I felt the need to be the ‘model minority’ until I found my voice through poetry

Nyarath’s story will be a familiar one for many Black people raised in Australia.

Surrounded by whiteness, and facing stereotypes imposed on South Sudanese people, she grappled with her sense of identity and with finding her voice growing up.

Then she found poetry.

Nyarath’s story

I didn’t know how to be when I was younger and growing up in Endeavor Hills, a predominantly white neighborhood in Melbourne.

I didn’t feel like I could be myself, so I was quiet.

Then I became consumed with the idea that I needed to find some way to fit in, by not conforming to the stereotypes Black people face. Of course, this didn’t work.

When I was 12, I went to a spoken word workshop run by a slam poetry champion.

And I saw how poetry could help me recognize and speak my truths.

A teenage girl writes on a piece of paper.  Several lines are seen under a heading
Poetry, Nyarath says, “frees the weight of words from [her] soul”. (ABC: Umayal Srikantha)

I get that it’s a real art form. When people hear that I do it, they’re often like: “Why?”

But there was a time, after finding poetry, when I briefly lost my ability to speak these deeply healing truths.

Somewhere along the way, Nyarath realized she’d stopped writing for herself

When I first started out, I was given platforms to perform my art because I diverged from whatever stereotype people had of me.

It was dehumanizing — I didn’t feel like I was being valued for what I was saying or doing, more what I was supposed to represent.

Because of the way I was tokenised, I felt like I needed to write what my listeners wanted to hear from someone like me, as opposed to writing poetry as an extension of myself.

But then I started to feel like I was doing two performances at once every time I got up on stage.

One was the actual performance of my poetry, and the other was for white people.

Pushing back on the pressure to be ‘palatable’

I know I’m immensely privileged to be here in Australia with my family, and to be able to speak my story without persecution.

But I can’t speak for more than myself. And I don’t want my poetry to be a pretty package for other people to consume.

When I realized this and what had happened, I wrote a poem about it — it’s called Eat.

A teenage girl holds up a film photo of a family of eight all looking at the camera, including six children.
Nyarath grew up in Endeavor Hills, a predominantly white neighborhood in Melbourne, with her family (pictured).(ABC: Umayal Srikantha)

Then I performed it to a predominantly white audience.

It was liberating to perform poetry for myself again; I felt like I gained something back and I haven’t lost it since.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

I use my poems to talk about identity. And I use them to heal.

I want them to convey my experience, and I want them to resonate with people who have experienced some of the things I have, because the shared human experience is deeply moving.

That’s how I felt the first time I heard poetry—validated, for the first time.

Nyarath is a 2022 winner of the ABC Takeover Melbourne competition.

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