The below was one of three pieces selected as part of the Vogue UK Young Writer of the Year competition, for which I was runner up.
How the Australian Dreamtime Became a Nightmare
John was my first gay friend, and my closest friend at law school. In our first year, we hid copies of Australian Vogue in our contract law text book to make it though lectures, and camped out to secure places in scarce Human Rights classes. But when I asked John to volunteer with me at an Aboriginal legal centre, he pulled away. I couldn’t fathom why.
To me, Australia was an antipodean haven, a classless, sunburnt country of rugged beauty and amiable inhabitants, but I had spent no serious time in rural Australia, and I understood very little of the dark undercurrent in my country’s still recent history.
I did know from high school that 10-30% of a whole generation of half-cast Aboriginal children were stolen from their families between 1919-1972. The justification was assimilation policies of successive Governments. I found out later that John’s mother was one such child.
She had only hazy memories of her Aboriginal upbringing, the elders painting faces with “whitewash” and sitting around fires in the outback, the flames fuelled by stories of the dreamtime – a land, its creation and laws.
John had clear memories of his early years in Wangaratta, mostly the drunken rants and tantrums of his displaced mother, Narparoola. They were inevitably followed by thuds of her skin being bruised at the hand of his father, and the crashing of her teeth being shattered. Instead of fairytales, John was spoon-fed accounts of Narparoola being viciously gang raped at 16 and becoming pregnant with a daughter who was taken away from her at birth.
Narparoola was sent to a Catholic school designed to “educate and civilise,” but it failed her at every juncture. There was one story in particular that John heard his mother ramble over and over. It was the day of her junior swim meet. A talented swimmer, Narparoola was leading the race, but she had to stop because the swimming costume the nuns had loaned her was huge and started to slip off her bony frame. She was stripped of any opportunity to succeed – left exposed and humiliated.
In his youth, John was reluctant to reveal his family’s history. His father was Irish, so his skin was only slightly darker than other tanned Australians. If questioned, he said it was from Spanish blood. Narparoola encouraged him to hide his Aboriginality, fearing otherwise he might be taken from her, or that people would think less of him. Aboriginals have a word for concealing pain - “Quendar.” Literally translated, it means shame, but it also describes events that cannot be controlled.
Narparoola behaved erratically around girls John brought home. Several of his relationships failed because of Narpoola’s intervention, which gave him a distressing sense of femininity. Before long, John found himself gazing at the scantily clad male models on Calvin Klein billboards. Although he forced himself to look away; in rural Australia the rugby culture was rough, and pink wasn’t a colour men could be seen in without serious ramifications.
After high school, John fled to University in Sydney. When he wasn’t within the strict intellectual confines of law school, he immersed himself in a kaleidoscopic world of hard drugs, saunas and brazen homosexuality. It diverted attention from his Aboriginality. But when he graduated university and entered the workforce, he had to feign heterosexuality. He cultivated a 5 o’clock shadow, chose unfashionable shirt and tie combinations, and equipped himself with rugby facts.
By that time, our friendship was back on track, and we laughed at how unfortunate my invitation to help at the Aboriginal legal centre had been, given the heritage he was hiding. We decided to volunteer there together, to mark our progress. But the Aboriginals were aggressive towards John. They called him a “coconut,” saying he was brown outside but white inside. As one vocal, toothless Aboriginal woman put it, he was “bourgeois black.”
They saw success as the antithesis of being Aboriginal. John was supposed to show that his family were still victims of the “stolen generation,” through a life ravaged by drugs, violence, prison and poverty. The only other way of being accepted was living authentically, playing the didgeridoo.
Overcoming a difficult childhood can either be smothering or instil passion, and John chose the latter. As the years skipped on, he discovered a talent for writing, and with a life worth recounting, he begun to pen his past. Stripping away the protective layers he had built up, John was left feeling naked, but unlike his mother in the swimming pool a generation before, he didn’t need to feel self-conscious. John had chosen to re-write his own Dreamtime.
He has been a great mentor to me over the years, and now he is also my muse.