Writer Paola Balla pays tribute to the powerful black women who raised her in a speech delivered at the Stella Prize longlist announcement on Thursday.
By
Paola Balla

9 Feb 2018 - 5:07 PM  UPDATED 10 Jul 2018 - 7:50 AM

I pay my respects and gratitude to this Kulin Country, to the 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 was raised in our matriarchal lineage and the stories and experiences that I was raised with as a Wemba-Wemba sovereign woman and, most of all, love.

It was not the kind of love where you were told every day “good job” or “well done,” or praised for doing necessary things.

Praise came when you made an effort, did your best and made family proud. Four of my favourite words are “good on you, babe.”

Praise came when you made an effort, did your best and made family proud. Four of my favourite words, are “good on you babe.”

When love was told, it was deep and strong and you really felt it. Like river water caresses your body and calms your spirit. I felt it in the hugs and kisses, the beaming smiles in the eyes of my Nan and Mum and Aunties when we would walk into a room, noisy, wet and hungry from swimming or hot and tired after school.

Those magnificent smiles when you haven’t seen them for too long; when they are so happy to see you they cry, and you cry and melt into their softness and gentleness. It soothes the hardness that Mum and my Aunty had to practice to survive their colonial injuries and traumas.

As the immediate dangers of violent white men and mean white women faded, Mum was able to let go of the weapons she had to keep at hand. She was able to let her guard down and let us closer and come into her healed space; it’s that place that will always be a bit broken though because some things can’t be fixed.

Instead you accept the fractures, and avoid putting pressure on the wounds and go gently with each other, ducking all the old trip wires and triggers to keep a new peace; especially for the next generation.

When love was told, it was deep and strong and you really felt it. Like river water caresses your body and calms your spirit.

They adore Nan as Nan; she gets respite from the struggles of parenting and gets to be loving and free without the burden of managing survival with child raising and giving love when her childhood love was also rationed like flour, sugar and tea to make it last as long as possible.

My growing up was predominantly in Aboriginal Housing, in a mission brown brick veneer in the deep South of Echuca, Victoria, on Yorta Yorta Country.

We spent Easters and Christmas holidays and some weekends at Moonacullah Mission, on our Wemba-Wemba Country, our women’s country, camping and fishing and swimming. And listening. Always listening to Aunties, great Aunties, Uncles, Old People, ghosts and whispers in the tress and across the soft warm, red sand.

To little bush birds and the one me and my Nan shared, as she did with her grandmother; winduk (willy wag tail) which visits me in my Footscray courtyard, risking murder by colonial cats. She checks on me with her plump black and white body to see if I’m ok.

She soothes the pain of being away from my home community and relatives, where I’ve created a life in the city with my other chosen blak family.

I still miss home and being around my relatives every day and crave time with them. Regular visits to Mum and my brothers and cousins and facebook yarns and inbox messages keep me in the mish in one way or another.

There’s a lot of love there on facecrack and instamob. A virtual mission where we row, we assert, we gossip, we laugh, tease and cry and share when we’re down and celebrate all our wins and survival.

Leaving the bush and coming to the city as a young Aboriginal single mother took so much hard work but the unconditional love and shero-ism of a number of fierce Aboriginal women to protect and nurture me ensured that I have survived and thrived to get me and my kids to this point.

This is because of Karen Jackson, Liz Von Rhuel, Annette Sax, Raelene Clinch and Tracey Bunda; they are my other mothers, my sisters, my aunties, my tiddas all at once. Kalina yaryins (to love my sisters) and be loved by them is everything. Kim Kruger and Pauline Whyman are my tiddas and I am so grateful for their support and love.

 An Aboriginal woman’s love is iron strong and her loyalty is life affirming. Her body can come in all shades, her hair may kink and curl, it might be drop dead straight, black, brown, blond, or red.

An Aboriginal woman’s love is iron strong and her loyalty is life affirming. Her body can come in all shades, her hair may kink and curl, it might be drop dead straight, black, brown, blonde or red. She might colour that hair herself, get it done in a beautiful salon, or by a Sister at her place while they have a good yarn.

Her ground might be concrete, might be hot sandy river crystals that shimmer and shine in summer daze. It might be sticky, black gobbed concrete where she bots for ciggies with as much pride as she can muster on Smith Street or Swanston Street, or where she struts in her heels to an office somewhere, both working for their people. Nine to five, what a way to make a living. Dolly Parton knows.

I am humbled and inspired by the strength, courage and love of Aboriginal women in this country. I am in awe of Tarneen Onus who on Invasion Day said F*** Australia. I hope it burns to the ground.

I was standing about three metres away from her with my family: my kids Rosie, who is 22 years old and one of the many young Aboriginal women part of the march, and my son Katen, who is 13 years old, and - as he had a few times before at rallies put together by WAR (Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance) - he would walk up front with them.

I know Tarneen’s words were not an act of hate, or disrespect or some invented white fantasy reverse racism that doesn’t exist.

It was an act of LOVE. It is what the black scholar Dr Cornell West speaks of when he says “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”

We march on Invasion Day and against the forced closures of our communities because we are motivated by love for our families, culture and Mother Earth.

Loving yourself and speaking out as a black woman disrupts the idea that we are servants to others, to masters, to men, to everyone except ourselves.

We are justifiably angry because our families, communities, culture and Mother Earth have been consistently under attack, and white colonial occupation for over 240 years now. It’s justifiable anger when you or your loved ones wellbeing is at threat.

Tarneen and Lidia Thorpe, the newly elected Greens member, and first Aboriginal woman in the Victorian parliament, both as Victorian Aboriginal women have been threatened with sexual violence, rape, murder and body shamed, their histories interrogated and the authenticity of their Aboriginality questioned.

Meriki Onus, of WAR pointed out on Instagram that while Tarneen’s brother Telv is being lauded as a nice guy on Married At First Sight, his sister Tarneen is depicted as a black, angry, and out of control, woman who should keep her mouth shut for metaphorically speaking about burning down the Australia that is a metaphor itself;

It rants about protecting free speech (but only when it applies to whites or racists, remember George Brandis said that “people have the right to be bigots”) and about icons and clichés about pies and football, Anzacs -only the white ones though - not the black ones - about mateship, the fair go, the lucky country, friendly and easy going.

These are all empty constructs that largely serve white men and people who assimilate.

The reality is the Australia Tarneen spoke of needs burning down. It’s the Australia that invaded us, committed genocide against us, takes our kids away, jails us, breaks our hearts and tires us out.

The Australia that jails Aboriginal women at an escalating rate, that takes her children at a rate higher than during the Stolen Generations, an Australia that represents hate, racism, homophobia, trans phobia, Islamaphobia, neglects and disrespects people with disabilities and treats women like shit.

Let it burn, and let it grow back harvested and nurtured by black women collectives, Elders and girls, where we will build gardens and estates of love and safety, with our Brothers, where Mother Earth can replenish and heal and she can learn to trust and believe again that we all care for her.

That future is black, it’s femme, it’s female and it’s a safe place for everyone that isn’t colonized yet.

I'm grateful I was raised by an angry black mother, and grandmother and Aunties. They taught me love and justice. They taught me to stand up and fight and speak back and black.

I'm grateful I was raised by an angry black mother, and grandmother and Aunties. They taught me love and justice. They taught me to stand up and fight and speak back and black.

Professor Tracey Bunda, an Aboriginal woman, names us as "Sovereign Warrior Women and that we become empowered by challenging the “colonised creation of the object black woman” by “speaking of ourselves, our emotions and our histories [as] the essence of our social, political and spiritual being."

Professor Bunda has written us, talked us, nurtured us and encouraged us. With listening and art, she started the process to bring me out of my trauma induced breakdown in which I was paralysed with fear and buckled and bent with anxiety.

When I was young, I knew my mother was really angry and wild and hurt and if she just kept busy and moving and learning and working that she might out run her pain.

She did DSS courses and certificates and work for the dole courses and working and fighting and raising us kids and volunteering at the co-op and working at the school and picking tomatoes and sorting potatoes and waitressing at the Chinese restaurant and at the pub and making underwear with her tiddas at the factory she could keep the hurt away and have a good laugh, and the odd rum and coke with her cousins, and a mate.

 When I was young, I knew my mother was really angry and wild and hurt and if she just kept busy and moving and learning and working that she might out run her pain.

While I have white and non-Aboriginal friends, my inner circle are all blak women that know my struggle, my history and my family and community ways.

I had never really read before the expression that love and abuse could live in the same house, in the same space though I had experienced it and knew it as a lived experience. As Bell Hooks showed me in all about love.

I was deeply loved by my grandmother, our bond was unshakeable but her life had been determined by so many factors outside of her control, not being allowed to continue at school after twelve years of age despite a fierce intelligence and love of words.

I came to understand that love and shame can be entwined in generational wounds and colonial embedded, internalised hate that you pick up like little shards of broken glass in our bare feet.

Loving yourself and speaking out as a black woman disrupts the idea that we are servants to others, to masters, to men, to everyone except ourselves. When I was a teenager, Mum told me that people learn how to treat you by how you treat yourself. Every couple of years I think about that as I age and realise after turning forty that it makes more and more sense, it also humbles me that Mum was naming self care and practicing it before I knew it had a name.

She always swam, exercised, played every sport going, danced, laughed loud and hard, took courses in things that interested her, loved reading and movies and music and indulged in all of them when she felt like it, napped when she needed it, did her make up, got dolled up to go out, never apologised for herself ie instead of saying “sorry, I just have to go to the toilet,” like I often do, Mum would just go and slip away if she wanted to.

I came to understand that love and shame can be entwined in generational wounds and colonial embedded, internalised hate that you pick up like little shards of broken glass in our bare feet.

I watched my mother fight many times; for honour, for love, for respect and dignity and she was never afraid to tell white women to get f***** and to call out even her Brothers to fight them. She stands for no bull**** and her rage; invalidated and uncontrolled, helped her survive the insults and injuries until she was able to begin repairing to lead to healing and a better life.

Loving white people can make things complicated and loving yourself sick (and tired) for kids, work, community, family and self can wear you out because we are called the backbone of the community but often get treated like the scape-goat.

Matriarchy teaches us so many love lessons, how to function in the white centric spaces in which we work and survive, how to navigate obstacles and jump hurdles. How to stay loving for others and importantly how to love ourselves and learn self care when we have been taught to serve and please others.

Aboriginal women artists, writers, activists; community women demonstrate so much love and commitment and courage when they manifest and write their stories, do their work and give love for people to thrive in. It’s a place of practiced resistance and disruption to everything we are told not to be, beautiful, articulate, worthy and intelligent.

We say hard things that are hard to hear and make people uncomfortable with our truths. We trust, we love, we bear witness, we absorb blows and hurts and wounds for others, for our kids, for other people’s kids, for our men and families.

So, what’s love got to do with it?

Everything. I give deep thanks and gratitude to be raised in the love and legacy of fighting and loving women, my Grandmother Rosie and my Aunty Walda Blow, a great Yorta Yorta and Wemba Wemba woman who fought for the rights of young Aboriginal girls and women, and who described herself as a mother emu who would do anything to protect her babies.

I thank her and all our warrior women.

A Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman, Paola Balla is an artist, curator, and writer who is based at the Moondani Balluk Indigenous Academic Centre at Victoria University, where she is a PhD candidate and the inaugural Lisa Bellear Indigenous Research Scholar. 

This speech was first delivered at an event announcing the 2018 Stella Prize Longlist, an award that celebrates Australian women’s writing. The speech was based on an article Balla has written for an upcoming publication 'A Living Mudmap: Beyond Borders and Binaries' published by University of Illinois Press and edited by Kathryn Gilby, Tracey Bunda, Geryll Robinson and Valencia Garner.