Essay: Ellen O’Brienon driving

Journey To Here

When I’m driving my car, I feel like I’m in my own private domicile, bitch! I’m the driver, so I’m in control: I choose the music, the temperature level, how fast or slow we go. I also suffer the consequences, but that’s fine—it’s my life! And yes, there are things I should consider—agreements between us, called ‘road rules’ and ‘traffic laws’—but if I disregard them, I can pretend that I’m the queen of my own little castle. So, vroom fucking vroom, baby! Let’s ride. 

I love my car. I love to sing. Especially in my car. Especially when I’m driving on the highway towards my parents’ home, where my ancestors lived for more generations than I can comprehend, until—suddenly—they didn’t. 

I am an avid proponent of the car sing-scream-cry session, but only with the windows strictly wound up. I don’t want anyone to hear me. I keep a photo near my desk of my sister and I performing in our childhood home; it’s there to remind me that I wasn’t always scared of being perceived. As a child, I would sing for anyone who would listen; nowadays, I won’t even sing around the house. I don’t want you to hear me, to look at me, to notice that I’m around. I like to live inconspicuously. I love to sing in my car.  

I started singing lessons just last year. I had come to realise that I still didn’t know how to use my voice. I secretly dreamed of learning to sing so well that I could go on a competition show and expose myself to a crowd. So, I signed up to lessons. I signed up to learn. 

The lessons quickly became a highlight of my week. My singing teacher—a slickly-dressed man a few years younger than me—taught me the basics of anatomy. I became familiar with the respiratory, phonatory and resonance systems that provide daily support to our voices as they speak or sing, but of which I had been ignorant. I was initially confused by his language and the exercises he gave me—holding a cork in between my teeth; sticking my tongue out and wagging it side to side—but I slowly began to understand. I learnt which exercises thin my vocal folds, and how my soft palate opens on an ‘mm’ and closes on an ‘ah’. I realised that I hold my jaw too tightly—perhaps a hangover from grinding my teeth while I sleep—and that I either thrust my tongue into the bottom of my mouth, or let it slip back into my throat. 

I don’t like to sing at home. I told you that before. My apartment was built in the sixties and is positioned near a well-traversed stretch of road; at most times of day, I hear more cars than I do birds. I live on the bottom floor, so I also hear the pipes creaking whenever my neighbour uses the bathroom. The first night I slept here, I woke up shit-scared from the sound of flushing water near my head. 

I hate the idea of my neighbours hearing me. I am paranoid about how much my noise travels, whether they can hear me taking a dump or having sex. When I watch TV past nine at night, I turn the volume down low and follow the subtitles instead. I’m scared of a knock on my door, condemning me for still being awake. I’m constantly asking my girlfriend to please be quietplease refrain from laughing, please talk only in whispers.  

So I sing in the car. I drive around so much anyway, and it is often the only time I have a spare ten minutes to attend to myself. I thrive in what Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten call the ‘impossible domesticity’ of my vehicle: the ‘outside’ from the ‘inside’, and the ‘inside’ from the ‘outside’. The container of the car is both a sanctuary and a cage; it keeps me separate from the world while allowing me to feel like I’m a part of it. 

I know that singing while driving is cheating—I’m not breathing the way I would if I were standing, not engaging my diaphragm properly—so I don’t tell my singing teacher that this is how I practice. It is another stamp in a passport of what my therapist would call a habitual pattern of self-neglect. She and my singing teacher would both tell me to work on being present. 

But I don’t want to be present—not the kind of present that requires an awareness of myself as a single body moving through a world made up of other single bodies. I am well-practiced at avoiding that world by shutting myself inside my apartment, where I can go days without speaking. I tell myself that I don’t have to engage with the world, and by avoiding it, I also avoid the more frightening and pulse-quickening possibility of it engaging with me. Some days I fantasise about dying—the ultimate method of disengagement; what Audre Lorde called the final silence—and wonder if I can make myself follow through. Like Claudia Rankine says, sometimes it feels like the wrongness of the world has made my flesh into its own cupboard, and there’s no way to escape.

I read this book recently, one that lives on the same shelf as the picture of my sister and I. It contains colonial paintings, drawings and etchings of ‘coastal Aborigines’, one of whom appears on the cover in a European military outfit. An intimate scene is captured in Natives of New Holland, a lithograph based off an aquarelle by a Russian explorer and artist. The figures in the image are my ancestors, looking ‘posed and stiff’ as they sit around together, smoking pipes and cooking fish over a fire; their home is on display in the background. I imagine this artwork exhibited halfway across the world, without their consent or knowledge. I imagine how Russian aesthetes engaged with this image: whether they dismissed it as an antipodean spectacle or revelled in a glimpse of the inexplicable lives of native ‘fringe-dwellers’; whether they approached the image at all or just walked away.     

I am trying to find safety in something that isn’t guaranteed: a body, a car, a home, a world. I know that driving is dangerous. I feel it in my throat. 

I was seventeen when the car accident happened. It was bad enough to be the leading story on the rural nightly news, but not so bad that anyone died. I came out of it worst off: a couple of fractured ribs, and a neck brace covering my windpipe. I credited my—our—safety to my awareness: I was singing along to a pop song in the backseat; I saw the ute coming; I yelled at my friend to accelerate at the last minute, and she did, so the ute’s bullbar collided with the door frame rather than directly with me. 

Afterwards, laying in a hospital bed, struggling to breathe with that damn brace on my neck, all I could think was: What if I wasn’t watching? What if I didn’t scream? The belief that my focus made things happen—or not happen—became entrenched after this incident, and I haven’t since been able to relax properly in a car unless I’m the one in control. So, please know that I understand the requirement for presence. I’m aware of all the ways that I am unsafe. 

I tend to dampen my voice when I’m speaking; I mumble and speak into myself. My singing teacher comments on how resonant my tone is after our warmups; he tells me, tongue-in-cheek, that my voice belongs on the radio. Guided by him, I fill the space in a way that I can’t achieve on my own. 

A friend reminded me that our ancestors weren’t allowed to sing or speak in language; if they did, they had to do so quietly. These inherited silences have undoubtedly impacted my voice, and our voices as a collective. We carry the hefty cost of swallowing a word, or a world. 

I’m angry all the time. My therapist tells me to start doing Muay Thai, so that I can expel the anger from my body, push it onto someone else. When that doesn’t help, she suggests medication. I take the pills and they keep my anger below the surface, but I know it’s still there. 

I was recently driving down Parramatta Road, and there was traffic, as usual. I was singing along to Betty Davis’s ‘Dedicated to the Press’, looking at the luxury car dealerships that line the stretch of road, which is a Darug walking track tarred over. Things were fine, the surface was intact, until—suddenly—it wasn’t. 

I wanted to scream, or punch someone, or maybe set something on fire. I wanted to hit my head against the glass walls of the dealership until something broke. But I couldn’t do any of those things. All I could do was sing and stamp my foot on the floor in time with the bass—not the foot on the accelerator, no matter how badly I wanted to plough through traffic, but the other one. I was fucking angry, and this was the only pitiful movement within my reach. I stamped my foot, and I felt better, at least momentarily. I tried to copy Betty’s growl, yearning to hear myself cry out. 

There are days like this, where I want to put my foot down, drive it like I stole it, feel the speed of the car push me back and into space. But I also feel like I’m driving myself insane. It feels like I’ve lost my internal sense of navigation, and that there’s no other option than to head nowhere, fast. 

A memory: I chase my sister with a knife. I don’t remember why. I chase her round and round the house until she locks herself in the toilet. I slam the door to my room so hard it could pull a tooth. I scream as loud as I can. I want the neighbours to hear, but we don’t have any neighbours, so nobody listens to me. Except her. 

Another memory: I am driving to a house inspection. I miss a call. I get a text. I panic. I am convinced my friend is dead, and I did nothing to help them. My whole being is pulsating. I scream and scream and scream and scream, right from the centre of my chest. 

Why shouldn’t we express our grief, loudly and publicly? Why should we keep our throats closed? 

Nardi Simpson writes in Song of the Crocodile about an embodied lament, how it gives ‘room for the regulation of breath and a unity of grief’. Similar mourning practices recur across cultures. A wailing is taking place across the globe as we try to articulate an unbelievable grief. I wish I could hear these sounds from my apartment, instead of only hearing traffic.  

I read an article from an 1833 edition of the Dublin Penny Journal, documenting the Irish practice of keening. I learn that, at funerals, there were two groups of singers—one at the head of the corpse and one at the foot—who would wail in alternating choruses. The foot would answer the head, then the head would answer the foot, as grief circulated up and around the body, from head to toe and back again. The ache of loss was expressed in and through the bodies of the mourners, the keeners, and the dead herself. 

We long to make our grief perceptible to the world, to be extreme in our vocalisations, to come outside and into the fold. We want to be joined in our keening by a flock of people, to join theirs as they pass by our homes, to let our voices join all the others as we wail, even if we don’t know who or what we’re crying for. We want to slow down, take our foot off the gas, to have enough time to even be able to grieve. To let the breath fall into our lungs, and feel the ecstasy of exhaling an exquisitely common anguish. 

My friend tells me that they scream in their car, too. 

I am not a soloist. I wouldn’t make it to any destination without the care of other drivers, or the labour that built and maintains my car, or the hours of tutelage to make sure I can drive. I wouldn’t be able to sing if not for the teachers who introduced me to my voice, or the complicated duo who created its underlying somatic structure. 

Our voices are made up of multiple systems, interlocked and inseparable. We breathe, we pulsate, we shape the sound inside our mouths. The music we make quite literally comes from within us, from the diaphragm and the larynx and the vocal folds and the palate, and the air and vibrations that constantly move through them. Music exists within us already; we are not creating or building it, but rather learning to understand it as an integral part of ourselves. We access what Esperanza Spalding calls the paradigm of audiation, a ‘self-soothing, internal humming, using the internal sound to meet external needs’. We figure out how to express ourselves, how to let the sound out of our bodies and into a world of other internal sounds made external. The sound comes may come from within us, but it is not of our invention.  

I no longer see ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ as separate. The world out there is also the world in here. Private dwellings or domiciles are a myth, a false promise of security. My body, as an individual thing, is a false promise of security. 

I don’t want to be, as Pat Dudgeon and Roz Walker put it, ‘a dislocated self’. My body is not just a tool, or, in Lisa Fuller’s words, ‘a vehicle to be fuelled and tuned’. I want to be, as Fred Moten says, ‘the one who is not “one”’; I want the freedom to not perform. I want to live in Jayna Brown’s utopia, which I read about in a piece by Tabitha Prado Richardson, and exist in the places and times ‘when those of us untethered from the hope of rights, recognition or redress here on earth celebrate ourselves as elements in a cosmic effluvium’.

I am anxious about not knowing the language or songs of my ancestors, of not knowing much at all. What I do know is that we are not separate; there is an us more than there is an I. I do not long to be another vehicle on an endless road leading to nowhere, escaping something that is inescapable. I do not long to be another virtuoso in what Moten calls ‘an arena of competing solo performances’. I long to be with other bodies—flesh against flesh, present without performance, muscles remembering that this is what it means to be free. 

I long to be in the chorus.  

A memory, given to me by my sister: something is unsettling our home. She grabs me by the hand and leads me to a cupboard in her bedroom, asking me to be quiet. The unsettling grows large and threatens to take us over. My sister is small, and I am even smaller; neither of us are able to escape. Instead, we make our way into the cupboard—that interior within an interior—and we hold each other, and we are safe. 

Works Cited

Audre Lorde, ‘The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action’ in Sister Outsider, 40-44.

Barkaa, Briggs, Nooky, Kobie Dee, Birdz, ‘Groovy Remix’.

Chelsea Bond, Bryan Mukandi and Shane Coghill, ‘‘You cunts can do as you like’: the obscenity and absurdity of free speech to Blackfullas’ (2018) 32(4) Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 415.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen.

Duke Franklin Humanities Institute, ‘Fred Moten & Saidiya Hartman at Duke University | The Black Outdoors’. 6 October 2016.

Jayna Brown, Black Utopias: Speculative Life and the Music of the Other Worlds.

Keith Vincent Smith, King Bungaree: A Sydney Aborigine meets the great South Pacific Explorers, 1799-1830.

Larry Blumenfeld, ‘Life Force: Esperanza Spalding in Conversation’TIDAL. 20 September 2021.

Lisa Fuller, ‘Following the Song: Listening, learning and knowing’ (2022) 75 Griffith Review.

Michelle Goodman, ‘Parramatta Road: A Brief History’Parramatta History and Heritage. 2021.

The Museum of Modern Art, ‘Fred Moten: “Blackness and Nonperformance”’ | AFTERLIVES | MoMA LIVE’. 26 September 2015.

Nayuka Gorrie, ‘White Psycho Dream Girls’Kill Your Darlings. 29 July 2019. Available at:.

Nardi Simpson, Song of the Crocodile.

O’G, ‘The Irish Funeral Cry (the Ullaloo, Keeners and Keenings)’ (1833) 1(31) Dublin Penny Journal.

Pat Dudgeon and Roz Walker, ‘Decolonising Australian Psychology: Discourses, Strategies, and Practice’ (2015) 3(1) Journal of Social and Political Psychology 276.

Tabitha Prado Richardson, ‘vibration/body/heart’West Space Offsite.