Christina’s legacy reveals the ignorance of Alan Jones’ claim

Christina - St Joseph Hospital“Mum is finally at peace” – with these simple words, Christina Riley’s son marked the end of her long battle with illness, two days ago, at St Joseph’s Hospital, Auburn. Chris was also known as Christina Green. Her life was an extraordinary story of resilience and survival against almost insurmountable odds. Born of Wiradjuri and European parents, Chris was taken from her family at the age of three. There appears to have been no other reason than that she was Aboriginal. With Bonney Djuric, Chris was the co-founder of Parragirls in 2006, women who survived incarceration and abuse as teenagers in the notorious Parramatta Girls Home. In Bonney’s careful documentation of the emergence and evolution of the child welfare system in NSW, her book Abandon All Hope records that by 1909, the only reason needed for committal of Aboriginal girls to state care was “being Aboriginal”.

By the age of nine, after years of rape, torture and abuse at the hands of a foster family and with no memory of her birth family, Chris was taken into state institutional “care”. As she wrote in her recently published book, The Life of Riley, see below with Geoff Lee MP, “when human beings are Christina - Life of Riley launch 0914treated like filth, they lose their hope and their identity.” She was 13 when confronted with a crisis about who she was. At roll call, an officer “presented my first name, then surname, then two other surnames from my past foster parents, and ending with ‘whichever one you are’. Well that moment was a very embarrassing and dramatic 10 minutes of my life. I answered protesting she could use any name she bloody well liked, and walked off leaving everyone at assembly bewildered.”

Her “insubordination” set off a cycle of punishments and detentions at state institutions, including Parramatta Girls home. Eventually this led to three periods at the infamous Hay Institution for “the worst behaved, depraved, delinquent young girls in the state.” Amazingly, Chris survived the treatment meted out to her and with professional help, it took 25 years to write her book. It became the way she could eventually bring herself to look back at her past and try to understand why all this had happened to her. In the meantime, she became a foster carer to many children and mother to a family of her own. Her commitment to the protection of children and her later struggle to acquire an education were inspirational.

1-Christina - with granddaughter Oct 14As she reestablished links with her birth family, and worked with Bonney on the development of the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct: Memory Project, she put forward ideas for a memorial garden, an education and research centre, and recorded a video interview with Lily Hibberd which will have an important place as the proposals come to fruition. The site was an indigenous women’s place long before white colonisation and Chris was also developing a concept for Aboriginal cultural tourism. Increasing illness prevented her from furthering this idea, but she leaves a gift to the Australian community that will be increasingly recognised.

I am grateful that Chris could give the Acknowledgement to Country at the launch of my book in 2013.  Her extraordinary legacy of resilience and survival demonstrates the ignorance and injustice of radio shock jock Alan Jones’ recent tirade that “we need stolen generations”.

The photo above, taken 18 months ago, shows Chris in her favourite role, caring for one of her grandchildren. Rest in peace, Christina Riley.

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Bold new development in launch of National Theatre of Parramatta

Robert Love - RiversideThe National Theatre of Parramatta sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? National localised? Well yes, perhaps it is. But only because the founders see Parramatta as a microcosm of what Australia has become in the last few decades – extraordinarily culturally diverse and generating a vibrant intensity and passion for life that is simply not reflected on the mainstream Australian stage.

The National NT of P Annette-Shun-WahTheatre of Parramatta was launched at Riverside Theatres on November 19, 2015, where it will be the resident company. Its establishment fulfills a long held ambition of Riverside Theatres director Robert Love, above, to have a resident company servicing Parramatta, western Sydney and regional NSW, in telling the region’s own stories and providing professional career opportunities.

After many years of gestation, the National Theatre of Parramatta has won an initial four years of funding from Arts NSW, Crown Resorts NT of P Paula AboudFoundation, Packer Family Foundation and Parramatta City Council. A four member directorate comprises Annette Shun Wah, above left, Paula Abood, left, S Shaktidharan, below left, and Wayne Harrison, bottom left. Between them, they have an enormous range of creative and production experience in theatre, radio, music, film, major arts events and community cultural development. They make a formidable team and are all in agreement that they aspire “to create bold contemporary works that draw their inspiration from the rich diversity and untold stories NT of P S. Shakthidharanof western Sydney and beyond, adding to our cultural landscape a company that truly reflects the nation on stage. “

They “aspire to create a body of work that is expressive of new conversations and new voices; work that challenges and exhilarates; that engages audiences in a dialogue of ideas, nurturing emotional exchanges and interactions that move beyond the stage and into people’s lives.” You have only to type “theatre” into the search facility on this blog to glimpse a little of the range NT of P Wayne-Harrisonof talents and ideas that have already found expression in western Sydney and which constantly challenge the status quo of Australian theatre making.

The executive producer for this bold new company is Joanne Kee, whose international work record includes Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival, general manager of The Song Company, business manager of programming Sydney Opera House, setting up creative development and performance residencies for artists and work at the Arts Council of England and Carnivale, multicultural arts festival. As a producer she tours internationally award winning work. She is on the board of Music Australia, Sydney Fringe Festival and the Glebe Chamber of Commerce. She was Chair of Ausdance NSW and chair of the working group that set up Critical Path.

NT of P Joanne KeeJoanne, left, says, “We want to create opportunities for artists in an environment where they are being paid for their work and where they can learn their craft alongside the best in the business.” Their first season will begin in April with an existing play Swallow, which premiered to rave reviews in Edinburgh last year. In it, three strangers share states of vulnerability and defiance connecting their fates and influencing each others ability to re-enter the outside world. With challenge and humour, Swallow “explores questions of identity, heartbreak and hope with vivid, poetic intensity.” Swallow begins a sustainable first year, which will set the tone for program expansion in subsequent years. It will be followed by a fully developed production of Stolen in June after two successful readings of Jane Harrison’s play at Riverside in 2013 and 2015.

NTofP_Web_Stolen_BannerStolen is a story of five young Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their parents and brought up in a repressive children’s home without contact with family or culture. It is a story with parallels throughout Australian communities, told from the perspective of the children. You are invited to “immerse yourself in a yarn about the importance of family, understanding and issues that have impacted strongly on Aboriginal families. Stolen will be directed by acclaimed performance maker, Vicki Van Hout.

In October, Paula Abood and Wayne Harrison will stage the inaugural Telling Tales, a festival all about story telling using a series of traditional and unconventional spaces. Telling Tales will “celebrate the glorious complexity and diversity of Western Sydney, sharing the stories of its people; the yarns, anecdotes, personal memoirs and imaginary tales set in a performance context, with something for all ages.” Telling Tales will include some of the best entries in Tell It – a story telling competition to be run in September for people 18 years and younger.

Take the opportunity to explore the website of the National Theatre of Parramatta. They are interested in hearing from new voices, particularly those who have a connection to Western Sydney. If you would like to invite representatives to your performance or creative development please send invitations to admin_ntofp@parracity.nsw.gov.au. As part of its development program, the company will offer many chances to engage with it:

  • Trainee and Assisting Roles
  • Networking events
  • Masterclasses
  • Skills development workshops
  • Advanced Writer’s Salon
  • Mentorships
  • Performance platforms

There will also be opportunities to volunteer and learn. Add your name to their email list.

Arguing the toss about literature, provocation and radicalisation

Michael Mohammed.AhmadIn a period of heightened anxiety about radicalisation of young people and fears of Muslim extremism comes a discussion of radical literature at Western Sydney University. On Friday, November 6, the Writing and Society Research Centre on the Bankstown campus will host sessions that aim to challenge the boundaries and reclaim the contemporary migrant-Australian narrative. The first session will feature award winning author of The Tribe, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, above, in conversation with internationally acclaimed Future Generation Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory at Melbourne University, Professor Ghassan Hage, below, as they explore the images and realities of the Arab-Australian narrative.

Through the last 20 years, this narrative has been profoundly coloured by media reports of sexual assault, drug-dealing, drive-by shootings and terrorist conspiracy. It has often overwhelmed any effort to understand a growing community that has a significant place in contemporary Australian society. Michael Mohammed is a founding member and director of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and a passionate advocate of improved literacy and critical thinking among marginalised young people.  At last count, Sweatshop had conducted workshops for more than 10,000 Australian high school students. Professor Greg Noble from the university’s Institute of Society and Culture will chair the session, which will unpack the various representations Prof Ghassan Hagein media, politics, film and literature that have shaped our understanding of the Arab-Australian identity.

An item in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald described the NSW Premier’s $47 million plan to fight extremism in schools. “Specialist teams and trained counsellors will identify students at risk of radicalisation and help counter violent extremism.” It is a move that has been welcomed by members of the Muslim Women’s Association, who have been seeking similar training for counsellors and mentors for many years. Some leading teacher representatives fear the initiative could be counter-productive in schools. Andrew Zammit, a counter-terrorism expert from Melbourne University recently recommended programs that encourage critical thinking among students rather than suspicion by teachers.

The second session of Friday’s event will be a conversation between radical Melbourne poet TT.O and critic and editor Professor Ivan Indyk. Greek-Australian by background and anarchist by conviction, TT.O’s poems have dramatised the voices and gestures of the working class of inner city Melbourne, and marked the migrant presence in Australian poetry throughout 40 years. In addition to the conversations, the panellists will take questions from the audience and perform readings from their upcoming books. Radical Literature is a free event hosted by Western Sydney University’s Writing and Society Research Centre and will include a complimentary lunch. Western Sydney University, Bankstown Campus, Building 3, Room G 55, from 11am – 3pm.
Bookings are essential. RSVP: writing@westernsydney.edu.au

Studio Stories - ProvocationThere is a further opportunity to hear Michael Mohammed Ahmad, left, when he is joined by Faith Chaza, centre, and Aanisa Vylet at Parramatta Artists Studios on Thursday, November 19, from 6.30 to 8pm. Studio Stories presents a monthly event of readings, discussion and open mic showcasing western Sydney writers. This time, they will be Stories of Provocation – “stories that will enrage and provoke you and maybe even change the way that you see the world.” You are invited to come for a drink, a chat, a listen and BYO your own material for the open mic.

Free. No RSVPs required. Parramatta Artists Studios, 68 Macquarie St, Parramatta.

Passion for justice and “coming to voice” drives Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s work

Michael Mohammed AhmadAs a Bankstown boy of Lebanese Muslim background, Michael Mohammed Ahmad was profoundly affected by the media frenzy that broke out in 2000 following the Skaf gang rapes in south western Sydney. The savagery of sterotyping about young Muslim men, Lebanese and Arab Australians and western Sydney had a widespread negative impact on other young men like himself. While not denying the awfulness of the crimes, Mohammed concluded that the only way to counter such unfair labelling, was to develop strong and confident local voices who could tell their own stories to a wide audience.

Bankstown Youth Development Service, under the leadership of Tim Carroll, gave him the opportunity to develop his passion for writing and the promotion of literacy and critical thinking among local young people. Under BYDS’ auspice, Mohammed initiated and ran Westside Publications as chief editor and coordinator from June 2005 to February 2013. In 2012, he won the Australia Council’s Kirk Robson Award in recognition of his leadership in community arts and cultural development. From this emerged Sweatshop – Western Sydney Literacy Movement, now based at the Writing and Society Research Centre, University of Western Sydney, Bankstown campus, where Mohammed is a doctoral candidate.

Sweatshop team - UWSThe university website says, “Facilitated by local literacy artists, PhD candidates and UWS graduates, Sweatshop visits local schools to run workshops and activities, and also produces publications, literary events and performances to showcase the work of local writers and artists. Mr Ahmad has been working with Western Sydney communities through literacy for the past 10 years and over this time has worked with more than 10,000 young people to develop reading, writing and communication skills in local schools.”

It’s a pretty impressive achievement. At times, Mohammed’s style is abrasive and confronting. His studies have led him to the work of bell hooks, the African-American feminist scholar. In her book, Talking Back, hooks uses the term “coming to voice” – an act of moving from silence to speech as revolutionary gesture. “We are coming to voice”, he says.

“This agenda has inspired much of my own work. I have been fascinated by the experience of being from both western Sydney and being of a Lebanese-Australian Muslim-Alawite background. My fascination has not been in the stereotypical, limited and often demonising way that we’ve seen it done so far, but rather in the honest and complex way that it unfolds in my life.”

OneThe Tribe - cover result is his first book of fiction published earlier this year by Giramondo. Its style is gentler. The Tribe, opens with a vivid description of the recollections of his protagonist as a seven year old, sitting close to his grandmother. His Tayta points to the scars on her expansive belly and tells him how they mark the birth of each of her children. Thus we meet the members of Bani’s family and begin to discover the individuals who make up three generations and the complexities of relationships throughout the extended family. It’s not quite a cast of thousands, but the connections are multiple and complex. The loyalties and antagonisms  existing in a tight knit community bound by tradition are vividly illustrated. Reviews in The Daily Telegraph and the blog The Lifted Brow offer contrasting and illuminating commentary.

Last week, in collaboration with Seizure Literary Journal, Sweatshop published a new anthology Stories of Sydney. Stories from 15 writers focus on place. All have been developed and intensively workshopped since 2013. Five come from inner Sydney and 10 from western Sydney. It is both a printed book and an e-book. During term four a series of writing workshops and residencies in schools will be held, with the aim of exploring difference across Sydney through storytelling.