In the face of the many seemingly unsolvable problems of the world, it takes courage, faith and determination to take on the role of a superhero. Colours Of A Changemaker is a series of interviews with Black, Indigenous and People of Colour from around the world who are using their vocation to create social and environmental change. As Gandhi once said, we must be the change we want to see in the world, and these changemakers are doing just that through their art, music, written works, social platforms and much more.
Marlee Silva is a 25-year-old Aboriginal author, podcast host and storyteller who comes from the Gamilaroi and Dunghutti tribes of New South Wales, Australia. Silva, who is of Aboriginal, German and British descent, was raised within a family and community that embraced and celebrated diversity. However, in her early teens, an incident at her all-White high school caused her to see her identity in a different light: for the first time in her life she was faced with the idea that her Aboriginality made her different to her peers. Deeply affected by the experience and the racism that ensued, she became determined to use her voice to tell the stories of Aboriginal Australians. Today, Silva is a best-selling author for her book My Tidda, My Sister: Stories From Australia’s First Women, a collection of stories of strength, resilience and beauty from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women of all different ages and backgrounds; the host of Always Was Always Will Be Our Stories, a podcast dedicated to shining the light on Indigenous role models; and a skilled public speaker and presenter.
In this edition of Colours Of A Changemaker, Silva talks about the life-altering incident, her Aboriginal identity, the inspiration behind her book and the ways in which non-Indigenous people can start supporting and becoming allies for Indigenous peoples.
Can you tell us a little about your experiences growing up as an Aboriginal woman?
Growing up in my household, there was nothing better than to be a Blackfella. I’m really proud, and I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realise just how amazing that is: to have your identity and your culture so strong from such a young age and to know that our culture and our differences, not just within us as an Aboriginal family, but also everyone, multicultural people who are around us growing up, that that was actually stuff that brought us closer together. And I think in that internal world of our house and our family and our close friends, there was never anything that told me otherwise—that being Aboriginal wasn’t the best thing in the world. It wasn’t until the external world started to kind of show me that that might be what some people think, that some people were not comfortable with Aboriginal people, and that came in the school environment first and foremost.
The first time that my peers realised that I was different to them or made a point of pointing it out, I remember so clearly. I was 12 years old, about four weeks into year seven at my new high school, just trying to make new friends, and my dad picked me up from school that day. And that particular afternoon, it was absolutely pouring down with rain, and my dad, being the kind man that he is, decided to get out of the car and to meet me at the school gate. But he met me at the school gate after a night shift—he’d been napping all day so he was in his pyjamas and a bright blue pair of gumboots. I was absolutely horrified that he would embarrass me in this way, standing in front of my new friends in his PJs. I thought the next day at school that those kids would absolutely ridicule me for his fashion sense and for his no shame. But instead, those kids asked me why my dad was Black, why his skin colour was darker than mine, and I’d never, ever heard someone be called a colour that way. Yeah, I grew up in a mixed household where my mom’s non-Indigenous and my dad is Aboriginal, but all that meant to me up until that point was if they stayed out in the sun too long, mum turned red and dad’s skin turned darker and that was just how it was. And it was at that point, I really realised that my Aboriginality made me different to my friends. Once I explained that my dad’s skin came from his background, the next thing they said was, “Wow, I’ve never met an Aboriginal person before.” And from that point, there were a whole bunch of stereotypes and racist jokes and remarks and things that made me feel really uncomfortable at that young age that I was forced to experience for the first time.
Can you share a little about your relationship with your identity as a mixed-race Australian? What are some of the challenges you faced in relation to how you see yourself and how others see you?
Growing up and having two parents from two different backgrounds is probably something a lot of different people can relate to and it really, again, wasn’t something I was forced to reflect on as part of my identity until people on the outside world of my bubble, my safe place of my home, had something to say about it. And it’s interesting because so often I hear a lot of other Aboriginal brothers and sisters who have parents who are of different races talk about this, that we walk in two worlds—the Black world and the White world—and for some people, we’re never going to be Black enough and for some people, we’re never going to be White enough. There’s a lot of cultural and societal things that get placed on you, expectations or a sense that you don’t really belong anywhere, and that was definitely something I faced as a teenager, where people were constantly questioning my identity. But once you learn to grow stronger in who you are, more confident in who you are and just keep wearing your pride, you figure out that you are who you are and that’s justified. You don’t actually have to show anyone else who you are because your family knows and you know who you are on the inside.
Something that’s a common misconception in Australia is that often the term mixed race is used, or people sometimes ask you if you’re half Aboriginal or things like that, which hark back to the policies that saw our people taken in the stolen generations. So that’s why it’s inappropriate and you either are Aboriginal or you’re not, and there’s kind of no two ways about it, and I’m really proud to be able to say that I am.
You are a best-selling author. Can you tell us about that journey and how it has evolved?
I have always worked in a space where I am able to give back to the community. I started my career in the non-profit sector, working for Aboriginal charities and volunteering for them as well. And that was because when I was at school, as much as I felt ostracised because of the community that I grew up in and the fact that myself and my sister were the only two identifying kids in our whole high school, my solace and my safe space so often at school was when I was given opportunities to go and be in environments that were about celebrating culture. And that sometimes looks like an Aboriginal dance ensemble that my sister and I were a part of, and it also looked like leadership opportunities that I was given, where I would be around other Aboriginal kids who were just like me on camps or debating at New South Wales parliament house. Doing really great things like that, where I could be unashamedly me and just do things that made me feel really good about myself and also really confident in my identity. So once I left school, all I wanted to do was be able to give that experience to another kid and I was able to do that by working for an Aboriginal education charity and working with kids who were just like me to make themselves feel good about themselves. And that’s where my career started, and from that point, I was given lots of different opportunities to keep being more involved and keeping more creative with stuff going on in the community. So that’s kind of how I led down the path where I would start something myself and start making podcasts and eventually write a book. So I’m really lucky in that sense.
How did the idea for your book, My Tidda, My Sister come about and what inspired you to write it?
So My Tidda, My Sister was born from an Instagram page my sister and I used to run called Tiddas 4 Tiddas. Tidda is an Aboriginal saying that means sister and every single day, we would share a story of an amazing Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander woman or girl. And from that point, we could just tell that there were all these amazing stories. And I was lucky and was approached by a publisher who thought it would be a good idea for a book. I’ve always been a writer, always seen myself as a storyteller, and it was my dream to write a book. So it became pretty obvious to me what that book would look like. It would be a collection of stories, of deep dives, of more extensive stories, basically versions of the stuff that we were posting on Instagram at the time. And it really has become something that’s a celebration of Aboriginal sisterhood, of resilience, of strength, of overcoming, in some instances, really unimaginable obstacles and I’m so honoured that I got to put it together in the way that I did.
What challenges did you face bringing the book to life?
Writing a book is a really, really big job and I wrote it in nine months. So I called it my book pregnancy. The biggest challenge that I faced in writing that book was just worrying about whether I was doing justice to the women’s stories. I was so lucky that they gifted me their stories, that they gave me the time, they sat down with me and told me about themselves and in some cases some really hard things they’ve gone through. So I was really worried about doing them justice, but I’m really proud of how it ended up turning out.
The book has many stories of strength and resilience from Aboriginal and Indigenous women from various walks of life. Can you share a little about the women you have featured in this book and the kinds of stories they have to share?
So there’s a whole bunch of different women in the book. There [are] three different sections: Aunties of the Past, Tiddas of the Present and You the Future. In the Aunties of the Past piece, my favourite story is that of Lavinia Pightons whose granddaughter actually told me her story and recorded her talking about her life and her experience actually just before she passed away. It was really, really special to be able to kind of immortalise her story in the pages of a book. I could talk about every single one of the women in this book. Jolla Cummings is a good friend of mine and she’s in the Tiddas of the Present section and she talks about growing up in out-of-home-care and the obstacles she faced there, and her struggle with connecting back to her family to really find her identity and her Aboriginality—it’s such a powerful piece. And then the You the Future section is probably my favourite, and that’s not taking anything away from the amazing women who I speak to in part one and two, but those young girls who are—they’re in their teenage years and thinking about what they want to be when they grow up. They gave me the most hope because they are so proud and strong and ready to take on the world.
We wanted to touch on Indigenous erasure. How bad has it been in Australia? What impact has this had?
I don’t think Indigenous people have been erased at all. I can say that in a lot of ways, the presence of Indigenous people has been left out of mainstream conversations or mainstream media, or the way that we talk about Australia to the world, but we’ve always been here and we always will be, and nothing can erase us. We have lost language and we have lost traditions and a lot of knowledge through dispossession from the point of invasion, but we are resilient and there [are] so many different ways that people are starting to rebuild and reclaim that. That makes me really proud and that we see every day. So I feel really positive about our future and about the next 60,000 years, we’ll spend on this continent.
What are your thoughts on how Aboriginal people are portrayed in media, literature and other aspects of popular culture? What needs to change and what needs to be highlighted more?
When I think about the representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in mainstream media, in pop culture, in just about every kind of outlet across the country, the first and foremost thing that needs to happen is an increase. And I think that unfortunately, especially when it comes to mainstream media, there’s always a language of deficit that’s used when it comes to our people—that we are the victims, or we are portrayed in a negative light and always suffering and always downtrodden. And as much as there are definitely so many obstacles that we need to break down and overcome as a people, we’re so strong and I don’t think that that’s captured, and I don’t think that we’re celebrated enough for our survival, for the richness of our culture and for all the things that in embracing us as a people, in caring about the issues that we still face and in celebrating who we are, that would actually bring so much joy and so much strength to Australia as a whole, and I think that that’s what’s really missed.
At a very young age, you have achieved so much and have taken on some big responsibilities. What are you most proud of when you look back? What would you like to do more of going forward?
When I look back at what I’ve done in all my years since leaving school—I’m only 25 now, and sometimes I feel like I’ve lived a lot more of a life than I probably have because I filled it with a lot of things. And there’s still so much I want to achieve. I guess the main thing is I just want to keep learning and growing and being able to use my skill set and my voice in a way that’s positively contributing to my community. The thing I’m most proud of is making my family proud and being able to capture my grandmother and great-grandmother’s stories in a book. They are the stories that taught me what it means to be an Aboriginal woman and why I should be so proud of that. And I think also just carrying on what they fought for and what my dad fought for me and my sister to have and the opportunities that we now have are the things that I’m most proud of and I guess that’s what I’ll take forward as well.
How can non-Indigenous people support and become allies for Indigenous people and their causes? What are some steps they can and/or should take?
Non-Indigenous people should always be seeking more information, more diverse voices within the Indigenous community, different resources, really having an ear to the ground when it comes to the things that are going on with Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander people 365 days of the year. It is something that often is only spoken about or cared about around January 26 or NAIDOC week or events like that, but it’s really something that needs to be committed to all year round. I think that all non-Indigenous people should really understand that when you start to engage in the conversations happening in our community and understanding what you can do with the positions that you might be in, that our people don’t get to be in, to make space for us, to invite us in, buy from Indigenous businesses, support Indigenous grassroots organisations and non-profits and charities, everywhere that you can, because when we see more and more Indigenous people succeeding, overcoming barriers and really leading in as many ways as they can, we will build a brighter future for all of us.
You can follow Marlee Silva on Instagram here, and you can check out her podcast here and buy her book here.