SILVER

You are South Sudanese, you were born in Ethiopia and you spent your early years in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Your family came to Australia in 1997 when you were six years old. What did money look like to you growing up? We grew up with not much at all. Five kids, and my mom was mostly the only parent due to visa issues. So there was a lot of saving and saving, and I’m sure mom was doing a lot behind the scenes. We kind of accepted that a lot of things were just not for us. All the cool kids at school had the Roxy backpack and the Billabong pencil case; mine was from Best & Less. It was just something I accepted. So my relationship to money now seems unstable, as if it weren’t forever.

At the same time, I imagine others would look at your career and think, “Atong is living the dream.” Absolutely! I’m that person who looks at himself every day and says to himself “Bitch, you made it”. It’s crazy that I don’t have to burn my coffee at the corner cafes working as a waitress with very clumsy hands. I’m further and further from the reality I had, but my brain hasn’t caught up. So I’m still stuck in the headspace of Atong Atem who worked in three different cafes and was on Centrelink, calling them and having to cry every week, saying, “Please don’t interrupt me. But I no longer have the saved number for Centrelink. I have been very lucky and grateful to have a lot of privileges lately. I guess I’m afraid to get comfortable in it, because I always feel like the rug is going to be pulled from under me.

BODY

You grew up in Wyoming on the central coast of NSW. How did you feel about your growing body? I was deeply aware of the growth of my body. I was always kind of “on” and kind of learned to embody a physical sense of stillness so others would feel safe. I was afraid to make movements that could be interpreted as shocking, scary, or terrifying because I had internalized this idea that my body was inherently shocking, scary, and terrifying. It was so different from the bodies around me. I learned that it wasn’t just about being black: it was about being a dark-skinned black woman with distinctive features.

It seems exhausting. I was uncomfortable, but it wasn’t an inherent part of my body: it was my environment. But I was stuck and there was nothing I could do about it. So I was really aware of everything; I just didn’t have the language for it.

“I was uncomfortable, but it wasn’t an inherent part of my body: it was my environment.”

What do you think of your body now? I feel hot, sexy, beautiful, gorgeous, cool, brave.

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What changed? I read. I was exposed to black female writers who had the language, the words, and the experience. I ran into Octavia E. Butler; I remember seeing a picture of her in an article about great science fiction writers. It was mostly old white men with beards, and then, all of a sudden, this tall black woman. I became obsessed with his work and his way of thinking. I had internalized this idea that you could only talk about wrestling as a black person in a predominantly white space, whereas Butler said, “I’m talking about the world as a whole. I’m talking about the body. I’m talking about gender and social policy. I’m talking about the future. And in doing all of this, I hold up a mirror to society. It was so deep. And she also wasn’t afraid of having sprawling aliens having intimate experiences with humans. It was like, ‘Are you allowed to do this? White people are watching! So yes, black women saved my life, I would say.

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