| Marlee Silva
My Tidda, My Sister shares the experiences of many Indigenous women and girls, brought together by Marlee Silva. This book highlights the strength, resilience and beauty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. Below, is Marlee's own story.
Less than a thirty-minute drive (on a good day) south of the Sydney CBD sits a stretch of sand and sea as white and blue as most of the residents’ skin and eyes. Cronulla, the pearl of the Sutherland Shire, is the only place I’ve ever known as home. My ancestors came from Britain and Germany on one side and, on the other, northern New South Wales, Gamilaroi and Dunghutti country in Moree and Kempsey; far quieter towns and far blacker than the one I’ve grown up in.
I’ve always known that I’m Aboriginal. But for a long time, I knew it in the same way that I knew I had a sister; that my postcode was 2228; that I was given the name Marlee Jade Silva on 15 September 1995 in a hospital room in Kogarah after fourteen hours of labour, and two weeks before my father would score the last try in the NRL Winfield Cup and win a premiership with the Canterbury–Bankstown Bulldogs.
FOR MOST OF MY CHILDHOOD, THE FACT THAT I HAVE FAIR-COLOURED SKIN AND EYES – THE PRODUCT OF MY MUM’S WHITENESS AND MY DAD’S BROWN SKIN – DIDN’T HAVE ANY EFFECT ON MY ABORIGINALITY. MY HERITAGE WAS A STURDY, UNQUESTIONABLE PART OF MY EXISTENCE.
I started my first year of secondary school at Port Hacking High in 2008, two years after the race riots that brought my hometown to the world’s attention, and three weeks before the prime minister of the time, Kevin Rudd, made his National Apology address to the Stolen Generations.
Port Hacking High is a collection of red-brick buildings that have inhabited a corner block in the suburb of Miranda since 1959. It took the length of one song on morning radio to get from my childhood home to the school’s main entrance along Kingsway, a road that stretches almost the entire breadth of the Sutherland Shire. And I quickly discovered that I was the only Aboriginal kid in my year.
BY MY SECOND WEEK OF YEAR 7, I’D FOUND THE COURAGE TO FORGE SOME FRIENDSHIPS WITH MY CLASSMATES. WHEN I GET NOSTALGIC WITH THE HIGH SCHOOL FRIENDS I STILL HAVE TODAY, WE CAN ALL RECALL VAGUE MEMORIES OF FIRST IMPRESSIONS: HOW WE BONDED OVER A SHARED LOVE OF HARRY POTTER OR PLAYFULLY ARGUED OVER WHOSE FAVOURITE FOOTY TEAM WAS BETTER.
There’s only one of these encounters, though, that I remember in intricate detail, almost word for word. One girl – blonde, tall, pale skin, not unlike many of my other friends – asked a question that will remain with me for the rest of my life.
We struck up a conversation after a science class when she’d called someone else’s name and I’d misheard it as my own. She seemed like a very suitable friend choice, although, admittedly, anyone who was willing to talk to me at this point was appealing.
At the end of the first week when we became friends, the final bell of the day rang at 3.05pm. The sky opened with a summer afternoon storm. It was a torrential downpour with blasts of thunder so loud it deafened the squeals of hundreds of schoolkids as they ran or skipped or danced through it. My new friend and I headed towards the bus bay and said goodbye to the comfort of dry uniforms. Then we were running and giggling towards the gate, happily welcoming fat water drops on our cheeks.
As we got to the gate, I went to say what would have been an awkward but sincere Seeyalater! Add me on MySpace!-kind-of farewell, when I was stopped by a deep voice calling out my name. I peered up to find a man waiting at the exit.
Wrinkling a smile in my direction, he stood there in his flannelette shorts, white with navy pinstripes, a grey shirt with a dried coffee stain in the centre, with stubble that a younger me might have called a ‘scratchy beard’ and heavy bags under his eyes – all perfectly paired with bright-blue, shin-high gumboots.
The rain danced around his four-person umbrella, but I didn’t dare approach it. My face burnt and my shoulders hunched; I clenched my fists around my bag straps and turned my attention to the asphalt below.
It was my dad. He called out to me again, only this time he didn’t say Marlee, but screamed ‘Mooky!’ (a nickname nobody else had used since I was five) and waved with excitement as I mistakenly made eye contact.
I hoped with all my might that my new friend hadn’t realised he was addressing me, as I turned to quickly say goodbye to her and moved in the vague direction of Dad. Weaving through the sea of uniforms and regulation black-leather shoes, I made it to the passenger door of our white Honda Civic without indicating any connection to him.
IN HINDSIGHT, IT WAS VERY KIND OF HIM TO BRAVE THE RAIN TO MAKE SURE I DIDN’T GET WET.
But at the time I was convinced my father was committed to totally destroying my chances of developing a social life. After refusing to talk to him on the drive home, I cooled down and refocused my energy on crossing all of my appendages throughout the weekend, hoping that anyone who witnessed my mortified moment would have completely forgotten about it before rollcall on Monday.
However, in second period on Monday I had science with my new friend again. Her blonde side ponytail sat at the desk ahead of me, and as our teacher left the room to photocopy worksheets, she swung it around to ask the dreaded question.
‘Who was that who picked you up on Friday? In the gumboots?’
I felt my face blush and my heart sink all over again. I remember attempting to laugh it off it, as I admitted the gumbooted man in question was my dad. But while I’d been so sure that she’d laugh at me or embarrass me further, she surprised me with a response I could never have imagined.
‘Is he your stepdad? Or your real dad?’
At first, I figured she was hoping to spare me from biological relation to his shamelessness, laughing through the discomfort once more. ‘Um, yeah, he’s my real dad.’
I can still see the way she tilted her head and squinted her eyes slightly, confused, before she expressed the single most defining question of my life: ‘Why is your dad black?’
So in 2008 I had someone paint colour onto my world for the very first time.
Soon after I explained to her that we are Aboriginal, to which she responded, stunning me once more, ‘No way! I’ve never met an Aboriginal before!’
Then, it felt as though I’d been found out by my whole school, and I was instantly confronted with an onslaught of questions and reactions that I was in no way prepared for.
‘Do you believe in the Dreamtime?’
‘Like, how much Aboriginal are you though? One quarter? A sixteenth?’
I was ashamed when I couldn’t come up with the right answers and very quickly, I became obsessed with building myself into a spokesperson of sorts for Aboriginal Australia, to counter my white friends and even whiter school environment. I collected every story I could from my family, read every bit of history I could find, and emerged as someone who was bitter with the injustices we had faced and continue to, but also determined to be a leader and a positive representation of my people.
A FEW YEARS LATER, MY CONFIDENCE IN WHO I WAS STRENGTHENED.
But frustration with other people’s misunderstandings, and my teenage angst in general, only grew. By this time, the people who existed in my school context had got all their burning questions and wonderings out of their systems, with mostly innocent motives, but the outside world wasn’t done with me yet, and the strain on my emotions began to show.
One day, in response to someone telling me I wasn’t really Aboriginal (not for the first time) because of my fair skin, I broke down. In amongst our daily ritual of family catch-ups over dinner, tears dampened my lasagna as I succumbed to the pain of that question over my identity. I’d been fighting so hard, but nothing seemed to be changing. I remember the sadness bubbling in my gut, rising as fury and erupting with an exclamation of, ‘I hate white people.’ I felt Mum wince, Dad told me to watch my mouth and remember I am the product of two cultures, but I just spat back at them that I wished I wasn’t.
Dad called me to the kitchen the morning after my meltdown and I found him at our bench in front of two ceramic mugs and a carton of milk.
‘Come watch this.’ He gestured at me to look into the mugs: they were both filled halfway with black coffee. His callused hands picked up the milk and poured an inch of it into one of the cups, turning its contents a creamy brown.
‘Tell me what you’re looking at.’ I shrugged, but he urged me on. ‘They’re cups of coffee, right?’
‘Well, yeah, I guess so … ’
‘No. No guessing. No doubt. They’re coffee. Both of them. It’s what they’ve always been and what they’ll always be. This one’ – he gestured to the lighter-coloured liquid – ‘is no less coffee than the other. It doesn’t matter how much milk you add: they’ll never not be coffee.’
I still carry that image with me today, as a shield. One which brushes off brows that furrow when I wear a t-shirt with my flag on it to a music festival; or eyes that pop when someone spots the tattoo on the back of my ankle and is greeted with the knowledge that the yurrandaali, or tree goanna, is my family totem; or even ponders out loud that if my claimed race is true, does this mean I receive government handouts for everything?
Never not coffee, never not coffee, I think over and over, but no protection is completely indestructible.
DURING THOSE TEENAGE YEARS, I DISCOVERED ANOTHER SHIELD AND SOURCE OF STRENGTH TOO: THE SISTERHOOD. THE FIRST TIME I FELT ITS POWER, I MUST’VE BEEN JUST FIFTEEN. I WAS SENT ON A CAMP FOR YOUNG INDIGENOUS LEADERS ON THE GOLD COAST FOR A WEEK.
It was the first time I flew on a plane without my parents and when I arrived, I’d find I was the youngest of the one hundred or so other high school students in attendance.
At the time, I’d not quite graduated from crop tops to proper underwire bras, I had a mouth full of metal, a side fringe and (in my opinion) I had an affliction for sucking at making new friends. In a word, I’d describe fifteen-year-old Marlee as: awkward.
We’re all a bit awkward at one point during our teenage years. Overall, adolescence is an inherently awkward process, really. I mean, think about it, overnight you’re practically stuffed into this bizarre new body, covered in lumps and bumps you’ve never had before, and forced to navigate weird new experiences and feelings without a map.
Almost like a caterpillar hiding in a cocoon, before you’ve had the time to build your wings and get the hell out of there, you go through this phase where you kind of turn to mush and get left feeling hyper vulnerable. During that time, you manage to trick yourself into thinking you’re the only one going through it all, when in reality you’re surrounded by other chrysalis busting to get to the relief on the other side of it, just like you.
That time on the Gold Coast was peak fragility for me. Growing up an Aboriginal female – in an almost exclusively white area of Sydney – made for a few sweet opportunities for my peers who felt crappy about themselves to find reason to ... kick my cocoon, so to speak.
I got to this leadership camp at a point in my life where things like going up to pay for something at my corner store and having to speak to the worker on the other side of the counter made me squirm and feel short of breath. So you can imagine the state I was in when I was then shoved into a room full of complete strangers, most of whom were two years older than I was, and forced to introduce myself.
I remember the first day of the camp pretty clearly. It was February in Queensland, a wet, sticky heat sat in the air. Everyone was sweating, so at least that element of my nerves wasn’t noticeable.
ONCE WE ALL ARRIVED, GETTING OUT OF OUR RESPECTIVE CABS AND BUSES, THERE WAS A BUNCH OF EAGER STAFF IN WHITE POLO SHIRTS, LIKE THE ONES WE’D SOON HAVE TO ADORN OURSELVES, WAITING OUTSIDE THE VENUE READY TO GREET US.
Typical blackfulla style, a lot of us were late and the intended timing wasn’t going to plan, so thankfully for me, there was no time for intros or awkward silences and we were herded straight through to a room for registration. I think it must’ve been a dressing room, or at least it felt like a dressing room in a footy shed, in my memory. What stands out is the uncomfortable ground we sat on, it was that rubber asphalt you only find on running tracks and in footy sheds. I remember the rather pathetic, lone fan in the corner of the room too, and how it did little to relieve us as we were told to sit and wait to be addressed about the rules of the camp and the plans for the rest of the day.
The waiting seemed to stretch on and on, so of course, being a room full of kids, we quickly got restless. What began as bubbling murmurs, quickly erupted into loud conversations and cackling laughter. In my fear and shyness, my heart sank as it seemed like everyone already knew each other, like they all had already formed their groups within fifteen minutes of being together and I, as per usual, had missed the boat.
When I’d been in situations like this before I’d usually try embarrassingly hard to get someone’s attention and force them to speak to me by doing this creepy thing, where I’d stand a little too close to groups of people, but not quite close enough to actually look like I was hanging out with them, and eavesdrop on their conversations. Not because I was interested in what they were saying necessarily, but because I’d look for a point in their topics to chime in.
That point never seemed to come and instead, in my desperation, I’d end up just laughing loudly whenever the group did, whilst making uncomfortable eye contact with them, which would result in all present realising I was there and turning to stare at me. It would occasionally get a pity recognition and ‘what’s your name?’, but it wasn’t pretty, nor sustainable for new friendship prospects.
But this day, as I scanned the little cross-legged circles around me getting prepared to listen in on one of their conversations, I was shocked to feel a pair of girls nearby turn towards me. I couldn’t tell you their names, but I remember one of them had freckles across her cheeks and a big smile, and the other wore electric blue nail polish, painted with impressive precision. They were obviously older, more confident, without the same slightly hunched posture I held, and I was chuffed as they smiled at me and waved me over. I momentarily forgot how to move my legs, but eventually got up and hurried to sit beside them.
‘Hey sis, where’d you get that?’ She, the one with the freckles, pointed at the necklace dangling at my chest, it was a dog tag on a chain, printed with the Aboriginal flag and words below it that read: KOORI PRIDE.
‘Um, Yabun, you know the Survival Day festival in Sydney?’ We all remember ourselves in the worst light, but I’m sure I couldn’t make eye contact with her in saying that.
‘OH YEAH THAT’S DEADLY, I NEED ONE. IS THAT WHERE YOU’RE FROM SIS? SYDNEY? WHO’S YA MOB DOWN THERE?’
WHAT PROCEEDED FROM HERE IS THE SAME CONVERSATION I’VE HAD WITH EVERY ABORIGINAL PERSON I’VE EVER MET SINCE. IT’S ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL THINGS ABOUT OUR CULTURE, AND THAT DAY, IT TAUGHT ME THE POWER WE HAVE IN OUR STRENGTH AS ONE MOB, ONE FAMILY.
If you’re not Indigenous you might not have seen this before, but all my tiddas out there will know it for sure. You see, when blackfullas meet, it’s our instinct to first find out how we’re connected to each other. Whether it’s through blood, through the country we’re from or through people we know in common, we are interested first and foremost in what brings us together, and you best believe we always find a link.
I’ll show you how it works in my case. When I meet a brother or sister anytime, anywhere, I can almost guarantee they’ll say, ‘What’s your name? Who’s ya mob? Where you from?’
And I’ll say, ‘I’m Marlee Silva, my mob’s Gamilaroi – Frenchs from Moree, and Dunghutti – Silvas from Kempsey.’
And they’ll think for a second before they say, ‘Who’s Janine French to you?’
And I’ll say, ‘She’s my cousin.’
And they’ll say, ‘I used to work with Janine. How is she? Still up in Moree? Tell her I said hello.’
Or they’ll say, ‘Kempsey Silvas? Who are your grandparents?’
And I’ll say, ‘My pop was Batman Silva.’
And their eyes will widen and they’ll stand back, getting a better look at me before saying, ‘Aye, no way! We’re related,’ then they’ll call someone else over and say, pointing at me, ‘Look ’ere, meet my cousin Marlee. Marlee Silva, Kempsey Silvas, Batman’s granddaughter, remember Batman?’
EVERY TIME I GET TO EXPERIENCE THIS BEAUTIFUL EXCHANGE, JUST LIKE THAT FIRST TIME, WHEN I WAS FIFTEEN, NO MATTER THE CONTEXT, I COME AWAY FROM THE MOMENT FEELING INSTANTLY BETTER. MORE AT EASE, MORE LIKE I’M WHERE I’M SUPPOSED TO BE – WHERE I BELONG.
You’ve probably picked up that I was a bit of a loner as a teen, and I was terribly lonely too. I spent a lot of time at school, feeling that nobody understood me or really knew me at all. I realise in hindsight, it was mostly because I was an odd one out. I was the only Aboriginal kid in my year, one of five identifying kids in my school (one of whom was my little sister) and my many cousins and other friends I made at camps like the one on the Gold Coast, that I loved and yearned to be around so much, lived so far away from me.
We, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, stand together, as one, supportive, loving network of people who, for the most part, care for and treat each other like family.
PARTICULARLY OUR WOMEN ARE DEDICATED TO LIFTING EACH OTHER UP AND ACTING AS EACH OTHER’S BIGGEST CHEERLEADERS AND FANS, IN WAYS THAT I RARELY SEE HAPPEN WITH NON-INDIGENOUS WOMEN AND GIRLS.
The levels of jealousy and the ‘love to hate’ mentality, although not completely absent for Aboriginal women, is so much less prevalent in our circles, with our tiddas. This comes back to our history, our survival over eighty thousand years, which was enabled and led by our matriarchs. Our women have always been the ones who’ve held us together, in order for us to not just survive, but to thrive.
It’s such a huge part of what inspired me to create Tiddas 4 Tiddas in November of 2018. The enormous power and inspiration of the women around me, the women I call my Aunties and my sisters, that seemed to be going by unnoticed outside of our circles. I needed a place to shout our brilliance to the heavens, because the strength I get from my tiddas is what enables my own. There are lessons in the ‘tidda-hood’ that all those who identify as female, regardless of race, religion and skin colour, can learn from, be inspired by and come to celebrate. So, that’s how I’ve landed here, in the first pages of this book.
My Tidda, My Sister will only scratch the surface of the experiences of some of our most influential and educational Aunties and tiddas, from the past and present, before launching into the hopes and possibilities of all of you, for the future. Dive into this with an open mind and an open heart.
MY BEAUTIFUL BLACK SISTERS, I HOPE YOU SEE YOURSELF AND YOUR POTENTIAL TO DO ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING IN THESE PAGES – YOU HAVE THE POWER THESE WOMEN EXEMPLIFY COURSING THROUGH YOUR VEINS.
My non-Indigenous sisters, be ready to be challenged, to learn, to grow, and all of us together will build a brighter tomorrow.