This text could be studied across any of the four AC: English units at Years 11 or Year 12. Some stories contain sexual references and coarse/offensive language, so the resource has been directed towards more mature student groups.
The stories in this anthology have a common connection through the setting of the beach – Cottesloe Beach in Western Australia, Bondi in Sydney, the northern beaches of Sydney, an island in tropical North Queensland and the Pacific Coast of California. Using Google Maps and images, students can locate these settings and view images of them.
In small groups, students can start by recollecting their personal memories of the beach and the ocean; for example:
- What is your earliest memory of the beach?
- What senses are evoked for you by the beach – smell? Taste? Sounds? Touch? Sights?
- What people and events do you most associate with the beach?
If students have never seen the ocean or been to the beach, discuss how they imagine it might be.
Of course, the beach may or may not be a location that is important in students’ memories of growing up. So, in small groups or short video blogs, students can share stories about places important to them when they were growing up, or places important to their families. They can discuss:
- Why were these places important?
- What values do these places represent? E.g. connection with the land, the importance of a sanctuary, the importance of family and friends.
These stories can be referred to later when students consider how representative the stories are in The Bodysurfers.
In The Bodysurfers, Robert Drewe neglects and therefore effectively erases any reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Of course, from the perspective of a twenty-frst century reader, this is fairly typical of the times in which the stories were written and is understandable – at least to some extent. The anthology was published in 1983 at a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues were, at best, marginal for white writers (and for white readers more generally). The stories follow three generations of a white family, the Langs; however, from a contemporary perspective, these (probably unconscious) erasures are a real issue if the anthology is an exploration of the beach in shaping Australian identity. As Elizabeth Ellison and Lesley Hawks have pointed out: ‘The beaches were a place of conflict when Anglo-Saxon settlers began arriving.’ Therefore, before students read these stories by a non-Indigenous man, explore stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander connections with the sea and its beaches. Here are some places to start:
- The story of Soli Bailey, a Yaegl man, qualifying for a place in the surfing Championship Tour, and the stories of other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander surfers here and here. In this NITV video, Steve Ellis talks about the spiritual significance of surfing.
- The story of Torres Strait Islander warrior Tagai in The Little Red Yellow Black Book: An Introduction to Indigenous Australia.
- Tara June Winch’s short story, Summers Gone.
- The stories of nine Aboriginal women in Nambucca Heads on the NSW north coast.
Personal response on reading the text
As students read, they should keep in mind the following enquiry questions:
- In what ways are relationships complex?
- How is Australian identity represented in Robert Drewe’s short story collection, The Bodysurfers?
These questions can guide students as they undertake the following activities.
While students are reading, they should work independently to take notes and reflect on the stories as they read: a retrieval chart (PDF, 162KB) has been provided to facilitate and guide this work. Depending on how students are progressing through the reading (e.g. reading the whole volume straight through, or focusing on one story at a time), when students finish they can form small groups (preferably mixed ability/engagement) to compare their notes and discuss their interpretations, observations and reflections.
In conjunction with the previous activity, students can use these story-by-story guiding questions (PDF, 472KB) to consider key aspects of each story. The questions could also be used as a starting point for literature circle activities.
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Outline of key elements of the text
This is a collection of loosely-connected short stories that follow three generations of the Lang family. To tell his stories, Drewe uses a range of genres, including monologue, a private detective’s report and straight narrative. Themes include Australian identity, the complexity of relationships, and the nature of masculinity (and, indirectly, its impact on women’s lives).
All of the stories have a connection to the littoral zone of various coasts (in Australia and the West Coast of the USA). However, as Michael Ackland has argued in ‘The Aims and Art of Robert Drewe’s Fiction’ (pp.26–41, Westerly Volume 50): ‘beaches are not simple places of sun, surf and fun, but the backdrop against which telling scenes in the lives of his characters unfold’.
Discuss what Ackland’s quote might mean – both before and after reading the anthology. Students should also consider other stories they know where the physical backdrop is crucial to the story, even acting symbolically. Starting points might be: Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko; Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss; Burial Rites by Hannah Kent; Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay; Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë; and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Once students have finished reading all the stories across the anthology, they should come together in small groups and consolidate their notes and reflections. While this could be done using the retrieval chart or guide questions above, each group could be made responsible for one story. Using the notes that they have taken and the reflections they have made, groups could produce an infographic on that particular chapter. For best results, these should use common headings (e.g. see the column headings in the retrieval chart). These infographics can be shared with other students, e.g. by displaying them in the classroom or on a class webpage.
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The writer’s craft
While there are many elements of Drewe’s craft to study in The Bodysurfers, we will focus on just three here: use of structure, setting and point of view/voice. These can be used as common touchstones across all the stories.
Structure and the ‘ricochet principle’
The Bodysurfers consists of a series of loosely-connected stories about three generations of the Lang family. Based on notes taken by students during their reading (see Initial Response section), working in groups they should:
- map out connections between the various stories (e.g. David in ‘The Bodysurfers’ is the same David in ‘Looking for Malibu’ and ‘Stingray’; events in ‘Baby Oil’ and ‘After Noumea’ are connected)
- determine (as far as is possible) family connections across the anthology (Paul Lang in ‘80% Humidity’ is David’s son from ‘The Bodysurfers’)
While Drewe makes use of a number of different genres in the anthology, arguably of most interest structurally was Drewe’s decision not to organise the stories in chronological order. This is probably influenced by Drewe’s ‘ricochet principle’.
Read Drewe’s explanation of the ricochet principle (PDF, 113KB) as reported by Michael Ackland in Westerly Volume 50 and discuss the questions that follow on the same page. Later, when students write their own stories, they might apply Drewe’s ideas about fiction, and the ricochet effect in particular, to their own writing.
Setting: The coast
Drewe has said that: ‘To me, and I’m sure I’m not alone, that mysterious, sensuous zone where the bush meets the sea is the real Australia’ (National Library of Australia Magazine, 2015, p.9). Furthermore, Elizabeth Ellison and Lesley Hawks argue that the beach is a complex and plural location:
The beaches were a place of conflict when Anglo-Saxon settlers began arriving. […] It is not merely the space that exists between the ocean and peopled land; rather it is a space in its own right that is simultaneously the imagined mythic icon of tourism campaigns while also being the everyday lived location of local families and the site of memories past and future.
Students should consider what opportunities for exploring Australian identity and human relationships (family, male-female) are opened by Drewe’s choice of the beach. Consider:
- How would these stories be different if the settings had been a mountain rainforest, the snow fields in winter, or the outback?
- What are the qualities of the Australian beaches represented in Drewe’s anthology that influence events and characters’ behaviour? For example, think about the role played by the water (lakes, oceans, bays, swimming pools) across many of the stories; heat and humidity in ‘Eighty Per Cent Humidity’; the shadowy threat of a shark in ‘Shark Logic’; the tactile sensation and scent of oil in ‘The Silver Medallist’; the choppy blue sea in ‘The Last Explorer’ (versus his remembered ‘bush’); the isolation of a tropical island in ‘Sweetlip’; and so forth. Also consider the qualities of different types of beach environments in the anthology, like the Californian coast in ‘Looking for Malibu’ versus Palm Beach in ‘After Noumea’ and ‘The Bodysurfers’, or the beach from the narrator’s perspective in ‘The View from the Sandhills’.
- After reading the stories, how do the quotations above enhance an understanding of Drewe’s use of setting? It’s worth reading the entirety of the National Library of Australia Magazine article. What are the key characteristics of Drewe’s Australia (and Australians) that he has represented in his stories? What makes the beach special in his stories; that is, why did he use beaches in various guises and not other locations as the settings?
Students can compile notes and write two or three paragraphs reflecting on these questions before discussing with other students. Then, with these notes as reference, they can participate in a larger discussion on their responses, taking written notes on the support, challenges and elaborations that arise. Afterwards, students should revise their initial reflective paragraphs, taking into account the ideas that arose.
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Narrative point of view and voice: who sees? Who speaks?
Narration (the way the story is told) involves two key elements:
- Who sees? Is the ‘consciousness’ through which readers ‘see’ the story internal (a character who is a part of the story), external (someone outside the story) or omniscient (external and all-knowing)?
- Who speaks? Is the story in first second or third person? Is the narrator reliable of unreliable?
Students should identify who sees and who speaks across the stories. In groups, they should then discuss:
- What patterns emerge in whom Drewe ‘allows’ to speak and see?
- Who remains unheard in the stories?
Re-write extracts from the stories, experimenting with point of view and voice. For example, students could:
- re-write pp.12–13 of ‘The Manageress and the Mirage’ from the manageress’s perspective.
- imagine what Peter’s mother is doing and thinking before, during and immediately after the father’s phone call on p.35 of ‘Shark Logic’.
- give voice to Lydia in ‘The Bodysurfers’.
In particular, choose some key scenes and write in the perspective of female characters. Then discuss:
- How are readers currently positioned?
- How does the current use of narration limit the reader’s ability to ‘see and hear’ events and relationships?
- How does changing point of view and voice also change the way a reader might interpret various characters and events?
Text and meaning
As indicated in the Initial Response section, The Bodysurfers explores issues related to:
- Australian identity
- the nature of masculinity (and its implications for both men and women)
- the complexity of human relationships – and all the associated disappointment, despair, desperation, love and lust
Students might consider whether there were any further recurring elements that they identified.
Students should work in groups to map out how each of these issues is apparent in Robert Drewe’s anthology. They should also discuss:
- Are there any key ‘messages’ a reader might take away from the book regarding one or more of its themes?
- How might these ‘messages’ differ for different readers? E.g. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, women, people from diverse cultures, older and younger readers, etc.
Students can work in pairs/small groups to create a mock-interview with Robert Drewe, the author. This could be intended for a literary magazine, blog or podcast, with the audience being readers/viewers with a general interest in Australian literature (i.e. not experts). The interviewer (a journalist, informed fan, etc.) should ask Drewe about the elements of his craft, as well as themes and associated messages explored in this section. Answers should be based on what students have discussed and learned during the course of the first two sections.
The final ‘interview’ could be presented in written or video/audio form. Models of interviews (audio and transcripts) by authors with authors can be found on the website, The Garret: Writers on Writing, including ones with Ali Cobby Eckermann, John Marsden, and Benjamin Law. Many of The Garret interviews have Reading Australia teaching resources written for them, including those listed above, along with Alexis Wright, Charlotte Wood, Alex Miller and many more.
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Ways of reading the text
In the following two activities, students will be encouraged to read with and against the text, i.e. make invited and resistant readings. In simple terms, an invited reading is one where the reader and writer share background, beliefs and values; therefore, the reader is more likely to go along with what is in the text. The reader is more likely to resist the text if their background, values and beliefs diverge from those of the writer; for example, due to historical era, gender, race, age or ability.
As much as anything, Drewe’s book is an exploration of (Australian) masculinity and, as such, invites a gendered reading approach.
Michael Ackland in Westerly Volume 50 (2005) says: ‘Drewe’s characters are anything but “contented men.” […] his stories centre on emotional turmoil and are strikingly contemporary.’ (p.36)
In small groups, students should consider:
- How does Drewe variously represent men in his stories? Compare, for example, Paddy in ‘The View from the Sandhills’, Kevin Parnell in ‘The Silver Medallist’, Paul Lang in ‘Eighty Per Cent Humidity’ and the explorer in ‘The Last Explorer’.
- How do you react to the comments above in relationship to Australian masculinity as represented in The Bodysurfers?
- What do these forms of masculinity mean for the women in the stories – let alone for peoples along a continuum of sexuality?
- How do Drewe’s representations align with your understanding of Australian masculinity in the twenty-first century?
Explore some of the gaps and silences in Drewe’s stories. For example, consider:
- The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories read in the Initial Response section of this resource.
- The gender of the narrators of these stories: who gets to speak and see? What effect does this have on the stories? What evidence is there (for example) of a male gaze? To understand the impact of the narrow choice of narrators, students could try re-writing (parts of) the stories female characters’ points of view.
- The representation of characters from diverse cultural backgrounds.
Discuss in small groups: how do these gaps and silences affect our reading of the stories? Imagine you were putting together an anthology such as this today; what other stories might you have included? Students could create titles for and summaries of stories that ‘fully activate’ (to use Leah Purcell’s words) marginalised characters in the current collection or that bring in characters beyond Drewe’s current story world. Take into account how these stories might ‘ricochet’ off Drewe’s events and characters, and/or explore something happening ‘outside the frame’.
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Comparison with other texts
If time is available, before proceeding with the next section, students could read and view some of the texts that have helped perpetuate the myth of the ‘typical’ Australian, especially as represented by bushmen of the nineteenth century: outback employees, the semi-nomadic drovers, shepherds, shearers, bullock-drivers, stockmen, boundary-riders, station-hands and others of the pastoral industry (as identified by Russell Ward, below). A starting list for reading might include:
- ‘The Man from Snowy River’ and ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ by A. B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson
- ‘The Loaded Dog’ and ‘The Drover’s Wife’ by Henry Lawson, and perhaps also Leah Purcell’s play The Drover’s Wife
- The original Crocodile Dundee film or Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (for a more modern take)
- A Fortunate Life by A.B. Facey
As students read (extracts) from these, they should consider:
- How are Australians (especially men) represented in these stories?
- How do they compare with the stories in The Bodysurfers?
Evaluation of the text as a critique of Australian identity
Drewe’s penultimate story, ‘The Last Explorer’, finishes with the infirm explorer moving his bed ‘silently on its coasters.’
Gradually he relaxes and lies back at his pillows, staring into the far distance. He cannot see out the window. The sea is behind his back, its noise is gone. Facing the desert, he feels up to laughing (p.155).
This is Drewe’s most explicit reference to the contrast between an older Australia, which looked to the desert and the ‘bush’ to define its identity, and Drewe’s own challenge to this: an Australia whose identity is caught up with the beach.
The ‘myth’ of the typical Australian based on archetypal bushmen is captured most classically in Russell Ward’s book, The Australian Legend (second edition, published 1966). Read the following extract (PDF, 97KB).
In groups, students should discuss:
- How are the qualities described by Ward displayed by the characters in the previous section’s fiction?
- Are these qualities displayed by the characters in The Bodysurfers?
- What qualities do the characters in The Bodysurfers display?
- How does the beach setting potentially affect the qualities displayed by the characters – at least as represented by Drewe?
Try re-writing Ward’s description in a manner that might be more agreeable to Drewe. Then, discuss:
- How do these descriptions align with your own experiences of being an Australian? Can an Australian identity (with associated values) be easily defined? What do you believe are the advantages and disadvantages of trying to do so?
Rich assessment task (productive mode)
Students are asked to complete the following open-ended task:
- On its publication in 1983, Robert Drewe’s The Bodysurfers challenged the notion that Australian identity is located in the bush. Instead, the anthology contains stories about various, overlapping generations of the Lang family, a well-to-do Anglo Australian family. Many of the stories explore the complexity of human relationships, including male-female and parent-child. However, from the perspective of the twenty-first century, does The Bodysurfers adequately represent the diversity of human experience in Australia?
- Write a story (memoir, narrative, exemplum, etc.) that captures Australian experiences that are relevant to an environment and context with which you are familiar. Use this environment to create a story that explores relationships important to you and might, if you like, ‘ricochet’ off one or more of Drewe’s stories.
The story can be fictional or (auto)biographical. However, be careful to tell or use stories that are yours to tell; for example, do not appropriate stories that belong to another culture and only create characters about which you have a deep understanding and knowledge.
The story might be aimed at an Australian or overseas audience, and could be written or designed to be told orally. For a written story, it might be commissioned for a new anthology of Australian writing to be published, for example, in something along the lines of the Griffith Review or The Australian Book Review. For a spoken story, it could be for a podcast such as SBS True Stories.
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Synthesising core ideas
In this section, students should draw together their thinking and discussions, and make connections back to their memories of the beach (and other places important to them) from the pre-reading activities.
Students should review their recollections of times at the beach created as a pre-reading activity. In small groups, discuss:
- How do your experiences of the beach compare to the representations in Drewe’s short story collection?
- Do you agree with him that it is the beach rather than the bush that represents who we are as Australians? How does that reconcile with the place you most like to be (see pre-reading activity in the Initial Response section)?
When first published in 1983, The Bodysurfers was important for challenging the dominant perception of Australians identified with and located in ‘the bush’. However, more than 35 years have passed since then and Australia has undergone many changes. So, in a panel discussion (or a series of panel discussions), students can discuss:
- How representative is The Bodysurfers of contemporary Australian identity?
- Who and what do the stories foreground? Whose world views are privileged?
- Who or what is marginalised and silenced in these short stories?
- Is there a singular, identifiable ‘Australian identity’?
- Is there a set of identifiable Australian values? If not, does this matter?
To challenge students’ thinking, teachers might use this article from The Guardian: ‘Go ahead, white Australia, eat your kebabs while you remind us of your “values”‘.
On the panel, students can be asked to speak from different perspectives:
- Robert Drewe (the writer)
- representatives for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
- various gendered roles
- migrants to Australia
- representatives of various multicultural groups
- urban dwellers
Students should preferably adopt an authentic perspective with which they are very familiar, but research might also be required. While they should state their own views (from the perspective they have adopted), they must also actively listen to others, being prepared to both support and challenge (in a civil and respectful manner) their perspectives.
While this activity does require students to move beyond the text itself, they should be reminded of the importance of anchoring their responses in The Bodysurfers, including using specific evidence from the anthology to support their views.
Individually (and in light of the discussions above), students should formulate their own personal but informed response to The Bodysurfers. This could be written as a literary blog-style entry or even presented as a vlog (video blog). For example, see this blog about representations of teachers in Australian fiction or this vlog, an interview with Wiradjuri author Anita Heiss, about Aboriginal writing as a political tool.
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Rich assessment task (productive mode)
The unit can culminate in students writing an essay which critically analyses the perspectives, values and attitudes in Robert Drewe’s The Bodysurfers. Suitable stimulus questions and tasks might include the following:
- How are distinctive voices in texts used to challenge and educate audiences? In your response, make detailed reference to at least two stories from The Bodysurfers.
- The complexity of human relationships is central to The Bodysurfers. To what extent do you agree with this statement? In your response, make detailed reference to at least two stories from the anthology.
- It is not only the subject matter but also the anthology’s use of conflict that makes The Bodysurfers thought-provoking. Discuss this statement, making detailed reference to The Bodysurfers.
- How does Drewe use various representations of the beach to explore either Australian identities or the complexity of relationships? In your response, make detailed reference to at least two stories in The Bodysurfers.
- In the twenty-first century, The Bodysurfers sounds thin and one-dimensional, no longer challenging what it means to be Australian. Discuss this statement with detailed reference to the text and, where relevant, to more recent stories by writers representing diverse characters and events.
As this is a culminating task, students can complete it either as a carefully prepared and pre-drafted assignment or a task under test conditions. Their audience will be assumed to have a deep understanding of The Bodysurfers and a formal tone is expected. Both invited and resistant readings should be encouraged.
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