Guest writer Sara Khan reflects on how actor Deborah Mailman helped shape and influence her own body of work as a young First Nations creative.
WARNING: this article may contain names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
As a Blak woman, seeing stories and faces on screen that resembled the matriarchs I come from and the body I house was almost non-existent. When they did appear they were to carry a narrative of trauma or hardship. Finding myself on screen was more than a challenge. However it ignited a drive to place myself in spaces that gave me agency to write the characters and arcs that reflected nuance amongst Blak women’s lived experiences.
The first memory I have of feeling seen was Deborah Mailman as Kelly Lewis in the Claudia Karvan-led series, The Secret Life Of Us (2001–05). A show about young adults living in the same apartment block speaks directly to my current phase of adulthood. At the time of release however, I was 9 years old; not exactly the most accurate depiction of my lived experience. The closest visibility I’d seen of my future was bare, and Kelly Lewis navigating the trials and themes of adulthood, without the trauma porn of her identity, was monumental in empowering my passion for screen.
Deborah Mailman became a figure for Blak women to engage in work that didn’t feel like a chore or trigger. Mailman’s work carved a pathway for an entire generation of First Nations women yearning for their stories to be seen and Kelly Lewis was the icon my 9-year-old self craved. Her themes were universal but presented in a body and identity I recognised. Deborah Mailman’s Kelly Lewis was my first entry to a format I needed in order to better understand my forthcoming hurdles.
Writing as a format can be exhausting, revealing, overwhelming and sometimes all of it simultaneously. Searching for the structure, character, arc and, above all else, your why while staring at a blank document will trigger even the most stable of minds. If not, I’m convinced you should do a psychopath test.
My why was triggered by the lacking complexity of First Nations identity and narrative on screen. Deborah Mailman’s archive of work grew exponentially as I grew in my why. At the age of 16, The Sapphires (2012) was released, with Mailman centred as the direct, sharp and warm Gail. Mailman’s performance embodied so much nuance, I understood where I wanted my narratives to sit on the page:
With the release of Total Control (2019–2021) – Mailman’s first lead in a series with a multifaceted performance that transcends her current archive of work – the landscape of First Nations on-screen talent, writers and directors has shifted since her breakout in The Secret Life Of Us.
It’s fair to say she’s been pivotal in understanding my own craft as well as providing an outlet for Blak women’s joy within the TV and film landscape. With the industry growing in its content of varied First Nations film and television content and creators, it’s always important to remember those who carved out the space in a time where their reference for representation was less than minimal.
Battling colonial infrastructures of this industry can test your why constantly, but Deborah Mailman’s why gifted an entire generation of Blak creatives the blueprint to connect to our beautifully layered identities.
Sara Khan (She/Her) is a proud Wailwan, Gomeroi, Pakistani woman currently writing for television with upcoming credits for ABC, SBS and Netflix. She holds a strong background in storytelling in a range of industries including radio, where she co-hosts the award-winning show Race Matters on FBi radio.