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Sovereign storytelling: Mykaela Saunders on wild and funny yarns

By Reading and Writing | 19 October 2021

The Sovereign Stories showcase at State Library celebrates a decade of First Nations writing and editing excellence through the black&write! project. In this series of interviews, we talk to emerging First Nations authors about their memories of sharing stories with family, the creative process, and the power of storytelling in their lives. 

It's a pleasure to speak with Mykaela Saunders, an award-winning writer, PhD candidate, teacher and researcher. Of Dharug and Lebanese descent, Mykaela belongs to the Tweed Goori community, and is currently editing an anthology of Blackfella Speculative Fiction to be published in 2022. 

Mykaela Saunders takes a selfie in front of a white wall with peeling paint. She wears a black leather jacket and dark lipstick.

Mykaela Saunders

What is your earliest memory of somebody telling you a story? 

I remember older family members reading to me when I was little. I loved being read to and I wanted to learn how to do it too, so I figured out how to read myself by following the words people read with my finger and matching them up with what they were saying. I’m told I started reading when I’d just turned four, and from then on I was the one reading to my family.  

All us kids loved Uncle Kev because he told us grouse yarns – funny and gross and engrossing stories – and I used to pester him to tell me stories all the time. He ended up giving me a set of cassette tapes of old Dreaming stories which I listened to obsessively, probably to give his own voice a rest. 

I also have really warm memories of my grandparents Situ and Jiddo telling me stories in Lebanese, a language that I used to speak and understand but sadly I’ve lost that conversational fluency now.  

Adam Thompson, Mykaela Saunders, Ellen van Neerven and Tony Birch stand in front of a couch smiling and holding copies of the anthology, Flock

Adam Thompson, Mykaela Saunders, Ellen van Neerven and Tony Birch with their copies of Flock at the 2021 Sydney Writers' Festival

Can you describe the power in telling your own story? Have you witnessed it in others too? Where has storytelling taken you?  

Stories are the glue that binds people, and peoples, together. Stories take us all into new worlds, into new consciousnesses. This helps remind us how many ways of being there are in this world, and how many other ways might be possible.  

I’m part of a working class family full of rough, wild and dramatic people – Koori, Goori, South Sea Islander and Lebanese. My family are all really loud and funny, and great storytellers, and my brothers are some of the best I know. I was lucky to grow up in a beautiful Goori community – many of them were great storytellers, and cheeky too. Laughter is holy to us and to this day, I worship good storytellers and funny people as gods. All my closest relationships these days are with hilarious people who tell ripping good yarns.  

I’ve always loved stories and reading in particular. I began writing my own stories in 2017 and over the last few years I’ve worked hard to study good writing and try to be good at it. I had my first story published in 2019 in Overland and I’ve since being doing pretty well for myself. This has opened up a lot of doors for me and I’ve met a lot of good people in the literary world, particularly other blackfellas. I feel really lucky to be part of an ancient yet thoroughly contemporary blackfella storytelling tradition. 

On a desk with pot plants and artwork is an iPad showing the contents page of Mykaela Saunders' PhD thesis

For her practice-led PhD, Mykaela is writing a short story collection alongside an exegesis on Goori Futurism.

What are some shared or popular stories that have endured within your family? 

Look, I was almost going to just make up something light-hearted and inspiring to answer this question but I think it's important to be honest because if we’re talking about storytelling, we need to tell the hard stories as well as the nice ones. The truth is, there are lots of really funny stories in my family and lots of really heavy ones too, but none of these are for public consumption. I grew up in a pretty hectic family, and there are some people in my family who are having a pretty rough trot right now, and there others who I don't speak to anymore. So I don't talk about any of our stories in public. My motto is, if I don't talk to someone, I don't talk about them either. 

That said, these yarns and these people always end up sneaking into my stories in some way or another.  

Mykaela's laptop is propped up on a black beanbag outside. Next to this are chairs with stacks of books and a pot plant.

Mykaela plans to hand in her completely fascinating research project in December 2021

Can you recall a moment in your life when you doubted your creativity, or didn't trust the creative process? How do you try to overcome moments like this? 

I never doubt myself because I'm Lebanese, which means I have a powerful, inborn arrogance that carries me through in life. And I'm Koori, which means I never take myself too seriously. So, theoretically, if I ever did doubt myself, it would never be for long because I'd quickly remember that none of this really matters much. Also, I have a small shelf above my desk for the books and journals that I have my work in. Looking at that helps, and on that note, I’d prefer to rely on hard work than worry about the creative process, or whether what I’m writing is any good or not. I’d rather just get on with it and do what’s gotta be done, you know?  

Let me be real for a second though. The biggest problem I have with the creative process are the material realities of my life. Unlike many in the literary world, and the arts more broadly, I grew up poor and have been so all my life. I didn't have a good foundational education that comes from going to a good school and having networking connections. I’ve truly had to study my hole off to get where I am. Currently, I study full-time and I support myself financially with freelance teaching and writing so it's impossible to find the time and energetic space to write all these new ideas for stories that I'm constantly having. And then, if I do manage to write something new, it's even harder to find the time to revise and edit a rough draft into a good one. Money buys breathing space, and breathing space lets me write well, which helps me overcome any worries more than anything.  

A view of a theatre stage, mid-writers festival panel with a painting and flowers in the background. Lisa Fuller, Daniel Browning, Mykaela Saunders and Nardi Simpson sit on couches.

Mykaela onstage at the first ever Kyogle Writers Festival in May this year (L-R Lisa Fuller, Daniel Browning, Mykaela Saunders, Nardi Simpson)

Can you describe what you are you working on now, and what keeps you inspired? 

The main thing I'm working on right now is my thesis Goori Futurism. I’ve been ripping the guts out of it and rearranging it and rewriting everything so I can submit it soon and be done with it. This isn't a comfortable time for me as I hate working to deadlines. I find goal-oriented work so tedious and constricting. I much prefer to work on a few different things at once and at my own pace. That's the way I work best because it keeps me from burning out on any one thing, and it keeps my brain engaged, with its very particular neurological wiring.  

So right now I am madly finalising all the edits on my thesis, getting ready to submit it. What keeps me inspired to do this is I just want the bloomin’ thing finished – so I can move onto working on other projects! 

Once my thesis is submitted, I'll be dusting off two different manuscripts that are in different stages of development. 'Last Rites of Spring' is a novel that needs a fair bit of revision and rewriting but the bare bones are there and I know where I want to go with it. 'With Teeth' is a short story collection. I've already written a few of these stories, and the rest I've mapped out to different degrees, and once I have time I'm going to sit down and write them all out like crazy. 

Mykaela Saunders' bookshelf including literary journals, books of essays and short story collections. A paper crane sits next to the first book.

Mykaela is a brilliant short story writer – read or listen to 'River Story', which won the 2020 Jolley Prize

Find out more about Mykaela Saunders

Sincere thanks to Mykaela Saunders for sharing her words with us. You can see the Sovereign Stories exhibition for free and in person at kuril dhagun, level 1, State Library, or watch the digital stories online. 


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