Australia has a colonial past. And a colonial mindset is still being perpetuated (despite lip service to reconciliation and multiculturalism) by heavy-handed and paternalistic government policies and a media that insists on stereotypical representations and unhelpful and inaccurate generalisations.
Improving relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians can only be achieved through reconciliation via education and exposure to each others’ perspectives. (Cara Shipp)
All students in Australia need to learn to accept, understand and value Aboriginal perspectives. What better way to do this than through literature written by Indigenous authors, in which Aboriginality is automatically placed at the forefront instead of being objectified. These stories seamlessly and non-didactically provide an alternative (non-mainstream) viewpoint from which the rest of the world is observed.
Becoming Kirrali Lewis by Jane Harrison is one such story.
Have a teacher-led class discussion, or students divide into small groups and report back to the whole class.
- How long have Indigenous peoples lived in Australia?
- How long have non-Indigenous people lived in Australia?
- What does the term Terra Nullius mean?
- When was the concept of Terra Nullius (as a justification for colonising/occupying Australia) overturned?
- Ask the students (individually, in pairs or in small groups) to reflect on the day-to-day advertising they encounter: television, billboards, magazines, radio, etc.
- How many of these advertisements include representations of Indigenous people?
- How many of these advertisements include representations of other minority groups in the community such as Asian or African people?
Moving on to the text
- Students read the blurb on the back of the book first. ‘Sure, she was an Aboriginal girl…’ Then look at the front cover of the novel. Kirrali is drawn as a black-and-white sketch with shafts of colour (yellow, red and pink) highlighting parts of her form. Can the students – at this early stage, prior to reading – suggest why Kirrali might be depicted like this?
- Author Jane Harrison was the recipient of the Black & Write Fellowship in 2014, which assisted her in writing the novel. Students should research the Black & Write program and find out when it was instigated and why, and who else has undertaken the program. Students could be asked to reflect on the particular nature of this fellowship, and make some suggestions as to why it might be important.
- Do a quick online search on Jane Harrison. Who is she? What else has she written?
Questions for discussion/conversation
These questions are either teacher-led or students have a discussion in small groups and then report back.
On the back of the first title page inside the text, there is information about Magabala Books: ‘First published 2015 by Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation, Broome, Western Australia’.
- Are students aware that there is an Indigenous publishing house in Australia?
- Are there other publishers in Australia that publish only Indigenous authors? (Research)
- Are Aboriginal authors published by other publishers?
- Do students find it surprising that there is a publishing house that exists for the purpose of publishing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature? Whatever the response, this issue could be further explored. Why would or wouldn’t they be surprised? Issues to note are:
- a need for diversity?
- problems with singular worldview?
- the effects of little to zero minority representations and viewpoints including racism, bigotry, extreme nationalism, fear of others.
- Could students see it as a racist publishing house if it only publishes Aboriginal literature? Again, explore issues around their responses. (Note: this could be a good opportunity to bring in the topic of Affirmative Action)
- What other books has Magabala published?
- What books by Aboriginal writers have students read?
- Make a list of books students have read that are about Aboriginal people or Aboriginal issues.
- The most obvious theme to emerge from the reading of this novel is the Indigenous/non-Indigenous relationship in Australia. This relationship has always been problematic and tense, from initial contact until today. Before beginning the reading, students brainstorm some of the issues and difficulties faced by Australian Aboriginal people today and in the past. Examples could include:
- early massacres
- missions and reserves
- the Stolen Generation (and there is some disquiet about the number of Indigenous children in foster care today)
- Land Rights disputes
- Wave Hill walk-off
- the 1967 Referendum
- deaths in custody issues
- racial profiling
- the ‘Intervention’
- ‘Closing the Gap’
- unemployment and the Indigenous Work for the Dole schemes
- Constitutional recognition issues
- the Uluru Declaration 2017
- ‘Change the Date’ campaign
- equality in education issues
- differences in life expectancy between ethnic groups
- incarceration rates – for example, the Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre
- and many more.
Short research task
Students could either choose one issue from the list above, or provide their own choice of an issue, and after doing some research, write a paragraph on the topic to be shared with the class. This activity could be for homework. Note: it might be wise for the teacher to allocate topics to students so that all (or most of) the above topics are covered.
Personal response on reading the text
Questions and comments while reading the text
To ease students into reading, pages 9–11 (up to the first break), could be read in class – followed by a discussion:
- ‘little black duck’ is a metaphor for what?
- Identify the joke (p. 10) and the irony of Kirrali’s thought, ‘I hated people making generalisations…’ (p. 10)
- Why does someone say, ‘She’s ours’? What is meant by this phrase?
- In your own words, describe Kirrali’s attitude in these first pages. What textual evidence can you provide for your claim?
To use Jane Harrison’s own words ‘I wanted to mess with stereotypes’.
A short, targeted explanation of stereotyping and how it works would be useful before students embark on their own reading. (For example, as a definition, ‘Stereotyping is a way to categorise people based on the broadest of generalisations. We all use them to make sense of the world, but they can be dangerous and harmful.’ How and why? Some examples could be used, such as asking students to describe certain nationalities such as Americans or British people. (One could also ask them if they know of any stereotypical depictions of Australians used by other nationalities.) Occupations are sometimes stereotyped: librarians, academics, farmers, and even sporting people such as boxers and rugby players.
It would be helpful for students to keep some sort of running record, journal or blog to document their reflections and thoughts as they read, covering such things as:
- How does society define Kirrali? Students should provide some examples as they read. Some suggestions: as a political activist (p. 25), as a thief (p. 36), as a sex object (p. 41).
- Ask them to make a note of all the instances they can find where the author overturns commonly held Australian stereotypes about ethnic groups. In their journals/blogs, they need to make a note identifying which common and recognisable stereotype is being used, and describe how the author ‘messes’ with it. (An early example is the one on page 10 where Kirrali assumes she is recognised as a law student because of her conservative attire. There are others: Erin, Kirk, Martina, Cherie’s parents, Kirrali’s adoptive parents – all of them overturn common stereotypes.)
- As students commence their own reading, ask them to keep a glossary of Aboriginal words and their meanings. They could begin with the word, Koori. If they can find no definition or explanation of the word (example, the abbreviated word, mish on page 36), they need to ask or do some research on authoritative Indigenously authored material such as Nanga: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Words and Phrases by Auntry Fay Muir and Sue Lawson (Black Dog Books).
As they read, students need to spend some time reflecting (in their journals/blogs) on racism.
- Students are to make a note of all the incidents of racism they encounter while reading. They are to describe the incident in their own words (it could just be in note or jotted form) and identify the page(s).
- What is meant by Cherie’s comment, ‘My parents were racist in that middle-class, pseudo-tolerant way I was to recognise often.’ (p. 152)
- At some point in their reading, students re-read pp. 153–155. In what way is Michael racist? And why does he insist that he’s not? Why is Cherie upset by his image of an Aboriginal man standing on one leg with a spear in his hand?
- Students could also reflect on Margaret’s brand of racism, (p. 36). How is it that Erin and Kirrali can tolerate Margaret’s comments, cliches, stereotyping and rudeness?
- Can students find examples of where Kirrali herself is racist? How does this play out, and whereabouts within the text? (There are several instances. At one point, Kirrali even states, ‘I was racist’ (p. 212). Also, consider her attitudes towards Cherie and towards Charley)
- Is there any evidence that Charley is a racist? (‘Go home, white girl,’ he slurred. p. 118)
Personal connections with own experience
- ‘I was twelve before I realised I was different.’ (p. 11). Despite realising that she was a different colour to the rest of the family, Kirrali took a long while to really be aware of her difference in any depth. In their journals/blogs, students should reflect on ways in which they feel different to their peers/friends/family.
- Even before reading the book, the reader learns from the blurb that Kirrali is an Aboriginal girl adopted into a non-Indigenous family. At some point in their reading, a homework task could be set to research the terms Adoption and Fostering as concepts for the rearing of children. Ask the students to write down definitions of both terms and conduct brief class or group discussions on the topics. Take note, however, that some students may or may not want to speak about these issues from personal experience.
Reflections on completing the text
- A wealth of important Aboriginal history is presented, almost in passing, in this novel. Ask students to note at least two important historical events which they learnt about by reading this book. (Examples include references to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy p. 114, to the Stolen Generation p. 80, the return of Wave Hill Station to its traditional owners p. 30, Aboriginal Land Council p. 25 – and others).
- Reflective task: Students either share their opinions in class discussion or reflect in writing as to whether they think that literature is a good way to teach History – and why.
- Students look up and write down the definition of the word, ‘denouement’. Becoming Kirrali Lewis concludes with two postscripts: one from Cherie’s perspective and one from Kirrali’s perspective. Ask the students to reflect on whether this is a good way to draw the final narrative strands together, or whether it detracts from Charley’s letter as the ending, which is powerful in its own right.
- As a class, go through the compiled glossaries from earlier and check that all terms are understood.
Outline of key elements of the text
The basic plot is straightforward in that the central protagonist, Kirrali Lewis, goes to university, becomes more politically aware, and as a result begins a search for her biological parents. She is confounded and confused to find that her real mother is non-Indigenous, and seems pleased to find that her father is a well-known Indigenous activist. Very soon after she has met and bonded with Charley, her father, he dies and finally Kirrali finds a measure of peace and acceptance regarding her own identity (within both her biological and her adoptive families), and an idea about the future role that she might play to help ‘her people’. The sub-plot involves a first-person narration on behalf of Cherie (Kirrali’s biological mother). She narrates her side of the story as she meets the daughter she gave up as a baby and negotiates the difficult passage of getting to know her prickly child and introducing her to her real father. Both first-person narrations (that of Kirrali and that of Cherie) use flashbacks as an efficient way of filling in their respective histories.
Kirrali, Cherie and Charley are the central characters in the novel. They are well fleshed-out and believable with their all too-human imperfections and flaws. Each of these characters develops in relation to each other and in the course of the on-going story.
A host of support characters are drawn into the narrative, all of them necessary to the unfolding story, as well as being engaging in their own right. These include:
- Kirrali’s non-Indigenous adoptive family, plus her dog
- Erin – university friend (Aboriginal)
- Kirk – university friend and later a boyfriend (Aboriginal)
- Martina – Kirrali’s best school friend (non-Indigenous) who goes on to university with her and provides an interesting and important sub-plot in her marriage to Robbie, a well-known Aboriginal footballer
- Margaret – the acerbic non-Indigenous manager at the movie house where both Erin and Kirrali get part-time jobs to help with their university costs
- Adam – the (non-Indigenous) boy whom Kirrali had a schoolgirl crush on and who later helps her out with tutorials at university
- Michael – a (non-Indigenous) boyfriend of Cherie’s before she met Charley
- Jarrah – an (Indigenous) boyfriend of Cherie’s also before she met Charley.
Note: the central theme of this novel is Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations within Australia, which is why each character mentioned has been identified as either Aboriginal or non-Indigenous.
- Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations within Australia
- Aboriginal politics and activism
- Aboriginal culture
- Identity and belonging
- Representation of difference (minority groups) in mainstream media
- Ethnically mixed families and family relationships
- Adoption and fostering
- Career issues
Having read the novel but prior to an in-depth study of it, students can choose one of the following tasks:
1. Expository writing task
Choose one of the historical or present-day events or issues affecting Aboriginal Australians (a list is in the Introductory Activities section above, but there may be many more that have come to light during classroom discussion) and create a chapter or chapter segment on this topic, suitable for inclusion in a Study of Society textbook appropriate to Year 8, 9 or 10 students. This could include: photographs, maps, links to websites or YouTube, plus lists of questions for students to answer or points for them to ponder. Students could also provide assessment questions at the end of their chapter/segment.
(ACELA1565) (ACELA1567) (ACELA1569) (ACELA1571) (ACELA1572) (ACELY1749) (ACELY1756) (ACELY1757) (ACELY1776)
2. Research and media task
Students to research adoption and fostering.
Choose either adoption or fostering as a means of incorporating children into families other than their own and:
- Prepare a fact sheet on the issues involved.
- Prepare an advertisement to put up on a billboard next to a highway or to show on television, raising awareness of the idea of fostering or adopting children with prospective families.
The writer’s craft
The text is arranged in three distinct sections: Part One – Kirrali 1985. Part Two – Cherie 1985 and Flashback to the 60s (begins on page 111). Part Three – Kirrali Cherie Charley 1985 (begins page 181).
The chapters continue seamlessly throughout these sectional changes. Kirrali is the first-person narrator in Part One. Cherie is the first-person narrator in Part Two and Kirrali is again the first-person narrator in Part Three. Even though only Part Two mentions flashback information in its title, Part One also contains many flashbacks to Kirrali’s life before she came to university.
The novel ends with two short postscripts where Kirrali and Cherie, as the two central protagonists, provide a brief denouement.
- To ensure that students understand the difference between first- and third-person narrator, ask them to write out the first paragraph in the book (p. 9) in the third person instead of the first. At the end of their paragraph, ask them to write down one advantage of first-person narrative voice, and one disadvantage. If students read the last paragraph on page 110 and then the first one on page 113, they should get an understanding of the power of the first-person narrative voice. In these two paragraphs, Kirrali’s and Cherie’s emotional states are juxtaposed as they meet for the first time.
- They could then be encouraged to write the first two lines of any story at all – spontaneous and impromptu writing – using either the first or the third person. Ask them to explain their choice. This might be a good opportunity to mention the second-person narrator. Perhaps they could try their hand at writing the first line of a story in the second person! Discuss the use of second-person narrator writing in advertising and instructive writing. Students could finish this activity by creating a rough draft of an advertisement using the second-person narrator.
- The first-person narrative point of view provides a subjective, inner voice, looking out of the world. Hence, the reader understands that Cherie’s parents were somewhat stifling and narrow-minded. ‘In my parents’ house, anger was suppressed.’ and ‘Everything had to be “nice”‘ (p. 117). Cherie thought her parents were racist (p. 152); however, these views are all Cherie’s. Rewrite the passage on page 152 (from ‘My parents were relieved…’) beginning ‘My daughter was…’ and, from the perspective of Cherie’s mother, comment on your daughter’s relationship with Jarrah, or take a later stage in the novel and comment on her relationship with Charley and her desire to escape to the city and frequent bars.
- Use of flashbacks. Students read page 23 from ‘Next, I unpacked my textbooks…’ until the bottom of the page. Discuss how this flashback has been used, and what it has been used for. Ask the students to try it out. They could begin with where they are now, in an English class presumably, and use a trigger device to get back to a memory.
Approach to characterisation
This is a text that is very much character driven. The three central characters: Kirrali, Cherie and Charley are all strong, well-rounded and believable. All have flaws and strengths and all develop as the story progresses.
Jane Harrison has also created a backdrop of secondary characters, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous who act as foils or complements to Kirrali or Cherie, but who are also interesting and vital in their own right.
One student at Faith Lutheran College (writing a review of Becoming Kirrali Lewis) stated that she ‘didn’t get to know about characters except through dialogue’.
- Brainstorm around the class, asking students to list all the ways authors make the reader feel they know and understand a fictional character. (Note: suggestions include: what the character does physically, what the character thinks, how other characters interact with and react to the character in question.)
In another review, a student states that she became irritated with Kirrali who was ‘snobby, judgmental and kept telling us how smart she was – being a law student’.
- Ask the students if they agree with this assessment of Kirrali’s character.
- What two or three descriptive words would they use to describe Kirrali’s character?
- Could they do the same for Cherie, Charley, Kirk and Erin?
Students need to be able to back up their claims with quotes or examples from the text.
Ask students whether they identify or empathise with Kirrali, Cherie, Charley or any of the more minor characters in the novel? If so, how? If not – why?
- Create a ‘Character Iceberg’ of Kirrali. Above the waterline, ask students to note what they are told directly from the text. Below the waterline, write things that they have to infer about her. How could they use a character iceberg when writing about themselves? (Magabala Teacher Notes resource)
- Given that we do learn most about a character by what they say, either to themselves in a thought process, or to others in dialogue, complete the Kirrali and Cherie Character Chart (PDF, 165 KB) explaining what we understand (infer) about Kirrali and Cherie as a result of what they both say and think.
- Kirrali has difficulty in coming to terms with her Aboriginality. Why does she resist accepting it for so long – until she leaves home?
- The novel has been described as ‘coming of age’ Young Adult Fiction (Glaiza’ review in GoodReads). For Kirrali, coming of age means accepting her biological Aboriginal past, her colour and her destiny. Choose from one of the supporting characters listed, and describe how this character helps Kirrali come to terms with her own inescapable reality: Martina, Erin, Kirk, Margaret.
- Charley is depicted as a loving father, a fiery political activist and a rather indifferent lover. Ask students to find quotes or examples from the text to back up all these claims.
The novel is set in Melbourne during the 1980s with flashbacks to the 1960s.
Questions for students:
- What is the single biggest social change that has taken place between the 1980s and now?
- What aspects of life have not changed or hardly changed since the 1980s?
Use of parallels and contrasts
Becoming Kirrali Lewis is rich in both parallels and contrasts because of the Indigenous/non-Indigenous issues that underlie and permeate the entire text. For example, Kirrali is Indigenous, but initially she does not have a ‘black’ consciousness because she has been brought up ‘white’. She only grows into her Indigenous self because of the events she experiences and the people that she meets once she begins her university life. In contrast, Martina is non-Indigenous, yet she has a deep affinity with ‘black’ causes. (‘I can do more helping out with grassroots campaigns. Like Aboriginal land rights.’ page 45). She is studying Political Science at university and she marries an Aboriginal football star.
Other contrasts and parallels include Kirrali’s first adolescent love interest, Adam, who is non-Indigenous, and her second, Kirk, who is Indigenous. Of Cherie’s boyfriends, Jarrah and Charley are Indigenous, and Michael is non-Indigenous.
Cherie’s suburban and conservative parents provide a contrast to Kirrali’s (adoptive) parents who live in a small regional town and have opened their hearts to children, their own and others, and who treat a dog as part of the family. As a teenager, Cherie rebelled against her family values, choosing the city, bars and an Indigenous lover to establish her own identity. Kirrali, on the other hand, adores her adoptive family and has thoroughly imbued their values of hard work, fair play and demonstrative family affection.
Another parallel is evident in the side-by-side lives of Cherie in Melbourne, and Kirrali in her country town and latterly in Melbourne, where unbeknownst to themselves and each other, they were just a few city blocks apart, culminating in their shock meeting and Kirrali’s disappointment, because the Aboriginal mother she had steeled herself to find, is non-Indigenous.
Either on their computers or on a poster, students could try to visually represent some of these contrasts and parallels – and then present their concepts to the class.
(Ideas include construction of a Venn diagram with Kirrali’s and Cherie’s contrasts in each circle and their interlocking aspects in the middle (genes, racism exposure). They could use a tree diagram where Martina and Kirrali’s early lives forms the trunk, and then as they go off in separate directions, they branch out. Diverging depictions of railway tracks could work. Encourage students to be as creative as possible.)
Point of view and voice
This topic has been treated as a short treatise on the topic of authorial voice in Becoming Kirrali Lewis and is addressed to the teacher. Similarly, the narrative point of view has already been dealt with in Structure section above. However, the overall point of view and voice emanating from this novel is worth a closer examination.
In Bringing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Perspectives into the Classroom, Cara Shipp states in her abstract:
Why are we being asked to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in the classroom? We’ve all seen and heard the statistics about how far behind Indigenous Australians are in literacy and numeracy, school attendance, and participation. You may have taught students from Indigenous backgrounds who you’ve found difﬁcult to engage with and relate to. Providing teacher cross-cultural training and embedding Indigenous perspectives in the classroom has been shown to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.’
Becoming Kirrali Lewis does this. It is a text that embeds Indigenous perspectives into the classroom. Indigenous students have to navigate mainstream culture every day. Books like this redress the balance. They provide positive reinforcement of Aboriginal identity, when both government policy and mainstream media persist in pedalling negativity and stereotypes.
The Australian Curriculum recognises this, but often, teaching Indigenous history and culture becomes tokenism or references Indigenous issues from a non-Indigenous perspective, which passes as inclusivity. Catriona Mills recognises this too: ‘Unsurprisingly, Bradford describes the increasing prominence of Indigenous authors as the single biggest factor in shifting Aboriginality from subject matter to viewpoint in young adult fiction…’
The contrasting point of view narrative voices of Kirrali and Cherie present alternative viewpoints and histories seamlessly and effortlessly in this novel, but the overall voice of the author, Jane Harrison, gives a powerful resonance to the Aboriginal viewpoint.
History tells. Literature shows
Ask students to imagine they are preparing to write a short discussion essay on this topic. They need to jot down three advantages and three disadvantages of teaching Australian history through the vehicle of young adult fiction, compared to ordinary history lessons.
Ideas to explore and examine:
- personal accounts
- subjective rather than objective
- lived experience
- may not be true
- immediate and more exciting
- emotionally charged accounts.
Language and style
The author uses figurative language throughout Becoming Kirrali Lewis. Examples include:
- ‘I was the little black duck who didn’t know how to quack.’ (p. 31)
- ‘My mind slid down into a sticky black sadness.’ (p. 58)
- ‘…the black text swimming before my eyes like ants having a corroboree…’ (p. 69)
- ‘Disappointment mingled with relief, a nauseating water-oil combination if ever there was one.’ (p. 125)
- ‘…the heat radiating from his skin like a brick wall after a hot day.’ (p. 129)
- ‘The sudden downpour was like a jug of water being poured from the sky.’ (p. 142)
- ‘The tectonic plates of their lives were about to shift.’ (p. 165)
- ‘Her words slashed like a stingray’s barb.’ (p. 214)
- ‘Erin’s smile was like the sun coming out after a spring storm.’ (p. 232)
- ‘My heart was beating so loud it sounded like a metronome.’ (p. 232)
- ‘Even the children seemed to stop wriggling. It was the dead eye of the storm.’ (p. 233)
Metaphors, similes and analogies give colour and vividness to writing. They work by giving the reader a picture in their minds.
Showing instead of telling
Ask students to re-read the episode where Cherie discovers that her boyfriend, Michael, has racist attitudes (pp. 152–155).
The author could have simply stated that Cherie had had one more serious relationship after her affair with Charley and the trauma of the adoption, but ended it because she discovered that the man she was with was racist. But instead, she chooses to show us his particular form of racism with a scene. She takes us there so that we, the reader, can feel the full impact.
This is powerful narrative writing.
Let the students experiment with this sort of narrative telling. For example, they could describe what happened in their home yesterday evening. Then they could write an actual scene showing the reader/listener what happened by including direct speech and figurative language (similes and metaphors).
(ACELA1572) (ACELT1814) (ACELT1815)
Use of parables
Unlike a metaphor, simile or analogy, a parable is a short story that demonstrates something other than its own subject matter.
When she was very young, Kirrali recounted the story of the lost dogs’ home (pp. 15–16). This story always raised a laugh in the family.
In pairs or small groups, students could read this again, and together, consider the following question prior to sharing their views with the rest of the class.
- Could this amusing anecdote be considered a parable?
- How and why does it work to convey an indirect meaning – and what is the indirect, or deeper meaning?
Text and meaning
Exploration of themes and ideas
The main themes in this text include:
- Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations within Australia
- First Nations’ politics
- representations of groups other than mainstream
- belonging and identity.
Obviously all these are interconnected, but will be dealt with separately for clarity.
Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations within Australia
Overwhelmingly, this novel is political. It is many other things as well, such as a ‘coming-of-age’ novel, a psychological novel about searching for one’s true identity, a novel about accepting responsibility. But underpinning everything, it deals with the tense and troubled Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationship politics within Australia from the 1960s up until the present time (for although this ends in the 1980s, the implications reverberate today).
1) Ask students to consider the following quotes. Can they sum up the subject matter in one or two sentence(s) of their own?
- ‘Looked in the mirror lately, girl? You gotta be interested in politics.’ (p. 10)
- ‘I am Australian. An original Australian. I’m Aboriginal.’ (p. 12)
- ‘So what if I was black? Did that mean I had to fight every cause championing black people?’ (p. 13)
- ‘Haven’t you noticed you’re treated differently every day of your life?’ (p. 17)
- ‘You are on Aboriginal land.’ (p. 66)
- ‘But in Koori circles, the personal was also the political – there was no separation.’ (p. 124)
- ‘To be Aboriginal is to be political.’ (p. 208)
2) Several prominent Aboriginal Rights activists are mentioned in the text including Pat O’Shane and Bob Bellear.
Students choose an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person who was or is a public and well-known figure in Australia. They may choose from any field – politics, law, sport, art, film and television. They need to research this figure in order to present a biography in which they provide brief details of the life of their subject, and more importantly, what this person has done or is doing to promote reconciliation and harmonious race relations within this country.
Note: This is not a large assignment project – just a couple of lessons or some homework evenings. The biography is for publication in a newly formed magazine titled – We Are All Australians (or they could imagine their own title for the magazine).
(ACELA1564) (ACELT1814) (ACELY1749)
Representations of Indigenous people in Australian mainstream media
The lack of any serious or inclusive representation of Indigenous people and their concerns has long been a criticism of Australia’s media. Becoming Kirrali Lewis draws attention to this deficit in several instances, mainly (but not only) through the character of Kirk, who is studying to be an actor.
- ‘When was the last time you saw an Aboriginal person on Neighbours?’ (p. 51)
- ‘How many roles do you see filled by Aboriginal actors? Occasionally they get to play Aboriginals but they don’t actually get to play people. You don’t see Aboriginal nurses or teachers, or even Aboriginal social workers, in films or on TV, do you? Those roles are always filled by white people.’ (p. 51)
- ‘An Aboriginal person on television? And he’s not playing the bad guy? How amazing. It’s only taken two hundred years of massacres, oppression and what generally amounts to genocide. I’m really glad that Aboriginal people are finally having their fifteen minutes of fame!’ (p. 169)
- ‘We need black faces on our stages and screens too, Uncle Jacko…We can tell our stories our way.’ (p. 200)
In the Introductory Activities section of this unit, students reflected on how often they encountered Indigenous people/voices/concerns in the world of advertising. Now ask them to reflect on other aspects of television (such as drama, sitcoms, news or weather reports) and on films made in Australia and/or by Australians.
‘Occasionally they get to play Aboriginals but they don’t actually get to play people.’ (p. 51)
Perhaps the teacher could write this statement up and the class could unpack it.
- How does one get to play an ‘Aboriginal’? What sort of character(s) would that be?
- What are people in this context?
Hopefully this will lead on to a discussion about stereotypes and the scarcity of Indigenous actors in non-Indgenous roles. This article in TV Tonight features Deborah Mailman calling for more Indigenous actors in mainstream roles.
On page 212, Kirrali states, ‘Deep down I was fearful that there would be something shameful lurking there – a father in prison or a drug-addicted mother. I was frightened of my own Aboriginality, fuelled by all the negative stories in the media. I was racist.’ The power of the media to misrepresent and generalise whole sections of society is such that Kirrali, a member of a minority group, is fearful of her own kind.
Questions for discussion
- What common stereotypes are used to represent Aboriginal people in the above quote?
- How does Jane Harrison subvert stereotypes in her novel? How does she ‘mess with stereotypes’ (to use her own words)?
However, we all do use stereotypes. Consider and try to explain the following two quotes:
- ‘Brick veneer country’ (p. 18)
- ‘You’re from a country town’ (p. 67)
Is the author using generalisations and stereotypes? How?
Other activities that demonstrate representation (or lack of it) in Australian media
- YouTube excerpts from Australian ‘classics’ such as Rabbit-proof Fence and Australia could be shown. Do these two films promote the sort of representations that Kirk, Erin and Cherie are talking about?
- What about recent ABC television successes such as Cleverman and Redfern Now and Mystery Road? If students are not familiar with these, excerpts may be shown from them as well.
How, if at all, are these productions advancing the cause of Indigenous rights and reconciliation in Australia?
Look at the National Geographic site ranking the top 10 Australian TV dramas. How many of these include Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people having mainstream, serious roles? Some of those on the list are now dated. Ask students to list their favourite television shows and highlight and share any of them that have Indigenous people in mainstream professions and roles?
Together, as a class, read the New Statesman article and check out some of the YouTube excerpts from these productions.
Also read together the article on the new British crime production, Undercover and Race.
- How is Undercover subverting common stereotypes and representations within western media?
‘Outside the ABC, Australian television is still overwhelmingly Caucasian…Commercial broadcasters still enforce a white Australia, whether or not they’re aware of it.’ Benjamin Law in The Monthly (October 2018)
In the light of the above quote and your reading of and reflecting on Becoming Kirrali Lewis, plan a list of points you could raise in a letter to a commercial channel of your choice outlining your concern at the lack of non-stereotyped minority content in their drama and advertising.
This is a book that is about racism.
Below are just some of the many quotes/incidents concerning racism in Becoming Kirrali Lewis.
- ‘My dad says black people come from Africa. And they should go back there.’ (p. 11)
- ‘Oh, lighten up, Kirrali…You don’t have to be an Aboriginal if you don’t want to.’ (p. 17)
- ‘Excuse me for asking, but why do you call yourself Australian and not Aboriginal?’ (p. 20)
- ‘Where did you get this one? Another cousin off the mish?’ (p. 36)
- ‘If I catch you slacking off or helping yourself to choc tops, choc top, it’s…’ (p. 36)
- ‘A woman? Dir-ty bloo-dy ab-o,’ (p. 33)
- ‘So the nigger’s a faggot then?’ (p. 57)
- ‘Go home white girl,’ (p. 119)
- ‘So he was a big black man then?’…’standing on one leg, spear in hand…’ (p. 154)
- ‘I was racist.’ (p. 212)
- The story of Mavis’s death (pp. 99–103)
- Jarrah’s story (pp. 148–152)
Students could work in pairs or small groups for the below activities.
- Students are to contextualise all the above quotes, in other words, make sure they know who said them and on what occasion.
- Students are then asked to fill in the Table to categorise racism (PDF, 155KB), slotting both quotes and stories into appropriate columns, and be prepared to justify their choice of column for each quote or story.
- In their pairs, students complete the Three-level guide (PDF, 161KB) and share their findings within class discussion or in larger groups.
Identity and belonging
In the same paragraph as the one used in the above section on Representations, Kirrali states, ‘But I was just a lost, scared girl.’ (p. 212)
Ask students to imagine themselves as an Australian (of whatever ethnicity or religion) being adopted into a completely different country, culture, nation and ethnic group of a different appearance and colour. They are loved by their adoptive family and speak the same language. Do they think that at some point they may struggle to feel a sense of belonging and identity? Why?
Ask students to work in pairs and make a list of all the groups of people in this country who may feel they don’t belong in mainstream culture.
- people of differing colour/ethnicity to mainstream white Australians such as Africans and Asians,
- people of different religions such as Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Jews,
- people who are physically or mentally disabled,
- the elderly,
- LGBTI people,
- homeless or very poor people, and of course,
- First Nation Australians.
Ask them to brainstorm on their own, and jot down the aspects of their lives that make them feel as though they belong.
What are the groups they belong to that make them feel this way?
Share their feedback.
Note: groups could be as small as family and as large as State and National groupings – and everything in between such as: friends, language practices, dress code, clubs, sports, school, church, extended families, family rituals…
If one felt that one didn’t really belong, what strategies could be used to change this? How can one better belong?
Belonging is a basic human need. Looking at Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, were Kirrali’s other needs being met? Do students agree with this heirarchy? Are there any further needs that could be added?
Students are to look up Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, and read The Guardian article about her. Amani is a Muslim girl growing up in North America who began a magazine for Muslim teenagers because she felt that they shared the experience of feeling they didn’t belong in mainstream American culture.
After reading these articles on Amani, students (working alone or in pairs) create the graphic / picture / photograph / design for the front cover of a magazine that someone like Kirrali, Erin or Kirk would produce – bringing teenage public attention in Australia to some of the issues faced by Indigenous youth here. At this stage, students need only think of a name for their publication, and a catchy graphic for the front page. This could be either a computer or a poster activity.
(ACELA1564) (ACELA1565) (ACELA1570) (ACELA1571) (ACELT1644) (ACELY1749) (ACELY1756) (ACELY1757)
Meaning in context
Context is everything in this novel! Racism applies within a context, whether it is Apartheid South Africa (Note: if researching this, compare your findings to Becoming Kirrali Lewis p. 228; there is not much difference.), the Jewish Holocaust, the American struggle for civil rights and basic human liberties – or Australia’s own ongoing issues with racism, beginning with Terrra Nullius, through to the White Australia Policy to the issues that still affect Indigenous people today.
Activities: as class discussion, in groups or pairs
Consider Australian society in the 1960s and the 1980s and compare those situations to now. How has the context changed for Indigenous people in our present times?
Brainstorm – as a class – some of the issues that are topical right now in this country and that are affecting black/white relations.
Note: For some years now a nation-wide debate has raged about whether the date for Australia Day should be celebrated on 26 January (Change the Date campaign). Perhaps there could be a ballot or a class survey on this topic. For example, those in favour of changing the date could move to one side of the classroom. Those in favour of the status quo could move to the other side. Students on each side to share their reasoning and then a spokesperson from each side could put forward their points.
Students are to choose one of the following tasks.
1. Creative writing
Choose a point of view from which to write – either Kirrali’s, Cherie’s or Charley’s – and describe your thoughts and emotions on encountering your mother/father/daughter. The writing may be in the form of an email or letter to a close friend or a journal entry.
(ACELT1643) (ACELT1744) (ACELT1814) (ACELT1815) (ACELT1644)
2. Persuasive writing
Write to the school librarian, suggesting that she buys more young adult fiction written by Indigenous authors. Make a case for this by arguing how beneficial Becoming Kirrali Lewis has been in teaching your class about Aboriginal history.
(ACELA1567) (ACELA1569) (ACELA1571) (ACELY1756) (ACELY1757)
3. Spoken task
If you created a magazine cover in the final task in the Identity and Belonging section above, depicting a graphic that highlights some aspect of Indigenous Australia that is of concern to young people today: prepare a short speech to explain to the class and your teacher why you chose your particular picture/design and what it says about race relations or Aboriginal Issues.
(ACELY1750) (ACELY1813) (ACELY1751)
4. Spoken task
Read Chapter 31 again where Kirrali pays homage to her recently discovered father, Charley, at his funeral. Imagine that as either Cherie or Kirk, you have been asked to say a few words about Charley on the same occasion. Write and prepare the five-to-eight minute speech you will give to honour Charley’s passing.
Ways of reading the text
Discourse analysis theory
Discourse analysis theory looks at the stories/narratives that construct our identity and give us our sense of place in the world.
‘For me, discourse refers to communication practices, which systematically construct our knowledge of reality.’ (from Getting the Hang of Discourse Theory)
Discourse analysis theory is notoriously slippery to grasp, but, ‘communication practices which systemically construct our knowledge of reality’ (italics added) implies that discourses (stories, narratives, ways of being) construct our reality, our identity. In other words, students are ‘constructed’ by the stories that support and surround them.
Ask students to reflect on some of the ‘stories’ that make up their lives. How do they belong? What gives them their own sense of identity?
This discussion could be kick-started by the idea of the family, which provides one’s earliest sense of belonging and identity. Others include: school, clubs, religious beliefs, sport, shared values, language itself, dressing and hair codes – the list is endless and could go on to include statehood and nationality.
From this list, it shouldn’t be a big jump to see how lives can differ according to race, class, gender, wealth, religion and nationality. For example, students could compare and contrast the discourses that ‘created’ Kirrali, compared to those of Mavis (pp. 99–103). They could do this by working in pairs and creating a comparison table, one column for Kirrali and one for Mavis. After doing this, they could compose a paragraph describing how ‘Mavis stood very little chance of having a successful life because…’
(ACELT1639) (ACELT1644) (ACELY1754)
Postcolonial literature often addresses the problems and consequences of the decolonisation of a country, especially questions relating to the political and cultural independence of formerly subjugated people, and themes such as racism and colonialism. A range of literary theory has evolved around this subject.
It is interesting to reflect on the idea that unlike many African, South American or Pacific former colonies, Australia is still a colonised country. This makes Jane Harrison’s writing even more pertinent in that the issues she raises do not apply to former exploitation, but to present exploitation.
‘The action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area’ (Oxford Dictionary Definition).
As a class discussion, consider the following questions:
- What percentage of the total population of Australia is Indigenous? (approximately 3%)
- Who was here first and by how many years? (estimations that Aboriginal people have lived here for between 50 and 60,000 years)
- Has Australia ever been ceded to the British? (No.)
- Has there ever been a treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians? (No.)
Students are to consider the following list:
- wealth distribution
- educational standards
- incarceration rates
- representation in the mainstream media
- parliamentary representation; and,
- the nationality of the official Head of State of Australia.
In light of the Oxford Dictionary definition of the term, Colonisation (above), ask if students agree or disagree with the statement, ‘Australia is a colonial country’.
Ask students to individually consider this question, and then to share their position and the justification for it, with the class.
Discuss in pairs and then share:
- Are there advantages to colonisation?
- Write down and discuss the advantages/disadvantages for the colonisers.
- Write down and discuss the advantages/disadvantages for those who are colonised.
Comparison with other texts
There are many young adult fiction texts that deal with issues such as racism, the search for an identity, and the struggle to belong within mainstream Australian culture.
- Us Mob Walawurru by David Spillman and Lisa Wilyuka is an interesting short novel, not least because the collaborating authors represent the contesting cultures that the book is about: David Spillman is a non-Indigenous Australian and Lisa Wilyuka is an Luritja woman.
- Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey (with a Reading Australia teaching resource) deals with interpersonal relationships between different ethnic groups with great sensitivity and awareness. Craig Silvey is non-Indigenous, however the movie, Jasper Jones, was produced by Rachel Perkins, an Indigenous film maker.
- The Convent by Maureen McCarthy is about adoption and isolation, but all the protagonists are non-Indigenous.
- My Place by Sally Morgan (see the Reading Australia reference) is something of an Australian classic now, but it is well worth looking at the themes and concerns of this 1987 novel.
- The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina would make an interesting comparison, for even though this novel deals with an apocalyptic dystopia where racism is no longer an issue, Kwaymullina, like Jane Harrison, deals with very strong and topical themes from a particularly Indigenous viewpoint.
Students should watch the linked YouTube interviews with Kwaymullina by Shearer’s Bookshop and Get Reading, and make a list of the issues addressed by Kwaymullina. (She mentions climate change, human rights, torture, fear, loneliness and oppression.) Ask students to prioritise these issues in order of importance to themselves, personally. There is no need to share unless they wish to.
(ACELT1812) (ACELT1643) (ACELY1749)
Other texts, such as Coming of Age: Growing up Muslim in Australia by Amra Pajalic and Demet Divaroren, document other minorities’ struggles with similar issues (racism, isolation, identity, human rights, oppression and fear).
There are many films made, directed or produced, by Indigenous film makers. Amongst the ones that deal with issues similar to those in Becoming Kirrali Lewis are: Black Chicks Talking and Box the Pony (both by Leah Purcell), and the bleak and powerful film, Samson and Delilah, by the Indigenous director, Warwick Thornton.
These productions could be difficult to obtain for school use; however, Creative Spirits, lists them on their site which has a contact address.
Evaluation of the text
Jane Harrison’s first novel is a powerful, although somewhat disturbing representation of Australian culture. As increasing numbers of Indigenous writers are emerging from once colonised countries, this novel takes its place as an original and youthful voice expressing truths that need to be told. Combining both Indigenous and non-Indigenous voices into a single and continuous narrative gives this story an optimism that is appealing and, ultimately, hopeful.
Two options are provided. Students could do either, or the teacher could choose which task is more appropriate for the class.
1. Getting to grips with Discourse analysis
Students have already reflected on the various ‘stories’ that have constructed (influenced) their own reality.
- Create a PowerPoint presentation entitled, ‘Stories that have made Me’ to present to the class. In slides, go through the story of your own life, up to the present moment. The slides could include photos, captions, poems, newspaper headlines, short statements or paragraphs – or anything that reflects the life you have experienced and are experiencing.
- Create an accompanying explanation for each of the projected slides, explaining its significance to your life. You could begin by saying, ‘I was born into…’ and then proceed from there.
- Finally students need to create a finale statement that sums up in a few words, what it is they have just done. (An example could be ‘By showing you these slides, I hope I have demonstrated some of the important stories (influences, discourses, narratives) that have created/constructed (again, whatever word they choose) ME’.)
Note: Encourage students to be as creative as they wish for this enterprise. By checking the list under ‘Discourse analysis’ they will understand that they have been born into a wealth of stories: news headlines or even their pet rabbit may have constructed their reality in some way.
(ACELA1567) (ACELA1571) (ACELA1572) (ACELT1639) (ACELT1641) (ACELT1812) (ACELT1815) (ACELY1749) (ACELY1750)
2. Persuasive writing
Following on from the work students did in the Close Study section of this resource on the lack of media representation on commercial channels in Australia, students turn the rough list of points collated then into a letter that they are going to write to the commercial channel of their choice. In the letter they are to raise their concern about the issue of non-representation of minorities in that station’s content. They could write this as themselves, as the head of the Drama department of their school, as a member of the school community or as a representative of any interested community group.
(ACELA1564) (ACELA1566) (ACELA1567) (ACELA1568) (ACELA1569) (ACELT1812) (ACELY1749)
Rich assessment tasks
Creation of a magazine
1. Response to the text (receptive mode)
Continuing with the project of creating a magazine (as Amani Al-Khatahtbeh has done to give young Muslim women a voice and an identity) from the earlier Close Study section on identity and belonging, students create (or continue with their fledgling copy from the earlier section) a magazine to give young Indigenous Australians a voice and an identity.
This magazine needs to have four (4) obligatory components in this section (receptive mode) and one (1) in the following section (productive mode).
- a title
- a cover page
- a table of contents
Plus – one from the following list:
(Note: the Feature article and Opinionative column below are both linked to teacher guides).
- A Feature article. This could be on an issue raised by the class text, or any of the contextual issues studied in this unit – for example the Stolen Generation, Tent Embassy, 1967 Referendum – but try to link these themes to present day youth. Or they could write a feature article about an issue that concerns Indigenous youth today such as the disproportionate number of Indigenous youths in detention, educational and employment opportunities, Change the Date debate – or any other issue with teacher approval.
- An Opinionative column. Students to write a column for the magazine in which they give their own opinion on an issue, for example, any of those raised above, or perhaps something completely different but still pertaining to Indigenous issues, such as an opinion on the best way to teach Australian history: History texts or Literaure texts?
- A book review. Students write a book review on Becoming Kirrali Lewis by Jane Harrison, suitable for inclusion in a magazine for teenage readers
(ACELA1564) (ACELA1565) (ACELA1566) (ACELA1567) (ACELA1568) (ACELA1570) (ACELA1571) (ACELA1572) (ACELT1639) (ACELT1640) (ACELT1643) (ACELT1744) (ACELT1812) (ACELT1814) (ACELT1815) (ACELY1749) (ACELY1752) (AELY1753) (ACELY1754) (ACELY1756) (ACELY1757) (ACELY1776)
2. Response to the text (productive mode)
Using the same magazine format, students are to choose one (1) of the following options:
- Create an advertisement offering a training course for Indigenous students. Use the novel for ideas; for example, create an advertisement that a university might use to attract Indigenous school leavers to study Law, Drama or Political Science. Or students could (with teacher approval) construct advertisements for careers such as teaching, nursing, park rangers, etc. The advertisement is to be a full page of the magazine.
- Write an obituary for Charley from the point of view of Kirk or Cherie. In other words, an important and influential black activist that you know personally, (and in Cherie’s case, that you are emotionally involved with) has died and you (as Kirk or Cherie) are writing about his life. This is also to be part of the magazine.
- Write a short story/recount from the first-person perspective of either Kirrali or Kirk, reflecting on the assault and the emotions and fears faced when trying to come to terms with what happened. Of course, this short story needs a provocative title and is also to be part of the overall magazine.