‘Aboriginal Women Warriors, Country and Western, and Brain-Washing’, by Paola Balla

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This is an edited version of the reading given by Paola Balla at the Late Night Lit: Cult Friction event at this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival.


I tell stories, some of them are true stories – this is just part of a bigger one.

This Cult Friction celebrates Aboriginal Women Warriors, writers, poets, grandmothers, artists, the underappreciated, under-respected, underestimated, under-represented, under the radar, both glowing and showing and shining in the sun, the moon and the stars all at once forever and ever.

These same Sovereign Warriors brain-washed me with Country and Western music – yes, the very same bastion of white redneck, moonshine-making, tub-thumping, cousin-loving, dog-owning, truck-driving, horse-riding, cattle-wrangling, rodeo-rousing, white trash rabble, sad song–singing, heartache-making music my entire childhood. From inside the womb. Inside.

I thought it was normal to play songs on repeat and cry and play them again until the tears dried into belly-aching laughter that soothed the pain and traumas, and shames and transgressions, and I started to hate Country and Western when I was a teenager, cos it made me so shame. But after I had kids, I came back to it, drawn just like Mum said I would.

I wanted to focus on Madonna (Madonna then, not now), Wham!, and Boy George, and pretend I wasn’t related to Uncle Charley Pride, Aunty Loretta Lynn, cousin Dolly, the Carter Family and Uncles Johhny, Waylon, Willy and Marty.

I go out walking
After midnight
Out in the moonlight
Just hoping you maybe
Somewhere I’m walking

— Patsy Cline, ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’

Aunty Patsy Cline was the ultimate lady and sang sad and long into the nights my mother was longing for company, and the cassette player was completely off limits in the car. I could play tapes on my little red player and record the Top Forty on Sunday nights onto blank tapes, or tapes I used sticky tape to re-record over, winding with a HB pencil. The only records I was allowed to play were Dolly’s or Kenny’s or Slim’s or Box Car Willie. Sometimes, Bob Marley or Credence or Jimi Hendrix. Sometimes.

The Country songs sounded like my families’ spoken word, and my grandmother’s poetry sounded like classy Country songs.

This is 'Memories of Childhood’ by Rosie Goodall Egan—Wemba Wemba and Gundijtmara Woman—my grandmother, my Matriarch, artist, poet, white man’s rape survivor, breast cancer victim. She wrote this is 1988. The year Austraya celebrated its second birthday, and had a toddler tantrum when Aboriginal warriors and activists refused to participate.

Memories of Childhood

We never knew what it was like
To sit in an easy chair
A banana box, a kerosene tin, whatever happened to be there
Cast off tent
Over a wooden frame,
Were the homes that we have known
Bran bags, unpicked and sewn
The highlight of my days I think
Was supper time at night
Where a blanket was spread upon the floor
And we ate by firelight
Black tea and damper
Dipped in fat
Most times was our grand fare
It was just stiff luck if you wanted more
It was hardly ever there
But served by a loving gentle black hand
The hunger pains became much easier to bear
So to bed upon the floor
With a mattress of gum leaves beneath
With the words of gentle Jesus meek and mild
Contented we fell asleep

My grandmother’s poetry, her stories – her survival stories of racism, sexual objectification, white male violence, domestic servitude for indifferent and hateful white men and women, her having to give birth to her babies on the verandah of the Echuca Hospital, her bookshelf with Kevin Gilbert’s Cause A Whiteman Will Never Do It, Aunty Margaret Lilardia Tucker’s If Everyone Cared, the first autobiography by an Aboriginal person in 1977.

They sang back to incarceration, being locked up for being black, fighting back when their men got flogged by cops, going to jail, getting out:

And at night through the bars I will gaze at the stars
And long for your sweet kiss in vain
A piece of stone I will use for my pillow
While I’m sleeping in shackles and chains

— Marty Robbins, ‘Shackles and Chains’

In 1993 I was eighteen and I met the legendary Lisa Bellear, a Minjungbul, Goernpil, Noonuccal poet, author, artist, photographer, broadcaster, feminist, performer and academic. In 1995 she wrote 'Hanover Street Brunswick 3056’:

On a bright sunny afternoon
Cruisin-on my way with a keen
Sense of purpose: milk (full cream),
Toasting bread, cigarettes, papers,
…a woman’s day

Sensor rays connect with a thirty
Centimetre white child who sits
Joyously on a three wheeled
Plastic bike

I feel safe enough to share
My smile

As we check each other over
With carefree knowing smiles—
His parents raise their heads
Through the pruned rose bush

In twenty years time will
He remember this warrior woman—
I wonder

Now it’s 2016, I remember you Lisa – you’re being celebrated at the Koorie Heritage Trust, right now, tonight. Deadly people sharing your poetry round a fire outside the exhibition of your photographs. It’s twenty-one years on and I’m in a place named after English money. But it’s nice, and I wonder if the people here will know what I talk about when I say I cried, I mean I really cried as an eight-year-old child in Kyabram. It was 1982, I was in my Grandmother’s sun-room listening to the radio. She was in the lounge room watching The Midday Show with Mike Walsh, and I ran, I ran with tears streaming down my face to tell my grandmother the terrible news before she heard it from someone else (oh, the joy of being the first one to give bad news is intoxicating). “Nan, Nan! I’m so sorry but he’s dead, on the radio, Marty Robbins is dead!”

I knew my Nan would be devastated, she listened to him nearly every night, pulling the shiny black vinyl from it’s sleeve, with Uncle Marty’s big handlebar moustache comforting me with his warm glow and twinkly eyes. I swore he winked at me every time he swaggered out of the cover in his white sparkly rhinestone cowboy suit.

I knew she’d take it hard, so as I ran through the kitchen, I paused to switch the kettle on so she’d be able to make a cuppa real quick to dull the shock and soothe the pain. I waited, twisting my fingers in my palm, I put my head down out of reverence and to avoid Nan’s tears when I heard a low grumble from her belly, that revved up her guts, into her chest and burst out her mouth into a shattering cackle and she laughed and laughed harder than I’ve ever seen.

She was laughing. Laughing, not shattered.

Lesson number one: Don’t ever underestimate a black woman’s strength and ability to laugh at an overly sincere child.

This includes getting lyrics wrong, which set my mother into hysterics. I thought Uncle Charley Pride (the only African-American Country artist that apparently ever existed in all time and space) was talking about eating marbles, when in fact he was referencing the poverty he knew compared to the girl he loved going up in the world in ‘Crystal Chandeliers’, on stand-by at any black fulla parties:

Oh the crystal chandeliers light up the paintings on your wall
The marble statuettes are standing stately in the hall
But will the timely crowd that has you laughing loud help you dry your tears
When the new wears off of your crystal chandeliers

Under every bit of good news, or happiness is a misery just lurking round the corner. Every time an Aboriginal woman triumphs in education, gets a degree, supports a family, births a child, writes a book, releases an album, some fuckery of white Australian stupid hateful bullshit takes up valuable oxygen; for example, black face on repeat.

The music tells the truth – Country and Western is a place of comfort and healing cos the bad never seems to go away.

Every time we trust someone, it’s betrayed – only Aunty Patsy really gets that:

Crazy
I’m crazy for feeling so lonely
Crazy for trying
Crazy for lying
And I’m crazing for loving you

— 'Crazy’

In respects of every Aboriginal Sovereign Woman Warrior who fights on, speaks back, steps up, sings her songs, and tells her stories I finish with an urban Country artist as a message to all the fuckery and women-hurting fuckers:

I am the dragon breathing fire
Beautiful mane I’m the lion
Beautiful man I know you’re lying
I am not broken, I’m not crying, I’m not crying
You ain’t trying hard enough
You ain’t loving hard enough
You don’t love me deep enough
We not reaching feats enough
Blindly in love, I fucks with you
’Til I realize, I’m just too much for you
I’m just too much for you

— Beyoncé, ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’

Just cos.

I’m out.

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Paola Balla is a Wemba-Wemba and Gundijtmara woman, matriarch in training, feminist, artist, writer, curator, lecturer.