It was a cold and blustery day in Sydney on June 23 when poet Candy Royalle laid down her warrior gloves and breathed her last. The queer, Arabic, literary and protest worlds bowed their heads in shock and lamented her loss.
Candy was a proud Palestinian-Lebanese queer woman and an electric poet and performer. She was ferocious on stage, offering audiences a heady mix of lesbian sexual liberation and searing anti-colonial orations.
We were fortunate to see her last performance at the queer-run Red Rattler on June 5. She intoxicated the crowd: “I want to write a poem about love as a form of resistance because the world seems to have forgotten its existence,” she thundered.
With her band The Freed Radicals she drew laughter with explicit sex scene rifts, tears with lesbian break-up verses and roars of approval with her trenchant anti-occupation prose.
Candy Royalle honed her performance skills early in life, stumbling into Glebe’s bohemian Friend in Hand pub where bawdy poets offered souls and syntax to appreciative audiences. In this environment Candy developed her unique voice. She was a butch woman and deeply empathetic with the oppressed.
A deep love of women weaves its way through all her work. But Candy didn’t stop at promoting the love that dared not speak its name. Indeed, we want to draw your attention to what has been missing from the tributes about her life.
She was a consistent and determined activist. Her artistic expositions were calls to action. Love to Candy was an ethical, emotional and political response to an unjust world.
After the marriage equality victory, she declared: “Love is not passive. Love is not something we can just utter and magic into existence. Love is a fierce tool with which we must fight; we must wield it as a weapon and use it to battle hatred actively. Directly. And we must battle the hatred that affects the most at risk and marginalised people in our society. Because how can we celebrate love when it is reserved for only a few? For those most like us? For only our tribe?”
Candy fought hard for Palestine, for refugees, for Aboriginal communities and to assuage the grotesque concentration of wealth by the rich. Ill with cancer, she rose and rallied against Israel’s bombing of Gaza on al Nakba, May 26.
She posted a message on her Facebook wall soon afterwards, gently querying her kinship networks. “Family, I need you to explain something to me. I mean it in the realest sense — I'm not interested in blaming, nor am I angry, I'm truly just confused.
“Please tell me: what's it going to take to engage you all in the ongoing brutal occupation and massacre of the Palestinian people? Last night, a rally was held to commemorate the Nakba and mourn the 60 murdered and 1200 injured innocent civilians who were shot by Israeli Occupying Forces for peacefully protesting, the day before yesterday. Only a few hundred turned up to protest.
“Why will so many of you take to the streets to change drinking laws? For gay marriage? And yet not for this awful thing that's been happening for 70 years, and has continued to happen because of the lack of pressure people are putting on their governments? Can't you see beyond your own comparatively mild oppression and get out for others too? If I come to those rallies, why can't you come?
“Tell me: If those murdered and imprisoned children looked like your children, your nieces and nephews, would you turn up? If the murdered civilians looked like you and your friends would you care more? Tell me, why you don't think Palestinian lives are worth marching for.
“One day, people are going to ask us how we let this happen on our watch — just as they asked those who stayed silent during the Holocaust — and what will we say? I was tired after work? I was meeting friends for dinner? I had plans I couldn't change? Is it good enough?”
In response to the argument that protests were not effective Candy replied: “I feel like the excuse that protesting isn't effective is a bit of a cop out. This is them winning. They made dissent so dangerous, ignored us so much, some people just stopped. So that means their tactics are winning. In my opinion, what we actually need to do is double down and take to the streets more, in more aggressive ways.”
Days before her death, Candy continued to challenge the anti-Palestinian propagandists and Zionists, who persisted with messages of hate on her Facebook wall after her death. On June 11 Candy posted an article about thousands of Israelis rallying in support of genocide against Palestinians.
She wrote: “This is Israel. Don't come at me with your shitty propaganda about human shields and terrorist organisations … Israel is a sick society becoming ever sicker by the day. And the world makes its excuses, and the murderers murder on.”
Sought after talent
Candy was first diagnosed with cancer in 2014, and after treatment, it went into remission. But it returned. For her last herculean battle she drew strength from the queer community: “That is what we do well, we queers — love. We know what it is to exist on the outside, how it feels to be marginalised, what we need to do to support each other so that our suffering is less and our joy more. I feel so lucky to be a part of such an incredible community.”
Just as the cancer returned, Candy’s talent became more sought after. Weakened, she was still indefatigable.
She won a City of Sydney artist residency in 2017 and developed poetry for the characters in the feature film Slam with award winning director Partho Sen-Gupto. She cohered the music video Killing Us Softly, selected for the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity and Les Femmes Underground Film Festival.
She developed a short film that was a finalist for the SBS/Create NSW LGBTIQ-focused Emerging Filmmakers Fund and the Australian Director's Guild. She continued poetry writing programs with school students from marginalised backgrounds.
In April, Candy won the Red Room Poetry Fellowship and embarked on her third collection of poems. In June, together with the co-author of this article, Jacqui North, Candy received a Lesbians Incorporated community grant for a Love & Protest video clip.
In early June Candy performed her last gig with The Freed Radicals. Two weeks later she died. In spite of her body being wracked with cancer, Candy and her band delivered a blistering performance at the Word in Hand poet and performance night.
Call for change
Candy was anything but establishment. She occupied the fringes, in a queer and Arabic nexus. Yet, she did not recline safely within this social ensemble. She used her growing popularity to amplify her clarion cry for change: “We have the capacity to love better, and we must.
“In these lives filled with consumerism, soundbites and social-media psychosis, we must make room for those who have been unloved for too long. We must tap into our reserves, find those inner warriors and fight as allies for those whose rights are being systematically eroded.”
Candy has laid her warrior spirit to rest. But her vitality, fire, love and exhortation to empathise has been transmitted to those touched by her electrifying work.