Content Warning: this story includes mentions of rape and child abuse and trauma.
I’m 16 and I’m standing in the shallows, facing the sandy bank of the Dhungala in Yorta Yorta Country. In my home town, small and suffocating at times and then swelling full of body memories; of transgenerational trauma and unconditional love and history and culture all bound up together.
In that water, I feel beautiful. The sun glistens on my shoulders and the sandy scented water, brewed with red gum leaves and stirred and held by twisted snags. She calms me as the current tugs at my netball toned legs. And nipping yabbies keep me bouncing from toe to toe like I’m waiting for the umpires centre pass whistle.
My white boyfriend is appraising me from the towel he’s sitting on. Turns his head to the side, screws up his face and yells out to me in front of my little brother.
“You look better when you suck your stomach in. If you didn’t have that stomach, you’d almost be perfect.”
My brother is silent but listening.
I am silent and ashamed. And angry.
As I stand here tonight, as I’ve walked on stage and while I sat waiting to come out here, I’ve probably sucked my soft, scarred belly rolls in countless times already. In the car on the way here, at lunch today. Waiting for coffee, sitting on the toilet, realising someone might be looking at me, I suck my stomach in countless times a day. Even more if I catch my reflection in something. Stuff mirrors. Stuff reflective surfaces. Stuff flat bellied illusions.
I pull at my underwear, which, if I pick the wrong ones, will roll under the strength of my tummy rolls and get dunked under my skin rolls like a kid under water in a pissy summer swimming pool.
I hate that feeling.
When I’m wearing “good undies,” I’m happy knowing that my tummy, stretched to maximum by my two children, both 24 and 14 years ago now, is scarred with stretch marks; from yo yo dieting, from exercise programs to “under eating” and “over exercising” to “under exercising” and “over eating” I’ve stretched and deflated my guts so many times they don’t know which way is over or under anymore and only my Kmart undies can give them directions.
My stomach is lost. She hangs softly and gently smiling.
Not hurting anyone, I tug at her, pull her out, push her down, play dough her into control top underwear once a year for the NAIDOC ball and berate her and sometimes, a lot of times hate her. It’s not her fault she’s not perfect.
That same white boyfriend went on to rape me when I was seventeen. He’d been building up to it. The insults, the cheating, the lying, the manipulating, the using and abusing. He’d tried to kill himself and I felt responsible. I missed a beach camp with my high school friends and frenemies to stay at the hospital with him. They all thought I was stupid for missing out. I lied and said he had food poisoning. He made me promise not to tell anyone what he had done. And I didn’t, I kept it secret til now.
At the hospital, I cried and he told me not to cry. Then he told me I could cry, so I did.
There had been a build-up of transgenerational traumas and abuse which stole into in my childhood by white men, bringing the injuries of patriarchy and colonisation. Then Bell Hooks taught me in All About Love, that love and abuse could live in the same house. It helped knowing.
In January this year, in a basement theatre, on Lenape hoking homelands, otherwise known as New York City, at La Mama Theatre, Areli Moran, a dancer from Mexico performed the work of First Nations choreographer Daina Ashbee, Areli writhes along a rubberised mat, separated in two by a white line and completely slickened with oil; when she finished I snuck a feel and rubbing it between my fingers recognised that it was baby oil.
I’m reminded of worry and loathing and fear I can’t stomach this performance; that the trauma triggers would push me out of the theatre and into the street to battle with memories and itchiness and agitation and nausea. But, I stay and by the end, I feel empowered and energised and not sick, but a little bit healed. Her drive to finish these repetitions of ninety gruelling minutes of travelling that line on her belly, naked and moving toward a violent resolve was confronting.
I wonder who the show was for though and worry about an Indigenous woman’s body being naked and vulnerable for all to see.
Who are we performing for? Who are we sucking our bellies in for? Who are we hiding them from?
Why is fat phobia so entrenched that being fat is terrifying for some? Why don’t we realise that hating our soft beautiful Aboriginal bodies comes from colonial shamings after being measured against white women's bodies, and Henry Lawson himself naming us as black velvet-sexually subjugating us and then becoming a national icon.
Why can’t I fully love myself and tell Jenny and Weight Watchers and Michelle Bridges to piss off and stop seducing me with promises of intoxicating befores and afters.
My whole life has been dominated by befores and afters. Some are damaging and some are revolutionary, and healing; especially ones created by Aboriginal women.
In Febuary this year I see Ursula Yovich and Elaine Crombie show us before and after in Barbara and the Camp Dogs, the before a building storm of unspoken traumas and fears of loss and then the storm breaking and with black hearts breaking (yet again) and by the end they lift me up and the almost all white older Malthouse audience; apart from us black women there laughing at all the bits they don’t get, or are too scared to laugh at.
Those in-jokes, they’re for us, little delicious easter eggs planted to find throughout the show. They are secret codes of ours-language of secrets and survival and resistance. To keep us going. To keep us safe. To feed us some sustenance before the flattening Q & A’s.
Kinder surprises for us mob; filled up with payday goodies and codes and hidden languages, binaries that bind us.
Q & A’s are always shit shows of white performances of solidarity, over-familiarity, awkward expressions of some long ago experience with a “real Aboriginal person, community, Elder, story, project, art work, show blah blah blah.” Shit shows of performance that flatten us and silence us back into the same position before the show started.
So, who are we performing for?
In February this year, at Footscray Community Arts Centre, Vicki Couzens and two of her daughters, Jarrah Bundle and Yaraan Bundle opened their exhibition, Yunggama, a mapping of language and women’s fighting sticks and possum skin cloaks and prints and films and so much goodness and healing and love. They tell these stories for us, some coded and bound and waiting for us, giving to us, being for us.
Who are we disrupting? In February at Bunjilaka, at the opening of Uncle Jim Berg’s exhibition, Silent Witness; a window to the past, he is gifted a surprise performance; a number of dances by Wurundjeri woman, Mandy Nicholson and her sisters, nieces and daughters; the Djirri Djirri dancers. Who do they dance for?
Us, we feel it and we see those women and girls dancing for themselves and their Old People. Ancestors, matriarchs dancing them on.
Reminding the world that women dance too. Women ceremony too. Black women are real too, in all our shades of blackness.
Last year at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, in Matriarch, Sandy Greenwood disrupted generations of white male violence and domination and told matriarchal stories of love, resistance and survival in her voice, her mothers, her grandmother and her great grandmothers. Matriarch is her story, giving and performing for all of us, and all those little easter eggs firmly planted in those voices reaching out for us, showing us traces of those gone and hinting at those to come.
And in March this year, at Dance Massive, as DubaiKungkaMiyalk, four phenomenal Aboriginal women choreographers & dancers, Mariaa Randall, Henrietta Baird, Carly Sheppard and Ngioka Bunda-Heath in Same but Different carried us and through four distinctive vocabularies of dance narrative of love, story, knowing and being through their stories.
And last year in December, our Blak Brow collective Karen Jackson, Pauline Whyman, Kim Kruger, our brother, Tony Birch & little sister, Bridget Caldwell launched the Blak Brow, our all black women’s edition of The Lifted Brow. We wrote and spoke our stories, our way with no interference, no non-Aboriginal editors or mission managers inspecting our work, threatening to remove our rations/funding.
We write ourselves, our stories to remember ourselves, to honour ourselves as sovereign and still here.
Who did we perform it for? Write it for? Tell it for?
For us. Just for us.
Acknowledgement & gratitude:
I pay my respects and gratitude to this Kulin Country, to the Boon Wurrung & Wurundjeri Peoples and give thanks to this Country that holds me and my kids safe and to Ancestors and Elders, and to my Aboriginal Sisters here tonight.
I am a Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman, of the Day and Egan families, Aboriginal families from what is known colonially as Victoria and New South Wales.
I acknowledge my mother, Margy Tang, our family matriarch and thank her for her strength, love, survival, resistance and humour.
Paola Balla is a Wemba-Wemba & Gunditjmara woman. An artist, curator, writer & lecturer she is a Lisa Bellear Indigenous Research Scholar based at Moondani Balluk Indigenous Academic Centre, Victoria University. She is a PhD candidate researching the ways Aboriginal women artists disrupt colonial narratives in public space.
Paola presented this speech in Melbourne as the keynote address for the 2019 Stella Prize, a $50,000 annual award that celebrates Australian women’s writing.