This unit of work was created in partnership with The Garret and accompanies their interview with Alexis Wright. 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. They have been formulated for use with a whole class or in groups. All activities can be adapted further to suit smaller groups or individual students. Most activities are linked to specific sections of Alexis Wright’s interview and the relevant portion of the interview is noted at the beginning of the activity.
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, elders and the importance of listening
- personal experiences.
For discussion (following the first ten minutes of the interview):
In the interview Wright’s cultural background is discussed and she talks about taking notes for Indigenous elders in the land council meetings. She lists this as an early influence on her writing. Wright talked about how she listened and took every word of the elders down. Considering the richness of her characters and their language, how important do you think listening is in ‘getting a story straight’?
To understand how the tradition of oral storytelling influences Wright’s prose, ask the students to do this ‘speaking to writing’ activity outside the classroom (for the purposes of recording) in groups of three or four.
Groups are to experiment with listening to a pair or three people talk about an aspect of culture they may find interesting (belonging and fitting in, music, leisure time, future work, current work, aspirations – or their own choices of topic). Try audio recording a short conversation on a mobile phone. Stop after two minutes. Ask the people who had the conversation or who listened to it, to do four different writing exercises (one of each of the following for each member of the group):
- Transcribe everything that was said.
- Recall and write down what the speakers talked about as a set of dot points (without the aid of the recording).
- Describe in writing exactly where the speakers were at the time of the conversation.
- For all speakers and listeners in the group, describe in speech bubbles any thoughts which were not expressed, and the range of emotions seemingly experienced by the group or pair according to your listening and watching.
The group can then discuss the following about ‘writing from speaking’:
- How different is the verbatim transcription from the other written versions and verbal snapshots of the conversation? Which one sounds the most authentic in terms of dialogue?
- What underpinning values, attitudes and beliefs of the participants were apparent in their conversations?
- Ask the students to pool all the information from their groups. Each student is then asked to individually write a paragraph or two, changing the conversation participants into ‘fictional’ characters, including some description of what they said and did, their physical gestures and non-verbal reactions during this conversation. Now describe the setting (or context) in which they were speaking and add in some random thoughts that may have been silenced during the conversation.
- Share the drafts with another member of the group either by reading aloud or swapping their paragraphs.
- How faithful was the final paragraph compared to the original discussion? Did you edit your writing of the conversation to make it more ‘writerly’? Did anyone else try to edit it? How useful is this exercise in determining the differences between written and spoken modes and/or in having characters speak ‘naturally’.
The writer’s journey, including:
- influences and approaches
- themes and issues.
This activity relates to 7:12 mins–8:34 mins of the interview.
Set up small group discussions about the influences of overseas writers and genres on Alexis Wright’s work.
- Why do you think Alexis Wright went outside or beyond Australian writers for inspiration to ‘get her own story straight’?
This formative activity could also act as preparation for the persuasive speech option of the culminating rich assessment task (Option 3.).
- Explore and discuss in writing (approximately 500 words) the following statement with reference to Carpentaria and/or other literature and non-fiction you have read or viewed:
‘Fiction is more powerful than non-fiction in telling the truth.’
- Present your view to the whole class or to other group members, debating this and/or a counter argument that the documentary form or non-fiction are also powerful, because ‘the truth is stranger than fiction’. Here you could refer to Wright’s Stella Prize-winning non-fiction work, Tracker. If you have been working in groups, share your perspectives with the rest of the class.
The writer’s craft, including:
- Language and style
- Character and voice
- Setting and meaning in context
- Editing and redrafting/rewriting.
Activity three: Language and style
This activity relates to 13:00 mins–15:04 mins of the interview.
Read the first two chapters of Alexis Wright’s novel Carpentaria.
Discuss in pairs or groups the author’s comment that she writes in a ‘non-Western style’. What evidence do you see of that in these chapters with regards to grammar and syntax in the novel’s narration, rather than just in dialogue? Gather some of your discussion notes from Activity one above to respond orally to the following tasks.
- Discuss in groups the difference between ‘speakerly’ and ‘writerly’ prose. How many clichés or vernacular expressions appeared in the conversation transcript from Activity one. How does this style create an authentic voice and social and cultural context?
- The ‘speaking to writing’ experiment partly explains the richness of Alexis Wright’s prose. Read the first description of Angel Day in the opening chapter of the novel Carpentaria and note how many spoken elements of language appear in her characterisation. Note especially what the other members of the Pricklebush community say to and about Angel and what she thinks and does.
- How do the language, character and setting descriptions of Pricklebush and Desperance both establish and mirror the conflicting events that occur in this opening chapter of the novel?
Language and style: (Interview 34:00 mins–34:40 mins)
Wright says in the interview, ‘Seamus Heaney’s poetry was like a mentor to me’. For more on the poetry by Irishman, Seamus Heaney, listen to the reading of the poem ‘Death of a Naturalist’. Compare this treatment of nature with one of the descriptive passages from Carpentaria, such as the post-flood return of Normal, Bulla and Hope to the remnants of Desperance in the final chapter. Note how the senses are engaged by Heaney’s verse and then by the character’s experiences of the natural world in the novel.
Character (Interview 18:00 mins–21:07 mins)
Alexis: ‘I like the characters in Carpentaria. They’re really strong people. It was good to know them. Although I had to come to know them, because I didn’t know how to do a lot of things that they could do. They could navigate in the sea, and they could do taxidermy of fish, they were really strong, and in lots of ways that I had to find out a lot of things about these characters to write them…Carpentaria was a world of its own. I thought I was living in that world, as far as the real world.’
Individual written work:
- How did some of Wright’s Carpentaria characters’ mystical connections with the natural world of land and sea engage the reader in that world? Were there other aspects of characterisation that enlivened these fictional characters for you as a reader?
Writing an exposition or story opening.
Return to the two characters described in Activity one, change their names and describe a fictionalised setting (or context). Take just one of the characters and explore what that individual hears, sees, smells, feels and tastes in that setting. Introduce the second character by showing (rather than telling) the way the first feels about her/him. Try to make the outside landscape or room reflect the inner mood of the characters and add in some random thoughts as well as dialogue. For instance, if the interior mood is sunny and happy, make the colours around them bright or if the mood is darker perhaps a storm is brewing outside and there is a bad smell in the air.
(ACEEN024) (ACEEN032) (ACEEN033) (ACEEN037)
Activity five: Setting and meaning in context
Meaning is always made richer when we know something about the context in which the literary work is written and read. Teachers can ask what students know about the following and ask them to do some research to expand their knowledge of these (and other) landmark cases:
- Indigenous land rights in Northern Queensland, for instance the Wik people’s case in Cape York Peninsula in North Eastern Australia (or further afar).
- The case of Eddie Koiki Mabo (a Meriam man) for native title of the Murray Islands in North Queensland.
- Any other clashes between mining ventures and or river rights and Indigenous land rights.
- Clashes between mining ventures and pastoralists’ land use (such as coal seam gas ventures).
Students are to share their findings in a whole class or small group discussion.
Activity six: Structure
Continue your story from the previous writing activity and add in a conflicting point established by the setting, which gives a clue to the central problem of the story. This could arise from a conflict between what the characters are saying and/or thinking, or doing, clashing with what they value or believe. Allow the setting to give a clue to the central problem.
(ACEEN024) (ACEEN032) (ACEEN033) (ACEEN037)
Activity seven: Editing and redrafting/rewriting
(Interview 15:15 mins–15:50 mins)
Alexis: Of course, your audience is, you hope, in some way, your audience is going to be your own mob. Australians and people all around the world. But when you’re writing, it’s really the audience is you and the page, and the way I could think about it, in the best possible way, was it was writing this story to the ancestors.
Consider the extract above and the work you have done on speaking and writing modes to respond to the following questions in small group discussion:
- Why might Alexis Wright say she was unhappy with the editing process in the early part of her publishing career?
- What do you assume the editors were trying to change to make the novel ‘more mainstream’ and why would she insist on keeping her voice authentic?
Trying it out for yourself, including:
- Experimenting with approaches, themes, strategies and styles used by the author.
Activity eight: Proprioceptive writing
Try proprioceptive writing. This involves examining deep level experiences, attitudes, values and beliefs of the self, through writing a non-judgemental stream of consciousness passage for 20 minutes on a topic that is meaningful to the writer. To begin with this exercise students may explore the following topics:
- What is the difference between belonging and fitting in?
- To whom do you belong?
- Where do you belong?
- Write about a place that is important to you. What elements about this place make it special to you?
Sharing your work
- Reflect upon your own work and others’ by sharing your proprioceptive writing in a group or with another person if it is not too personal.
- Apply this method of writing to develop a character and examine what s/he might be thinking about a particular topic. This activity could be practice for the interior monologue culminating rich assessment task option (Option 2).
Wright’s narrative in Carpentaria has been described as surrealistic. Identify language/stylistic techniques or devices used to create this combining of dream elements with omniscient narration for the specific dramatic purpose of creating an atmosphere of mystery or magic. A good example is the chapter in Carpentaria where Old Normal Phantom navigates by the stars to take his friend Elias ‘home’ to the groper dreaming.
Activity nine: Adapting the writer’s approaches to suit your own ideas and themes
Try this yourself by taking some of the thought processes from the proprioceptive writing activity above and create a dreamlike setting and character to explore mystery and magic in an imaginative passage for an implied specific reader.
To understand more about the language in Carpentaria, students could visit an Aboriginal English website.
- What is Aboriginal English like, and how would you recognise it?
Culminating rich assessment task
This range of tasks includes both receptive and productive modes and covers a range of textual types and genres.
Each option relates to Wright’s approaches and attitudes to story, the way we keep stories and storytelling practice.
Download Rich Assessment Task (PDF, 119KB).