Festival Readings: The Next Cathy Freeman by Alice Skye

Here at EWF, we’ve selected some of our favourite pieces that were originally performed at the 2020 Emerging Writers’ Festival to publish over the coming weeks. We hope you will read and enjoy them as much as we did!

This week we’re sharing Alice Skye’s lovely piece from Amazing Babes, about growing up, family, and the women and non-binary people who helped inspire her – including Cathy Freeman. 

Cathy Freeman just won the gold medal. It’s the year 2000 and I’m going to start school soon. I decide early on that my education won’t matter too much because I’m going to be a famous Olympian just like her.

I was pretty fast. I would run around the block in my bare feet because I liked the sound it made. In the dry winter especially, I loved how running made me feel both so cold and so hot that it gave me pins and needles. I used to think that the static I saw when the TV reception was bad, was filling my body – limb by limb.

I understood being Aboriginal like I understood the fact that I had brown eyes, big ears and no dad. But when it came to school I enjoyed telling people who I was and I would do as many school projects on Cathy Freeman as I could – even if it didn’t fit the brief. The only time we ever did anything at school actually about mob we made dot painted rain sticks – in my experience of being a Koori (Victorian Aboriginal) I was confused by this. I didn’t really understand why no one was interested or jealous when I told them, because I thought they should have been both.

I suppose people were kind of mean to me but I’m not sure it bothered me. They would comment on my homemade trackies, my grubby face and the fact that I looked like a little boy – but I had my eyes on that Olympic prize. Besides, I scraped through school somewhat unscathed by being just funny enough to make up for any differences people might have seen in me.

Things changed in high school. People were a lot faster than me and I started to get to know what insomnia was. The fastest girl in our year had a golden tan and people would joke and call her Cathy Freeman. I hated this.

Soon I started to say ‘my dad was Aboriginal’ instead of ‘I’M Aboriginal’. I noticed this made people more comfortable. More willing to take it on, and more willing to take me in. I hated this too.

By year 9, I’d stopped running and stopped thinking of myself as the next Cathy Freeman and now I was just angry. I was angry that being Aboriginal meant the same thing to me as having brown eyes, big ears and no dad. Because those things had stopped making sense to me too.

‘I’m an Aboriginal woman. I am Wergaia, and the pelican is my totem’ my Aunty Eleanor says these words and I know them well. She was being interviewed about the possum cloak she made with her sister, my aunty Stella, for the 2006 Commonwealth Games (so you could say I made it to the Olympics after all.) I remember that possum cloak being in Aunty Nor’s house as a kid. It hung on a mannequin that sometimes I talked to, and that sometimes I was convinced would speak back. Even now in my bedroom in Fitzroy, I sleep across from an artwork my cousin Kelly made from the possum fur and it speaks to me.

Seeing Cathy Freeman and the flag do that iconic victory lap definitely shaped me in some way. It was the first time I can remember seeing an Aboriginal woman on TV. But what I know for sure is that the reason I was able to turn up to primary school and make a point of telling people I was Aboriginal, was because my aunties couldn’t.

Women and non-binary people are really the only people that raised me.

My Aunty Nor. With her gold rings and flawless outfits. She has a long list of work behind her. Fighting for women’s rights and land rights since the 60s. Working with community, state and federal government bodies. And even now, retired and in her 70s, she is working on the Treaty committee and has been inducted into the Victorian Honor Roll. She says she learned everything from her grandmother and aunties and family. I never knew my grandparents but I feel close to them through her. I think about how I am proud because she is. And she is proud because her grandmother made sure of it.

My mum, who moved from industrial northern England. From a town with the popular Google search, ‘Why does Widnes smell so bad?’ I remember Mum telling me they had metered electricity and a coin-operated TV. That sometimes the TV would timeout and they would turn the couch upside down searching for loose change. Mum’s taught me many things. She’s clever and funny and hardworking. She taught me how to use a chainsaw and gave me my love of art and reading without ever forcing it upon me. I think about how different my mum’s life must have been in England and how different it is now. She owns her own bookshop and gallery and lives in the Grampians, the cleanest sweetest smelling air I think there is. I think about how she managed to raise three Aboriginal kids and provide for us. I think about what it must have been like for her to learn that her husband had died and then nine months later bring me into the world. Sometimes I don’t feel close to her and other times I think I am her.

My siblings raised me when Mum couldn’t.

My sister Susie, the middle child and mediator. Who taught me how to play the piano and love cooking. She’d lend me CD’s that I’d never return and would read bedtime stories to help me sleep. I’ve always been a terrible sleeper and Susie was painfully aware of this. She even recorded cassette tapes of her reading Harry Potter so I could fall asleep to them – to this day I use podcasts to get to sleep. She’s a writer and has also been an ‘Amazing Babe’ herself – the five-year-old version of myself is proud to share this in common. (24-year-old me is, too.)

My oldest sibling, Stan. They taught me how to play Tekken and drive a car. They defy everything our hometown tries to force you into and make me feel braver because of it. When I was younger and we were driving in the ute that belonged to our dad, I said to them ‘I wish we had a brother so they could run the farm’. Stan told me to shut the fuck up or get out of the car. I’d never heard about gender roles or binaries growing up, I just felt them there. But when I think about that moment now, I wish I had.

I struggled to write this piece because thinking about family is hard. Not that it needed to be about family – but I tried to explore writing an entire piece dedicated to my crush on Gillian Anderson and there’s only so much to be said.

Family is incredible and inspiring and tough and tender. I spend a lot of time wishing things were different. Mostly I wish I knew growing up that family is more than the rigid structure of our colonisers. That family is complex, fluid and far and wide. I grew up thinking I had one parent and now I realise that I had many. Maybe there were no men around me but many ‘fathers.’ My mum raised us alone but my dad’s sisters and brothers are her siblings too.

I’m not sure I’ll ever have kids of my own but if they do I know I’ll make sure they know – they come from a long, long line of many amazing babes.