This unit of work was created in partnership with The Garret and accompanies their interview with Anita Heiss. Please click here to access the Interview, Bibliography, Show notes and Transcript, and Author profile.
The following activities and tasks have been designed to be studied and used in full or in part, depending on teacher and student contexts. The activities have been formulated for use with a whole class or small groups; particular groupings being left up to the teacher’s discretion. All activities can be adapted to suit smaller groups or individual students. Activities are generally linked to particular sections of Anita Heiss’ interview, with the relevant portion of the podcast noted at the beginning of the activity. Other activities build upon and engage with the issues raised in the interview itself.
Getting to know the author, including:
- cultural background
- family, family history and relationships
- personal experiences
Activity one: Identity and a sense of self
This activity relates to 22.10 mins–23.40 mins of the interview.
Anita Heiss identifies as a member of the Wiradjuri clan. In the introduction to her memoir Am I Black Enough for You? she explains that, ‘Wherever I am in Australia or overseas I am always Wiradjuri. My connection is to my country, my people, the land my mob has always come from.’
- Begin this lesson by locating Wiradjuri country on the Indigenous map of Australia.
- Explain to students that for Aboriginal people the concept of Country goes well beyond simply describing a geographical area. It covers family and clan ties, language, Creation stories, rituals and ultimately the spirit of a place.
- Play to students a section of a podcast (1.50 mins–4.25 mins) on the Aboriginal concept of Country from the Radio National program AWAYE to illustrate the depth of Anita Heiss’ commitment to her country.
- Heiss’ most recent novel is Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms set on Erambie Station, an Aboriginal mission on the outskirts of the town of Cowra in Wiradjuri Country. Read selected excerpts from the novel and discuss with students whether they think that Heiss has successfully captured a sense of her place.
Activity two: Influences – the value of Indigenous autobiography
This activity relates to 6.30 mins–8.54 mins of the interview.
Anita Heiss lists many Australian writers, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who have been influential on her writing. However, she especially mentions Ruby Langford Ginibi’s autobiographical text, Don’t Take Your Love to Town (1989), as an example of an authentic record of Aboriginal experience. (See also the Reading Australia teaching unit available for this text.) She states that Indigenous autobiographies have value as ‘our history books’.
Provide students with an excerpt from Don’t Take Your Love to Town (e.g. pp. 118–120).
- Ask them to consider whether they get a real sense of the woman who has written this book and, if so, what elements of the writing have contributed to this?
- Ask students what aspects of this book might be considered identifiably Aboriginal? (e.g. events, characters; places; values expressed, and so on.)
- Ruby Langford Ginibi asked her publishers not to ‘gubberise’ her manuscript (i.e. not to make it read as if a white person had written it.) Students may be interested to explore the idea of Aboriginal English before returning to the excerpt from her book to decide what features of her use of language could be considered Aboriginal English. (For example, does her use of language sound more like speaking than writing? Is the structure more episodic than linear?)
- Debate with students the issue of ‘authenticity’. Can only Aboriginal people write about Aboriginal experience?
- Also propose to students the idea that not using ‘gubber English’ is the writer’s way of resisting the language of the invader.
- Overall, ask students whether they think that Ruby Langford Ginibi’s autobiography is a valuable alternative to a conventional history book.
Instruct students to:
Write a short account of a memorable event from your own childhood.
Reflect on the sort of ‘self’ that your account has constructed.
The writers’ journey, including:
- development of approaches, style and individual writing characteristics
- themes, issues and motivations.
Activity three: ‘Writing back’ against the centre
This activity relates to 16.40 mins–17.10 mins of the interview.
Anita Heiss says that when she was at university she noticed that all the books about Aboriginal people had been written by non-Aboriginal people. She says that this has motivated her to ‘write Aboriginal people into the literary landscape.’ She also says that, following the example of Alexis Wright in her novel Carpentaria, she wants to use fiction as a way of dealing with serious issues such as social justice, black deaths in custody and the Northern Territory Intervention policy and practice.
However, simply having Aboriginal characters in a novel is not enough to achieve the stated goal. In a Yarning Circle students should discuss these important aspects of fiction writing:
- creating Aboriginal characters who have interiority (how they think and feel) and agency (they take action);
- telling the story from an Aboriginal point of view;
- having Aboriginal characters at the centre of the story;
- using vernacular language for dialogue rather than ‘gubber’ English;
- structuring the story as a series of episodes rather than in a linear fashion.
Students are to re-write a short scene from Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005) involving a confrontation between the protagonist of Grenville’s novel, William Thornhill, and local Aboriginal people (see pp. 193–197). In doing so they should experiment with the storytelling strategies that they have discussed.
(Obviously this is a near impossible task, but in struggling with it students should come to appreciate what is involved in ‘writing-back’ against whiteness as the dominant paradigm in Australian literature.)
(ACELR038) (ACELR039) (ACELR040) (ACELR041) (ACELR049)
The writers’ craft, including:
- Editing and redrafting/rewriting.
Activity four: Anita Heiss’ writing ‘Method’
This activity relates to 27.15 mins–32.55 mins and 36.50 mins–40.02 mins of the interview.
Anita Heiss says that she begins writing a story with a synopsis of the plot which she can then expand into a final story. She describes her approach to character and setting as ‘immersive’. This can involve her actually taking on the role of a main character for a period of time and also physically visiting the places where she plans to set her stories. For example, she explains how, in order to create the character of Hiroshi, a Japanese POW, in Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, she travelled to Japan to talk to a professor who had interviewed many Japanese survivors of the Second World War.
Choose a real-life event from your own life involving a conflict of values or beliefs. Then, write an Author’s note (a synopsis) to explain how you plan to expand this event into a short story, using the conventional shape of a story: Orientation to Complication to Conflict to Climax to Resolution.
Identify the audience for your story (Heiss explains that she likes to write for women and Aboriginal people) and explain how you intend to position your readers to make a preferred reading of the story.
Create as fully as you can a description of your main character: appearance; actions; speech; values, etc. (It would be interesting, if time allowed, to try to use Anita Heiss’ method of living in character for a week or so to develop your character.)
Write as vividly as possible a description of the setting (the place) for your story. Write at least a paragraph to bring this place to life through appeals to readers’ five senses. Perhaps give the setting a metaphorical meaning to add a degree of subtlety to your story.
Activity five: Making it perfect
This activity relates to 40.30 mins–41.55 mins of the interview.
Both the interviewer Nic Brasch and Anita Heiss talk about receiving feedback from their editors about covers and titles, their treatment of material (one editor says that Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms sounds like Australian propaganda) and even word lengths.
Share your creative planning work from the three-part synthesising task above with a classmate and seek their feedback on areas such as:
- plot development of the initial event,
- character creation, especially of the protagonist,
- atmosphere and setting,
- the mechanical aspects of writing, including spelling and punctuation.
Comparison with other writers and texts
A number of other Indigenous writers have also engaged in Anita Heiss’ project of writing ‘Aboriginal people into the literary landscape’. For example, Leah Purcell has taken Henry Lawson’s bush classic, The Drover’s Wife, and transformed it into a stage play in which Lawson’s stock Aboriginal character (‘the stray blackfellow’) is now represented as a ‘real’ human being, the character Yadaka.
In his novel Taboo, Kim Scott has created Indigenous characters who have the power to act and to speak in their own voice. The novel contains a short, powerful scene (pp. 219–223) in which Aunty Nita confronts Dan Horton with an Indigenous counter-history of the place where his farm is situated.
Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria works within the conventions of the novel form but includes aspects of Indigenous storytelling and language use to make the novel accessible to Aboriginal readers and to resist a white point of view.
Alexis Wright’s biography of Tracker Tilmouth, simply called Tracker, is a very different biography from the conventional: comprising the ‘voices’ of those, both friends and foes, who knew Tilmouth well. The overall effect is to create a comprehensive profile of a very complex man. (This book won the 2018 Stella Prize.) See also The Garret interview with her.
Finally, Tony Birch creates detailed descriptions of place (see page 12 of Ghost River, for example) to give special resonance to settings for his human characters. There is also a Garret interview with Tony Birch available for students to listen to.
(ACELR037) (ACELR038) (ACELR039) (ACELR040) (ACELR041) (ACELR044)
Culminating rich assessment task
Anita Heiss says that she considers Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s (Kath Walker’s) book of poetry We Are Going as a classic. She says that it would be one of the few things that she would rescue if her house was on fire. This task is based upon the poem ‘We are Going’.
Download Rich Assessment Task (PDF, 105KB)