AL Andrew Leigh
NN Nyadol Nyuon
NN And I think part of the reason why I had so much anger was that I had created an unrealistic, but comfortable, dream that, because of what I had gone through, that somehow I was going to be cut a slack by life at some point. But it won’t. The future is still as uncertain and as full of potentials of beauty and ugly and pain for me as for anybody else.
AL Welcome to The Good Life: Andrew Leigh in Conversation, a podcast about living a happy, healthy, and ethical life. In this podcast, we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full, with humour, pleasure, meaning and love. We’ll chat will musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers, about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast, do take a moment to tell your friends or give us a rating. Now, sit back, and enjoy the conversation.
Nyadol Nyuon was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and grew up in another refugee camp in Kenya. She came to Australia as an 18-year-old, and has quickly become embroiled in the conversation over racism in Australia and the role of African Australians in building the nation. She’s been a regular panellist on The Drum and Q+A, received a slew of awards, and is about to shift from being a commercial lawyer into heading the Zelman Cowan Centre at Victoria University.
She is perhaps one of the youngest guests I have had on The Good Life podcast, and it’s a real honour to be speaking with her today. Nyadol, welcome to The Good Life podcast.
NN Thank you very much. Thank you. I’m really happy to be here.
AL You’re the daughter of a very famous father, Commander William Nyuon Bany. Tell us about him.
NN That’s the strange part. I don’t know much about him. Most of the stuff I know about my father, I heard second hand. Because of the role he played in the South Sudanese and the Sudanese political movements, both military as well the more conventional politics, he was always absent. So I never got to see him much. I think I have only one recollection of ever interacting with him. I won’t say I know much of him.
But there’s quite a lot of history about what he has done. He was a founding member of what is called the SPLM, which is the South Sudanese People Liberation Movement, as well as army. They started off with the idea of fighting against the government of Sudan at the time, which was predominantly in the north, and that, with years of civil war, ended up being a fight to have an independent south.
That happened in 2011 where, by referendum, the country that was Sudan split into two and South Sudan became independent. And so the political movement, as well as the SPLM wing of it, then was transformed to the National Army of South Sudan and the political wing became the political party, which is still currently in government.
AL And because of the fighting, your mother and father were, at the time of your birth, living in Ethiopia in a refugee camp in Itang. What do you remember about Ethiopia?
NN I don’t have a lot of memories of Itang, which is the refugee camp I was born in. My mother was there, but I think my father visited. Because at some point, Itang was an army base of some sort as well, because it so closely bordered South Sudan. I don’t have much memory. The core memory I have is of being displaced from Itang in about 1991. I have snippets of memory of walking through very rainy and muddy fields. We walked back to Sudan after being displaced from Ethiopia.
And also an incident of… I recall my mother crying at the top of her lungs, because she had thought one of my siblings has passed away. Those were the first memories I have of Itang. And then after that, I ended up in Kakuma refugee camp with extended family members. Didn’t get to see my mother much until… I think I saw her once after 1996, when the news came in that my father was killed. And then once more in late 90s, and then started living with her in the early 2000s.
That’s when she applied for resettlement to Australia, and very luckily we were resettled through the humanitarian programme.
AL I want to ask you about the passing of your father in a moment, but first of all, paint us a picture of what life was like in Kakuma. It’s the second biggest refugee camp in Kenya after Dadaab. What was it like to grow up there? Because you were there from being a four-year-old, all the way through until your late teenage years.
NN I spent most of my childhood. I started my primary school in Kakuma at a school called Ngundeng Primary School, named after a very old Nuer prophet. In fact, recently I’ve been thinking more and more of wanting to go back and seeing Ngundeng Primary School, if it’s still there. I also did all of my secondary studies, which is four years of secondary studies, in Kenya, in Kakuma.
I was in a way, even in the midst of all that, in a sense privileged, because I did spend some time in Nairobi, the capital, because my father could afford to. And then when he got killed, that meant that the family had to relocate back to the camps.
Kakuma started off almost as nothing, really. It’s located in a very, very dry area of Kenya, almost a semi-desert. There was no running water when I was there, and there’s no electricity. Everything was rationed. I remember we used to collect water, clean water, drinking water, twice a day from a central tap. And the fights that would occur on that, as people try to get clean drinking waters for their families. And we had food rations provided every fortnightly.
I think there was one main hospital for nearly 80 000 people or more. It was not rare to hear that someone has gone to the hospital because of malaria and never come out, or a scorpion bite. It was a very tough place to be, but I have to say it didn’t feel as tough, because I knew nothing else, in a way. I think it will be harder for me now if I had to go and live in Kakuma after almost 16, 17 years of being in Australia.
But at the time it was all I knew. It was all I knew and I could also see that in that environment, how privileged I was in the sense that, even when my father was dead, I had a mother. Some people had no parents. I remember seeing young boys, both their mum or dad weren’t there, trying to cook for themself in extraordinary heat of Kakuma. And I had a mum who was able to buy me at least one outfit every year for Christmas.
And sometimes she had enough money to buy us meat to eat in our stew. Because the UN never provided meat or any of… Or vegetables. We only had lentils. So I could see the level of privilege I had. I remember one time, Mum buying me a bicycle, so that I could ride to school, because it took me about an hour or so just one way to get to school every day. In a way, yes, it was tough, but I also can see how lucky and privileged I was, by what I was able to access, even in there.
AL I think most of us have an image in our heads of a refugee camp as being a temporary place, but as you say, Kakuma’s become very established. It was only a few thousand people when you began there. Now it’s tens of thousands of people, and a whole range of established schools and so on. The life for people in a camp like that, I guess, can be more stable than we sometimes associate with a refugee camp.
NN They can, they can, and I think they can be more permanent than perhaps if there were internally displaced in their own homes. But there are definitely still very difficult lives. But I think what that says more and more is how long it’s taking now for conflict to be resolved. And as a result, we’re producing more refugees than people being able to return to their countries or be taken up on the opportunity to be resettled to countries willing to take them.
It is in some ways, there’s a sad bit of it. I still find it’s really sad when I think of some of my friends who are still in the camps, or people that I knew that are still in the camp. Because I can see the massive difference between my life and theirs, simply because of the lack of being located in Australia.
AL Did you feel safe in Kakuma?
NN No. There was a consistent… I think that’s one of things that is quite prevalent in a camp. There was a consistent, unrelenting feeling of being in some sort of a threat. Even just going to collect the water. Because for example, the tap water that we got was only a few jerry cans, and so you did not use it to for example wash your clothes or things like that. You saved it up for drinking and for cooking, or more important stuff.
And so you had to go to the local stream to fetch water, and that involved digging into the sand as deep as you can until you find water in the dry riverbeds, and then fetch that water. Sometimes you go there and you’ll be harassed by the local communities there, there’s a risk of being sexually assaulted or even risk of digging a hole deep enough and being buried in it by the sand. The risks where everywhere, and there was also the chance that the hospital couldn’t cope. If you get sick, the chances of dying were so high.
And the food, the food was just not enough. I remember the last few days as you wait for that, the next ration, just so hard. In a way to make the food last longer, we would have this, don’t know what to call it, actually. It’s this mixture of corn with salt and sugar, so that you have that as your lunch and you could have the lentils and something else in the evenings. It was a precarious life.
AL Your father had multiple wives. I understand for much of your time in Kakuma, you weren’t living with your mum, but with one of your stepmothers.
NN Culturally among the Nuer… A practice among the Nuer and the Dinka is that you could… Literally, a man could marry as many wives as he want, provided I suppose he had the status and the money to do so. Gladly for me, that’s a practice that is dying and I hope will be completely dead at some point. That meant that I had a lot of step-siblings and a lot of stepmothers that were willing to look after me for a long period of time when my mum was not around.
And that’s how I literally grew up. I grew up with a separate stepmother in Kenya, and then another one in Kakuma, and then another one. And I still have relationships with them. I still know them, and some of them are some of my favourite people in the world.
AL But not all of them treated you well, did they?
NN No, no. Until quite recently, I suppose, quite recently, I’ve never really thought about the level of trauma that… That came naturally from being displaced anyway by war, but also the trauma of what other people put you through. When I lived in Kenya with one of the step mums, I remember constant beatings. And these were not just sort of smack, they were proper beatings. But it wasn’t her alone. There were also, in the house, there was two other men in the house.
One was there to fix some cars and some buses, so if she didn’t feel like beating us, she would get him to do it for her. I remember canings that would last for so long that you would cry until you lost your voice. And being locked in rooms without food for days, and having to eat leftovers. And also having nobody who noticed when things were really wrong.
I remember being once so sick and lying days and days on the bed. I think I was six or seven years. I was so weak, I couldn’t even get up to go to the bathroom and I’ll pee on myself and things like that, and nobody even noticed that you were that sick. But in a way, I think my mind found a place to put them all, and it hasn’t been… Genuinely, it hasn’t been a challenge in terms of confronting those traumas until very, very recently.
And in fact, I probably started speaking about them more publically in the last few years, because a lot of the time, I think there was a level of maybe shame, or feeling a sense of being damaged or things like that. In a way, I’m still working through this as I speak to you, and I try to tell myself that it’s actually a lucky thing… Not that suffering is good, or is necessary, but that I have the opportunity to explore what healing can look like.
And for a country and a people, like my people I suppose, like my mother, people would have gone through trauma all of their life and died with trauma. And they will have never had the opportunity to come to a country that afforded them such a long time of stability and comfort, that you begin to feel safe enough to explore the parts of you that were broken, and explore how they can heal.
Because to me, in my experience, it almost feels as if sadly even the ability to have an opportunity to heal is a luxury to some degree. And you don’t get to do it if you still have to survive and still are in a refugee camp and still have to run from the enemy and all that.
AL It’s an admirable reconceptualising of it. But the experience does remind me of Desmond Tutu’s line about the depths of apartheid, where he imagined whispering in God’s ear, God, we know You’re in charge. Why don’t You make it slightly more obvious? You endured so much through that period. And then you had the news that your father had died in 1996. And he was killed, as I understand it, by another faction within the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
NN Yes, yes.
AL How did that news reach you, given that he hadn’t been in your life for much of your childhood?
NN I remember we were in Nairobi at the time, and I remember the stepmother coming in and she was crying so loudly, and screaming and complete distraught. I wondered what had happened, because I’d never seen her in that state before. And then the next things was, all my dad’s pictures were being removed from the wall. And within a few hours, our house was crowded with people.
I think it was the second day or so, where we were sat down and we were told something along the line that your father is not coming back. To be honest, it didn’t really… I didn’t have an emotional register on how you’re supposed to respond, so I did what everybody was doing, which was crying.
But I didn’t… I knew it was a bad thing, but I didn’t know what [unclear] that meant. But our live did change significantly after that. That’s when we had to move back to the camp, because nobody could afford to let us live in Nairobi, nobody could pay the school fees, so things became really real, really quickly.
AL And your mum then came back into your life. It must have been a real joy to reunite with her, I imagine.
NN Yes, I think in a way I laugh, partly because maybe it’s a form of coping with the reality of what seemed so unfamiliar. I remember when my mum turned up, we were about an hour away from Kakuma in a place called Lodwar. She was wearing, she was in all black, because when your husband die, you wear all black with no earrings or no decorations of things like that for a while. So she was really, she looked like a ghost. She was so skinny and…
But I remember her hugging me and I end up writing about it in a piece that explore my mother, my grandmother and myself, the generational relationship and the impact of war on those relationships. I just stood there, as if not knowing what was a proper way of responding to your crying mum. She was on her knees and hugging me and crying. I stood there like a tree trunk and I didn’t know necessarily what to do.
And then, typical I think in some ways, or maybe atypical, I think soon after we ended up having a fight, because she was trying to get me to read and I couldn’t read properly. And she was always such a committed person to education. She thought education was going to get you out of any situation, so she always wanted us to perform well academically.
AL How did your mum come about to apply for refugee status to Australia? Because a lot of your siblings and half-siblings moved to the United States. What made your mum choose Australia?
NN My mum brother had moved to the United States, and he didn’t like the United States. He didn’t think that it was a good place to raise family. He was in a position to be able to sponsor us to go to the United States, but he then suggested that one of the other distant family members here sponsor us, because he thought Australia was much better. That’s how we ended up being sponsored to come to Australia.
Mum at that point… When my father died, I think it became obvious to my mum there was nobody who was going to look after me, because I suppose the relationship that anchor why others looked after me was because it was under the umbrella that my father was responsible for the families. And so she came looking for me, and then she found that I was already doing well in my studies in Kenya, so she decided then perhaps it was better to move the rest of the siblings, my other siblings, from Ethiopia to Kenya instead of moving me.
I think her initial plan was taking me back to Ethiopia. And we were going to live in Ethiopia but then she went and brought the rest of the family members, and then we went back to Kakuma, and from there, then applied for resettlement to Australia.
AL When you landed in Melbourne, you were 18 years old. I guess you’d have pretty vivid memories of it. What were your first impressions of the place?
NN I thought it was the most beautiful, clean place I’d ever seen in my life. I remember driving out of the Tullamarine Airport… But even as the plane descended, and seeing all these lights. It felt as if the world had been turned upside down. There was this carpet of stars everywhere and we landed at Melbourne Airport, and I was so excited to finally be somewhere where I could…
My first goal was, I was going to school and I was going to try to get to uni and those were all the thoughts I had. I also thought I was going to have my own bedroom, but then I had to share with my siblings and all that. But it was… I had these very large expectations and dreams and hopes, and I thought everything was now going to be fine in a way. And it was, for a long time.
AL There’s a lot of conflict in refugee policy, but one of the interesting things that almost everyone seems to agree on is that Australia does refugee resettlement really well. But your experience wasn’t perfect, I assume. How do you think we can do refugee resettlement better? What was it about your settling in or your school experience where you thought perhaps that the system could have responded better to someone of your talents?
NN I don’t know necessarily about someone of my talent. I think just the fact that I think sometimes in response to refugees, we can have blanket policies about how they will integrate. And I think people come… People are refugees and they share similar experiences of displacement, but they also have different talents and different skills, and so I think that part of… Part of the problem when we came here…
Initially, because we were sponsored by a family member, it also meant that we didn’t get a lot of help. But the assumption was that if you’re sponsored by a family member, then they take on the settlement process for you, with assistance of some settlement processes, but you don’t get the same one as if you were brought in on a government place.
NN And I think that made a huge difference for us, because within two weeks of arriving here, we had to find our home with very little help. I literally walked into a school to try to enrol myself, without… We had to find everything out for ourself, including where the local shopping centre was. I think perhaps if that difference didn’t exist, we’d have got much more support in place which we didn’t, because the other thing is as well, even the person who sponsored us was in a way new in the country themselves, so they really couldn’t help us as much.
And then the blank policies that I came across. An example was, there was this policy in my school that if you’ve not been here for more than seven years, you couldn’t do certain subjects. I couldn’t do English literature, for example. There was an assumption that I had ESL. Well, actually, there was an expectation that I will do ESL and I will do all this other simpler subjects. Because I think in their mind, the assumption was that your education was disrupted and so…
But in fact, my education wasn’t disrupted. I went through primary school in the refugee camp and I went through secondary school, so I was actually in school most of the time. And as a result as well, I went through a schooling system that was predominantly or wholly in English, because Kenya was colonised by the British, so the language of instruction was English.
Treating someone like that as similar to someone who came from an Arabic-speaking background, it’s quite different. And I think teachers just did not have the resources to be able to cater for those differences. It was easier to put us in one class and deal with us there. And I think that really has a lot of impact.
Because I do have friends, I have a friend who ended up becoming a medical doctor and going to both Oxford and Harvard. And he was told he couldn’t do Math methods, or couldn’t do that. I have a friend who graduated from Melbourne University in a Masters of Public Health who was told the same. I have a friend who works as a pharmacist. She was told she couldn’t do all these subjects.
And similarly, I don’t think had I accepted the standard that I think was being suggested to me, I would have not felt confident to have applied to uni or have applied to law school. So it’s not only my experience. This is the experiences of a large group of people. I think it comes from a good intention, a place of good intention, wanting to help.
But I think it misses the fact that even in the similarities that we bring as refugees, we’re also different individuals, with different talents and different ability. And deserve that in school, deserve for that to be seen in school and our workplaces and the rest.
AL That’s really interesting. Did you experience much racism in those years?
NN Yes, I did. Being called names, a lot of bullying that was specific racist bullying. But also gradually becoming aware of the political discourses where… The media discourse about people who look like me and the narrative about the Sudanese gangs which were beginning to emerge as early as 2007, merely because Sudanese kids were hanging out in groups. Which is a cultural thing, more than a gang thing. Even if you go to Juba, you’ll find people sitting under trees drinking tea, or eating and just chatting in groups.
But that was not something seen at the places I was living in, so I was beginning to realise that perhaps the vision I had of, this is home now and all that wasn’t necessarily going to play out in the way I thought it would.
And I think some of the most significant event was when this young boy called Liam, we used to play basketball together in Springvale. When he was essentially bashed to near death by two young men who were saying things like they want to take back their towns, their town is being turned into the Bronx. Very much adapting the kind of language that was being used in the media about people who look like me. This very talented young boy ended up on life support, and his family had to turn off his life support.
I think it was such a difficult thing to accept that it could happen here. And also the then Immigration Minister then blaming the African communities for his death and saying that Australia was going to reduce the intake of Africans by a certain percentage, because we were failing to integrate.
It was beginning to feel a bit, you were beginning to feel different and then more and more conversation about un-Australian-ness, and this is un-Australian. And you’re constantly thinking, are they talking about me? It was really… And I think it was also happening, all of that were also happening when you were trying to find a sense of self as a young person, my late teens to my early 20s.
AL There is that famous moment in 2018 when then Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said that, because of African gang violence, Victorians were scared to go out in restaurants. You chose to take quite a public stance and speak out. What made you step up?
NN I don’t know, to be honest. I think maybe part of me was tired. I was tired of hearing these stories about who we were supposed to be. And I knew all these members of my community that were working so hard.
Even as we speak now, there are women who have left their families here in Melbourne to go and work two, three jobs at Alice Spring to be able to provide for their kids. There are young Sudanese kids working in McDonald’s and working at Safeway. They are what we now calling essential workers. They’re young people just trying to do their best.
And I got frustrated with… This was single story that was being told about a whole group of us that were just trying to live the best life we can and make something out of our new home. And it felt unfair that the conduct of a few… A few, but definitely a few that needed to be dealt with. But the conduct of a few was being used as the ground on which to paint us as not only incapable of being citizens of this country, but that it was a mistake for us to have been brought here in the first place. And I think there is a part of it that felt just enough.
And then the other thing, I think at that time I’d had my first child. And I knew that the arguments I made for myself, or the doubts that I had about myself and my place, were going to be even far more difficult for her. She’s born here, she grows up here, and I think for her and most of young black kids that grow up here, thinks themselves Australian until they discover at some point in their life that there also black. And that means something.
And I think I knew that my daughter future might be in this country, and perhaps there was a sense of responsibility that you try and make it better for her in some ways. And for the young people like them in some ways, so that by the time they grow up, there is a space for them in this nation’s perception of who it think it is. There’s a space for them, and a legitimate space for them, to feel part of this country and be proud of it. In a true sense, be proud to say I’m an Australian.
For me, I know for example if my daughter grow ups and she wants to represent Australia, it would seem so natural to me that that’s what she wanted to do. It felt as though accepting that this is home for now and trying to participate in making it better. But also trying to finally perhaps in a way mature and accept that belonging is both a sense of being welcome and a sense of, and I want to use this word carefully, claiming.
Waiting for someone like Peter Dutton or the people that take that position, for them to define a more inclusive Australia, I think it’s a waste of time. It’s more of you have to turn up and say to the like of Dutton’s and people who think like him, I am equally as Australian as you are, equally as entitled to a voice as you do, equally entitled to the benefit. But also conscious of the responsibilities that I hold to that country. And I am no longer asking for your permission to participate in public debate. I hope that makes sense.
AL Yes, it certainly does. And your discussion about the impact of having a child reminds me of a really fascinating passage in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s book, The 1619 Project, where she talks about that moment where so many African American families feel they need to sit their child down and say, you live in a racist society.
And particularly the warnings that African American parents will give to their sons about how to behave if they’re stopped by the police. Move slowly, make sure you show your hands at all times, don’t suddenly reach for your mobile phone. Conversations that they feel angry to have to have, because they know that around the country, white Americans are not having the same conversation with their children. I think it’s really interesting how that experience of your children shapes the way in which you behave.
NN That is quite true. Those comments make me reflect about the conversations I’ve also had. I’ve told my brothers not to wear hoodies. I’ve told them even in the midst of the African gang narrative not to walk in groups. Because they are really tall, dark guys, and because I’m afraid of what people are going to think. And because at that time, there were neo-Nazi group that were threatening to walk around hunting down people of this African gangs and which was a very broad definition of who falls into that category.
And that was not to me a fanciful fear, because Liam was a boy that was picked out by two young men looking for a black man to kill. That black man could have been any of my brothers. Could have been any black man on that day, or black whatever on that day walking on those streets. There was that fear and that conversation that you’re having. I’m having those conversations with my daughter. She’s not even five.
She came to me the other day, a few months ago, and she kept having this conversation. I want to have a party for brown people. And I said, why would you want to have a party for brown people? What if your other friends want to attend? And she won’t tell me. She said, I just want a party for brown people. Eventually she comes to me one Saturday morning and says, Mum, at childcare they’re going to have a party and only white people are invited. And so it made me realise, that’s why she wants a brown party, because she was already…
And I didn’t know how to have that conversation with her. I still don’t know how to have that conversation with her. It’s a different reality to face.
AL Yes, children’s conception of race is so fascinating. We spent a month in America in 2008, just as our eldest son was one year old. After we’d been there a few weeks, he began, every time he saw an African American man on the street, to say, Obama, Obama. Which I guess was a good thing, but I’m not really quite sure.
I want to go to some of the positives and negatives of you speaking out. The law firm that you currently work at, Arnold Bloch Leibler, I understand was terrifically supportive. And then on the flip side, you had the hate that poured out through social media. Tell us about those two sides of what you experienced.
NN I’m quite aware, and even looking back right now, I’m quite aware of how much courage Arnold Bloch Leibler had to allow… Even when I left the firm early last year, I was still a junior lawyer. To allow someone who’s relatively junior to have such a public voice… Because I think inherently that come with risks and understandably, business don’t want to risk their reputations. They were quite… I never was sat down and told, you couldn’t say this or you couldn’t say that, or this would be problematic.
I said what I needed to say as honestly as I felt needed to be said and I knew my job wasn’t threatened. Which I think it’s a very big thing. Especially if you come to this country with no money whatsoever. With no coin to your name and you’re trying to… Literally, what you work for every month is everything you have. And so it was good to have that.
And even when the abuse became too much, and there were times even, people would try call through work. They put in systems in place to protect me. Systems like not having phones directly come to me, and someone having them vetted. They didn’t have to do that. I’m quite aware that if it wasn’t for the support that I had at Arnold Bloch, that I would have never been able to do the public advocacy that I did, because much of it, easily 99% of it, is unpaid.
And there are times when, in fact, I took up my own personal leaves and things like that to go and do this work, because it felt important, or you felt compelled to do it. So I’m always grateful for that, and I’m always grateful for the fact that I didn’t have that additional pressure that I was going to lose my job. And I didn’t have the pressure to change who I was or what I stood for, and to try to become somebody I wasn’t. I think that was such a safe space to learn and to challenge things.
That was fine, and I think the trolling and abuse and all that, I’ve kind of got to a point where most of the time I really don’t care anymore. I tried to block them as fast as I can. I try not to engage. Sometimes I fall over myself and I do engage, which is always a bad thing, I’m coming to find out. But I think the more I’ve been in what is called this public space or commenting, or having what people will call a profile, the more you realise that anything you say has the potential to offend somebody.
NN So I try to engage with things as honestly as I can. I try to understand or read up on things or try and not speak about things I don’t know. But that will never protect you from someone who wants to take an issue. And so the choice is really in the end is whether you take the positive and the negative of being in a public space to whatever degree, or whether you step away.
And those two options are things that almost every time something at least that seemed major in my life happened, I think I re-evaluate, is it time to step away, is it time to step back, is it time to… Do you keep going? Is it even useful anymore? What is the personal cost in terms of your ability to be present for your own kids and for yourself? What else are you sacrificing by being in this spaces? How sustainable is it? These are ongoing conversations.
Particularly because I think most of those public roles are things that I’m not doing in a formal role, so it’s not like I’m a presenter for a show or I’m an MP. It’s a weird space, because those are things I do in my addition to my work. I hope that makes sense.
AL Yes, absolutely. You’re going to be stepping at the end of January into a role as the Director of the Zelman Cowen Centre at Victoria University. What do you want to do in that role?
NN In a way, the specialisation of the Centre is around the issue of law and cultural diversity, and then the core idea is to be able to connect community to the law, but also connect the law to communities. And so running projects and programmes. So research that supports that.
In a way, I look at it as another way of giving Australian multiculturalism meaning by providing community members knowledge about the law. Because I think law is such a huge part of integrating into a society. But can be one of the most complex systems to navigate and to understand.
I’m hoping that the Centre can continue to do that work in terms of delivering projects for communities working in collaboration with the legal sector, the courts, the tribunals and lawyers and others to see how they can bring their skills. Or learn more about the communities that they work with and also supporting research in this space about what legally Australia can look like as a multi-cultural society. And what are the emerging questions and issues that we need to address as a country that grows more and more and more diverse with time.
It’s definitely a step up for me and I’m excited, but I’m also cautiously… I’m also a bit scared, because I’m hoping that I do a good job of it.
AL Final questions. Nyadol, what advice would you give to your teenaged self?
NN Oh, yes. I would… Some advice my late sister gave me, be kind to yourself. Or as I read more recently from John O’Donnell, be excessively kind to yourself. I think that would be the advice. I try to push myself really hard, and I try to get things done to the best standards that I can. And I think being kind to yourself is as important as how hard you try and push yourself in those things that you’re passionate or care about.
AL What’s something you used to believe but no longer do?
NN I think in my younger years, I used to believe that there was a nice, neat answer to everything. And that I suppose moral choices were very clear. And I think the more I grow up and the more I face life, and sometimes life failures in their different ways. For example, going through a divorce and becoming a single mum of two kids, and all the cultural issues that that raised at different levels for myself, for my family.
And the way that you fail that makes you realise that life is far, particularly when it matters, it’s far, far more complex. And sometimes there is no answer except learning how to balance the grey, the ugly, messy, grey. And also perhaps understanding that as from a distance as frightening as that might sound, that there is also plenty of joy and peace in it. The struggle of not trying to find a precise way to solve a problem or the precise moral stand as opposed to take on this thing.
I’m hoping that I get to learn more of that, of life, and embrace both the difficulties and the challenge.
And I think the other one I learnt is that, until we’re dead, your life doesn’t give any of us a break merely because we’ve suffered before. I remember carrying this tremendous anger, all-consuming anger, of the news… In a very selfish way when the news of my sister came, that she died in a car accident, I remember asking, what else does God want? You’ve been through a refugee camp, you’ve suffered your share of suffering, and then this. What more do you really want?
And I think part of the reason why I had so much anger was that I had created an unrealistic, but comfortable, dream that because of what I have gone through, that somehow I was going to be cut a slack by life at some point.
But it won’t. There are… The future is still as uncertain and as full of potentials of beauty and ugly and pain for me as for anybody else. So I think, not being okay with it, but at least accepting that reality of what you can’t control and… I don’t know if that makes sense.
AL Certainly does, certainly does. When are you most happy?
AL Fiction or non-fiction?
NN I don’t read a lot of fiction. I prefer non-fiction.
AL What are you reading at the moment?
NN I’m reading Starter’s Gain [?]. I’ve just finished a book called Where Reason Ends, which was really interesting and captivating, but I could not pin down why. Perhaps it was because it felt as though it took you on a journey that you didn’t know how it was going to end and so you kept reading to find out how it ends, and then you never really find out how it ends. I just completed reading that. And I’m also reading, I think it’s called… It’s Michael Lewis and he’s… The Pandemic?
AL Oh, yes, Fifth Risk.
NN Yes. And then I always have on the side of my bed, Senegal [?] Letters. I’ve always find sometimes can be a good way to start your morning instead of reaching for your phone.
AL What’s the most important thing you do you in your life to stay mentally and physically healthy?
NN Exercising. I try to at least do a run or a hike. I like really long walks, so if I had the time, I probably would do an average about one hour or two hours walk a day. I’m trying to commit now to running at least 10 km every week. And that’s because I realise sometimes I overdo things. I used to try to run a lot and I was getting sick instead of feeling better, because I think I was over-exercising.
But I think exercising and going for runs, or going for walks or being in nature are… I always find that I relax. My kids and I got an opportunity recently through a friend to go to Sandy Point, this beautiful part of Victoria, and we were in the water for days. It was really good. It was really, really good. So yes, that’s good for me.
AL Do you have any guilty pleasures?
NN Yes, I do. My guilty pleasure…
AL I’m so pleased to hear it.
NN My guilty pleasure is fashion. I like looking at really good… I like looking at good clothes and good shoes. That’s my guilty pleasure.
AL Do you have favourite designers?
NN No, I don’t, because all my favourite designers, I can’t afford them. So I can admire them from far.
AL Who do you like admiring? What styles do you like admiring the most?
NN In terms of fashion, I would say a bit of… I think the more affordable range of Karen Millen. And that’s the one I go to most of the time. But I would scroll. Sometimes when I feel that my brain is not capable of reading, paying attention or too tired to go for a walk, and I know that social media [unclear] is probably not the right place, I’ll just scroll and look at how people put together their different outfits and then it gives you an idea about… Like I say, I can’t afford my favourite designers, so it gives you an idea of where to get cheaper alternatives.
AL How to put it together, yes.
NN So that’s how I spend some of my time.
AL Finally, Nyadol, which person or which experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?
NN I think in terms of literature, I’d have to say probably James Baldwin. I think he has such a unique way of getting to the heart of the issues of race, and how they influence our society. I have just started… I mean, I used to watch, all of us know about Martin Luther King and I used to watch videos of him on YouTube. But I’ve started reading some of his work, and it’s astonishing how modern and relevant they were.
When I was preparing for my Press Club speech, I actually read his book Chaos or Community? It was comforting in the way that it gives you this answers and a way of thinking about life and those deeper questions. There is a part of it that talks about black power movement, and how that made me review some of the sharper edges of my own views about race and race relations. And why, in the way that we communicate about that, even towards people that might not have the best intention for us must still have a sense of humanity in it.
And how hard that is to do. There is a part in my Press Club speech that I come to, that I talk about the economic issues and how they influence perceptions of migrants and all that. And I have to say that’s a place that I felt I have to really work to get to emotionally. Because until that point, I’ve always dismissed people like that as just racist, that I don’t want to engage with. But then actually taking a step back and thinking, well, even if I accepted their racism, there are people I really don’t like.
Whichever world you envision, as a progressive or whatever person you are, must include people like that. Will include people like that, so you have to have the vision and an approach that somehow maintains the dignity in that world.
Unless you are going to engage in a process of some sort of genocide of mass displacement, we have to live with each other. Whether I like you or I hate you, and I have to find a way of… For myself at least, I have to find a way of living with those people and in these spaces, and in restaurants or whatever. Trying to find a way of valuing their humanity as well.
And I think that’s a really… I’ve found that’s a really hard position to maintain, especially in social media spaces. Because we are being… And I think maybe in my earlier advocacy, I played into that role. We’re being constantly asked to take positions. You must be able to take a position, even if that position lacks the necessary nuance to take us as far as we want to go.
AL Yes. And I think one of the lovely things about Baldwin, too, is that he is not only writing about the African American experience, but also about the gay experience in the 1950s and 1960s, at a time when people like Malcolm X are not particularly tolerant of gay and lesbian people in society. So Baldwin’s ability to grab both of those issues at the same time, I find really fascinating. Yes, that’s…
NN I mean, he…
AL It’s a really…
NN Have you, if you watched a documentary called I Am Not Your Negro, which actually there’s this part where Baldwin mourns for Malcolm X. And also in his essays, there’s an essay he writes called Smaller Than Life. It’s a reflection. It’s basically a review of a biography of Douglass Frederick. And he talks about this last paragraph, about the mistake in his view that the biographer did was to sanctify and to make a saint of Frederick Douglass, and the idea that human relations of all nature requires a level of honesty and insight.
I think that was quite fascinating, because you interact with those perceptions, at least in my experience, even currently where people think that they can’t criticise… Or I can’t, or we can’t criticise or have internal criticism of our own cultural practices, because we’re already in a minority. But that doesn’t exempt us from human error. I can experience racism at a time, but I can also use my urgency to harm somebody else and to fail as a human being.
I’m not confined to a particular thing because I happen to be a minority and experience disadvantage or discrimination. I think that was fascinating to me, because that’s actually what it means to afford someone their whole humanity, you know? Not the successful immigrant or the failing immigrant, but the broad spectrum of experiences that come of being a human being.
AL Absolutely. Nyadol Nyuon, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation today. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your wisdom on The Good Life podcast.
NN Thank you so much for inviting me. Thank you.
AL Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life: Andrew Leigh in Conversation. If you enjoyed this week’s conversation, I reckon you’ll love past episodes, with Linda Burney, Tim Soutphommasane, and Jihad Dib. If you like this podcast, please take a moment to tell one of your friends, or put a comment on social media. It really helps others find the podcast.
Next week, we’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier, and more ethical life.