This unit of work was created in partnership with The Garret and accompanies their interview with Alex Miller. Please click here to access the Interview, Bibliography, Show notes and Transcript, and Author profile.
The following activities have been designed to be adapted and selected for teacher and teaching context. The activities have been formulated for use with a whole class or small groups, and a suggested grouping is individually noted in each activity. All activities can be adapted to suit smaller groups or individual students. Activities are generally linked to the Alex Miller interview, but others build on the interview content and explore related texts, themes and ideas.
A broad range of synthesising tasks has been developed, from which teachers may choose as they think appropriate.
Getting to know the author, including:
- cultural background
- family, family history and relationships
- personal experiences
Activity one: Journeys
Alex Miller explains that he left his home in Britain to come to Australia to remove himself from a place and a time. He was encouraged to do so when he saw a photograph taken by the Australian artist Sidney Nolan that showed stockmen on a veranda gazing out at the horizon in the Outback. In the interview he quotes a literary theorist, Georg Lukacs, as saying, ‘The origins of the novel are in a journey to see beyond the empty horizon’.
Seeing beyond the horizon can be literal as in Miller’s short story Comrade Pawel when the hawk from its vantage point in the sky can see over the horizon the advancing German army. However, ‘beyond the empty horizon’ can also be a metaphor for a desire for something perhaps unattainable beyond the here and now.
- Discuss with students this rather metaphysical idea of ‘something beyond.’ Can they think of examples of humans driven to explore beyond ‘the empty horizon’? (Remember that such explorations need not be literal. Presumably scientific, intellectual and spiritual explorations also fit into this category.)
As befits a writer who travelled to Australia at the age of sixteen, journeys, both physical and metaphorical, feature in at least some of Alex Miller’s novels. This is especially true of Landscape of Farewell in which the protagonist, the German professor Max Otto, travels to the Central Highlands of Queensland, and of Journey to the Stone Country in which the two main characters travel both through place (the landscape) and time (back into their personal histories.)
- Ask students to reflect on and then write a short account of a journey that they would like to undertake. These could be physical journeys (e.g. to a place important to their family but which they have not previously visited) or more metaphysical (e.g. to conduct a dialogue with an ancestor whose memory is still honoured by their family.)
The writers’ journey, including:
- early work
- development of approaches, style and individual writing characteristics
- themes, issues and motivations.
Activity two: Writing from personal experience
Alex Miller agrees with the interviewer that his first two novels and the award-winning The Ancestor Game are autobiographical. In fact, the interviewer even suggests that Miller has not used his imagination, that he wrote the novels out of his personal experience. Alex Miller agrees to some extent but argues that there is a difference between a memoir which is a straight-forward believable account of events, and a novel which contains an element of imaginative recreation, a ‘folding of time.’
Autobiography: Some theory
An ‘autobiography’ is the story of the writer’s life written by the writer himself/herself. However, this idea of the writer’s life story is not as simple as it might seem. For example, who exactly is the writer? Contemporary theory suggests that our sense of ‘self’, of our identity is actually constructed through our membership of discourses rather than something already formed and with which we are born.
James Gee, after Michel Foucault, describes a discourse as a socially accepted association among ways of using language, other symbolic expressions, and artefacts, of thinking, feeling, believing, valuing and acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group or ‘social network’.
There are many discourses in our culture and society and it is through membership of a number of usually compatible overlapping discourses that individuals gain a sense of identity. One metaphor which can be used to explain the concept of ‘discourse’ is that of a club with its own rules which tell who is and who isn’t a member, how members ought to behave and what they should be committed to. Another metaphor for a discourse is that of an identity kit. Belonging to a discourse involves ways of talking, acting, believing, valuing and relating which makes us into this or that person.
Students are to reflect on some of the important discourses within which their sense of ‘self’, of identity has been shaped to this point in their lives. These could include discourses of family life, school, music, other aspects of popular culture and so on. Students should explore two or three especially significant discourses and reflect on how the attitudes, values, ideas and beliefs promoted by these discourses have influenced them in their lives.
Students should create several short texts that illustrate the influence of these discourses in their lives.
These texts could include:
- a description of a significant place (See the extract from David Malouf’s 12 Edmondstone Street (PDF, 90KB).)
- a personal recount
- a profile for a magazine
- journal entry
- …and so on.
Now illustrate the meaning of ‘memoir’ by reading an extract from a selected memoir, something perhaps like Anita Heiss’s Am I Black Enough for You? Other exponents of memoir are featured on The Garret and include: Thomas Keneally, Alice Pung, Hannie Rayson and Carmel Bird.
Direct students to a sample memoir to help them with the following task.
Students should read some tips for writing a memoir, then choose a significant episode from their own life and write a short account in the form and style of a memoir. They should then share their memoirs with their classmates.
Students are to use a set of guidelines to transform their memoirs into stories involving both imagination and some manipulation of time sequence.
(ACELR038) (ACELR039) (ACELR048) (ACELR049) (ACELR051) (ACELR052)
The writer’s craft, including:
- Point of View
- Language and style
- Meaning in context.
Activity three: Voice
Alex Miller recalls how his friend Max Blatt told him a story from Blatt’s own wartime experience in Poland in 1939. Blatt, a Jew, told the story to illustrate the sentiment of anti-Semitism, a hostility towards Jewish people which led later to the Holocaust. Miller wrote Comrade Pawel based on Blatt’s story but when he sent the story to the editor of Meanjin, a literary magazine, the editor did not believe that a young man like Miller had actually written the story. He said that the ‘voice’ of the writer was that of an older, European man.
- Read Comrade Pawel online. It is a very readable story and should take students no longer than 10 minutes to finish.
- Explain that readers can never know the ‘real’ author of a story. Perhaps the best they can do is to guess at the ‘implied’ author in the text i.e. the author’s persona. However, in Comrade Pawel the story-telling ‘I’, who is a character constructed by the writer, is even more removed from the ‘real’ author. Thus, the ‘voice’ of the narrator has been created by the writer’s use of language.
Read a short extract from the story (PDF, 82KB) to discover how the writer has used language to create the character’s ‘voice’. Some things to think about include:
- choice of words
- the type and length of sentences
- references to the narrator’s thoughts and feelings
- the use of direct statements to add realistic details to the situation
- any use of figurative or symbolic language
- the use of dialogue to create characters.
Students are to find a newspaper or magazine article which features a person somewhat different to them. They should think about how they could use language features to capture the ‘voice’ of this person. They should re-tell at least part of the article in first-person narration (‘I’) in the form of a story.
(The original article does not have to be especially dramatic or exciting. The focus of this exercise is on trying to create an individual ‘voice’ for a character.)
Activity four: The self and the other
A recurring theme in Alex Miller’s work is the telling of others’ stories as a way of entering empathically the lives of those dear to him. His friend Max Blatt urged him to write about what he loved and Miller himself says that ‘novels are about the intimate lives of us.’ As a result Miller then took Blatt’s own account of a wartime experience that he had had in 1939 and transformed it into the short story Comrade Pawel. This device of telling others’ stories as a way of transcending one’s own isolation, recurs in many of Miller’s novels including Landscape of Farewell in which the German professor Max Otto is co-opted by Dougald Gnapun to tell the story of his father and grandfather, the latter having taken part in a frontier massacre of white settlers.
Ask not for whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Our common human fate is finally death.
However, the literary theory known as structuralism emphasises binary oppositions as the way in which the world is structured including between the self and the other. This is an idea taken up in a different context by post-colonial theorists who interrogate the power relations involved between a ‘superior’ Western self and an ‘inferior’ exotic non-white ‘other’.
Post-structuralist theorist Jacques Derrida comes to the rescue here, undermining all binaries including that between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ and making possible an empathic friendship between humans while still recognising the essential difference between those involved in such relationships.
As an experiment in writing to achieve greater empathy with an ‘other’, students are to write a short story based on a friend or classmate’s memoir. The story should be written in first person narration from the point of view of the memoir writer. Students should then share their stories with each other and discuss any affective outcomes of the experiment.
(ACELR037) (ACELR038) (ACELR039) (ACELR42) (ACELR49) (ACELR051) (ACELR052)
Comparison with other writers and texts:
- aspects of genre
- other writers using similar approaches or dealing with similar ideas
- evaluation of the body of work within Australian culture and literature.
Robyn Davidson begins her review of Billy Griffiths’ Deep Time Dreaming with the observation that:
History is the present, they say, and every generation writes it anew. Not just generations, but new contestants in the historical narrative of any country… (The Monthly, May 2018, p. 52).
Another review of Deep Time Dreaming by Astrid Edwards is published on The Garret website.
There has been an attempt in fairly recent times by historical fiction writers in Australia to re-visit the country’s colonial past to uncover some of its dark secrets around the destruction of Aboriginal society and culture. Kate Grenville’s trilogy (The Secret River, The Lieutenant, Sarah Thornhill) is one such attempt, attacked by historian Inga Clendinnen as ‘myth-making’ rather than as a search for historical truth.
However, Alex Miller seems to agree with novelist Hilary Mantel, who has won two Man Booker prizes for her historical novels about Tudor England (note also that her work, Wolf Hall, was a contendor for the Golden Booker Prize – the best Booker of the last 50 years), when she addresses the issue of who owns the representation of history: historical novelists or historians: ‘there is inevitably a great marshy area of interpretation…There aren’t two categories: historical fact and historical fiction; there is an area in between.’ (Quoted in Australian Book Review, June-July 2015 No. 372, p. 55).
Miller, in his Garret interview, says that ‘the deeper you go, the more fictional history becomes’. He says that fiction writers individualise history and try to enter the minds of all participants. This is certainly true of his Miles Franklin award-winning novel, Journey to the Stone Country, in which he provides multiple perspectives around ownership of place, Indigenous and non-Indigenous identity, the values promoted by European and Indigenous culture, and attempts to reconcile the past with the present.
(ACELR037) (ACELR038) (ACELR039) (ACELR040) (ACELR041)
Culminating rich assessment task
This is an exercise in moving from the present to the past and back for students to explore their changing selves between then and now.
Download Rich Assessment Task (PDF, 89KB)