NOTE: Some students may find certain themes and ideas in Father’s Day confronting. The stories, however, are written sensitively and without graphic or overly emotional descriptions. For support around teaching sensitive texts, listen to the ‘Teaching sensitive texts’ episode of the VATE Village podcast featuring Nirvana Watkins and Emma Jenkins (29 April 2021).
Setting (Melbourne): connecting to Country and connecting to its history
A signature feature of Tony Birch’s writing is the candid and beautiful depiction of Melbourne’s cityscapes, flowing from Birch’s personal memories of growing up with the city as his playground.
Melbourne is increasingly being referred to by its Aboriginal name, Naarm, and is widely recognised as the unceded land of the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung people of the Kulin Nation. The Kulin Nation encompasses five nations – Wurundjeri, Boonwurrung, Wathaurong, Taungurung and Dja Dja Wurrung – whose lands extend around Port Phillip and Western Port, into the Great Dividing Range and the Loddon and Goulburn River valleys.
The Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation explains that the manna gum that grows along Birrarung (the Yarra River) is known as ‘wurun’, while the grub found on and around that tree is called ‘djeri’. Hence, the Wurundjeri are the ‘Witchetty Grub People’.
Connecting with the Aboriginal History of Yarra is an excellent teachers’ resource developed by Yarra City Council, complete with walking trail suggestions and videos featuring Aboriginal Elders. It would assist with a study of Birch’s background and viewpoint as an Aboriginal writer by building students’ knowledge of connection to Country, pre-contact Wurundjeri life, life after colonisation, and key dates in modern Aboriginal history (e.g. the 1967 Referendum, the Apology to the Stolen Generations). It would also boost students’ understanding of the modern Aboriginal community in Fitzroy in which Birch was raised.
Further information about the Fitzroy community, and Birch’s recollections of growing up there, is available as part of the Fitzroy History Society’s Oral History Project.
Recent focus on high-rise public housing in Melbourne (home to mostly immigrants and refugees) emerged from Melbourne’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Guardian has published a six-part series of stories about life in these flats.
Students can work in groups to research:
- Tony Birch, his background, and his perspectives on writing and on Aboriginality.
- This particularly poignant article from The Guardian – in which Birch reflects on his father’s death, their life in Fitzroy, and the surrounding community – would serve as a great introduction to the lives students will read about in Father’s Day (articles by and about Birch are prolific online; see More Resources for suggestions).
- The history of Melbourne and Fitzroy, using the above resources.
- The housing commission flats as representative of the experience of many immigrants and refugees settling in Melbourne.
What information can students find that speaks to the themes of this collection of stories? These may include:
- family relationships, specifically men with their families
- father-son relationships
- domestic violence
- mental illness
- addiction (alcohol and gambling)
- loss and trauma
- the refugee experience
- resilience and hope found through community connection
The deep connection to place (or Country) infused in Birch’s writing is, perhaps, indicative of his position as an Aboriginal author. Birch also connects with and represents a range of other sociocultural groups, from the marginalised and poor in general to men, sportsmen, Catholics, and members of the Academy. It is useful to remember that identities are complex and multi-dimensional, and that Birch’s writing can be celebrated for many reasons in addition to its Aboriginal perspective and voice.
Birch and award-winning photographer Jesse Marlow are contemporary Melbourne artists who share a deep connection with and love for the city. Birch wrote the foreword for Marlow’s book Second City, a collection of black and white street photographs taken from 1998–2004. Like Birch’s short stories, these photos are candid depictions of Melburnians ‘warts and all’, capturing poverty, crime and desperation alongside love, longing, friendship and human connection.
The photograph on the cover of Father’s Day was also taken by Marlow. It depicts an elderly gentleman standing at a public telephone booth with a cigarette. He is neatly presented but not affluent in appearance, with slightly mismatched clothing. It is possible that he comes from migrant background, perhaps a European country.
Discuss the image with students, drawing attention to key ideas:
- We rarely see phone booths now, but even when they were more widespread, they tended to be used more often by people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who could not afford their own phone connections (or whose phone lines had been ‘cut off’ because they could not pay their phone bills), as well as those who were mobile or transient (before the proliferation of mobile phones). Knowing this, how does the phone booth in the photograph contribute to an image of poverty or transience/displacement?
- What does the man’s body language suggest – is he relaxed, tense, worried, angry, sad, indifferent?
- The man in the image is solitary; do you think this is by coincidence or by choice? Do you imagine he has a family? Why/why not? If so, what might his relationship with them be like?
- Considering the reviews on the back cover (particularly those from The Age and Cate Kennedy), what does the choice of image suggest about the nature of the stories in this collection?
Personal response on reading the text
Before reading Father’s Day, have students set up a double-entry journal in their notebooks (divide a page in half) or electronically (create a two-column table). As they read, they will record key events and quotes in the left-hand column, and any questions, thoughts, personal responses, connections to their own experiences, and other ways they identified with characters or situations in the right-hand column. Guide students to look specifically for quotes and events that reflect the themes in Father’s Day.
Throughout the unit, give students time in class to add to their journals. You may wish to start them off with selected key quotes and the below reflection prompts (where appropriate) to model the process.
|Important events and quotes||Reading reflections|
|What questions do you have about this?
What is your initial reaction to this?
What thoughts come to mind when reading this?
Does this provoke any emotional response? (e.g. anger, sadness, nostalgia)
Can you connect this to your own life experiences? In what ways?
Do you identify with the characters or events depicted here? In what ways?
The following questions revolve around some key insights that Birch reveals in his 2009 conversation with Peter Mares (for ABC Radio National).
- Birch’s work has been described as ‘working class literature’ (01:24–01:32) and ‘a discussion of the underclass’ (01:42–01:57). He explains that he is attracted to writing about people who ‘exist on the margins of society’ (01:10–01:23). But he is at pains to point out that he does not write to be negative, or to see deficit in these characters and their lives; rather, he wants to celebrate the ‘underclass’ and give them value as complex people with complex and contradictory lives. Review the key characters in Father’s Day and reflect on how the reader may see them as complex and contradictory: good people in bad circumstances who still have value to add to the world. Pay particular attention to ‘Father’s Day’, ‘The Last Time I Saw Cherry’, ‘Gifted’ and ‘How Sweet the Sound’.
- Birch also notes that he wanted to write about characters who, despite being marginalised, ‘turn to each other rather than turn away’ (13:28–13:57), finding a friend or taking an opportunity to help someone out. Discuss examples of this in ‘The Tern’, ‘Two Men and Their Dogs’, ‘Cartography’, ‘Gardening for Pleasure’ and ‘The Day of the Hen’.
- Birch discusses the dark humour that is present in many of his stories, and how people often use it to cope with negative or challenging circumstances (06:43–07:30). Consider the instances of dark humour in stories like ‘How Sweet the Sound’, ‘Two Men and Their Dogs’ and ‘The Chocolate Empire’. Compare this to the more frivolous and random humour of ‘The Day of the Hen’, which Birch says is the most overtly humorous story in the collection, born from his observation of a hen running down the road that he extrapolated into a more chaotic scene (11:14–12:09).
- Birch reveals that the most autobiographical story in Father’s Day is ‘The Chocolate Empire’ (17:40–18:49). He explains that some of his most vivid memories are from his teen years, during which he experienced an unparalleled freedom: able to leave his childhood fears at home without having to grow into his adult responsibilities (19:29–20:50). Discuss key passages from this story that express the freedom and sense of adventure of being a teenager. How are these descriptions and images similar or different to students’ own experiences of being a teenager?
- Birch frames his collection with lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska (1982). The epigraph (p. vii) comes from the song ‘My Father’s House’, and there is a reference to ‘Highway Patrolman’ in the Acknowledgements (p. 181). Springsteen once revealed that he had a habit of driving past his childhood homes, which his psychiatrist theorised was an attempt to return to and repair a moment in time that had gone wrong. It has also been suggested that ‘My Father’s House’ represents Springsteen’s distant relationship with his father. With this in mind, discuss:
- the ways in which Birch’s characters try to reconnect with their families, and why – in the end – blood ties can remain some of the most important relationships of all.
- how, in some of the stories, blood ties keep people connected out of ‘duty’ when they might have otherwise rejected and deserted one another.
Personal connections with own experience
Due to the sensitive themes in this collection, it is not advisable to invite students to share their own experiences with poverty, addiction, mental illness and/or family breakdown (though some may still choose to share their personal connections to the stories). Before discussing these themes in class or inviting written responses, you should remind students of their responsibility to keep each other safe. This means that any discussion that suggests a student is at risk of harm cannot remain confidential (the wording of this counselling confidentiality poster may assist in your explanation).
You must also be mindful that students’ disclosures can be triggering for their peers. There needs to be an established process for students to seek time out from the class discussion if it feels unsafe for them. It is a good idea to remind them about your school’s support services and processes before you begin this unit. You can also utilise the protective interrupting strategy to prevent a student from disclosing private details in the classroom, and help them move to a private setting to explore their disclosure further.
In Father’s Day, themes around family relationships, marginalisation and isolation are central to the characters’ experiences. Students are to write a short analysis comparing the experiences of any one to two Father’s Day characters with those of one to two characters/speakers from any of the following collections:
- Growing Up in Australia edited by Black Inc. (highlights from Growing Up Asian, Growing Up Aboriginal, Growing Up African, Growing Up Queer and Growing Up Disabled in Australia)
- Paper Boats edited by Yasar Duyal
- A Chinese Affair by Isabelle Li
- Immigrant stories from the Immigration Museum
What similarities or differences are there in the characters’ family relationships? In what ways do each of the characters experience marginalisation and isolation?
Alternatively, if they choose to do so, students may write about their own personal connections and compare any of the characters from Father’s Day to people in their own lives (noting the above cautions about supporting and managing disclosures of harm).
Outline of key elements of the text
The stories in this collection can be studied together and compared according to plot, theme and character.
‘Father’s Day’, ‘The Last Time I Saw Cherry’ and ‘Made to Measure’
- Fractured father-son relationships
- How fractured relationships might be rectified:
- in ‘Father’s Day’ through the father’s role as a grandfather to Ben
- in ‘Made to Measure’ through the father’s act of tailoring a suit for his son
- in ‘The Last Time I Saw Cherry’ through the father taking his son out on Saturdays (although this backfires with the shooting of the racehorse)
- The different reasons for estrangement:
- in ‘Father’s Day’ and ‘The Last Time I Saw Cherry’ perhaps due to womanising and gambling
- in ‘Made to Measure’ perhaps due to the father’s illness
‘Two Men and Their Dogs’, ‘The Day of the Hen’, ‘Cartography’, ‘The Ward’ and ‘The Tern’
- The kindness of strangers, the willingness of characters to ‘turn to each other rather than turn away’
- The comfort animals can provide
- Men who are isolated by their commitment to their work:
- Ethan Callan in ‘The Ward’
- Jack in ‘The Tern’
- The refugee experience in ‘Cartography’ and ‘Two Men and Their Dogs’
‘Father’s Day’ and ‘How Sweet the Sound’
- The attempts of new generations to atone for the past and build different family relationships from those modelled to them
- Both fathers are keen to be present and to have rich and fulfilling relationships with their wives as equal partners (in contrast to behaviour they may have witnessed growing up)
- They want to be ‘better’ than their fathers, but they still have demons and hang-ups from their upbringing:
- having difficulty connecting with their children
- avoiding conflict and confrontation (as Stella, Chris’ daughter, points out about her father’s response to domestic violence in ‘How Sweet the Sound’)
‘Gifted’, ‘The Chocolate Empire’ and ‘Gardening for Pleasure’
- Mental health conditions
- Intellectual disability
- The vulnerability of those who are aged or homeless, or who have mental health conditions, particularly when there is no available family support
Photograph and vignette
A vignette is a short scene that captures a single moment in time – a memory, thought, hope or dream – or a defining detail about a character, idea or event. It may consist of a paragraph or two within a novel or short story, or it may be a fully-fledged chapter or short story in and of itself. In some cases it can act as a form of personal narrative.
A vignette often includes:
- A setting or background
- One or more characters
- Imagery and figurative language that provides vivid details to help readers visualise the story
For this task, students are to create a one- to three-paragraph vignette based on a photograph of their choosing. They should demonstrate the same observational skills and compassionate lens that Birch and Jesse Marlow use in their work. The purpose of this task is to emulate Birch’s writing style and his concern with the human condition and ordinary life, as described by Cate Kennedy on the back cover of Father’s Day.
Much like a photo, a vignette captures just one moment in time, so students do not have to start or end as they would a traditional narrative. Instead, they might begin in the middle of a scene and dive in with little backstory, placing the reader right alongside the character as the scene unfolds.
The vignette can be biographical, based on a real person in the student’s life, or fictional. Students may use their own image or refer to another photographer’s work, with appropriate acknowledgment. Inspiration may be found from:
- Photographer Jesse Marlow
- Photographer Chris Cincotta (@melbourneiloveyou or @humansinmelbourne)
- The National Portrait Gallery (including the National Photographic Portrait Prize and Little Darlings Youth Portrait Prize)
- The Archibald Prize
- The Australian Association of Street Photographers Street Beats exhibition
The writer’s craft
Birch admits that his stories do not all follow the same structure. Some have a traditional structure with a beginning, middle and end (‘The Day of the Hen’, ‘The Last Time I Saw Cherry’ and ‘The Chocolate Empire’), whereas others begin somewhere in the middle of a story or scene (‘The Ward’, ‘Made to Measure’); as Birch puts it, they ‘enter into the second act’ and ‘[end] before the last act’ (ABC Radio National, 15:23–15:38).
Concepts of time in First Nations cultures
Dr Helena Kadmos suggests that short stories afford a more open structure for authors to play with. This allows authors to step away from linear time to juxtapose disparate events and characters, as well as allowing recollections to be multi-storied, similar to how an event may be remembered differently by different participants (‘Re-Imagining Indigenous Australia through the Short Story: Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven’, Australian Literary Studies Volume 33, November 2018).
First Nations writers often create non-linear narratives that challenge the Western notion of time. Wiradjuri writer, poet and academic Jeanine Leane discusses this in relation to Guwayu, a collection of First Nations poetry that takes its title from the Wiradjuri word meaning ‘still and yet for all times’. Leane, who edited Guwayu, explains that the Wiradjuri language conceives of the past, present and future as happening all at once (para. 20–21 of this Folklife article), a concept that is echoed by other Aboriginal writers. Gomeroi writer and academic Amy Thunig talks about how the Dreaming can guide us through our past, present and future simultaneously and perpetually (Tell Me Again, p. 3; UQP teachers’ notes, p. 2). Meanwhile, Koori and Lebanese writer, teacher and researcher Mykaela Saunders points to the concept of simultaneous time when explaining how First Nations stories defy Western expectations of speculative fiction – the concept of time travel, for example, is only fantastical to people who experience time as linear in the first place (This All Come Back Now, pp. 9–10).
The Dreaming has no start or end: it is within us and within everything, unfixed in time. Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner (1905–1981) coined the term ‘everywhen’ to try to communicate this complex concept in his 1956 essay ‘The Dreaming’ (White Man Got No Dreaming, p. 24). Many First Nations people are guided by the Dreaming today, so it is not surprising that some Aboriginal authors also represent time in line with this philosophy, as opposed to Western notions of chronological time.
- In what ways does the short story structure support Birch’s aim of seeking out those who are marginalised, disconnected, estranged and/or isolated, and centring them for a moment in time?
- What effect does the ‘unfinished’ stories, which begin in the middle of the action and end before they’re fully resolved, have on the reader? Do these fit within the genre of vignettes or ‘slice of life’ stories?
- Do you agree that ‘The Day of the Hen’, ‘The Last Time I Saw Cherry’ and ‘The Chocolate Empire’ are more ‘traditional’ in their structure (with a beginning, middle and end)? Why/why not? Why are these best suited to a ‘traditional’ structure? What would happen if they were left incomplete, or if they began in the ‘second act’?
- There are two poems in Birch’s 2016 collection Broken Teeth that demonstrate the First Nations concept of non-linear time, with past, present and future existing simultaneously: ‘Beruk Watches Melbourne from the Sky – 1945’ and ‘Beruk Visits the Riverbed – 2005’. Which stories in Father’s Day lend themselves to a similar concept of time?
Naming the characters
Many of the characters in Father’s Day are nameless, so it is interesting to consider which ones Birch has named, almost as if to make them stand out or to link them to other characters’ key memories. Perhaps the anonymous characters are intended to be representative of ‘people like us’, so that readers can insert their own loved ones and acquaintances into the pages as they recognise them.
Discuss the following observations. Do students agree/disagree or have alternative ideas or theories about Birch’s naming choices?
- In ‘The Last Time I Saw Cherry’, only Cherry (the narrator’s father’s mistress) is named; she is the only character to go out of her way to show the narrator kindness as a sensitive young boy. The narrator, his disinterested father and his resigned mother bear no monikers and fade into the pages behind Cherry’s vigour and zest for life.
- In ‘The Day of the Hen’, the gangsters to whom the protagonist owes money, the lead ticket inspector and the hen are all named (perhaps as the characters with the most power in the story). Nonetheless, the significant act in this story comes from the nameless old man who gives the protagonist a train ticket to get him out of trouble with the inspectors. Similarly, in ‘Two Men and Their Dogs’, it is an unnamed old man who aids the non-English speaking Slavoj and his dog, refusing to give his name to the Housing Authority representative – who has a full name, Richard Thompson.
- The narrator of ‘Gifted’, who visits his brother Ray on his birthday, is unnamed. We learn about Michael, the narrator of ‘Made to Measure’, as he recalls his own birthday. His father remains unnamed as he slips away into another world – whether of mental or physical illness, we are not sure.
- Most of the other characters – friends, lovers, children, those in authority – are named, though this has little bearing on how likeable they are. Perhaps it is the characters who are disconnected, and seeking connection, who remain nameless in this collection.
Analysing the characters
Birch refers to his characters as complex, neither good nor bad. They are ‘Aussie battlers’ doing their best to make their way amid a multitude of challenges.
Quote analysis task
Students can consider the following key quotations, discuss what they reveal about each character, then provide another quote that offers a different perspective.
|Character/story||Key quotation||What this quote shows about the character||An alternative quote / perspective on this character|
|The father (‘The Last Time I Saw Cherry’)||‘My father had never been a man to confess to a full wallet.’ (p. 2)|
|Sonny (‘The Day of the Hen’)||‘He rarely said what he meant, although occasionally he said exactly what he meant. Knowing which was which was important to your state of wellbeing.’ (p. 17)|
|Chris’ mother (‘How Sweet the Sound’)||‘When I looked back at my mother’s bruised face she gave me the same stare she had presented to me since I was a kid – “let it be”.’ (p. 61)|
|Slavoj (‘Two Men and Their Dogs’)||‘But Slavoj didn’t want to complain to anyone. He wasn’t sure what ‘Client Services’ referred to but he did have the sense to know that he didn’t want to bring himself to their attention.’ (p. 96)|
|Ray (‘Gifted’)||‘Then he pulled a face of disappointment that he showed any time his private world was violated.’ (p. 115)|
|Writer (‘The Tern’)||‘And besides, we were men, so I said what is expected of men on such occasions. “You were out there working hard, Jack, for both of you. I’m sure she would have understood.”’ (p. 157)|
|The grandfather (‘Father’s Day’)||‘I looked at my father, and was surprised by the sparkle in his eyes. I could not remember seeing him so happy.’ (p. 174)|
Birch pays particular attention to Melbourne’s cityscapes and Birrarung, his childhood playground, using crisp and evocative language to describe scenes with action and tension. Discuss the following highlights in relation to Birch’s language choices and the setting and mood achieved.
|‘The Last Time I Saw Cherry’||The sentences describing what the narrator hears and feels during the last stretch of the race (p. 9, para. 6)
The sentences describing the sounds of the injured horse (p. 10, para. 2)
The paragraph where the horse is euthanised (p. 11, para. 4)
|‘The Day of the Hen’||The brutal reaction to the fare-evading kid (p. 21, para. 5)
The grim comparison of passengers to sheep (p. 23, para. 2)
|‘How Sweet the Sound’||The story of how Chris’ mum met Benny at the Chelsea RSL (p. 60, para. 1–3)|
|‘The Chocolate Empire’||The description of the school and its surroundings (p. 80, para. 2)
The description of how the river enticed the boys to wag school (p. 81, para. 6)
|‘The Tern’||The writer with writer’s block, who feels inhibited showing his true feelings in his talks with Jack, finally finds a release when he spots the Tern on a wintry day (p. 160, para. 7; p. 161, para. 2, 4–5)|
Language and style
As has been mentioned previously, Birch’s language is economical and precise: evocative without being overly descriptive or emotional. He cuts to the heart of characters, settings and stories with a crisp, rich and direct style, as well as a dark humour.
Consider the following humorous moments in Father’s Day and have students identify the writing techniques and language that create the humour:
|‘The Last Time I Saw Cherry’||The way Cherry wins the young narrator over (p. 6, para. 4)|
|‘The Day of the Hen’||The narrator’s thoughts on manual labour (p. 23, para. 3), why the cockatoo story is rubbish (p. 25, para. 4), and how the locked-up chicken feels (p. 27, para. 1), as well as the runaway hen scene (pp. 27–28)|
|‘Gardening for Pleasure’||Albie’s final remark, suggesting that his friendship with Martha is a little more meaningful to him (p. 48, para. 6)|
|‘Cartography’||When Miss Cantrell chastises Tom (pp. 50–51)|
|‘How Sweet the Sound’||The story of how Chris’ mum met Benny at the Chelsea RSL (p. 60, para. 1–3)|
|‘The Chocolate Empire’||The story of why Henry was expelled from his last school (pp. 80–81)|
|‘Two Men and Their Dogs’||When the dog urinates on Slavoj’s coffee table (p. 97, para. 3)|
Some of the themes explored in these short stories include:
- family relationships, specifically men with their families
- father-son relationships
- domestic violence
- mental illness
- addiction (alcohol and gambling)
- loss and trauma
- the refugee experience
- resilience and hope found through community connection
- Have students select three themes from the list above (or three of their own choosing) and discuss how Birch deals with them in three short stories from Father’s Day, using textual references to substantiate their analysis.
- Birch is particularly interested in men’s relationships with their families, as well as how these men become estranged through their own actions. Discuss the different expressions of fatherhood found throughout the collection:
|‘The Last Time I Saw Cherry’
‘The Chocolate Empire’
|Absent fathers (either because they are working or because they are out all day playing cards or gambling) who send money home to their wives for provisions.|
|‘Made to Measure’
|Absent but dutiful fathers/husbands.|
|‘Cartography’||An involved father who goes on his daughter’s field trip and becomes a father figure to another boy in the class.|
|‘How Sweet the Sound’
|Second generation fathers trying to create more functional families than those in which they grew up (not always successfully).|
- Discuss why Birch may have been motivated to explore themes around male identity and the role of men in family life. Do students think this remains an important topic for contemporary society? What are some of the challenges they have seen or read about in relation to fathers and male identity generally?
- Birch also concerns himself with characters on the margins of society: those living in poverty, those with a mental illness or intellectual disability, and those who are otherwise disenfranchised. Students are to select three such characters from Father’s Day and discuss how they are positioned as ‘outsiders’ living on the margins of their communities. Students should discuss the characters’ vulnerabilities as well as their resilience and strength, using textual references to substantiate their point of view.
As was discussed under Structure, some of the stories in Father’s Day are deliberately unfinished; Birch poses that they ‘enter into the second act’ and ‘[end] before the last act’ (ABC Radio National, 15:23–15:38). Students are to select one of these stories and write a one- or two-page ‘beginning’ or ‘ending’, either adding more backstory at the start or completing the story more fully at the end.
In addition to emulating Birch’s language choices, students should carefully consider the setting and context of their chosen story to ensure that their additions are in keeping with the characters, events and lifestyles Birch writes about.
Students may benefit from some tips on writing backstories before they begin.
Ways of reading the text
In his keynote address for the 2013 Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, Birch discusses how post-national fiction (especially that produced by Aboriginal authors) challenges national identity while also presenting a more universal story of humanity. He observes that global audiences have no stake in defending the popular white Australian national identity, and so are more receptive to exploring the multiple dimensions of ‘nation’ presented by Aboriginal writers (see para. 26 of his address).
Similarly, in ‘Postnational Hybridity in Sally Morgan’s My Place’, Lizzy Finn evaluates Palku and Nyamal writer and artist Sally Morgan’s acclaimed autobiography and its impact on the global literary stage. Finn posits that a post-national identity does not seek assimilation or homogeneity, but rather hybridisation and representation of multiple experiences (p. 15, para. 1).
At the same time, with its rich descriptions of place and detailed characterisation, Birch’s work has been described as ‘uniquely Australian’ by both The Sunday Age (see the back cover of Father’s Day) and Books+Publishing (see Birch’s novel The White Girl, shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2020).
- What are the predominant images, experiences, words and phrases used in the media and popular culture to sum up our national identity?
- Is Australia’s popular concept of national identity outdated or problematic? Describe how and why.
- In what ways can Father’s Day be considered both a challenge to Australian nationalism or national identity, and also uniquely Australian? Can this text be understood and appreciated by people of all ages, cultures and backgrounds in the Australian community?
- Read ‘The Australian publishing industry’s problem with class’ by Michele Freeman (published in Overland Issue 244, Spring 2021). Do you agree that the ‘larrikin lie’ permeates the Australian literary scene, resulting in narrow and simplistic depictions of working class people? Does Birch’s collection go any way towards addressing this and providing more complex characters?
There is a distinct lack of female voices and protagonists in this collection. We know that this is a deliberate choice on Birch’s part, as he set out to explore male relationships within families; nonetheless, his stories highlight important issues that impact women in our communities.
- Is the privileging of male characters detrimental to the female perspective in Father’s Day? Why/why not? Provide textual references to illustrate your point.
- Can the collection really be considered an exploration of the human condition without a strong thread of female voices and perspectives? Why/why not?
- Examine the female characters in Father’s Day. Are they stereotypes? To what extent are they in charge of themselves, their lives and the choices they make? How are they treated by the male characters? Consider:
- The narrator’s mother and Cherry in ‘The Last Time I Saw Cherry’
- Martha in ‘Gardening for Pleasure’
- Chris’ mum, Angel, Tess and Stella in ‘How Sweet the Sound’
- Jeanie Rizzo and Rita Cole in ‘The Chocolate Empire’
- Laura in ‘Father’s Day’
- Consider the following statement: ‘The women in Father’s Day are largely voiceless and are passive recipients of the consequences of men’s actions.’ Discuss this statement with reference to at least two stories and their respective female characters.
- Is the book sympathetic towards the position of women in society? Explain using textual references.
Comparison with other texts
‘Slice of life’ collections by and about First Nations peoples:
- Whisper Songs by Tony Birch – a poetry collection with teachers’ notes by UQP
- Dark as Last Night by Tony Birch – a short story collection that emphasises the perspectives of teens and children
- The Gods of Wheat Street and Redfern Now television series
Other writing concerned with the working class in Australia:
- Articles by Michele Freeman
- The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo (set in 1970s Melbourne around the tragic collapse of the West Gate Bridge):
- Gandolfo grew up in a working class migrant family in Melbourne; she comments on the representation of working class perspectives in her article ‘Unearthing the Stories of Australia’s Working Class’ (on Literary Hub)
- ‘Top Blokes: The Larrikin Myth, Class and Power’ by Lech Blaine (in Quarterly Essay Issue 83, September 2021)
- The Morality of Gentlemen by Amanda Lohrey (1984)
Consider how well Birch contributes to a growing body of Australian literature by and about working class families.
- Does he offer a significant contribution to this area of literature?
- Does his collection support a more empathetic view of the working class, and an understanding of the complexities of working class lives?
Evaluation of the text as representative of Australian culture
Consider some of the negative aspects of Australian culture, such as gambling, alcoholism and domestic violence (students may have touched on these as part of the Initial Response > Setting group research).
As has been noted, Birch did not want his characters to be presented negatively, but rather to be treated as people with value and complexity (ABC Radio National, 01:57–02:08).
- Does Birch’s writing provide a fair representation of Australian culture?
- Is Birch successful in raising important social issues without devaluing the people and communities he depicts?
Rich assessment task
This is a close text analysis (PDF, 122KB) focusing on the narrator’s visit with his father in ‘Father’s Day’, the final story in Birch’s collection. This excerpt provides a poignant conclusion to the book’s exploration of fractured family relationships revolving around dysfunctional men. It offers some insight into the complexity of the characters generally, while also offering forgiveness and a sense of hope that people’s flaws and mistakes can be overcome. In this way, the scene is somewhat redemptive; it reinforces the value of all humans, however flawed, and provides hope that we can all find ways to better ourselves, overcome our struggles and reach happier times.
NOTE: Consider whether this extract will work in your class context. The task can easily be adapted to focus on another section of text from a different story. The timeframes are based on a 70-minute exam period, but these can also be adapted to suit your students’ capabilities.
Synthesising core ideas
Students should review their double-entry journals from the Initial Response section of this unit (under Reading Reflections), in which they noted key events and quotes alongside questions, thoughts, personal responses, connections to their own experiences, and other ways they identified with characters or situations. Ask students to use three different coloured highlighters to mark the following in their journals:
- Two or three of the most impactful quotes, thoughts or personal responses from their reading of the collection.
- Any connections to their own experiences, ways they identified with characters or situations, and other connections to an Australian experience or identity.
- Places in their notes where they have revised their thinking or resolved questions. How has their thinking changed throughout this unit of study?
Students can share their answers to the first and third prompts in small groups, before sharing with the rest of the class.
Rich assessment task
Birch’s ultimate goal is to share the lives of those on the margins and highlight the complexities of the human condition: ‘good’ people do ‘bad’ things, and circumstances can influence what challenges you face and how you respond over the course of your life.
Students are to write an original short story (emulating Birch’s voice and style, where appropriate) that amplifies the voices of marginalised characters and helps the reader to understand and empathise with them.
Students can refer to their vignettes from the Initial Response > Synthesising Activity as a starting point for story development. Their character-based short story should feature the following:
- a clear link to the ideas, experiences or issues represented in Father’s Day, or a clear response to a question or gap in the collection
- an exploration of a character’s opinions, beliefs and perspectives
- a writing style that reflects knowledge of Birch’s linguistic and narrative techniques: simple and direct, yet descriptive and evocative in an understated way
Students will also produce a 500-word commentary or rationale that explains their authorial choices.
NOTE: Given the previous discussion of feminism and female perspectives (Significance > Feminism), this task presents an opportunity to explore a female character’s point of view.