and the speech that I gave, to look at what the Australian Dream means."
While it might seem a uniquely Australian subject, the film was shot by British director Dan Gordon. "In most things in life, it's not an advantage to be British, but this time it was," Gordon jokes, on the phone from London. "My removal from the story allowed me to see the bigger picture; I don't think anyone inside Australia could've made this documentary."
Throughout the film, the conversation grows louder than our land, bigger than our borders. "Dan saw a story that wasn't just about Australia, but a universal story about the struggle of people to be truly recognised," Grant says. "Recognition" is a loaded term for the Indigenous community. "Until we have constitutional recognition and until Indigenous people are recognised as the first peoples of this nation, how do we move forward in a way that deals with the day-to-day struggles of Aboriginal people?" Grant asks.
As it stands, there is no reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the nation's founding document. It's a wrong Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt has promised to right. Wyatt believes genuine recognition must include a constitutionally enshrined First Nations representative to advise parliament on policy affecting Indigenous people.
This change would require a referendum, a suggestion that always draws outrage from some constitutional conservatives. "I think [Prime Minister] Scott Morrison is genuinely committed to the idea of a better Australia that places Aboriginal people at the heart of the nation," Grant concedes. "But Aboriginal people are not interested in symbolic gestures, they're interested in substantive change. Recognition must be a meaningful exercise and not just another exercise in theatrics."
Grant also warns to watch for the red herrings. "Asking questions about the anthem or whether we should change the date, they're diversions," Grant advises. "The problem in Australia is that it is founded on taking another people's land. Everything that comes after that – the fact we're the most disadvantaged, we die the youngest, we're locked up in the greatest number - flows from our history, which was born when we created Australia."
Ultimately, Grant believes the true change won't be made by men in ties but by the people of this land writing the story of Australia together. "A nation is not war, parliaments or governments, a nation is a story of a people, and it's the storytellers, the artists, the musicians, the novelists, these are the people that breathe life into a nation," he says.
It's little wonder he sees such value in the power of stories. As one of our most respected journalists, he has made a living telling them – but at a personal cost. "I have issues with PTSD; there was a period when I had to take a couple of months [off from] CNN because I'd hit a wall, I had seen too much," the Walkley Award-winner says. "Covering war and violence, that stuff eats at your soul, you can't get those images out of your head. I spent 10 years smelling blood, tasting it in the back of my throat."
Grant describes himself as a person who is "best at his job when he's feeling his worst". "I could see [the breakdown] coming with Stan," Holmes admits. "I spoke to some professionals beforehand, to get my own strategies on how best to help him, and that was beneficial for me."
Much like Goodes at the height of his battles, Grant also sought comfort from his country. For both men, home is where the healing begins. "I spent time in Wiradjuri country, it's where I go when everything else around the world fails me," Grant says. "That is who I am and where I'm from."
For now, home is the western Sydney suburb of Auburn, in a house Grant shares with Holmes and two of his sons. Grant is a father of four. He has three children – Lowanna, John and Dylan – from his previous marriage to journalist Karla Grant. Together, he and Holmes have a son, Jesse. For much of their lives, the Grant children have been citizens of the world, their childhoods spent introducing themselves to new classmates, learning languages, adjusting and readjusting. But they've always been aware of their roots. "They're comfortable being in the world but they also know who they are and where they're from," Grant says.
Stan Grant is a man whose love for country is unquestionable. It's in the thousands of words he's dedicated to it across books, columns, essays and now this film. It's in the speech he gave, setting fire to everything before and shining a light on what must happen next. Yet, for all that love, it is time to leave once more. "I'm moving overseas, back to the Middle East, to Doha, I'm taking a job with Al Jazeera," Grant reveals. "In a sense, The Australian Dream is a final word from me. From this, I go back out into the world, and I'd be happy to say nothing ever again, to be honest."
Australia is a story, and someone else must write the next chapter. "I think it's important that we hear different voices, younger voices, voices who disagree with me," Grant says. "We need that."
The Australian Dream releases on August 22.