Breaking Blueprints is an interview series that showcases the unique journeys of Centre for Stories’ Writing Fellows. We gain insight into how each writer discovered their voice and found the tools they need to pursue their dreams of becoming published authors. This series is a testament to the power of community and the potential of every aspiring author to break through the barriers and achieve their dreams. By sharing their stories, these writers inspire others to pursue their passion for writing and explore the many paths available to them.
Casey Mulder is telling someone else’s story, but has learned along the way that her own story has become an essential mix of the source material. Casey is interested in the links within First Nations communities and the strength and vitality that can be found in older generations. In this interview she discusses Aboriginal Australian storytelling, the value of intergenerational friendships and her development as a writer of creative non-fiction.
Casey Mulder is a Ballardong Noongar woman with Dutch and English heritage. She loves storytelling in all its forms and lives on Wadjuk Noongar boodja. Casey works in a variety of education roles, and is also a freelance editor and writer. She is currently working on a creative non-fiction manuscript, and is the First Nations editor for Westerly.
You’re in the final weeks of the fellowship. If you reflect on your experience so far, how has the fellowship been? Have you found it rewarding, challenging, helpful?
The fellowship has been ground-breaking for me. I don’t think I would have reached this point in my manuscript without the guidance and accountability provided by Centre for Stories. I’ve especially found mentoring fruitful. I remember meeting with one of my mentors, Sisonke Msimang, where she talked to me about voice, and basically said, ‘You’ve got Donald’s story, but you need to start looking at your own story that runs concurrently with that one.’ At that point I had been hesitant to do that, so she helped me progress the project to the next stage. Another thing that’s been helpful is doing writing courses with Kill Your Darlings, which is funded by the Centre. Prior to the fellowship, I didn’t even know that I loved writing personal essays, I didn’t even know that personal essay was a genre. But when I think back to everything that I’ve loved writing forever, it could sit in that creative nonfiction space. So it’s helped me realise the kind of writer I am and what I really love to write.
Yes, speaking of personal essays, your manuscript is an oral history project. Could you run through what you’re doing and how it came about?
I was a graduate teacher in the Kimberley and I became close with an older couple, Donald and Evelyn Cox. Donald had gone through several near-death experiences in his life and he attributed surviving them to God. We decided to gather those stories, but on the site where they happened. So we would go out camping and record his stories with the intention of working on a book — that’s what he wanted. And then in 2018 he passed away; so I shelved the audio, because of my own grief, and allowing time for sorry business. I knew of Centre for Stories, and the ethos behind it, so when the fellowship opportunity came up, I thought if I’m going to bring this content anywhere it will be safe, and I will be safe, at the Centre. The Centre has embraced the project, and I’m grateful to them for seeing oral history as something that is complete. For Aboriginal culture oral stories are not just art, they are education, tradition, culture; they’re how we learn everything.
How did you meet Donald and Evelyn, and what was it about them that created such a strong bond?
I met them through church, actually. Although the relationship between Aboriginal communities and churches if often strained, when I encountered this group of people they had open hearts, and such humility and kindness. As a Noongar girl so far from home, first time living by myself, first job post-graduation, going through this massive, formative experience, I was looking to people whom I would consider Elders to have a sense of grounding in that journey. Donald often preached at the church, and he asked me to help him with his spelling. So he and Evelyn would visit me every Wednesday and we’d have endless cups of tea, and it evolved from there. The more I learned of their story, the more I came to believe that the life they had was hard won, that they really fought for it. That’s what drew me to this couple. They were people of great hope and optimism, great strength and a deep faith, and they had a sense of assurance of who they were in the world.
Donald sounds like a very conscientious man. Do you think he felt a sense of mission, perhaps, and that he wanted to be of service?
Yeah, I think you’re right. I think he cared deeply about other people, and wanted good things for them. I think there were some transformative experiences for him in the church. For him that was a place where he felt like he came into his own. And for him, the things he’d been through in his journey, he found peace. He spoke to me freely of things like massacre, stories of resistance to authority in response to that, and trying to keep family safe. I think for Donald, he was really connected to Country and to land, and for him his Christian faith enabled him to live free of those atrocities. He found release in his own kind of relationship with who he saw God to be. He would speak about things like hardship, struggle and racism with such grace and humility. It seemed like there was a friction there in the content of the subject matter that just wasn’t there in the spirit of the thing. And so for Donald sharing these stories is a way that those insights, the things that he felt got him through his life, could continue past him being here with us.
When I’m writing, I like to discover the themes as I go. What kind of story do you think Donald, Evelyn and you are trying to tell?
It’s a great question because it is the question that I’ve had to ask throughout the fellowship. I think what this really is, it’s a story of friendship, it’s a story of relationship; it’s a beautiful picture of what is so strong about Aboriginal people and Aboriginal communities, which is the way we are present for one another. I think that’s at the heart of it. It’s actually quite simple. There are lots of reasons why Donald and Evelyn shouldn’t have been two of the best friends I’ve ever had; but, if we’re open to seeing possibility and connecting with people, and we make time for that, these things can turn into very rich friendships.
Also, I think there’s still a sense of Aboriginal culture being ‘traditional’ and that if the way culture is lived is not to the understanding of a white settler audience, it’s somehow less valid or not as authentic. The things we did together, camping and listening to those stories sitting under the night sky, that is as representative of Aboriginal culture as the things foregrounded in popular media, like dance, like Aboriginal art. I’m interested in deepening Australian society’s understanding of the depth and the breadth and the beauty of Aboriginal culture.
In terms of where your work sits within the body of Australian and First Nations literature, in what way do you see it building upon or challenging earlier writing?
I’ve recently moved into the publishing space myself and what struck me when reading a lot of biographical work from the past 30 years is how much of it is told in a linear, chronological fashion in Standard Australian English (SAusE). I think we’re still in a place where the use of Aboriginal English (AbE) and traditional languages is viewed as illegitimate. What is coming to the fore now is spaces for Indigenous writers to write language and not feel as though you have to take the story you want to tell and translate it into SAusE. Because then there’s this sense that the readership is always a settler audience, right? That’s something I’m seeing shift and I think we are seeing readers from a wide range of backgrounds engage with those texts. So it’s important for me to not feel like I need to alter Donald and Evelyn’s spoken word into a palatable version of SAusE that can be received primarily by a settler audience.
Where are you hoping to take your writing in the final months of the fellowship, and beyond?
One of the things that’s been brilliant is I’ve received additional support from Magabala Books as one of the recipients of the 2022 Australian Indigenous Coffee (AIC) Creative Grants. So they have given me some additional funding to extend the project. In terms of this story being a Kimberley story, and Magabala Books being an Indigenous publishing house, that’s where I’m looking in terms of next steps. I’m humbly accepting that this is a first manuscript and there’s nothing guaranteed in terms of publication, but I would absolutely love to see this published. I think about this project as something that can be shared, as something that high school students can engage with. Young people are important to me, and the experience of teenagers within our society today is important to me. So I think about the work in that sense.
Casey was interviewed by Andrew McGinn in April 2023.
Writing Change, Writing Inclusion is Centre for Stories’ signature writing program for 2021 to 2023. Generously funded by The Ian Potter Foundation, Australia Council for the Arts and Centre for Stories Founders Circle, this writing program features mentoring, hot desk, and publication opportunities for emerging writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and/or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.