“Have You Eaten Yet?”: How Maltese family stories have nourished me on the hard road back from domes

I won’t lie. It was a begrudging return to the Hawkesbury for me. It’s not often that you begin a story of triumph at somebody’s rock bottom - particularly the author’s – but here we are.

When I returned to the Hawkesbury five years ago, the feeling was something like returning to one’s kindergarten classroom. Everything seemed smaller, and in perspective.

I read the papers and magazines. With delight, I also discovered the new museum, library and gallery. I saw my parents and siblings regularly again for the first time in many years. Kurrajong Village had new shops as usual, and the bush telegraph was as efficient as ever, but it was the online activity that told me what was really going on. When a gypsy returns home after living in communities like Marrickville and the Southern Highlands, the Hawkesbury’s rejection of a new group who wish to build themselves a temple is deeply upsetting. Politics and council chambers aside, quietly witnessing such brutal online mob racism several years ago reminded me that I wasn’t in Marrickville or Bundanoon anymore.

It was necessary for me to stay in the Hawkesbury region to survive major depression and domestic violence, but it was not necessary for me to remain apathetic about this valley I loved so much. I had been a professional musician for years, but I had lost the desire to sing. Still, I would always write daily. This was the verdant bush nursery that raised me to be so adventurous in the first place. I was so sad to acknowledge this home truth about the region I had grown up to adore; her ancient waterways, her cooling blue horizon always keep quiet watch over us. How is it possible for so many of the people who live in such a biodiverse place to still believe that it’s a bad thing for its human community to echo that diversity? I saw there was a disparity between who Hawkesburians thought they were and the truth about their diverse history, because I am of this place. The Indigenous Elders who teach me are most definitely of this place, and their memories transcend lifespan.

Some of my favourite memories are of visiting the homes of people with surnames like Zammit and Quattromani. In primary school, I had been used to living in Castle Hill where so many of my friends' parents looked different and spoke other languages. I was overjoyed to discover that my friend Kristy also lived in a home where food was different. I had felt out of place until she invited me over. I saw that her family was like mine. Their home was warm and welcoming, and full of animals. There were turtles and birds. It was nothing to have a lazy afternoon chat to Little Brown Bird, a domesticated Indian Mynah. I had not been taught that he was widely considered a foreign pest to be humanely put to death. All I knew was that he was friendly and sweet, and that he strongly wished to share my biscuit.

I liked to watch the neighbour across the road on his farm. I’d walk my horse down our road of a golden autumn afternoon, and see his tractor humming back and forth across the hill, coaxing hostile Wilberforce clay into soil. It seemed kind of meditative, and I could see the appeal in leaving school after Year 9 to work on the land. I did not yet understand the relationship between Maltese people and agriculture. That would come later.

When I was 14, I made friends with a younger girl on the bus. Her name was Joelene. She had skin the colour of caramel and brilliant blue eyes like her brother, who was the unlucky recipient of my helpless crush. Maltese people are like other-worldly creatures to me. They are all so beautiful. Centuries of seaside sun and generations of eating the most delicious food on earth, I suppose, will have that effect on the complexion.

When I visited the Quattromanis at their home, the first questions to me from their mother would always be, “Have you eaten yet? Do you want something to eat?”

Already, at fourteen, I was experiencing trauma in my own world. 2018 is not the first year I have thanked my lucky stars that Maltese families are in my life. The culturally-characteristic warmth and community-mindedness of the Maltese are a model of the village existence that is now experiencing a revival in the community. If you need to refer to people in whom “village” mentality is innate, the Maltese wrote the book.

Most of all, when I came home, I was just really tired. They call it burnout. Doctors give you things and you get help to regenerate. Once you've really decided to get better, you start looking around for ways to help yourself. When you're that tired, you also let people into your life that perhaps you would otherwise not.

These most solemn of circumstances can force your hand; they can have you believing that you have exhausted all avenues. Find whatever stale crumbs that remain of your circumstances, and try to force them down. In that moment, you’re sure that nothing good can come of it. It’s a sort of pessimistic making-do.

The last thing you expect is to be conceptualising an idea that quickly catches fire in the community and becomes the project that heals you, and reminds you of your professional and personal potential.

I found new questions in the safe haven of the library. It wasn’t the brilliant work of previous researchers and amateur historians that inspired me, although our beautiful library does have shelves bursting with it.

It was what I did not find but knew must urgently be created that mapped my course.

In January 2017, I took a deep breath and clicked “Publish” on a website I had spent three weeks building in my own clumsy way. It was called DiverseHawkesbury.net.

The first story I found were my hairdressers' childhood memories; the old Hawkesbury names of Galea and Micallef gracing the first article.

Soonafter followed an in-depth video article about the Psaila family from Londonderry. This full-length feature is a visit to a family farm, whose gracious owners take us on a tour of their life’s work on the land, showing us typically Maltese crops and relaying a family story. I had not met Fred Psaila more than sixty seconds before the camera rolled. His openness in the video is authentic, and a true indicator of my ongoing experience of working with Maltese Australians across Western Sydney. We saw Fred’s crop of prickly pear fruit, and my burning curiosity about prickly pear was the excuse I’d had to wander onto a stranger’s private property that morning, asking to film the inside of his home and ask his life story.

This is something that happens to me, again and again. I am a non-Maltese stranger, visiting to research a history as yet undocumented in the northwestern Sydney food bowl. Yet, I am welcomed, and embraced. I am asked, “Have you eaten yet?”

I need not explain the effect of this en-masse embrace on someone whose spirit is unwell and in dire need of healing.

This video not only went viral in Malta but led to the warm introduction to the Maltese community group who meets regularly in Llandilo.

Core creatives from Illuminart (master creators behind Vivid) saw my video story, and decided to base a video in their series on the Llandilo group. I was able to bear witness to creative process for the first time since my time producing music, and the community worked together in song, 360 video and story. They created a video designed for social media sharing with proposed a positive vision of their community in the future. The process of working with the elders of this rural community was not entirely without its fluctuations of mood; it was a discussion representative of many I’ve held with local seniors. That is; their concern for social dynamics, environment, culture and wellbeing for their progeny is real. Still, the work is good. The effect is good. It is an effect of creative expression, of agency and of empowerment.

I went to the State Library and worked with SLNSW librarian Andy Carr to learn the names of key researchers in the area. I found out-of-print books by a researcher called Dr Barry York, who promptly emailed me his entire book so that I’d no longer have to take a train to the city to read it. Another oral historian, Mark Caruana, quickly took me on as his mentee. Both veterans of this area of research are Maltese and both care not that I am Chinese-Australian. Their attitudes are the same as Maltese everywhere; “Have you eaten yet? What do you need? How can I help?”

Finally, I recently went to visit the community who meets to socialise at the La Valette Social Club in Blacktown. There, I met and interviewed five women who spoke to me about their experiences of migration and acculturaltion. I have yet to complete these videos, and am excited to add them to the collection for locals to enjoy and use in their own research. My deepest hope is that schools will find reason to value the work, and incorporate it into their Social Sciences, History and English lesson plans.

I’ve spent the past 2 years alongside my uni and parenting commitments exploring not only the diverse community we live in today, but the diverse history that lies behind, just waiting for someone curious (and a little nuts) to put that extra energy into discovering it.

In what began as only an oral history project, I’ve learned so much about who we are in the Hawkesbury, and its reach has spilled over into digital media, social media and no less than three magazines. Along with my own learning, the community learned along with me. Many learned that the word diversity encompasses so much more than just cultural diversity. Age. Ability. Sexual orientation. Gender. Race. Socio-economic status. People in all kinds of roles and in every corner of the Hawkesbury, including myself, have learned as a result of involvement with the project.

As I look at closing the project to chase new opportunities in 2019, and appraise whether it was a “success”, this is my measure of success. It introduced different classifications of human beings to one another and challenged them to look for what they have in common.

The project won two grants, from Hawkesbury City Council and from FundAbility. Diverse Hawkesbury quite organically also became a project that facilitated charitable giving and philanthropy. Together, quietly, the Hawkesbury community gave practical and financial aid via my project to many, and it was through a viral spread of goodwill and generosity that this happened. In a year full of bad news, let this be your good news, right here at home.

That goodwill grew a multitude of social channels over the two years, like a great river that divides and divides, bringing nourishment to the ecosystem of the community. There are so many stories. Stories begetting more stories. I still have a list of Maltese interviewees to speak to before I will consider the project closed. I was never successful in funding the Maltese family history research component of my work, but I always find a way to complete ideas that have me lying awake at night with excitement. I no longer experience more than about one nightmare a fortnight. I look upon all the photos and footage I’ve taken of smiling Maltese faces, and know the work I am doing is valuable work that will endure after I too have gone.

I still have work to do, but nowadays, I wake up and remember to ask myself the same question before I set about helping anyone else:

“Have I eaten yet?”

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