The Pieces by Roz Bellamy
Writing has been important to me since childhood, when I wrote my first poem. I loved to fill in ‘Silly Work’, a series of fun and creative prompts my imaginative grandmother put together. I had poems and short stories published in my twenties and then fell in love with the genre of creative nonfiction. Writing personal essays, memoir and opinion pieces has helped me reflect on issues I care about, experiment with form and tone, and understand myself and the world around me better. ‘The Pieces’, my essay for Darebin City Council, delves into my experiences as a teenager who did not quite fit in at my religious school. It is framed around two pieces of work I completed as a 15-year-old – a visual artwork and a researched family history project – that meant a lot to me but received very different reactions at school. Even after two decades, I find myself drawing on what I learned through these projects. ‘The Pieces’ allowed me to go back into those two works and find out what they meant at the time and what they revealed about my emerging sexuality and gender identity.
The Pieces by Roz Bellamy
I often find myself writing about being a teenager. There’s so much about it that still clings to me as an adult. The blend of dizziness, nausea and lust I experienced when I saw my crushes, who mostly didn’t deserve the energy I expended on them. The way I felt pressured to figure out – in the midst of constant, frenetic activity – what to do after high school, but at the same time agonised over the languid passing of time and feared nothing interesting would ever happen.
In Year 10, in case we weren’t going through enough already with our hormone monsters and exam stress, we had two major assessment tasks about identity. One involved researching our family history and writing a long-form essay about a family member, which we had to connect back to our lives today, for an essay competition. I went to a lot of effort, getting diaries translated from Russian and Yiddish, interviewing my grandmother and great-uncle, researching the former Soviet Union, collecting photographs and personal items, and creating timelines and chapters.
I found myself even more absorbed by my major work for Art, though, not with the same level of detail as my History essay but with an excitement and sense of freedom I hadn’t felt in a while at school. Perhaps it was because I had been distracted by friendship dramas and had forgotten what it was like to focus on something bigger than me. A month earlier, after an all-night movie marathon, one of my friends ambushed me in the harsh, sickly glare of morning. She looked me up and down and then said, “It’s so disgusting when girls don’t shave,” while two other girls in my year looked at me, laughed and nodded in agreement. I didn’t have the words or confidence to fight back. I turned her judgement inwards and agreed with her. Disgusting.
I planned my major work for Art long before we were allowed to get started. My work was going to be a self-portrait that connected who I was to my ancestry. Art provided space for me to explore my feelings about what I was learning about my family, and what had happened to Jews in the Soviet Union, while my History essay had to be factual, objective and removed. We mapped out our idea in A3 sketchbooks, annotating each part of our pencil-drawn designs with explanations, analysis and references to other art works and artists.
When we started working, I began by painting two ornate frames on a canvas, basing the design on wooden frames I’d seen at an art gallery in Ubud. I drew the outlines first and then painted the frames in layers, starting with the wooden base and then adding the elaborate carvings. It was Term 4 and the art studio stank of sweat and spray-on deodorant. I didn’t care. I was focused on my work and felt a rush of pleasure when I examined the finished frames. The frames captured the beauty of the artwork I had seen, and something personal for me: an overseas family holiday squeezed in before I grew up.
The next stage, according to my planning, involved screen printing an image of my great-grandmother, Rosa, into one of the frames, next to an image of myself in the other. Rosa, my namesake, died two years before I was born. I stared at the original photographs as I prepared to transfer them onto the screen. It was obvious that Rosa was beautiful. Russians don’t tend to smile – in photographs or, for some, at all – and her expression made her seem troubled. I knew she had had a tough life. In my photo, I looked innocent and shy, as though the photographer had just made me blush. I wondered about our commonalities, and if either of us fit into the time we were born. My life, by contrast, was so damn easy. I felt foolish when I thought about my troubles.
Once it was time to print the images from the screen, I encountered technical problems. The printing didn’t work out the way I was hoping. The image came through so lightly that I could only just make out the shapes of our faces, the grooves of our brows and lips.
“You’re going to have to find something else to do. Quickly,” my art teacher told me. He looked at my failed attempt, unimpressed.
I panicked. My best friend since childhood, who had remained loyal when my former friends tried to turn people against me for my sins against femininity, helped me work on my emergency alternative art project. I ordered a selection of photographs of me with my family and friends, and my friend and I traced puzzle pieces onto the backs of the photos before cutting them out. I scattered the jigsaw piece photographs into the two empty frames on the canvas and glued them down. It wasn’t the artwork I had intended to make, but viewing my life in puzzle pieces made a lot of sense to me and captured the confusion I felt.
I received a low mark for the project. “It’s so obvious,” my teacher said. “I don’t get to see any of your skills. It doesn’t tell me anything.”
Year 10 was the last time Art was compulsory. I dropped it after that. I told myself that I wasn’t good at art, and clearly not as comfortable creating metaphors and exploring ideas in visual mediums. I felt safer returning to written language, where I could order and reorder words until they flowed the way I wanted them to. My project for History came fifth in the essay competition, which I was proud of, but I wished my Art project had been seen for what it meant to me rather than whatever it was my teacher had been looking for.
I couldn’t even retreat back into the arms of my favourite subject, English, where I’d been playing with metaphors and similes for years. Year 10 English wasn’t great: I found myself clashing with my teacher because I was distracted a lot of the time, probably because I’d absorbed the words of the nasty boys in my class and the teasing about my body hair.
The canvas sat at home for some time before I threw it out. I looked at the photos, noticing which friends had stayed in my life and which friendships had turned out to be temporary, just suited to a particular time and place.
Years later, I think about my art teacher’s words. I feel rage over his reaction to my artwork. I imagine what I could have done with the failed screen printing and how it would have been helpful to have kept trying. I remember his sneer when he looked at the jigsaw pieces stuck onto the canvas and I wonder why he reacted that way.
I become a high school teacher, and I choose my words very carefully when I’m teaching. I offer support and help students fix their work or find an alternative that they like. I don’t force my opinion onto them unless it’s really necessary.
I start drawing again. It feels very different to creating art for a grade. I create bright, neon faces and bodies, and fluffy animals with doleful expressions. It releases something in me; a tension I’ve held since school.
Eventually, I decide to look through photographs from my teenage years. I’m curious to piece together what my artwork might have looked like, which photographs I had chosen to chop up to represent myself. I don’t know exactly what I used in my artwork, but I have some idea of the images that were important to me. I start with bat mitzvah photos.
For my bat mitzvah, I wore a navy-blue sailor suit to the synagogue and a soft dress that my mother made for me to the party. Looking at the image as an adult, I try to imagine how my parents and grandparents saw me, and how proud they felt, compared with how self-conscious I remember being as a 12-year-old. It feels healing to consider these images so differently to how I did in my teens and twenties. I am able to rework them, to question anything I’ve been carrying with me, and to shake up my own foundations. I’m rebuilding and reworking, constantly shuffling the pieces around until they make sense.
The next photo in the pile was taken on the day of my sister’s bat mitzvah. My sister and I are sitting on the brick wall outside the synagogue with our parents and grandparents standing in front of us. I like looking at this photo particularly: the way we all lean in together as if pulled by strings, how natural and comfortable our poses appear to be.
I am wearing a sheer top with angels printed on it, which now strikes me as a funny choice for a bat mitzvah since angel imagery tends to be Christian, and a mini skirt. The mini skirt surprised my wife, who grew up Orthodox Jewish, when she saw the photo.
“You could wear that to Shule?” she asked, and yes, not only could I wear it to Shule, I wore it on my sister’s big day, The Day, the day of becoming a ‘woman’.
Two decades after her bat mitzvah, I slammed into a brick wall all of my own, one that surrounded the gender binary. I came out as non-binary and asked people to stop referring to me as a woman, not that everyone respects my wishes.
In the photo, I’m 14 years old, with budding breasts, a rather angelic face to match the angels on my top, and a hidden but vicious streak of self-hatred, the flame tended and stoked by bullies and abusers over the years. The bullies taught me I was unacceptably ugly, that having to see me in the school hallways was a blight on their existence, that I was so undesirable I’d be lonely for the rest of my life, but looking back now, it’s obvious they were wrong, that when my parents tried to counter the voices by telling me I was beautiful, they weren’t just trying to make me feel better, that even though I was closeted, and filled with desire for everyone but thought that was something dirty and shameful, it was okay, I was okay, things would mostly turn out okay.
I look at photos of me with my family and friends, thinking about how just years later I would be navigating coming out to them. The photos make me sad, nostalgic and also grateful for those who have been there, always.
When I put the photos away, I stop to look at a photo of me that was taken during my Taylor Hanson years. I worshipped Taylor, from his voice to his long, golden hair, deep blue eyes and his slight pout. I now know that he was the perfect entry point into understanding my queer desires and my gender diversity, but at the time, he was just a cute boy that I planned to marry. The photo captures me gripping a can of Diet Coke, not because I liked it but because that was what Taylor drank. I’m scowling a little and come across as unapproachable. I hope I included this one in my art project because it certainly captures who I remember being at that age.
At 36, I’m still working on a project about identity. I’m doing a PhD exploring how young queer writers make meaning of their identities. It seems that my art teacher and history teacher started something that I feel the need to continue researching, analysing and fretting over.
In my own writing, I’ve become much more playful with imagery, and, when I allowed myself to draw and paint again, I found that I started using visual arts to explore words and ideas. Accessing a range of creative forms, and letting them speak to each other, is powerful and helps me develop a better sense of identity and history. It might have helped during challenging times in my life.
Maybe I will never stop writing about my teenage years, but at least now I have the tools to express myself the way I want to and can share these tools with others. I don’t have to assemble the pieces of who I am, but I can. I want to. And, most importantly, I don’t need approval.
Roz Bellamy is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Living and Loving in Diversity (Wakefield Press), Going Postal: More Than ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ (Brow Books) and Growing Up Queer in Australia (Black Inc.) Their essays and articles have been published in The Big Issue, Going Down Swinging, the Guardian, Huffington Post, Junkee, Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin, SBS, Seizure and the Sydney Morning Herald. Their work was shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize in 2014 and they won the Stonnington Prize for Poetry in 2016. Roz is currently a PhD candidate at La Trobe University and is writing a memoir about gender diversity, Jewish identity and mental illness.