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Sparks

CW: Sexual assault


I woke up to the sound of an alarm, and as I rolled onto my side, it took a moment to register that the new day hadn’t yet dawned. Sitting up suddenly, I leapt from bed. I grabbed a jumper and slipped it on over my pyjamas, then moved out into the hallway, thankfully absent of smoke. My heart thumped, and I figured that we would have to evacuate, despite being 3am. I padded down the hallway and slipped out the door. The chill of the night hugged my body. I slunk down the cool metal stairs. After climbing over a fence, I traipsed down the street. Near the gates of the university, I gathered with the others. We waited around while firefighters headed into the building, although they did not appear alarmed. Eventually, they allowed us back inside the dorms, to go back to sleep. I must have gotten a few hours in, because it was fully light by the time I awoke again. Grateful for the room to myself, I indulged in some pre-breakfast Tim Tams. Eventually, I got dressed, and packed up my bag. I wouldn’t be coming back, no matter what the rest of the day kept in store. It wasn’t a warm day, grey clouds bunching above. I clunked my suitcase down the stairs. We’d been told to leave them in a side room, where bags would fill the carpet. After a gruelling three days, only three of us celebrated. One of the stewards led Hugh, Vanessa and I into the hall, where an audience waited to hear from us. The Master of Ceremonies stood with poise, and strode over to the lectern.


“Welcome to the final of Lofty Speaks for 2022.”


I swallowed.


“Today, we will hear from our finalists – Nina del Reyan, Hugh O’Rourke and Vanessa Pham.”


I glanced across at the others, then back at my feet.


“Please welcome Vanessa Pham.”


She stood, lifting her head and adjusting her microphone so that it was in the right position. Vanessa stepped to the middle of the stage. She seemed to push her chest out, then commenced.


“I would like to start this presentation with a trigger warning. Today, I will address themes of sexual violence and post-traumatic stress disorder. If at any stage you need to step out, the Lofty Speaks volunteers can accompany you if you wish.”


Vanessa took a breath, glancing down, then up again at the audience.


“When you enter the world looking like me, you are either desexualised or hypersexualised, generally the former for men and the latter for women. This fetishisation of Asian women reflects the intersection of racism and sexism.”


No matter how many times I heard her speak, the oration was no less powerful. The audience watched Vanessa as she shared her story, of both victimisation and survivorship. I hated that this had become a competition, because – if it was up to me – she should win, even if solely for her courage alone.


“When you are hypersexualised and then sexually assaulted, the paradigm of not believing women is compounded because everyone already believes you’re a--.” Vanessa paused, the slur appearing on the screen in giant letters instead. “They think you’re a--.”


Another word flashed onto the screen.


“It is possible to go so far as to say that, within rape culture, no woman truly has sexual agency, that female bodies are always under the male gaze. As a queer woman, I beg to differ to some extent, although compulsive heterosexuality inherently removes the dignity of women and gender-diverse people.”


Vanessa clasped her arms behind her body.


“I refuse to claim a birthright of trauma and abuse but I will not forget my foremothers. As I stand in their shoes I know that I must speak their stories. There is no such thing as a voiceless person. Simply, there are people whose voices we do not listen to.”


The line stuck with me every time. I resolved to listen to the voices of the so-called voiceless. Maybe if I could finally hear them speak, then I would see friends rather than ghosts. Could this path lead Mitchell home? Had his voice became one of those which wasn’t listened to? It seemed so out of character, and that frightened me.


“Since my sexual assault, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. While, in some ways, I am grateful for this diagnosis, I am disinterested in the pathologisation of trauma. The way in which I have responded to having been sexually assault is a reasonable, rational way to act in response to such a violation.”


Some within the audience seemed to flinch. My gaze panned across the room, spotting a newspaper flapping near the doorway. Maybe someone had discarded it there. I noticed Vanessa’s girlfriend was sitting in the front row, with a proud smile on her lips, dressed in all black. This can’t have been easy for her, either.


“Last Christmas, I introduced my family to my girlfriend. I also was introduced to her parents around the same time. My girlfriend is white, you see. Dating a white woman comes with its own complexities. You can feel othered within your own relationship, and particularly within her family home.”


I felt a shiver go through my body. It wasn’t an experience I related to.


“Some days I walk up to a self-serve checkout and I stab the buttons so hard that I think that my finger’s going to break with the pressure. Apparently, that’s not normal – not that normal is an idea we should be aspiring to.”


Vanessa offered a modest laugh.


“I went to the GP. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t expect much, because gaslighting is rife within the medical profession. However, in order to receive a Medicare rebate, I needed a Mental Health Care Plan.”


She calmly explained the process. I heard a rumble behind us, which could have been university staff setting up for morning tea, or thunder. Peering towards the windows, it was a cloudy day, unlike most of the previous week. I greatly admired Vanessa’s courage. To tell her story over and over again couldn’t have been easy.


“Emotional intelligence is severely lacking. Developing emotional intelligence assists each and every single one of us to be free. Ultimately, I’m hopeful for the future. I would like to become a mother one day. That’s my ambition at the moment, to nurture and to grow. At the very least, I would like to outlive my attackers, but not my great loves.”


I’d heard this line before. Vanessa completed her presentation and the audience applauded. She dropped her hand, holding her palm cards, to her side. My body already teemed with anxiety, although even more so knowing that I would be next to present.


“Thank you, Vanessa. Please welcome Nina del Reyan.”


I fidgeted with my cards as I stood. The audience applauded and I picked up the cross on the chain around my neck, which Mitchell had given me as a Christmas gift. As I dropped it back against my decolletage, I knew what I had to do.


“This necklace was a gift from my brother.”


I held the cross out, tiny and gold.


“He gave it to me for Christmas one year when I started to show an interest in Christian faith, or maybe I just wanted to dress up like Quinn Fabray from Glee. Mitchell always saw more in me than I saw in myself.”


Geoff offered a smile in the audience. He sat beside Brad and Katherine, who’d made the effort to attend, given the sense of occasion of the State Final. I spoke through the speech which I’d offered every time throughout the competition.


“So, I continue to wait, hope and expect my brother. Esperamos.”


I withdrew. The audience applauded, my heart thumping in harmony with the clapping. I sat down, fumbling with my palm cards, contemplating all that I could have or would have said. Breathing out, I knew that there was nothing more that I could do, and yet everything still on the line – for Mitchell and for me.


“Our final presenter will be Hugh O’Rourke.”


I breathed out. Hugh, for sure, was an attractive man, with ginger curly hair and a five o’clock shadow in a similar hue, which reminded me a little of the farmer emoji. He gave his presentation about botany, then the adjudicators retired to consider their decision. I struggled to know where to place my gaze. A little part of me was confident I had it in the bag. This wasn’t just about the victory, I knew that. It was about the opportunity to tell my story. This journey was mine, a bitter pill which I never would have chosen to swallow. I wanted to spit it out, rather than win. The adjudicators rose to address us, and I rubbed my hands together, my fingers feeling cold and like I was losing the sensation in them. It was the younger woman who would be revealing the national winner of Lofty Speaks for 2022. At least I’d come in the top three. I pressed my lips together.


“Thank you very much for joining us to hear from these three fine finalists.”


Her voice, and the room, started to blur, despite my best efforts to concentrate. Within my shoes, my big toe vibrated, unable to be still.


“Our winner for Lofty Speaks 2022 is--.” The adjudicator paused for effect. “Vanessa Pham.”


I grinned and applauded, along with the rest of the audience. She was presented with a trophy. Hugh and I glanced towards each other sympathetically, then both approached Vanessa to congratulate her. It felt a little pointless to seek out the adjudicators for feedback, but the three of us did anyway, to be polite. Finally I was able to seek out my family, hug them, then leave. My stomach grumbled, so Mum drove us through the drive-thru at Camperdown on the way home. I filled the journey down Parramatta Road with fries and nuggets. Even if I wasn’t stuffing my face, I probably wouldn’t have been up for talking anyway – I’d done more of enough of that over the last three days.


 

The younger sister of missing Sydney man Mitchell del Reyan, Nina del Reyan lives on Dharug land in western Sydney. She has recently commenced a teaching degree at Macquarie University. Nina loves her family and friends and is deeply committed to finding answers and justice for the families of missing people.


Abbey Sim is the founder of Huldah Media. She is a creative writing, law and theology student who lives on the lands of the Dharug people in Sydney, Australia. Abbey desires to explore themes of hope, love and longing through her storytelling. She is the author of 'Shadow' and 'From the Wild'.


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