One of my role models… encounters with Lisa Bellear
Heroes can be anybody; they can come named or anonymous, queer or straight, black or yellow, know martial arts or ride an old cranky bike. Having heroes has enabled me to see beyond being isolated and alone in a money-making scarily racist world that loves tokenising the non-white and the non-heterosexual as part of a charade of inclusivity and generosity. One of my biggest heroes is poet and photographer and community radio broadcaster – the late Lisa Bellear, who passed away in July this year.
With the passing of time, memory can be an unreliable source for facts, especially if not documented. But, if I were to locate a source of my first encounter with Lisa Bellear, I would say it was through her poems in a collection of contemporary lesbian writing, in Car Maintenance, Explosives and Love. Being a bit of a bloodhound in terms of collecting material from Indigenous, Asian, mainly non-white writings of lesbians and women, I was immediately magnetised to Lisa Bellear’s work.
In January 2001, my friend, poet, Hinde Ena Burstin, invited me to read in a multicultural and Indigenous (or “multicult-i”, as Ena called it) lesbian spoken word event that she produced and performed in called, Dyke World. I was so honoured! I said yes. Looking back, I feel humbled that Ena (another one of my biggest heroes) invited me (the relatively unknown baby dyke of the lot), when she could have chosen so many other writers. I say this because the line-up was pretty impressive – besides Lisa Bellear and Ena, there were more of my heroes – writers Rae Bennett and Tom Cho.
Meeting Lisa in person and hearing her read her poetry live, catalysed a need in me to know her better. So, I pursued her and requested an interview with her. I started listening to her broadcast on 3CR’s Not Another Koori Show, and read more of her work. I got hold of her writings from the La Trobe University and Melbourne University’s general and women students newspapers, and I borrowed her first book of poetry, Dreaming In Urban Areas from the library.
As a non-Indigenous woman, my meeting with Lisa Bellear would pour fuel into my political understanding of Indigenous people’s struggles and sufferings in this country. It provided an impetus towards a creative form of activism. I became more conscious about my choices and read more Indigenous authors, saw more Indigenous plays and supported Indigenous peoples’ struggles – in the arts and on the street. In the interview, I asked Lisa seven questions, and she gave me about fifteen pages worth of answer in reply. The woman can yarn! From her anger at racism directed towards Indigenous artists in queer arts and cultural events, including a rude encounter with a member from the 2001 Midsumma (Melbourne’s annual queer festival) committee, to her love of photographing graffiti and signs to her frustration at Australian journalists for their lack of interest in Indigenous issues, she kept on providing insight after insight. Despite a childhood of suffering as a victim of the Stolen Generations, she was so passionate and pro-active about the social justice and human rights of her people.
Perhaps my other most significant meeting with Lisa was during my involvement with the Reclaim the Night (RTN) collective in 2001 as a co-moderator with my friend Carmen Lahiff-Jenkins (another one of my heroes!). Reclaim the Night is an annual feminist rally in protest against all forms of violence, in particular sexual violence against women. That year, the collective agreed to change RTN from the traditional Friday night rally to a Saturday night, in respect of Jewish women who observe Shabbat – the weekly day of rest. This resulted in controversy within the feminist ranks – mainly from a group of Melbourne University radical feminists and their lecturer who felt that we were assenting to a tradition they deemed as patriarchal and religious. We also angered a few socialist feminists because we refused to let them dominate the meetings with their agendas.
Part of the collective’s mission was to incorporate a cultural protocol which was respectful of Indigenous people and culture in the context of feminist organising. We modeled the cultural protocol on Lisa Bellear’s comments and suggestions in her report on the NOWSA (Network of Women Students of Australia) conference. Besides Lisa, we consulted with key Indigenous women, including Wurundjeri elders, Joy Murphy and Annette Xiberras, and activist Charmaine Clarke. We extended the concept of the cultural protocol to incorporate respecting the diversity of women’s cultural backgrounds and heritages as well as abilities.
From then on I kept meeting Lisa – sometimes by chance – at National Sorry Day or NAIDOC rallies, or by intention – at literary poetry readings. When I moved to Brunswick in 2004, I would see Lisa going about on her bike, at the train station, or even doing some late night shopping at the local Safeway! And every time we did have a conversation, she would invite me on her radio show, and be, like my first encounter with her –supportive, charming and full of fire.
Like many people, I was devastated when I found out that she had passed on. When Arts Hub commissioned me to write a feature on Lisa, the research-writing path brought some perspective to my sadness when I interviewed her brother, playwright and director, John Harding; her friend, academic and writer, Dr. Tony Birch; and her lecturer at Melbourne University from sixteen years ago, academic and poet, Dr. Lyn McCredden (who also wrote the introduction to Dreaming In Urban Areas).
What I find out is that Bellear had left a legacy of work that the public and the mainstream need to know about and honour, for as Birch said, “her ability to understand how culture works and how it works in relationship to media was probably second to none”. From Bellear’s near completed thesis to her unpublished writing and undeveloped photographs, Birch said, the “depth of her talent is not fully understood”. Her collection of work Harding defined as an “archival social-political history of Black Victoria”.
Perhaps it says a lot about the Australia when it would laud the late conservationist and television celebrity Steve Irwin as its public hero, but fail to recognise the calibre of Lisa Bellear, whose memorial service at the Aborigines Advancement League attracted more than 1500 people, the second largest service in the history of the organisation. But perhaps Lisa would have “worn this as a badge of honour”, as according to Birch, “Lisa never craved for the mainstream status” as “the very nature of her work, the very nature of the way she approached issues was to be quite maverick herself”.
As far as heroes go, Bellear’s thoughts on role models perfectly sums up why having heroes is very important to me. When I interviewed her, Lisa joked that she managed to avoid being anybody’s mentor. But she prided herself on her own list of heroes – from activist and historian Gary Foley to Olympic winning athlete Cathy Freeman to Tasmanian Indigenous lawyer and activist Michael Mansell, her list of role models numbered into the hundreds – because as she said, people without role models were in “fairyland” and it was best to be wary of “the person that you talk to that’s a big shot and they tell ya we got here all by ourselves, we didn’t need anybody, no one helped us”.