Introductory activities


The text as a whole could be adapted to any Literature unit for Years 11 to 12 students, especially Heat, the collection of short stories told by different members of the Kresinger family, which is the first section of the text. The novella, Water, in the middle of the text could be taught in isolation in Year 10 but does include some sexual themes. The collection of short stories in the third section of the text, Light, while united under themes of identity, freedom and belonging, could also be taught individually. ‘Paddles, Not Oars’ and ‘Currency’ in particular, would resonate with Years 9 to 10 readers: the former as an exploration of a teenage boy living with his mum and yearning for connection with his father, and the latter following an instantly likeable ‘Aussie battler’ family with an Aboriginal father facing discrimination everywhere they travel (e.g. refusal of service, difficulty getting a job).

About the author

Ellen van Neerven is a Mununjali Yugambeh writer from South East Queensland. The Yugambeh people are a group of clans who are the traditional owners of the Logan City, Gold Coast, Scenic Rim, and Tweed City regions in South East Queensland. The Mununjali clan is from the Beaudesert region of the Scenic Rim. Queensland and northern NSW Aboriginal peoples sometimes also refer to themselves as ‘Murri’ a contemporary collective name spanning all clans and language groups (just as the collective colloquial term for Aboriginal peoples of NSW and Victoria is ‘Koori’). Ellen also has Dutch heritage.

Ellen’s first book, Heat and Light (UQP, 2014), was the recipient of the David Unaipon Award, the Dobbie Literary Award and the NSW Premier’s Literary Award: Indigenous Writers’ PrizeHeat and Light was also shortlisted for the Stella Prize, the Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance, and the Readings Prize.

Ellen’s second book, a collection of poetry, Comfort Food (UQP, 2016) was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award: Kenneth Slessor Prize and Highly Commended for the 2016 Wesley Michel Wright Prize.

Until 2016 Ellen was the Managing Editor of black&write!, an Indigenous writing and editing project hosted by the State Library of Queensland. Her experience as a student of creative writing at university and as an editor has heavily shaped her writing style: ‘My grammar and economy of language had been hardened from university, and my instincts sharpened from my training as an editor.’ (Neerven, E, 2015. ‘Kindness and Failure: the journey of writing Heat and Light’.

Discussion points:

Heat and Light draws on the author’s experience of Indigenous identity and connection with Yugambeh land in the South East Queensland region. Refer to the interactive language map with associated videos by local traditional custodians.

Note that the author’s finely honed crisp, evocative writing style and ‘economy of language’ will be discussed during this unit. For example, in the first story, Heat, Amy is told by a local shopkeeper that her real grandmother was Pearl, the sister of Marie whom she had grown up believing was her grandmother. Amy describes how she and her father react to the news of who her real grandmother was:

I tug at the traffic all the way back to the city, and quickly go into the house I grew up in. I find my father – on the back stairs, painting – who denies everything the old lady has told me. He spills paint three times on his boot, so I know I have to go back. (p. 5)

Van Neerven describes this dramatic revelation in such a simple yet elegant way, expressing a whole range of emotions and ideas in a few words.

Cultural and historical understanding

It is difficult to read texts by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors without considering the cultural, historical and sociopolitical references inevitable in the texts. Alice Healy-Ingram writes about teaching texts by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors as a non-Indigenous educator and makes the point that, ‘Indigenous writing is necessarily political, whether the purpose is to speak back to past colonial injustices or to offer a more affirmative celebration of Indigenous people…’ [Healy-Ingram, A. (2011), ‘Teaching Indigenous Literature: an ethics of voice’, in Doecke, Brenton, McLean Davies, Larissa and Mead, Philip (ed.) Teaching Australian literature: from classroom conversations to national imaginings. Wakefield Press.]

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ experiences of life after 1788 can largely be divided into the eras of protectionism, assimilation and self-determination under Commonwealth and State Government policies. Much of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature explores the effects of all of these eras in some way (often noting the effects on families in cycles of trauma, or ‘intergenerational trauma’).

Provide students with information on the following key ideas. This could be divided up among groups of students in a jigsaw activity: students have an initial ‘home group’ of six members, who disband to re-form six ‘working groups’. After they complete and share the research about their topic within their working group, they return to their initial home group, where they teach their peers about their own topic. (Numbers of topics or groups may be changed to suit class numbers and the needs of individual cohorts.)

This activity may serve as an initial assessment activity, specifically evaluating research, collaborative and communication competencies, particularly for Essential English students if you are teaching in combined classes.
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Key ideas

1Post-1788 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history

Students should research and develop a basic understanding of the eras of protectionism (missions), assimilation and self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people under Australian law.

Suggested resources are:

Draw out from discussions some understanding of how past interactions between government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have affected people and families right up until today, including impairing connections to culture, altering way of life, and resulting in trauma (e.g. cycles of abuse leading to alcoholism, crime, mistrust of authority).

2. Diversity of cultures and histories

Australia is made up of different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups. Though these groups are similar in many ways, they have some different cultural customs and languages too (see the Aboriginal Languages Map). Some groups know more about their traditional culture and language than others due to the impact of colonisation. In heavily colonised areas, many Aboriginal groups have lost a lot of traditional knowledge, or they have some stories and memories but limited language. A lot of this is being re-learned from records that European anthropologists took in the early days of colonisation. In more remote places, where less colonisation occurred, groups have been able to maintain a lifestyle very close to traditional customs, but children learn how to function in both Aboriginal and Anglo-Australian ‘worlds’.

Ask students to view and compare two Indigenous resources: one from a remote community that lives more ‘traditionally’ and one from an urban environment. If at all possible, invite local Aboriginal guest speakers into the school, visit a local cultural centre, or access web/book resources about local groups.

For example, learn about the Yolngu culture and way of life through the Twelve Canoes digital resource and accompanying study guide. Compare it with your local culture. Or you could look at the Awabakal culture of Aboriginal people in the Hunter/Newcastle region, through the Miromaa Aboriginal Language and Technology Centre, who are reconstructing and re-teaching Awabakal language. Direct students particularly to the creation stories (including Biame, ‘god’); possum skin cloaks history (especially interesting as possums are protected under the Wildlife Act 1975); and terminology.

It is important that students do not take away the message that one group is superior to another, or that a group who seem to have less access to traditional cultural knowledge is in any way inferior or not ‘real Aboriginal people’. There is a strong cultural identity in both contexts; however, they are very different depending on their experiences of colonisation. The urban Aboriginal groups still feel a sense of connection to and pride in culture; they are not ‘assimilated’ into European culture and society.

3. Sexuality of Aboriginal women

Our colonial history reveals a complex relationship between settlers and Aboriginal women. There was a view among the settlers that Aboriginal women were merely chattels to their Aboriginal male husbands/masters (perhaps because they were often beaten and treated roughly) that seems to have resulted in the settlers taking similar liberties. A low female settler population meant that sex was a valuable commodity. Much has also been written about the exoticism attributed to Aboriginal women, and how they were both feared and guiltily desired by settlers. Sexual assault was also, as in most contexts, an important mechanism of control within the frontier wars: rape is a common war strategy. A good teacher resource for background on this subject is a 2008 Honours thesis by Amy Humphreys, ‘Representations of Aboriginal Women and their Sexuality’, as is Nicholas Clements’ The Black War: Fear, Sex and Resistance in Tasmania (UQP, 2014).

The idea of ‘black skeletons’ in the closet is another aspect of colonial history – babies born from these illicit cross-cultural liaisons would pose a threat to family ancestry due to the prevailing view of the time that Aboriginal people were an inferior race; therefore, true identity and connection to culture would be denied.

4. Lesbian history in Australia

As many of the main characters throughout Heat and Light are not only Aboriginal but lesbian, it is worth students comparing the marginalisation of Indigenous Australians with that of the LGBTQI community (even, in itself, the evolution of names from homosexual to gay and then gay and lesbian; to gay, lesbian and transgender, to now being referred to as lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer/questioning and intersex).

Andrew Gorman-Murray explores the distinct lack of academic historical research into these communities. Of particular note to students reading Heat and Light is that the legislation around homosexuality has traditionally always been concerned with legislating against male homosexual relations. This is often seen as a product of the history of marginalisation of women – lesbians were simply ‘invisible’ in the public sphere due to the fact of being women. As awareness and acceptance has grown, it has reinforced society’s inequitable treatment of males and females: for example, the AIDS epidemic and subsequent awareness campaigns, vigils and commemorations were public displays of growing acceptance of gay men while lesbian women remained silenced in the margins.

Resources for discussion include:

Culminating discussion

Students should be supported in discussion to make some general reflections on what they have learned so far on:

  • the role of storytelling in maintaining connections to culture
  • modes of storytelling – elders passing on stories, songs, ceremony, art
  • what ‘connection to country’ means for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • how different Aboriginal and Islander groups may have different contemporary cultures due to their experience of colonisation
  • how the impacts of colonisation have continuing implications for family histories, confused identities, isolation, disadvantage
  • the ways the history of gay and lesbian rights activism and legislation in Australia mirror the themes of Indigenous disadvantage and how the intersecting identities of ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Lesbian’ position a woman in Australia.

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Personal response on reading the text

Students can complete the following questions individually and in class discussion: Stella prize study notes.

Set up a double-entry journal with students before reading and ensure there is time in class to add to the journal throughout the unit. In the double-entry journal, students rule a page in their book in half (or create a two-column table electronically) and they enter key events and quotes in the left-hand column as they read. In the right-hand column they enter questions, thoughts, personal responses and connections to their own experience, and identification with characters and situations.
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Guide students to look specifically for quotes and events that reflect the themes of the texts within this collection of writing. You may like to provide some key sections for them to add to their journals and discuss in class, such as those suggested in the Key quotations and discussion points guide (PDF, 138KB), which includes a discrete activity relating to the short stories in Light that could be used in a standalone study of that section of the book.


Outline of key elements of the text


The text is divided into three parts: Heat, Water and Light. It is structurally unusual in that the three parts are quite separate and, while Heat and Light are collections of short stories, Water takes the form of a single novella. From a publishing perspective, it is striking to see a book break the standard form in this way, but it offers wonderful opportunities to study the text in a variety of ways and at various levels of student ability.

The stories collected in Heat revolve around the Kresinger family, and are narrated by various family members at different times in their personal history. Amy is the daughter of an Aboriginal man, Charlie, and a Greek woman, Lena, who died when Amy was young. Charlie had been brought up as Marie and Griffin’s son alongside their children, Irma and Peter, but he was really the illegitimate son of Marie’s sister, Pearl. Griffin was an Aboriginal man who had been adopted into a white family. He became estranged from them when he married Marie because she was an Aboriginal woman. Marie and Griffin’s daughter, Irma, had an illegitimate son to an Irishman, Colin. Colin and Amy, although growing up together at the Kresinger homestead as cousins, become estranged as adults when Colin chose to abandon his Aboriginal heritage.

Water is a speculative fiction novella that imagines a future Australia where Aboriginal rights have advanced in certain ways – phones are searched for racial violation and their owners can be jailed for such violations; social media is banned; Aboriginal spirituality is the most popular religion on the census; Australia has become a republic and adopted a Jessica Mauboy song as the national anthem; and a new flag mashing together Australian, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags has been created. However, with Aboriginal art becoming so heavily commodified there is a new industry of ‘slaves’ in art galleries and the children of artists being ‘enlisted’ to follow their footsteps. The new prime minister’s misguided idea to return sovereignty and land ownership to Aboriginal people is to create a new island called ‘Australia 2’ and invite Aboriginal people to apply to live there. Then there is the matter of the ‘plantpeople’: a new hybrid race created out of science experiments but with links to Aboriginal ancestry. These are the new marginalised group who are dehumanised and controlled by the government in a similar way to the previous mission era in Australia.

The stories of Light, on the other hand, are linked thematically, looking at the desires of young people both to belong and to assert their own individuality. ‘Paddles, not oars’  is  an exploration of a teenage boy living with his mum and yearning for connection with his father, and ‘Currency’ follows an Aussie battler mixed-race family with an Aboriginal father who faces discrimination everywhere he and his family travel (e.g. refusal of service, difficulty getting a job). ‘Sound’ is a rather chilling exploration of a family broken by a history of violence and the mental illness of the protagonist’s brother. Jodie starts to piece together a relationship of sorts with her brother, David, through his partner, Sarah. Sarah and Jodie embark on an affair which makes the relationship with David all the more difficult. There is reference to a violent past and Jodie worries about Sarah’s safety. The story ends when she arrives at their house to find him having some kind of mental health episode and preparing to bury their dead dog (with the implication that he has killed it).



There is no main character and Heat is told from a number of different Kresinger family members’ points of view. This will be further examined in the Close Study section of this unit. However, one character whose absence means her point of view remains untold, is Pearl.

Pearl is a key character in Heat who has a significant impact on all who encounter her. Wild and unpredictable, Pearl would be the only one who would go outside during a cyclone, exhilarated by the wind and unafraid of nature’s fury. She became an outcast from her community when she electrocuted her brother during a storm: ‘The others ran for shelter and Pearl stood there and let it lift her, she went into the electricity wires and they curled into each other like lovers as she was jolted. Her brother moved to her lifeless body and she touched him, and he took her place.’ (p. 4)

Pearl embodies the Aboriginal exotic trope and the stereotype of a woman whose lure men cannot resist: a woman doomed to always be an object of desire, both a powerful and vulnerable position. She is attacked by a group of men who frequented the roadside diner she worked in, and it is narrated to us in a way that implies its inevitability:

  • ‘Jimmy told Pearl it would be best for her not to come out while they were there. “Bad men,” Jimmy said to her. “But they’re half my business.” Pearl didn’t listen, of course, and one day when they were talking about wildfowl she went out and sat down at their table.’ (p.8)
  • ‘She always wore her [duck] call around her neck, between her breasts, so the men couldn’t help but notice it.’ (p. 10)
  • ‘”Show us again”, Bandit said firmly. They made her draw the call until her eyes teared up.’ (p. 11)
  • ‘One cloudy day when Jimmy wasn’t around the men called Pearl out of the back. “Let’s go out to the lake,” they said. “A good day for it, ducks like getting wet.” The lake was a dark place in town folklore, a sinkhole for small children and women…They told Pearl she had to come along.’ (pp. 13–14)
  • ‘Pearl turned to me and acknowledged me for the first time. “Can you come?”…That’s when I knew what was going to happen explicitly. They were going to take her there, away from the protection of the store and Jimmy and they were going to attack her.’ (p. 14)
  • ‘I found Pearl lying on the ground a long way from the lake. She had called me there with her whistle. She looked half-dead.’ (p. 19).

Later in the story we hear that Pearl also had an affair with her sister Marie’s husband, Griffin, just before giving birth to her illegitimate son. It is described in van Neerven’s crisp, simple and unsentimental writing style. Soon after Pearl gives birth, she leaves the baby with Marie and disappears. Marie and Griffin carry on as if nothing happened (pp. 50–51). It is interesting to ponder why Pearl was not expected to take responsibility for her baby. In fact, early in the story we are told: ‘It had been understood from the very beginning that Marie would take the child.’ (p. 15). Was there an assumption that Pearl was so broken, untamed or otherworldly that she simply couldn’t/wouldn’t look after the baby properly?

Van Neerven plays with a number of stereotypes about Aboriginal women in the characterisation of Pearl, and the reader’s response to this character would be interesting to explore. Why is Pearl characterised in this way? What does she represent about our history of settler-Aboriginal relations? Is it the author’s intent to draw a character that represents this shared history? Where does this leave Pearl’s granddaughter, Amy, who is depicted in a similar light and in a way that almost suggests it was her fate to be like Pearl?

Other characters who have all experienced their Aboriginal identity very differently in Heat include: Colin, Mia, Griffin and Charlie.


Kaden is the daughter of a famous Aboriginal artist who killed himself due to dealing with the pressure of his fame. She takes a government job delivering rations to the plantpeople. She has an illicit affair with Larapinta, one of the leaders of the plantpeople, and then learns that her family ancestry connects with the plantpeople’s and agrees to go underground to sabotage the government’s operations. Kaden is a righteous and intelligent character who thinks deeply about Larapinta and the plantpeople and challenges the government workers about unethical practices. (p. 94)

‘Paddles, Not Oars’, a short story in Light

Kela is a teenager with a single mum doing it tough. His father is Aboriginal and he longs to connect with him and learn from him – he would have been initiated by now – but his mum is afraid he will ‘get out of control’.

‘Currency’, a short story in Light

Park is an Aboriginal man with a wife, Blue, and young son, Connor. Park provides for his family as best he can despite the difficulty he has finding jobs due to racism: ‘Connor is hungry, and Park reaches into his pockets and passes Blue a small nectarine. The habit of Park to carry fruit with him never ceases to amuse Connor and his mother.’ (p. 187)  Park is cautioned about his destination, Boom, in a petrol station: ‘You got to know it’s a lot different out there. Not what you’d expect.’ (p. 188) But Park is unfazed, and carries on. They stop in a small town where Park is refused service: ‘The man refuses to serve him. Park feels humiliation grow on his cheeks. The other people in the bar look over at him with a roughness in their eyes, stopping him from tempering over.’ (p. 190) Despite this rejection, when a local down the street stops to chat, and asks for a cigarette, Park willingly shares: ‘Park reaches into his pocket and under-arms the man the packet…He lights up and waves, before he starts back into the mill, whistling as he goes.’ (p. 193)


Synthesising activity

Personal connections with own experience 

Across Heat, Water and Light the themes around identity and belonging are central to the characters’ experiences. Students are to write a two-page analysis comparing how identity and belonging have been experienced in any of the stories from Heat and Light with their own family stories.

Students can ask relatives about their own family histories and find out how identity and belonging played out in their family. The following question points may assist this investigation:

  • How do their families explain their family trees? Is there any aspect of culture or history particularly emphasised in their family’s identity? (e.g. Scottish background and clan tartans; Greek Orthodox religion and language; Aboriginal ‘country’, clan and totem)
  • Was there an experience of racism or marginalisation in their family history, perhaps as immigrants to Australia, ‘£10 Poms’, or as a result of political conflict in their home countries?
  • Was there a liaison with someone of different race/religion/background that was not accepted by the family and resulted in estrangement?
  • Was there a family ‘curse’ believed to be passed down through the generations?
  • Was there a change in family circumstances brought about by government policy? (Stolen generation; Chinese Migration Act; Immigration Restriction Act or the White Australia policy? World War II Nazi control of Germany – persecution of Jews and anti-German sentiment in Australia?)

For some students and families this can be too confronting to discuss. An alternative task can be for students to compare the ways in which identity and belonging are played out in Heat and Light compared to short stories in some of the following collections:

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The writer’s craft


In Helena Kadmos’ ‘Re-imagining Indigenous Australia through the Short Story: Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven’ (Journal of Australian Literary Studies Volume 33, Nov 2018), it is observed: ‘The narrative time of Heat is not linear – the stories jump back and forth in time. This irregular chronology is consistent with the short story cycle’s convention of juxtaposing disparate events and characters, focusing the reader’s attention on themes developing throughout (Hernáez Lerena)’. This play with chronological time allows greater emphasis on impact, and how experiences, including some that are shared, are felt and remembered differently by individuals. For Neerven, these possibilities opened up by the short story cycle form reflect ‘the way the retrospective looks, the unevenness of it’.

The short stories in Light also move away from the traditional arc structure, often starting in the middle of a narrative and ending without full resolution.

Discuss and answer the following questions:

  1. Why is Heat structured the way that it is? What possibilities are offered by changing the narrative point of view, and moving in a cyclical way through different family members’ memories?
  2. In what ways do you think the ‘short story cycle’ is a particularly useful structure in an Aboriginal narrative?
  3. What is the effect of the short stories in Light being ‘unfinished’ and sometimes lacking the initial orientation/context and background?

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Approaches to characterisation and setting

We have discussed Pearl in Heat as an archetype of the exotic Aboriginal female, irresistable to men, which is both a power and a curse, making her vulnerable. Pearl’s Aboriginality is also expressed through her affinity with the wind that almost characterises her (wild and unpredictable, dangerous). Pearl’s granddaughter, Amy, who narrates the beginning of the story, is presented similarly as a wandering and wild, impulsive woman. The through lines interweaving Amy and Pearl’s narratives serve to explore the impact of family history on future lives.

The characters narrating Water and Light are, for the most part, Aboriginal, female and lesbian. Bill Holloway in his review of Heat and Light in The Australian Legend, observes that the weaker stories have a male protagonist and have less of a sense of place.

Helena Kadmos reflects on the time periods in which the stories are set: ‘Heat, a short story cycle of five interlinked stories, is the past; Water, a section comprising one long story, is the future; Light, a traditional collection of short stories, is Queensland, the author’s home state, in the present.’

It is no accident that the stories in Light are set in the present, juxtaposed against the past experiences of intergenerational trauma in an Aboriginal family and a future re-imagining of race relations in Australia. The somewhat lost, searching and half-formed characters of Light are, like Amy in Heat, current living reminders of the continuing impact of colonial practices on Aboriginal families. The continued experiences of racism in some of the stories also remind us that we are not yet free from our past; nonetheless there is also a joy and exuberance in some of the characters in recognition of Aboriginal peoples’ resilience in moving forward. The future represented in Water is no happy ending, and represents a cynicism that history will repeat itself.

Discuss and answer the following:

  1. In addition to the Pearl-Amy connection in Heat, in what ways do the characters’ experiences (Marie, Griffin, Charlie, Colin) impact on future lives?
  2. Do you agree that the stories with male protagonists (‘Paddles, Not Oars’ and ‘Currency’) are the weaker stories? In what ways are they (or are they not) weak? How does the lack of connection to place impact these stories?
  3. Why has the author chosen to depict a past, future and present set of stories in that order? In what ways does representing the stories about people in present-day Australia at the end of the book make these stories more powerful? In what ways is this selection of stories, and selected order, a commentary on where we are currently at with race relations?

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Point of view and voice

Heat begins in the first-person narrative from Amy’s point of view, interspersed with the memories narrated by Amy’s grandmother, Pearl’s former co-worker. It then shifts to a third-person narrator in the chapter ‘Soil’, although Amy remains the protagonist. In the chapter ‘Hot Stones’, Amy’s cousin, Colin, narrates the story from his point of view; an indirect response to Amy’s judgements of his decision to stop identifying as Aboriginal.

The next chapter, ‘Skin’ returns to a third-person narrator and Marie and her husband Griffin are the focus as they raise Peter and Irma and then take on Pearl and her baby, Charlie. The title is significant as Marie is the matriarch of the family around whom everyone’s culture, identity and ‘skin’ connection is dependent. Skin colour also changes each member of the family’s experience of being Aboriginal, as those who are of mixed heritage and have lighter skin have a different experience to those with noticeable Aboriginal physical features.

The final chapter, ‘Crash’ is told by a third-person narrator but the protagonists change to Charlie, his wife Lena and his love interest, Janet. Charlie’s life as an adopted son remaining with kin can be compared with Griffin’s life as an adopted son raised by a rich white family whom he becomes estranged from when he returns to his people to marry Marie. The strength of Marie’s leadership in the family is highlighted in the way in which Charlie is a proud Aboriginal activist who has no doubt about his identity; however, the inevitable genealogy tying Charlie and Amy to Pearl is the last idea we are left with: ‘On stormy nights they both dreamt intensely, violently – they often drowned. Charlie realised it had always been like this, even before Lena had passed. It so happened that particular summer delivered a record number of storms in the south-east, more than any other year. He gazed at his daughter twitching in her sleep as the wind yowled outside.’ (pp. 64–65)

Water is told in first-person from Kaden’s point of view as the Aboriginal woman working for the government to manage the plantpeople.

Discuss and answer the following:

  1. Why does the author choose to start Heat from Amy’s point of view in the first-person? She is a shocking and outrageous character: does this disadvantage the family’s story by privileging her at the centre? How would it be different if the whole story was told by a third-person narrator?
  2. The only points of view conveyed in the first-person in Heat are Amy’s and Colin’s. What is the significance of this?
  3. In what ways does the ending of Heat allow us to return to the point of view of Amy and her connection with Pearl? Whose voice are we ultimately left with?
  4. Would Water have been more powerful if told from Larapinta’s point of view? In what ways? Would Water have been as powerful if told by a third-person narrator?

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Language and style

Van Neerven credits her experience as an editor with developing her ‘economy of language’ and sharpening her use of writing techniques. There is a simple elegance to her writing that is breathtaking, and several readings brings more to light about the layers of meaning she creates. Use some of the examples of note that are provided in the language and style discussion guide (PDF, 476KB) to explore these features in group discussions, then share with the whole class.
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Text and meaning

Identity and belonging

Comprehension and analysis task

Students can complete the following table summarising the different experiences of identity and belonging in Heat. The table is partially filled, with an example analysis for one of the characters.

An extension task could be included by adding to the table with characters from Water and Light.

Character  Circumstance  Quotes  Analysis 
Amy Kresinger Brought up by father, Charlie, after mother died when young. Father has strong connection to his adopted mother (his aunty), whom he has always referred to as a mother and as Amy’s grandmother. ‘I am like my grandmother Pearl. I am a strong black woman, and love comes too easy for me. There is always someone to drown. I have those Bundjalung eyes, too.’ (p. 8)

‘I don’t want to be the person who catches the hearts of many’ (p. 10)

[Interesting to note the patterns here – Amy has a boyfriend but routinely has one night stands with women. Pearl was similarly desired by many and to our knowledge never married but had many liaisons. Amy’s father married her mother, Lena, but remained involved in an unresolved love story on and off through the years with Janet, who married someone else – ‘Charlie hadn’t made a decision between them in his heart, and he wasn’t about to. Lena said it was because he was a Libran.’ (p. 63)]

‘I initially rejected the thought of Pearl being my grandmother…I wanted eventually to be the baking biscuits type, like Aunty Marie; I honestly believed I would get there one day.’ (p. 12)

Charlie Kresinger Amy’s father. Brought up by aunt, Marie, after mother, Pearl, left him with her at birth. Pearl perhaps decided she was unfit to care for him; she was a lost soul. We do not know who his father was. ‘So much is in what we make of things. The stories we construct about our place in our families are essential to our lives. My father still won’t say anything about it. He refuses to admit that Pearl is his mother…I guess he doesn’t want to know that his mother didn’t want him, and all of the other things she was. But I think she was a fighter. I think there is a lot of struggle in our family and she has passed on that strength…she deserves to be a part of our family’s history.’ (p. 19)

‘He was shaped by his parents. He said about his father: “He was from a rich family. But they gave him away when he married his own kind. They raised him white and the moment he remembered he was black, the moment he tried being himself they left him.” About his mother: “The strongest woman I’ve ever met. She would do anything for us.”…When he talked about being a spokesperson for his mob he often said: “My ancestors died for me to have this right.”‘ (p. 59)

Griffin Kresinger Charlie’s father. Adopted by a white family and never knew his birth family. Married Marie Kresinger, moved to the Kresinger homestead when her father was dying, and interestingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly)  gave their children, Irma and Peter, the Kresinger name. ‘His father was a doctor and his mother was a nurse and they had wanted to go with him, but that night they were both working and Griffin had said, insisted, that he didn’t need them there.’ (p. 41)

‘He saw a light in a park. There was an Aboriginal family grouped together, food cooking over a fire, and he was hungry…Marie, fifteen, was the one prodding the fish with a stick…That image marked his life. Marie, a dust-coloured girl, fed him fish in a park…[he was] Brought back to life by these first few bites…’ (p. 42)

‘This was their territory, Griffin understood; they didn’t need a sign or paperwork…These muscly dark boys pushed the car down the street to the service station…the fellas shook his hand and said, “Come over here anytime. You know where we are.” One of them stood forward for the group and said, “You like our sister, eh?” Griffin felt his face turn plum. “If you hurt a sister of ours, there’ll be trouble.” They exchanged wild smiles.’ (p. 42–43)

‘Marie’s family made sure there was no chance he was related, and they weren’t breaking any rules of kinship. It was a two-year courtship, in which time they were never left alone together, even chaperoned to the cinema by Marie’s Aunty…This brother had told Griffin, just before the wedding, that he was part of the family now.’ (pp. 43–44)

Adopted out of his Aboriginal culture, it could be suggested that Griffin was ‘hungry’ to know his true identity and experience his true culture. Meeting with Marie’s family, being included, and being fed may have been satisfying not only his immediate physical hunger but the yearning that had lived dormant within him to connect with ‘his own kind’. In this way, Marie had brought him back to life by reconnecting him to his cultural background.

It is also interesting the way in which the Kresinger family so willingly embrace and include Griffin – albeit while still remaining firmly in control. They freely help him and feed him – a complete stranger – and they allow him to date Marie; however, he knows he is in their territory and that he must treat Marie well or there will be consequences, and he must follow their rules of courtship.

We also see the contrast between ‘the mob’ of Kresingers and the lonely figure of Griffin – although well cared for, he was an only child and was travelling alone while his parents worked. This could mirror the more individualistic society of white Australians in contrast to the more collectivist nature of Aboriginal society.

Colin Kresinger Irma’s son to an Irish father who did not have a presence in his life. Was brought up by Irma and her mother, his nan,  Marie Kresinger. ‘My father had come from Ireland so I wasn’t very dark. When I passionately shared a few of the stories my grandmother told me, the other kids called me a half-caste. It didn’t really stop me, though; I even spoke up in English class, because the teacher was talking like we weren’t even here before, and I got kicked out and had the whole oval to myself until lunchtime. I made a nest out of twigs. I was the sort of kid who couldn’t stop touching the earth, sculpting it with my hands.’ (p. 28)

Having witnessed his close friend Mia, also an Aboriginal girl but who had been adopted into a white family, suffering rape and violence at the hands of his white classmates, and to be himself teased for being ‘half-caste’ and then having his anger about Mia attributed to his ‘wild’ race, Colin began to give up: ‘…what do they say in Sydney: Aboriginal men are always angry’ (p. 36). Colin simply found it easier to stop identifying as Aboriginal: ‘I wasn’t a bush boy anymore, not a bush man. I had been in Sydney for almost a decade. I had stopped ticking the box. I thought, what’s the point?’ (p. 36)  He began to think it was too late to connect with his culture: ‘Years later, when I did find myself missing it all, prodding for a former version of me that wasn’t sculpted in anger…it was maybe too late; my grandmother had gone and my mother was an old woman who had turned timid.’ (pp. 35–36)

Zahny Zahny Marie and Pearl Kresinger’s father, housed on a mission under the control of the government – given ‘king’ status but in return was expected to learn English language and culture and lose Aboriginal ways. ‘He had made friends with one of the whitefellas high up, Malcolm, who recognised him as an important man among his people, this helped out the family quite a bit. My great-grandfather would bring mob together at this Malcolm’s place and they would sing. All English songs. Malcolm taught my great-grandfather to read over one summer and so he was keen to show his favourite daughter, Marie, when he went to visit her in Brisbane. I have been told the story a number of times of my great-grandfather walking alongside the road on his way to the town, when Malcolm’s car pulled up alongside him. Malcolm stuck his head out of the car and asked, ‘Where you going, mate?’ ‘See my daughter.’ ‘We got the new track, mate. I’ll get you on. Lot faster.’ The railway was spanking new, and it glistened in the sun. He stepped on the train. Wind in his hair. A free pass was unheard of. Though this was the last time he took it up. The next few years, while he could still walk, Zahny Zahny was known for walking along the railway lines, not catching the train.” (pp. 12-13)

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Authorial intent

Read in full the analytical essay by Kadmos, H (2018) ‘Re-imagining Indigenous Australia through the short story: Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven’, Australian Literary Studies Journal: Vol. 33 No. 3 referenced at the start of this Close Study section.

  1. Van Neerven’s choice not to champion a main character in Heat and to show the perspectives of many characters is attributed to an Aboriginal sensibility, moving away from traditional Western concepts of individualist identity. Kadmos describes her approach as ‘polyphonous’, a word borrowed from music and meaning in Greek ‘many sounds’, when there are two or more independent melodies simultaneously running through a song. Kadmos quotes van Neerven explaining, ‘it had to be multi-authored, because it is a family story…it’s a family tree that’s been deconstructed. There’s no one Aboriginal person. I wanted to show as much diversity as I could’. How does this analysis add to your understanding of why the author presented Heat in chapters that change voice and perspective, and why no one character is more important than the other?
  2. How does the description of the ‘short story cycle’ enhance your understanding of van Neerven’s choice of structure? What was van Neerven aiming to achieve in Heat?
  3. How does Ambellin Kwaymullina’s explanation of the affinity between Aboriginal writers and speculative fiction add to your understanding of van Neerven’s choice of genre for Water? What was she aiming to achieve in this story?
  4. Light is described as a mosaic of short stories exploring an array of Indigenous people with complex identities: racial identity, sexual identity, class identity, position in family and family trauma. What could be van Neerven’s reasons for exploring such a broad array of protagonists in ten standalone stories?

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Synthesising task

Students can create a mind map for how they might rewrite a section of Water in order to more deeply explore Larapinta and the plantpeople’s points of view. In their map, they should take into account:

  • the ‘polyphonous’ approach van Neerven has chosen to represent an Indigenous concept of identity as communal and collective (each family member’s identity is inseparably interwined through history)
  • the cyclical story approach where narrative is not linear but woven around intersecting the memories and lives of family members.
  1. Where would they start the story of the plantpeople?
  2. Whose voice would they begin with?
  3. What chapters would deal with which different aspects of the plantpeople’s story?
  4. Where would the story intersect with Kaden and her family’s history?

Students must accompany their mind map with a 250–500 word explanation of their authorial choices.

Here are some examples of novel mind maps, although they are written with the conventional story arc in mind.
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Ways of reading the text

Feminism and Queer theory

In addition to challenging gendered relationships and gendered power structures, van Neerven’s use of a number of lesbian protagonists would also lend the text to a reading through Queer theory (Judith Butler’s work is considered seminal in this area, and is explored by April Callis, 2009).

The strong independent female protagonists of Amy and her grandmother Pearl, challenge dominant power structures by presenting women who are never ‘claimed’, ‘owned’ or ‘controlled’ by men. Pearl, in particular, is feared as an almost other-worldly figure who is dangerous to men. She is held responsible for the electrocution of her brother, who she touched after being caught in power lines during a storm (there is no real reason offered to suggest why this would have been a deliberate act on Pearl’s part, and not simply a tragic accident). Male supremacy is momentarily restored in three ‘ex-crims’ and ‘bad men’ (p. 8) who frequented the diner Pearl worked in and who plan and stage Pearl’s attack and rape (developed in a series of events that the narrative presents as almost inevitable, as if the men had no choice but to obey their base urges). However, Pearl is thought to exact revenge when the three men’s bodies are ‘found’ the next day having had heart attacks, and ‘somehow they linked it to Pearl’ (p. 20).

Even minor female characters, such as Amy’s mother, Lena, and Amy’s father’s lover, Janet, rise up against male ‘oppression’. While Charlie was not a violent or bad man, he was never able to choose between the two women and never fully committed to either. Eventually these women became ‘unlikely friends’ and supported each other to leave their unhappy marriages: ‘[Janet] had pushed herself back into work, and had taken up kickboxing, to great effect on her core. Lena had got a better job at a cafe, found a rental property…and had reunited with relatives…Her daughter had become playmates with Janet’s boys.’ (p. 63)

The strong female protagonists are not invincible and are still vulnerable at times to victimisation by males, but if anything they seem to become strengthened by such adversity. A notable exception is Mia’s character, the young Aboriginal girl adopted into a white family and who is friends with Amy’s cousin, Colin, at school. Mia is never accepted by her peers and at her first transgression is disproportionately punished by male community members with rape and violence. She is promptly shipped out of the small township, presumably to a new foster family. She disappears from Colin’s life and, whether imagined or real, he later sees her ‘on the Parramatta train’, ‘in the Chinatown food court’ and ‘dancing in a flash club on Oxford Street’ (p. 36) – in short, representing the lost, lonely and exploited.

Mia is removed from family and is always seemingly solitary, without any female friend, relative or lover in her corner. It appears that it is this lack of connection, absence of identity, that makes a female character in van Neerven’s text vulnerable at the hands of males. Perhaps it is simply that women have strength in numbers (which some could say is the opposite of feminism – women should not have to clump together to keep each other safe from men). But it seems more than this: it seems that the stronger a woman’s identity is, and the more interlinked it is within the fabric of her family and community, the less vulnerable and more resilient she becomes. Thus these characters could better be described as strong interdependent women rather than ‘independent’.

Postcolonialism and Postmodernism

We have already discussed the ways in which van Neerven presents a diverse array of Aboriginal perspectives, each character having experienced, and responded to, the intergenerational trauma of colonisation in different ways (see the notes in the Initial Response section of this teaching resource).

The novella Water could also be read with a postmodernist critical theory lens, in terms of a criticism of twentieth-century society, with particular concern for the ‘other’. Much of Water satirises the misguided attempts by a dominant society to ‘give’ equality to the downtrodden – an irony in itself as the dominant culture remains in control and is merely choosing to use its power for good rather than evil. The novella depicts a never-ending cycle of tokenistic government actions addressing the problems of its minority groups without actually consulting with or working in partnership with the people most affected. The continuing intergenerational trauma of a colonised people is therefore given even greater impact by asserting that the trauma is not solely in response to events in history, just the actions of ignorant new colonial powers or unenlightened past governments, but that fresh traumas are wrought daily by contemporary Australian society and government. The idea of history repeating itself is then taken further by suggesting that the same actions will be evident in a future society such as that speculated upon with the Larapinta and the plantpeople in Water.

Discussion points:

  1. What events are key to the text’s message, from a feminist/queer theory, postcolonial or postmodern interpretative standpoint?
  2. What does the text say overall about gender?
  3. Which interpretative standpoint do you think is most salient to the text overall, and why?

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Comparison with other texts

Helena Kadmos (2018) compares the magic realism and speculative fiction elements of Water to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Cleverman series: ‘Like the fate of the sandplants in Water, the hairies’ situation reflects the history and complexities of Indigenous experiences under colonisation. For both Kaden and Koen, the young hero in Cleverman, relationships with the other force a re-thinking of their own cultural belonging and responsibilities: socially, culturally and politically.’

Kadmos also compares the short story cycle structure of Heat with Jeanine Leane’s Purple Threads, a collection of stories exploring the family history of two sisters growing up near Gundagai in the 1960s and based on the author’s own family and experiences. This storytelling style presents each character’s identity as being interdependent with the characters around them. Stories are not linear and we find the answers to one character’s puzzle in another character’s anecdotes. The ‘Aboriginal bildungsroman’ switches away from the individualist identity; the ways in which the character belongs to their community and how they are connected to place/s become more central. (Kadmos, 2018).

Resources on Cleverman

Resources on Purple Threads


Evaluation of the text

Australian identity – National identity

At the core of our National identity is the discomfort of colonial settlers adapting to Australia’s harsh environment, along with violent frontier wars and uneasy settler-Aboriginal relations. The discomfort and uneasiness continues to permeate Australian life, often meaning that reconciliation between Indigenous Australians and the ‘mainstream’ is fraught and stilted and oftentimes too uncomfortable for true examination in the national consciousness.

Our relationship to the land, and through it the people indigenous to it, remains elusive and half-formed. Martin Shaw in his short review in Readings Monthly in September 2014 (p. 7) observes: ‘Many writers attempt to convey the sense of foreboding that exists “out there”, beyond the big cities and seaboards of the country. Some fail. Few succeed to the extent that exists between the pages of Heat and Light.’

Bill Holloway suggests that Heat and Light interrogates the myths of the Australian bush: mateship, independence, a fair go – with many characters experiencing the opposite of these myths or ‘Australian values’. Holloway also suggests that the weaker stories are those with a weaker sense of place, adding weight to the idea that it is Australia’s uneasy relationship to the land that flows on to our relationship with our Indigenous peoples (Holloway, 2016).

Aboriginal identity

‘One of the recurring themes is how Indigenous identity has to be performed for outsiders, while at the same time proof of belonging is constantly negotiated within families and communities’ – Ceridwen Dovey, Readings Monthly, September 2014

The performative nature of a minority identity – be it racial or gendered (Judith Butler’s queer theory explores how gender is constructed through performance in society) – is perhaps testament to the power structures at play in society – that an Aboriginal person or a woman is required to perform a range of roles in different contexts in order to maintain safety, belonging, approval, protection within the dominant culture. All of van Neerven’s characters experience and perform Aboriginality differently and are shaped by their otherness even if this is not immediately apparent to them or the reader.

Discussion points:

  1. What images of these different types of identities (gendered, national Australian, Aboriginal) are presented in Heat and Light? Select at least two significant quotes to illustrate your responses.
  2. In what ways does Heat and Light challenge the stereotypical features of these identities? Select a specific character to illustrate your point and provide key quotes.

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Identifying and justifying language/stylistic techniques

Bill Holloway suggests that ‘often racial discrimination is made up of lots of little, maybe even unconscious, acts which a writer like van Neerven is able to make apparent precisely by not foregrounding them.’ (Holloway, 2016).

Discussion points:

  1. In what ways does van Neerven’s celebrated ‘economy of language’ bring a subtlety and almost nonchalance to her descriptions of the racial discrimination experienced by her characters?
  2. How does this subtle writing style mimic the subtle and evasive nature of racial discrimination, which is not always obvious or provable?
  3. Does such subtlety or ‘downplaying’ add to the poignance of these events and therefore illuminate their impact?
  4. Would the impact on readers be different if the writing was more aggressive, blunt, impassioned – and would this depend on the identity and perspective of the reader?

Students can be referred back to the Key quotations and discussion points guide (PDF, 138KB) provided in the activities within the Close Study section of this unit.
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Rich assessment task 1 (responding)

Students can complete a discussion-style essay using key quotations to illustrate the following statement:

In Heat and Light, van Neerven chooses not to foreground acts of racial discrimination affecting her Aboriginal characters by employing her distinctly subtle style and economy of language. This gives the reader a more authentic understanding of the experience of discrimination.
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Synthesising core ideas

Rich assessment task 2 (creating)

Using the comparative analysis completed in the Initial Response section, students are to select a significant event either in their family’s history or in the short story/ies they used in their comparisons.

Students are to write a short novella with two to four chapters describing the event from different family members’/characters’ points of view – in the same vein as Heat. Maintain the theme of identity and belonging throughout the chapters, so that you are focusing on each character’s different sense of who they are and their place in the family. Each chapter should be one to two pages in length.

These character-based passages should feature the following:

  • a clear link with ideas, experiences or issues mentioned in either the student’s family history or the short story/ies they analysed
  • an event and resolution that reflects the concerns of the original text
  • an exploration of the character’s opinions, beliefs, perspectives
  • a writing style that reflects knowledge of van Neerven’s linguistic and narrative techniques.

Students are also to write a short commentary or rationale of 500 words that explains their own authorial choices in the construction of their work.
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