We spoke to Marlee Silva, Aboriginal woman from the Gamilaroi and Dunghutti peoples of New South Wales, and author of My Tidda, My Sister: Stories From Australia’s First Women about her work, the lessons she has learnt from her Aboriginal sisters, and how her body wears her story.
Tell us about yourself and what you do
Yaama! That’s how you say hello in my people’s language, I am a proud Aboriginal woman from the Gamilaroi and Dunghutti peoples of NSW.
I’m very lucky to be able to say I do a lot of varied work, that I absolutely love – but which ultimately makes giving myself a single job title very difficult! So while I’m a published author, a consultant, a podcaster, someone who spends a lot of their time public speaking at events and a whole bunch of other things, I’m finding myself feeling like ‘storyteller’ is the best way to capture it.
The kinds of stories I tell are often about being a woman, being an Aboriginal woman more specifically and working in the creative space.
Last year you published your book My Tidda, My Sister: Stories from Australia's First Women. Can you talk to us about this work, how it came about, and your experience writing it?
I’ve been referring to my experience writing my first book as a kind of ‘book pregnancy’! It took me nine months to write and it actually came about after a publisher listened to my Tiddas 4 Tiddas podcast and thought the sharing of Indigenous women’s stories would be powerful in book form – which I very excitedly agreed! This publisher actually slid into my DMs to start the conversation, which people find bizarre, and as someone who studied writing at university and had whole classes related to how you get a book deal or manuscript read, this was definitely not how I thought it would ever happen!
The writing process was a rollercoaster. I absolutely loved sitting down with all the women I interviewed for the book and learning from their experiences and having them trust me to do them justice. But being a perfectionist, when it came to the writing and the composition of the book as a whole, it was really emotionally draining and exhausting! All worth it in the end though! And now I’m six months past it, I think I could almost be ready to write another one!
You also have a podcast, Tiddas 4 Tiddas, which shines a light on the stories and experiences of Indigenous women. Is there a story or a moment that has particularly stood out to you, either from the podcast or your book? If so please tell us a little about it and why it felt so powerful.
I have found a new lesson or feeling of hope and power in every one of the stories I have had the pleasure of hearing through my podcasting and writing so I could easily list all of them here. But one I find myself telling time and time again is that of a young Aboriginal woman in my book who has since become a dear friend and who continues to inspire again and again with her determination and resilience.
Jola Cummings is the first story in the second part of my book. She grew up in out-of-home care, away from family, away from her Aboriginal identity, often forced to face abuse and in her second last year of high school, forced into homelessness when her foster carer at the time told her and her brother Isaiah via text message they were no longer welcome in their house. But amazingly, the two siblings emerged from this start to life it without bitterness, only with a passion to be more than what was expected of them and find a way to help other kids like them.
Jola now has her masters in Education and teaches secondary school, while specifically supporting Indigenous students. She’s amazing!
What is the best piece of advice or lesson you have learnt from the women you have spoken to for Tiddas 4 Tiddas?
Every one of the podcast guests I’ve had has been full of wisdom, but the older women such as Aunty June Oscar, Tanya Hosch and Leah Purcell, all moved me deeply with the way they reminded me of the importance of my success for future generations.
I think as they look back on what life was like for them growing up and how it’s continuing to change for the better, they were able to reflect on the importance of the next generation continuing the hard work they’ve been a part of — and that message is always what sits at the forefront of my mind, especially on days when I’m tired and feel like I’m struggling.
In an interview with Marie Claire that you did with your sister Keely, you are quoted as saying:
‘’We are in the fabric of every part of the continent and there’s so much we can learn from our history. I want Indigenous women to remember they are the product of 80,000 years of resilience. We have the power of that running through our veins; we can overcome anything. And we have thousands of women behind us.”
How has your experience as an Indigenous woman affected the way you view the power of women generally?
The stories I was raised with, that of my grandmother and great-grandmother, how they moved through, succeeded in and raised the next generation that would follow them in a world that didn’t count them as citizens and would often discriminate against them because of their culture and the colour of their skin, taught me from a young age that women hold a power like no other.
At Youswim, we believe in creating swimwear that represents women realistically. Our swimsuits adapt to our unique, ever-changing, and unedited bodies as they are and through the various stages in our lives. Our bodies reflect our journeys and wear our stories. How does your body wear your story and what does that mean to you?
When I think about my body, I think about the 60 thousand years of resilience that pump through my veins and how that gives me the strength to do whatever I set my mind to. For many years I’ve worked on loving my body from the inside out and none of us feel that love 100% of the time, but I can confidently say I show my body gratitude for what it gives me every day.
My body is the keeper of not only my story, but my ancestors, so I treat it with the care it deserves, so it can be carried forward to the generations I hope will follow me.
Text: Rosie Cohen, Frankie Glace
Photography: Ebony Talijancich