On Leaving and Returning
by Erica McCalman
In this creative reflection Erica McCalman responds to Exit Strategies — by Mish Grigor and APHIDS that premiered at Arts House in November 2019 — by considering her own exits. Erica is a Ballardong Noongar woman with Irish Convict, Scottish and Cornish heritage and is a producer, curator and mentor.
You are four, nearly five. Your grandmother and your aunt are cutting out bright yellow contact paper and covering a battered old hard walled suitcase. To make it neater they say. They explain to you your uncle is going overseas. He is going to America to be at a university. He is a doctor. Not like one who fixes you when you are sick. Different kind. He is very smart which is why he gets to go overseas. You decide you are going to be very smart and go to university so you can go overseas too.
She is four, nearly five. We don’t know how she was taken. But we can imagine. Were there guns? There most certainly were cries of anguish, mother and daughter frantically grabbing and clutching at each other. There would have been men. Tearing them apart. We know she was taken to a household. We know the white lady gave her a new name. She is Annie now, not Yindolan. Forget that word. Practice answering to your new name. If she works hard she can be nearly as white and good as them. She will be trained up as a maidservant. You think about the four year old girls you know. How do you break a four year old to make them submit?
You have left the suburbs. You are living near a beach, in an enclave of artists. You are in a drag bar backstage, doing shots of tequila before the show. You feel a breeze around your breasts. “GO ON! GET ON F****** STAGE!” One of the performers has your satin wrap top in her hands. You call her a “bitch”, laughing and insist she owes you a drink. You don’t know it yet, but the shadow of your great grandfather is there. He lived upstairs after crossing the Nullarbor. He is going to enlist in the Air Force. He is very obviously black. You are not. You both sip your beers. He is the last person born on country.
She is in her twenties. She is a shepherd’s wife, a midwife and mother to five. The reports say her house is always spotlessly clean. Her husband arrived as a child convict, alone on a ship called The Shepherd. We don’t know who his parents are. We know he stole a book. We know he gave her a shotgun to fire into the air if she is alone and afraid. She tells him Aboriginal people come close to her cottage and watch. She has forgotten who she is. They remember. A shot rings out over the sky. I imagine they scatter back into the bush. I know he comes running.
You read his military file. He is shorter than you. He has a traffic fine on his record. The entry for his complexion is left blank. His postings: Laverton, Laverton, Melbourne, Laverton, Melbourne, Singapore, Malaya, Temora, Parkes, Laverton, Travancore, Laverton, Birdum, Gorrie, Darwin, Milingimbi, Milingimbi, Tocumwal, Melbourne. You check the year of enlistment. 1936. In Perth a wave of children were taken that year and beyond. Your grandfather tells you stories of growing up in Collingwood. He couldn’t remember Perth then. His father never spoke of home.
I stay. I stay because I am told I am sitting with Elders. I will not leave without permission. I am told I am arrogant. I am told I have used my intelligence to slip into spaces I am not wanted. I have no culture. I am a thief; I have stolen something which does not belong to me. I am told I will be watched and punished if I make a mistake or rebel. I am challenged to describe my country. I can’t. They tell me I don’t know who I am. They tell me I need to be fixed. By the time the tears begin falling I am shattered. I just want to go home. I don’t sleep. Work has sent me far from home. This is not my family. There have never been any ancestors in this place.
The sun has risen over Sydney. I am in a warehouse sitting on concrete accompanied by an ashtray and a bottle of wine. Everyone here is an uninvited guest on this land. I have sat here for eight hours answering questions and letting people talk out their confusion and guilt. I look around. Someone is asleep on the floor. A group is dancing and swapping clothes. Everybody took drugs except me. Whoops. I am being flown to London tomorrow. I end up having parallel dimension variants of the exact same conversation from Ealing to Barking. Europe feels heavy.
Work sends me to Perth. I have 72 hours. Outside of business hours my time is my business. I have one name and a phone number. An Elder, our cousin. She wants to meet in a neutral place. She is the keeper of all the family knowledge. Over a coffee she is cautious. The meeting lasts less than an hour. She wants to reassure but I can tell she will step no further. I can see her pain, why she hesitates. She knows who I am. I am one of the ones who left and didn’t look back.
I realise I am there for the wrong reasons. Looking for something she can’t give me.
Pieces of information begin floating up from the depths. A colleague has seen the shepherd’s name on a monument in Fremantle. Another has identified a relative wrapped up in a murder mystery on a family’s farm. One colleague from out west insists on giving you a new language word to use in a sentence every time you meet. An uncle recalls playing basketball with your cousins in the 70s. An Aunt confirms. In Brisbane you are invited to sing new friends home safely with your countrymen. The words are new but familiar. Your sister now a midwife herself, is flown in for a fleeting visit and finds more hidden threads of connection. A new friend and I are having cup of tea at a conference ‘We don’t eat our own, our mob.” she says. We have the same hair.
I plunge into water, it comes up to my hips, waist, collarbones. Warm, clear, pure turquoise sheltered by palm trees and pandanus. A chalky residue lies at the bottom. The gentle current pushes me around a bend. An oasis in red desert. The sign says the water has spent aeons slowly pushing through limestone to bubble up here. The nearby town of Birdum ceased to exist soon after the war. I know he has been here. Often. We swim. We talk. The north is a respite from a lifetime of juggling two sets of obligations and ambitions. A place to cut the noise and find clarity. I am the second in my family to live in Darwin.
We all have more in common than we think. A colony wasn’t built in a day: it needs labour, preferably cheap and motivated only to serving a master. The mess is the point. The grief and confusion is the point. The displacement is the point. The gap between the wealthy and the powerless is the point. Being preoccupied by chasing goals that are beside the point… is the point. We are all kept fearful and separated, carrying a wound so old we can’t quite understand. It is the absence of connection. It is impossible to achieve or buy your way to healing. All of us have kin, ancestry, a spirit and a community. A place to begin the cycle of reaching out and reciprocating. Where safety and wellbeing are be collectively built. Breathtaking resilience is a communal discipline. Nurture your generosity. Nurture your curiosity. Listen. Stay. There is something here to fight for. This place cannot wait for you forever.
Erica is a Ballardong Noongar woman with Irish Convict, Scottish and Cornish heritage. A producer, curator and mentor, her Next Wave 2018 keynote project Ritual won a Green Room Award for Innovation in Curatorial Contribution & Programming.