Ali Cobby Eckermann
Ali Cobby Eckermann (1963–) is a poet and author whose work explores her Aboriginal culture, her connection to Country, and her experiences as a proud Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha woman and member of the Stolen Generations. She was born on Kaurna Country in Adelaide and grew up on Ngadjuri Country in mid-north South Australia. She has lived and travelled in Arrente, Jawoyn and Larrakia Country in the Northern Territory, and wrote her first book of poetry while living in the desert. Eckermann’s birth mother was from Kokatha Country near Ooldea, and Eckermann identifies with this mob as well as her Yankunytjatjara mob from north-west South Australia. As a teenager she ran away from her adopted home and went to Ooldea on the Nullarbor Plain – though she was unaware of her connection to this place at the time.
Eckermann grew up in a loving adopted family, but the combined effects of racism and a loss of identity (resulting from separation from her Aboriginal heritage) led to a strong sense of grief and displacement. At the age of 34, following the release of the Bringing Them Home report, she met her birth mother (Audrey) and learnt that she, her mother and her grandmother had all been stolen or tricked away from their family. They lived on the Aboriginal mission near Maralinga and suffered as a result of nuclear testing conducted near their home.
Eckermann’s poetry educates her readers through references to historical events like the Oombulgarri massacre. She currently lives in Koolunga in South Australia. For further background reading about her experiences, see the article ‘My life as a stolen child’.
Eckermann’s grief following her birth mother’s death led her to write Inside My Mother (2015), an autobiographical book of poetry that celebrates and commemorates her culture. She has a son who she was forced to relinquish at birth, and the experience of reconnecting with both him and her mother strongly informs her work. She is also an elder of the Yankunytjatjara people and has a younger daughter through Aboriginal kinship. Eckermann’s literary contribution spans a verse novel (Ruby Moonlight), a memoir and some vibrant and visceral poetry books that focus on the Australian landscape and the poet’s relationship to Country. Her poetry is a form of resistance against the injustices that she and her people have suffered, and writing has been a therapeutic means for her to come to terms with her past.
Note to teachers: cultural sensitivity and establishing the tone of your classroom
Adapted from Emma Jenkins (teacher and Reading Australia unit writer)
When teaching about the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, it is important to remain sensitive and to deal with content appropriately. Works like Inside My Mother navigate topics that not only demand cultural respect, but require both teacher and student to be cognisant of the broader impacts of its themes and ideas. This work specifically references dispossession, the Stolen Generations and (intergenerational) trauma, amongst other culturally sensitive issues.
It is important to acknowledge these themes in your classroom and establish an environment where students feel safe to take part in discussion. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students should be supported to engage with the content. Magabala Books has a guide to teaching Indigenous content with some useful strategies and ideas for the classroom. Here are some starting points for building cultural empathy and respect:
- read an Acknowledgement of Country before reading the text – this could be a shared experience that the class undertakes together
- find out what Country you are on (if you don’t already know)
- find out what you can about the local languages in your area
- look for opportunities to engage with people’s experiences with languages – involve your students in the discussion
- acknowledge that First Nations Australians are complex individuals with varied and diverse experiences
- be aware of your local traditional custodians and make an effort to understand their histories and connections
- be mindful that some students may feel anxious about acknowledging languages they speak at home – don’t force them to explain or demonstrate
- avoid making generalisations about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their experiences
- don’t involve students in discussions if they find the content distressing – have some other activities that they can undertake independently should they not feel like participating
- establish some ground rules for communicating in your classroom in respectful ways
Additionally, it is important to support students by leading them safely in and safely out of the material being covered. Some strategies for doing so include:
- facilitating a safe space for students to engage in the material
- acknowledging students’ level of comfort/discomfort around certain topics
- creating clear processes for students to inform the teacher if they are uncomfortable
- focusing on the successes of individuals and communities
- allowing time to debrief at the conclusion of each lesson so that students leave the classroom without concerns or anxieties
- teaching students how to respond to material with empathy
- avoiding asking students to relate to experiences that they are unfamiliar with
- addressing racist attitudes and/or ideologies swiftly
- giving students an opportunity to act
These activities give some background to:
- Eckermann’s life:
- Students can trace the places Eckermann has lived on the linked maps below.
- First Nations peoples:
- It is important to recognise the diversity of Australia’s First Nations peoples. Students can use the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia to locate where Eckermann’s people came from.
- First Nations languages:
- Eckermann often uses Aboriginal words in her poems. Students can read about and explore Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages to appreciate the richness of the culture.
The title Inside My Mother can be read in couple of ways. It may be about the close relationship between mother and child, with one being a physical part of the other. But it could also mean being part of the mother’s mind to see what she thinks, what her beliefs are and what motivates her.
For class discussion:
- What do you expect from an anthology called Inside My Mother?
- What does this say about the close relationship between mother and child?
- How is the child affected when the child is taken from the mother?
- What feelings and emotions do you expect to encounter in such a book?
The poems’ titles
This slim book of 73 poems is divided into four sections.
Students can break into four groups, with each group focusing on a different part of the text. They are to examine the titles, most of which are single words.
- Students list the titles under these subheadings: nature, feelings, places, events/history.
- They consider:
- Are there any other headings that they may need to add?
- Which titles cannot be clearly categorised?
- In what ways might each title refer to the idea of being ‘inside my mother’?
- Students decide what the focus of their section might be and give it a title; they then compare with other groups to see if there is a different perspective in each section.
Students who are formally studying this text can complete this activity using their set poem titles.
Students will research some of the social/historical events, customs and locations that have informed Eckermann’s poetry.
Individually, students work through the following websites, considering this central question: ‘What is the enduring effect and legacy of this event, issue or custom for First Nations people?’
- Life on Aboriginal missions
- Maralinga nuclear testing
- Oombulgarri massacre
- Aboriginal kinship
- Stolen Generations
2. Poetry gallery
Students can begin with a ‘poetry gallery’. Copies of four to six poems will be hung up around the classroom and students can view them for an initial reading.
For each poem in the gallery, students can answer the following questions:
- In a sentence, what does this poem appear to be about?
- What connections to Country or culture does the poem explore?
- Are there any unusual or idiomatic expressions that you immediately notice when reading?
- What images or symbols can you identify?
- Who do you think is the intended audience?
- What message(s) is the poem trying to convey?
- What emotional response does the poem evoke?
3. Imaginative writing
Students will select ten or more poems from the anthology and combine the title words into sentences or fragments, creating their own poem about family with the title ‘Inside My Mother’.
Eckermann’s poems may be not be lengthy, but they are rich with symbolism and interesting thematic concerns that need to be unpacked thoughtfully.
Inside My Mother is a collection of 73 poems divided into four parts like chapters. Eckermann has effectively combined a fresh, pared back style with power and emotion. A 2013 article in The Sydney Morning Herald captures this in its title: ‘Huge power in sparse narratives’.
In an interview for Red Room Poetry’s HSC English Resource, Eckermann said:
I think I wrote [the sections] like chapters in that reflection… that time of grief with my mother… I guess that’s also a gift: read one chapter, pause, reflect. Go to the next chapter, pause, reflect. Most things, as I see Aboriginal culture, is there’s always a journey – so even my literature, there’s little journeys embedded.
Student worksheets have been provided for the poems discussed below.
Eckermann’s poetic style
Eckermann has her own distinctive style. She is a very concise poet and packs a lot of meaning into few words and lines. While metaphors are an important feature of poetry, they are not the only way to convey meaning; it is important that students realise that the poet’s skill comes from controlling visual and aural language features, as well as form and grammar.
Apart from the historical allusions and metaphorical language, students should think about the following features as they look through the anthology:
|Students can find poems with words in language and decide how they work in the specific poem (e.g. pituri in ‘Trance’).
|See ‘Lament’ – discuss why the words are spaced this way in a poem about a song.
|See the opening poem ‘Bird Song’ and discuss the importance of its shape.
Then look at ‘Severance’, where the meaning of the title is explored visually through the extended spaces between words and even the spacing of letters in the word ‘o u t s t r e t c h e d’, until trust becomes ever distant in the final two lines.
|End punctuation (rejected)
|Students can look at the use of end punctuation (e.g. full stops, exclamation marks, question marks), which creates boundaries for sentences and meaning. If this is the case, then why does Eckermann ignore it? Does this inhibit meaning or confuse the reader? Do line breaks replace punctuation? If so, then how effective are they?
|In ‘Sadness’, the only capitalised word is ‘Sadness’. Why?
In ‘Love’, the only capitalised are ‘I’ and ‘Dreamtime’. Why?
|Students should conduct their own search for the few poems that contain commas. Why are they used in some and not others?
|In order to understand Eckermann’s attitude to punctuation, contrast her usual anti-punctuation style with a confronting poem such as ‘I Tell You True’, which is about family tragedy and disintegration. Each new line starts with a capital as the narrator asserts her case, but there is no full stop as the tragedy will never end. Why does Eckermann use punctuation for this poem? In what way might the rejection of punctuation be a political act?
|Each tercet in ‘Monsoon’ ends with an indented line. Why? Is this line different to the others in its meaning? This poem also has capitals at the beginning of each line – why?
In ‘Lake Eyre’, the middle lines of each tercet are indented. Why? Students can conduct a quick search to see what other poems are indented and try to work out why.
|Italics (sometimes important)
|What are the italics doing in ‘Mining’ or ‘Jacob’?
Students can explore the anthology, paying attention to these features and anything else they find at a glance, to gain some insight into Eckermann’s poetic sensibility.
Part 1 has 19 poems, including ‘Trance’ and ‘Inside My Mother’.
‘Inside My Mother’
‘Inside My Mother’ is not only a poem in Part 1 of the collection, but also the title of the complete anthology. Indeed, the book is dedicated to Eckermann’s many mothers: Mum Audrey Ngingali (her birth mother), Mum Frieda (her adoptive mother), Mum Jennifer, Aunty Mabel, Aunty Lorna, Aunty Lola and Aunty Nura. This dedication goes to the heart of Aboriginal culture and community, highlighting the importance of kinship and paying respect to the simultaneously strong and nurturing women in the poets’ life.
Before students begin ‘Inside My Mother’, they can return to the Initial Response section and reread Eckermann’s biographical details. It was not until she was 34 that she met her birth mother, who at that time was known as Audrey Kinnear, but later used her Aboriginal name: Ngingali Cullen. Cullen was a strong Aboriginal activist, a champion for the Stolen Generations, and co-chair of the National Sorry Day Committee. Eckermann has often shared their special reunion and her astonishment at finally meeting someone who looked like her. The poem ‘Ngingali’ (in Part 3 of the collection) is dedicated to Ngingali Cullen.
Watch Red Room Poetry’s interviews with Eckermann, in which she discusses what poetry means to her and its importance for healing, learning and understanding the world and oneself.
For a detailed study of ‘Inside My Mother’, refer to this worksheet (PDF, KB).
This is a beautifully moving poem about loss, love and seeking solace through nature. While love and loss are important human experiences in all cultures, First Nations Australians view them in relation to the land. Seeking solace through nature and connecting with the landscape is crucial for both culture and identity. This has some parallels with the European Romantic construct of seeking comfort and spiritual truth through the landscape.
Writing for Cordite Poetry Review, Anne-Marie Newton says of the collection:
Overall, the notion of family is a key motif, and cycling through the work is what this idea means in Aboriginal spirituality: family is a broad but vital network involving both the living and the dead, and, importantly, their interrelatedness with the environment.
For a detailed study of ‘Trance’, refer to this worksheet (PDF, KB).
‘Unearth’, ‘Oombulgarri’ and ‘Eyes’ are just three of the 18 poems that make up Part 2. These poems are bold in their language and messages about Australia’s history. They are therefore important vehicles for considering, understanding and acknowledging the many injustices of the past on the way to a more positive future.
Before students explore this poem, they may think about how Australia celebrates many aspects of its recent history (including wars, Australia Day and Anzac Day) compared to its first cultures and peoples.
In her Cordite review, Newton comments that:
Cobby Eckermann has said that Aboriginal writing is necessarily political, and this collection is openly so in its drawing attention to Australia’s historical maltreatment of Aboriginals, and to the social injustices that abound today. Poems mourn, lament, protest, and rage against a host of violations, and some, such as ‘Unearth’, constitute a metaphorical call to arms…
The poem reinforces the growing wave of First Nations voices that are more blunt, bold, direct and challenging. The final line (‘there is blood on the truth’) resonates with the growing confidence and passion of these voices in contemporary Australia. The haunting songs of Archie Roach, the provocative insights of Bruce Pascoe, the strength and power of Leah Purcell‘s many works, and the new wave of theatre and television are ensuring that these messages make an impact.
‘Unearth’ is a call to celebrate the cultural traditions of Australia’s first peoples. The poem affirms the richness of Australia’s Aboriginal history, but also challenges the prevailing practice of celebrating predominantly Anglo-Saxon achievements in Australia. In this way, ‘Unearth’ affirms a post-colonial perspective that disrupts the dominant narrative.
The late poet Candy Royalle, in a review for The Guardian, noted Eckermann’s ability to move people with her poetry. Eckermann’s tone and mood are powerful and poignant as she provokes the reader to consider her compelling ideas. This is particularly effective in the third stanza, where the present and past merge into intense visual symbols of Aboriginal pride and power: ‘a hot wind’ and ‘warriors in the mirage’. And the political reference is important: ‘in the future the petition will be everlasting’.
For a detailed study of ‘Unearth’, refer to this worksheet (PDF, KB).
The history of Australia’s Indigenous people has unfortunately been marked by experiences of dispossession, dislocation, loss, destruction and mistreatment. ‘Oombulgarri’ is a powerful poem about one such episode involving the destruction of a community in Western Australia.
Speaking to Red Room Poetry about ‘Oombulgarri’, Eckermann comments that she sees the poem ‘as a challenge, too, for the reader to research the place names and to find out the bigger story of these places, and to know that everything the government tells you is not true’. She succeeds in this intention: the poem prompts the reader to investigate and better understand an episode they may otherwise not have known about.
Oombulgarri was an Aboriginal community in the eastern Kimberley region of Western Australia, 45km northwest of the larger town of Wyndham. In 2006 it had a population of 107. That same year, the Western Australian government deemed the community ‘unviable’ and decided to close the town and move its residents. The heartfelt final line of ‘Unearth’ (‘there is blood on the truth’) has similar resonance with the events of ‘Oombulgarri’.
In the opening stanza, Eckermann’s evocative visual imagery – which we have come to see as an effective characteristic of her writing – establishes a desolate portrait of the town. The metaphor of ‘tumble weeds of blue pattern dresses’ cleverly combines the iconic representation of deserted towns (tumbleweeds) with people (dresses), thus amplifying the human aspects of this town’s tragedy. Coupled with ‘drift’ and ‘empty streets’, Eckermann creates a clear image of a physically and emotionally desolate town ‘where paddy wagons once patrolled’ (a line that suggests tension and conflict).
For a detailed study of ‘Oombulgarri’, refer to this worksheet (PDF, KB).
Like many of Eckermann’s poems, the title of this one is short and sharp, capturing both the main content and the mood/metaphor.
Students may consider the connotations of ‘eyes’:
- organs of our visual system
- give us vision, allowing us to receive and process visual details
- enable us to see, understand and interpret our surroundings and environment
- associated with visual acuity and perception
- sometimes regarded as ‘windows to the soul’
- can be protective (‘keep an eye on you’)
This four-stanza poem tells the story of a girl and the different moods and expressions revealed by her eyes. We are not given much information about the people in this poem; the pronouns ‘her’ and ‘she’ are the only identifying clues. The verb ‘stare’ amplifies the mood in the phrase ‘to challenge her’. The ‘kitchen table’ suggests a domestic scene; the plate is the shape of an eye but also an everyday object, showing that the girl feels insignificant and accused from all sources. The final line of this stanza, in the form of a question, implies that the girl is accustomed to having to be circumspect.
By the second stanza the girl has listed three different types of ‘eyes’ she has had to adopt into her persona:
- eyes of terror
- eyes of submission
- eyes of shame
The narrative continues in the third stanza as the focus returns to the kitchen table and the plate. There are now different eyes: ‘wonder’, ‘contempt’ and ‘compassion’. By the final stanza, there is a sense that the persona can take charge; she can choose her eyes and either ‘soothe or sting her tears’. But the choice has been made: ‘she picks the eyes filled with rage’.
For a detailed study of ‘Eyes’, refer to this worksheet (PDF, KB).
‘Leaves’ is from the third section of the anthology, which contains 17 poems. Again, Eckermann captures so much in her single-word title, which can be read as a verb or a noun.
Students may reflect on the significance of leaves in our natural world:
- they take part in photosynthesis, which brings much-needed nutrients to plants
- they are often the most noticeable part of a tree (colour, shape, amount)
- some trees lose their leaves in winter, giving the trunk and branches a much more austere appearance
Before students explore this poem, they can think about the importance of the land in First Nations culture and beliefs. Rather than owning the land, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people belong to it. They are entrusted with the knowledge and responsibility to care for the land, from which they gain identity, purpose and belonging. This relationship is often called ‘connection to Country’.
‘Leaves’ is a beautifully crafted poem that evokes the importance of land, kinship and identity. These ideas are central to Aboriginal culture and respond to universal beliefs that:
- nature echoes and heals our loss
- nature gives us solace
- we need to interrogate our emotions and our observations
For a detailed study of ‘Leaves’, refer to this worksheet (PDF, KB).
‘Key’ is the first of 19 poems in the final section of this collection. It is about family, kin and Country, explored through the illness of a grandmother. It is a delicate and sensitive portrait of loss, sorrow, illness and – above all – love.
Before exploring the poem, students should discuss:
- the role of grandparents in our lives
- which cultures revere the importance of grandparents in the family structure
- the impact of grandparents on an individual’s heritage and identity
Students may also consider the various meanings and connotations of the word ‘key’:
- a tool to unlock a door, a gate that is the conduit to somewhere else
- a tool to unlock a box, crate or suitcase that reveals a range of (possibly unknown) items – a discovery or re-discovery
- an answer, clue, explanation or lead, central and important to understanding – a vital, salient feature
The word ‘key’ appears twice in the poem, and only towards the end – ‘keyless door’ and ‘no key hole’ – and yet it is the title.
The narrative is structured in eleven even stanzas. Eckermann’s skill and training as a visual artist are at work here. It is almost as if each stanza is a separate shot in a short film.
For a detailed study of ‘Key’, refer to this worksheet (PDF, KB).
1. Multimodal task
Using a preferred presentation mode (e.g. PowerPoint, Prezi, PechaKucha, Keynote or other), students create a series of five to eight slides that best capture the tone, mood and content of one of Eckermann’s poems. The images should be accompanied by specific lines from the poem itself. They can add a suitable soundtrack or rhythm if desired (e.g. clapsticks, violin, snare drum). This work is presented to other members of the class.
2. Group critical response
Students form groups to complete a shared analytical response. Each group selects an essay question from the list below. They then discuss and unpack the question by highlighting key words and deciding:
- What is the question asking you to do?
- Which two or three poems would provide the best textual evidence to support your response?
In their groups, students write an introduction and then the body of an essay. Before they write a conclusion, they should use a highlighter to identify textual detail in their response.
- Have they incorporated direct quotations or paraphrased? Are the examples detailed, relevant and well-selected? Are they the best examples for this question?
- If large sections of their response remain unhighlighted, have they lost track of the question or slipped into description and retell?
- ‘Though the emotions are strong, they are expressed simply and with a sense of significance in nature’ (Giramondo Publishing). To what extent do the poems you have chosen reflect this comment?
- Explain how a text’s form contributes to the way it captures unique cultural perspectives. In your response, make close reference to at least two poems from Inside My Mother.
- How successfully does Ali Cobby Eckermann challenge prevailing assumptions and beliefs about individuals and cultural groups in her poetry?
- Texts are important vehicles for conveying values and attitudes about individuals and culture. Do you agree? In your response, make close reference to at least two poems from Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Inside My Mother.
- Explain how language is used to explore cultural perspectives in at least two poems from Inside My Mother.
3. Imaginative response
Choose ONE of these lines from Eckermann’s poetry:
- fire light flickers
- They dig up the soil and excavate the past
- Echoes of laughter roll like distant thunder
- What eyes will she need for today?
- She picks the eyes filled with rage
- I crawled there once and sat in his shade
- Sometimes she recognises the fragrance / of storms approaching.
Use the line to either open or conclude your own imaginative piece (about 400–500 words) that captures an intense moment.
Ways of reading the text
It’s important for students to know that when we analyse texts we apply beliefs and attitudes that are not just personal, but also guided by our social, cultural and historical contexts. These beliefs are often understood through a theoretical framework. Guiding students to see texts and beliefs as being framed by theory can help them understand that ways of reading are part of their context. Eckermann’s work emerges from her experience of trauma and intergenerational trauma (both personally and as a member of the Aboriginal community), which can be understood through the lens of postcolonialism.
The following section looks at both trauma theory and postcolonialism to enhance students’ understanding of Eckermann’s work. A feminist reading can also be applied to this text as it favours a female perspective (this is the basis of an upcoming activity).
One way of understanding texts like Inside My Mother is through a literary approach called trauma theory, pioneered by Cathy Caruth. The impact of trauma on an individual’s physiology and psychology is well documented, especially by Sigmund Freud (the founder of psychoanalysis). More recently, literature has been viewed through an understanding that Freud developed about how trauma affects our consciousness.
In her exploration of trauma theory and its development as a literacy approach, academic Michelle Balaev states that the values attached to traumatic experiences are influenced by various and variable factors. This understanding of trauma, and indeed of intergenerational trauma (as being subject to cultural, individual and temporal factors), offers insight into Inside My Mother that we can see at play in the way the collection is discussed more widely.
Visit the Windham Campbell Prizes website and read the description of Eckermann’s work (including the large text at the top, the sentence that mentions an ‘emotional timeline’, and the quote from Eckermann at the bottom). It would seem that writing is an avenue for Eckermann to work through the intergenerational trauma and loss of the Stolen Generations, and to come to a state of healing.
Students can consider the poems through the lens of trauma theory:
- How does trauma frame the poems you have studied?
- Select a poem and discuss how the language conveys that trauma.
Postcolonialism is concerned with the historical and ongoing impacts of colonialism: the occupation and exploitation of other lands or peoples. A postcolonial approach to literature examines issues of power, politics, culture, and so on in works produced by both colonial powers and people who have been colonised.
- Students can consider how ideas of postcolonialism fit in with Eckermann’s poems. They may locate one poem and discuss the poem from a postcolonial perspective.
- Students can compare readings or discussions of Eckermann’s poetry to see which lenses are applied. They can highlight statements they feel relate to trauma or postcolonialism.
- Print a copy of Candy Royalle’s Guardian article, ‘Ali Cobby Eckermann’s poetry: inspiring those of us who feel like outsiders’. Ask students to use different highlighters to show the different theoretical lines at play in the discussion.
- Students can locate a definition of feminism and consider if/how this applies to Eckermann’s work. They can then apply a feminist reading to one of her poems.
Comparison with other texts
Inside My Mother can be treated as a close study of the poetry itself, or it can be integrated with other texts that examine a range of Indigenous experiences. There are many rich and engaging texts that students will enjoy reading and viewing alongside Eckermann’s poetry.
Explore this picture book for its effective combination of archival photographs, historical recounts and Aboriginal culture. This is a detailed and important text for exploring the tragic impact of the Maralinga nuclear tests on Aboriginal communities. It contains valuable insights into Dreaming, the importance of water and bush tucker and the expulsion of the Anangu people from their own land.
My Grandmother’s Lingo (SBS)
This short, interactive digital text allows listeners to learn several words of an endangered Aboriginal language. The instructor is Angelina Joshua from the remote community of Ngukurr in southeast Arnhem Land. Angelina is trying to save Marra, her grandmother’s language. There are only three fluent-speaking elders remaining in her community.
Rabbit-Proof Fence directed by Phillip Noyce
This is a powerful and engaging film that follows the physical journey of three girls who walk 1,500 miles back to their community after being forcibly removed from their families. There is a study guide available from ACMI. See also Doris Pilkington’s original work, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence.
The children’s book version of the bestselling Dark Emu is a stunning text that sheds light on Aboriginal Australians’ interaction with the land. Topics like agriculture, aquaculture, food storage and the use of fire provide important factual insights into life prior to and during invasion.
This is a verse novel that enables quick reading. It is a very moving narrative about the Stolen Generation, and the first-person perspective adds poignancy to the narrator’s voice.
Bran Nue Dae directed by Rachel Perkins
This is a fun, colourful and joyous film set in Broome. Although the story involves the injustices of racism and prejudice, the celebration of Aboriginal culture is warm and positive. See also the Reading Australia teacher resource for the play.
This is a powerful and ground-breaking television series that captures Aboriginal stories in a fresh and clever way. Set in urban landscapes, it is an evocative and rich contemporary text.
The Rabbits by Shaun Tan and John Marsden
This picture book explores invasion and its impact on Aboriginal communities. Shaun Tan’s images combine magnificently with John Marsden’s sparse and effective text. There are many resources to enrich this exploration. The book benefits from close interrogation of the striking visuals and how the sparse text amplifies the powerful message.
This wonderful song has a haunting melody. The words are powerful in their simplicity, evoking the tragedy of children being taken from their homes and families. But there is also hope for the future of these communities in the final verses. See also the picture book of the same name.
This clever and interesting young adult novel combines mystery, thriller and family loss. Echoes of the Stolen Generation add a rich cultural and literary layer to the narrative.
In 1986, Midnight Oil (whose lead singer Peter Garett would later serve as a cabinet minister in the Rudd/Gillard governments) toured vast areas of Australia playing to remote Aboriginal communities. After witnessing firsthand the severity of their health issues and living standards, Garrett wrote ‘Beds are Burning’ to criticise the forced removal of Aboriginal Australians from their lands.
Students can choose one of the texts above to compare to Inside My Mother. They can answer the following questions:
- What does each text convey about the Indigenous Australian experience?
- Which text is more powerful for you?
Eckermann’s success in both Australia and abroad was confirmed in 2017, when she was awarded the Windham Campbell Prize for poetry from Yale University.
Students can search the Internet to see how Eckermann’s work was received internationally. They can locate newspaper articles from different English-speaking nations to understand the impact of such an award.
Students can then explore the past recipients to see which genres and countries are represented. They can tally the number of recipients from each country and for each genre, and represent this in a bar graph.
- Which country is most represented?
- Which country is least represented?
- Are there any other Australian recipients? If so, what genre and topics did they write about?
Students might read some of the other winners’ works, or they can explore the latest winners.
Students are to write and present a five-minute judge’s comment on why the anthology Inside My Mother received the Windham Campbell Prize for poetry. They should discuss the ideas and stylistic qualities that make this book stand out.
Rich assessment task (receptive mode)
Comparing two readings of Eckermann’s work
You will consider two video depictions of Eckermann: ‘The story of a Stolen Generation poet living in a caravan’ for National Indigenous Television (NITV), and ‘On the Map 2014’ for the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. The first video explores Eckermann’s lived experiences, whilst the second is primarily concerned with her creative contributions. The differences in focus, structure, purpose and intended audience (in short, the aspects of textual form) provide interesting points for comparison.
‘The story of a Stolen Generation poet living in a caravan’
- Why do you think the ‘rags to riches’ element of Eckermann’s life story is given so much attention by the media?
- How is Eckermann’s relationship to Country emphasised by the setting in which she reads her poems? Why do you think NITV chose to film in this landscape?
- Why is Eckermann a particularly worthy recipient of the Windham Campbell Prize?
- Why do you think Eckermann says her poetry is ‘never a solo voice’? What has inspired her to write such vivid poems?
- Hearing Eckermann read her poetry, what do you notice about the tone of voice created in her poems?
‘On the Map’
- Eckermann begins by stating precisely where her ancestors were from, instead of merely identifying herself as ‘Australian’. What is the significance of this in terms of her identity as a Yankunytjatjara woman?
- How have Eckermann’s experiences as a mother who was forcibly separated from her son informed the development of her poetry?
In a moving article for NITV News, Eckermann describes transforming her grief over her birth mother’s death into celebration by writing Inside My Mother.
- How has Eckermann’s experience of knowing her birth mother transformed her own sense of purpose and allowed her to understand her identity?
- How does the power of poetry enable Eckermann to ‘get things back in perspective’?
- How does understanding Eckermann’s life story enable you to better explore the richness of her poetry?
- The NITV video notes that Eckermann has ‘a responsibility to carry her family’s story’. What elements of that story need to survive in the public eye to raise awareness of social issues and past injustices?
Who is Ali Cobby Eckermann?
Through their Close Study, students should have a good understanding of Eckermann’s skill as a poet. Additionally, by exploring her Significance within contemporary Australian literature, they should start to understand her role in representing Aboriginal peoples through her own lived experience and work, both here in Australia and internationally. This final section poses the question of Eckermann’s poetic identity: do we identify her as a poet, an Aboriginal poet or an Australian poet?
Students need to consider what each of these different titles foreground:
- As a poet, we look at her ability to visualise the world through words, images and sounds; this is very much about her skill.
- As an Aboriginal poet, we see her representing a group and acting as a voice for those who are disenfranchised; we see her making a political statement.
- As an Australian poet, we see her through a nationalist perspective as representing a nation; the Aboriginal story is an Australian story about our nation.
- search for reviews of Eckermann’s work and isolate sentences about her identity to share with the class (note that the Windham Campbell website did not refer to her merely as Australian, but as an Aboriginal or Aboriginal Australian poet)
- consider Eckermann’s impact as an Aboriginal poet
- consider how the personal and political are frequently united in her work
They should put forward a case for Eckermann’s identity as one of the above (poet, Aboriginal poet, Australian poet), or indeed a mixture of all three.
Myself as a reader and writer
It’s also important for students to reflect on their own learning through this unit:
- What have I learnt about how to write poetry?
- How have the activities I’ve completed helped me to understand Eckermann’s work?
- Which activity did I like the most and why?
Safely exiting the text
Adapted from Emma Jenkins (teacher and Reading Australia unit writer)
After exploring the key ideas and themes of Inside My Mother with students, it is important to bring them safely out of the text. This means allowing time and space to unpack the concepts, respond to questions and continue any dialogue should students wish to engage further with the material. Inside My Mother covers a number of culturally sensitive and challenging themes, and it is important that students do not feel confused or further confronted by the text and the issues it raises.
Below are some strategies to help bring students out of the text in a safe manner:
- allow time for debriefing after class if students want to talk more
- use exit cards or short surveys to ascertain students’ comfort levels
- use private journaling as a means of responding to and processing difficult themes
- model an appropriate response to the text
- follow up answers to any questions
- provide practical ways that students can respond to a need to get involved with issues they feel passionately about
Rich assessment task (productive mode)
An exhibition proposal
You are a curator at the National Library of Australia and have been asked to complete a proposal for a new exhibition. In this exhibition, visitors will learn about the life and work of the poet Ali Cobby Eckermann, with a particular focus on three of her poems.
You are required to submit a written proposal for your exhibition. Your proposal should be no longer than 800 words and must include:
- A short synopsis justifying the importance of the exhibition and explaining why Eckermann’s poetry is of national importance.
- Your concept (including a sketch with annotations) for the layout of the exhibition. The sketch should include symbols that can be associated with the poems and with Eckermann’s life.
- Three sample paragraphs of information (one for each poem) that will be displayed as part of the exhibition, including critical commentary on the poems.
You have been asked to create a 6–10 minute podcast about Eckermann’s poetry for the library’s website, to introduce listeners to her work and to create interest in the upcoming exhibition. The podcast will involve a panel discussion between the host and two panellists who have studied Eckermann’s poetry in detail. You are free to choose who these panellists may be. They could include (but are not limited to) university academics, journalists with an interest in reviewing poetry, other poets and writers, or other Year 11 or 12 students.
The title of your podcast is: ‘How has Ali Cobby Eckermann made a significant contribution to Australian poetry?’
You will submit a script for your podcast and a sound recording. You will take on the role of the host, but can ask others to act as the panellists. You are free to use sound effects where their use will enable you to utilise all the features of the podcast.