PERSPECTIVE: I’m an Aboriginal woman. I write for my people to feel empowered ”

LEAH PURCELL HAS HAD A BRILLIANT CAREER, RECENTLY WRITING AND STARRING IN THE AWARD-WINNING PLAY THE DROVER’S WIFE, WHICH IS NOW ALSO A FILM AND BOOK. BUT IT’S BEEN A LONG ROAD TO SUCCESS

I come from a long line of storytellers. My mother was a great storyteller, and I had aunts and uncles who would put Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams to shame. I was the last of that generation to grow up at the feet of people who still told the old stories.

My grandmother was from the Stolen Generations. On her papers, she was considered subhuman. She never had a voice. My mother was of the generation that was left out of culture, tradition, language or knowing a place. They were at those crossroads: one foot in the black world, one foot in the white world. But they weren’t accepted in that white world.

My mother was born on the Barambah Aboriginal Mission in Queensland (now called Cherbourg). They moved to nearby Murgon when my grandfather got work with white people there. My mother was always proud of her Aboriginal heritage, but because we were living in town, we got racism from other Aboriginal people, as the “accepted” blacks. But living in the white town, we still had to know our place. So I grew up with racism from both sides.

Long before I walked this earth, I was meant to be a storyteller. I was born in a place where I could make a change; where I could have a voice. With the hardships the women before me went through, if I didn’t do something with an opportunity, it was a crime against them.

Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife was my mum’s favourite. I was a terrible sleeper and demanded she read it to me at ridiculous hours. I saw my mother and myself in that story. I’m the youngest of seven, but the others had already left home and my father wasn’t around, so it was just me and my mum. She was the hero and I was trying to protect her.

I was a C-average student. My mother had a hard time and was doing her best, but at times she drowned in alcohol. And I’d go to the hotel on Friday nights and bring her home, or throw 20 people out of the house so I could go to bed, then get up and go to school. If you were to ask that 12-year-old girl if I was going to read and write for a living, I’d have said, “Are you kidding?” Yet here I am. I won a writing competition at school, and I started acting and directing at high school. I got my first laugh on stage when I was 15 in Bye Bye Birdie, and the power in that, as the little ripple became a roar of laughter — I was hooked.

I fell pregnant at 17. I turned 18 in August, my daughter was born in September, my mother died in October. I was in an abusive relationship, and I started turning to the bottle. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, “Who are you?” I knew it was time to do something for my daughter, and something for me. This little voice said, “Why don’t you become an actor?” So I moved to Brisbane and did an acting course. Then I moved to Sydney and decided to chase the acting dream. I got the role of Marijuana Annie in Bran Nue Dae and toured Australia. Then I got Police Rescue, which was the number-one drama at the time. I started writing when I worked on Fallen Angels. It was an Indigenous role, and they weren’t getting things quite right, so I was cheeky enough to give it a go.

In 2006, when I was filming Jindabyne, I fell in love with the landscape up there. I walked to the top of Mount Kosciuszko and sang out: “I’m putting it out there on the country. I’m coming back here and I’m writing something set here. I’ll be in it, and it’s going to be The Drover’s Wife.” Well, cut to November 2019: we wrapped our feature film in the Snowy Mountains. How’s that for putting it out on the country?

I wrote the first draft in seven days. My partner Bain (he’s the director of our production company) thought there was a film in it, so he invited Screen Australia to the opening night. We got a standing ovation, five encores, and our movie. Then we got a book deal. Now I’m working on a second book and a TV series.

I’m an Aboriginal woman. I write Aboriginal characters; I write for my people to feel empowered. It’s only been in the past 20 years that we’ve seen ourselves in lead roles. The Aboriginal plightiswhyIdowhatIdo.Iusemyartto get my audience into a ripping, roaring yarn that happens to be sprinkled with a bit of black magic. If they get all the subtext I’ve put into it – the political level, the female perspective – I’ve done my job. If they just say, “Thanks for the entertainment,” that’s good, too. They have been connecting with an Aboriginal story. Hopefully, they’ll be less quick in future to judge people by their skin colour until they know their story. I just want to tell stories, because we all need to understand each other for us to move forward as a nation.

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