Engaging with the text
Getting to know the author including:
- cultural background
- family, family history and relationships
- personal experiences
Larissa Behrendt is a Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman, a distinguished Aboriginal Australian lawyer, writer and academic. She was born in Cooma in New South Wales in 1969. Ask students to use the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia to locate the contemporary parts of NSW that intersect with Eualeyai/Kamillaroi country. They can begin to find more information about the Eualeyai and the Kamillaroi in general sources such as Wikipedia and then build more authentic knowledge from there.
(2.20 to 3.55 and 36.00 to 38.56)
At the beginning of the interview Larissa Behrendt explains that she became interested in ‘white women capture’ stories while she was living in Canada (2.20–3.55). She also reveals much later in the interview (36.00–38.56) that quite early in her life while she was still at school she read the novel Coonardoo ‘across the grain’ of the story because of the way the writer, Katherine Susannah Pritchard, had represented the character of the Aboriginal woman protagonist, Coonardoo. From these experiences three important issues emerged for Behrendt:
- How Indigenous people are represented in colonial stories
- The stereotypes that support these representations
- The question of who benefits from these stories.
These issues became the starting point for the writing of Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling.
Reading practices: How did Larissa Behrendt ‘read’ these colonial stories?
Explain to students that different reading practices can produce different meanings of a text. Explain that according to reader-response theory an author will generally try to position an ‘implied’ reader to make a preferred or invited reading of a text but that readers, based on their own personal life experiences, may make an ‘alternative’ meaning instead.
- As an example of an alternative reading of a text, show students a short film review in which the writer obviously responds negatively to the film itself. (This review of Jennifer Kent’s 2018 film The Nightingale would be an appropriate example, and even more so, this one of the 2004 film The Passion of the Christ.)
- Then ask students why they think Larissa Behrendt made an alternative reading of a novel which seemed to be sympathetic to Aboriginal people. (She explains this in the interview 36.00 to 38.56)
The power of storytelling: Storytelling and national identity
(4.30 to 7.25)
Larissa Behrendt understands the power of storytelling and how stories can construct different realities. (She even relates this to storytelling by lawyers in courtrooms who misrepresent Aboriginal people for their own legal arguments, 16.50 to 18.30). In Finding Eliza she sets out to deconstruct the Eliza Fraser story by showing that stories do not tell ‘the truth’ but that instead they construct a version of reality that promotes the interests of the teller of the story.
She says, ‘So, I guess growing up, I was surrounded by stories that didn’t reflect what my understanding of my own history from an Aboriginal background was.’
This raises the question of what stories she was hearing while she was growing up. Richard White in Inventing Australia (Allen and Unwin, Australia, 1981) says that ‘A national identity is a construction’ and argues that ‘When we look at ideas about national identity, we need to ask, not whether they are true or false, but what their function is, whose creation they are, and whose interests they serve.’
Ask students to complete the following exercise that explores how certain stories can create a national identity.
Some ideas in Australian folklore that have constructed a dominant Australian national identity are those associated with the cultural ‘myths’ or stories of the Bush and of the Anzacs. (Here a ‘myth’ means a story we tell each other about our history, our present and our future.)
Ask students to ‘deconstruct’ each of these stories by considering, in small groups, answers to the following questions:
- Are these myths based on any ‘real’ historical events?
- Who are the characters featured in the myths?
- Who first created the Bush myth?
- Who first created the Anzac myth?
- In what ways are the myths endlessly recycled?
- Whose interests are served by these myths?
- What stereotypes have been created to accompany the myth of the Anzacs and the myth of the Bush? (A stereotype is a one-dimensional representation of a certain group).
- What icons are associated with the myths?
- What attitudes, values and beliefs are promoted by the myths?
However, as Richard White says, this version of an Australian national identity is not ‘the truth’ but rather a construction. The big question, then, is who is excluded from this version? How can excluded Australians challenge the national identity constructed by these two myths? Can you think of any examples?
What connection do those excluded from the dominant version of an Australian national identity have with Larissa Behrendt’s purpose in Finding Eliza?
Challenging a dominant story with a story from the Aboriginal oral tradition
(5.12 to 5.58)
Behrendt explains that Aboriginal people have an oral tradition of storytelling. Students will be familiar with the story of how Captain James Cook discovered and mapped the east coast of Australia. However, this dominant story is challenged by a counter-story from the oral tradition of the Guugu Yimithiir people of the Cooktown area in far North Queensland.
- Discuss with students what they know about Captain Cook’s time repairing his ship, the ‘Endeavour’, at the place now named after him.
- Then show them the video Spoken: Cooktown Story in which an Indigenous man from the local clan retells Cook’s story from his people’s point of view.
The writers’ journey including:
- development of approaches, style and individual writing characteristics
- themes, issues and motivations.
(8.10 to 10.45 and 23.50 to 27.00)
Of course, stories do not appear in a vacuum. Behrendt signals the context within which the Eliza Fraser stories first appeared with the word ‘colonial’ in the subtitle of her book. Therefore, it will be important to understand the meaning of the word ‘colonial’ and why it is linked to the idea of power.
- Ask students to begin by researching the meaning of the word ‘Colonialism’ (from which the adjective ‘colonial’ is derived.) Read the first two paragraphs of the Wikipedia entry.
- Then consider this: Colonialism basically means the invasion and exploitation of one country by another for economic gain. However, over time (sometimes several centuries), the invading country imposes its own culture (laws, religion, language, culture, ideology) and sense of superiority on the people of the invaded country who are made to feel that their own culture and way of life are inferior.
- Explain to students that the invaders regarded themselves as the Centre and the invaded people as the ‘Other’. Because the invaders were more powerful, they were able to represent the colonised people as completely different from themselves. They called the colonised people ‘The Other’. They projected onto them all the bad qualities that they did not want to acknowledge about themselves. Then they ascribed to themselves the opposing good qualities.
- Students should look at the following chart which lists in the right-hand column the way that white settlers thought about and represented Aboriginal people. Then, in the left-hand column, students should write down words opposite in meaning to those in the right-hand column. This should help students to understand that, in this way, by seeing themselves as completely different to Aboriginal people, white people were able to think of themselves in a very positive way. See The Centre and the Other worksheet (PDF, 156 KB) for possible answers.
|White settlers (The Centre)||Aboriginal people (The ‘Other’)|
- Ask students if they can see that the words in the right-hand column describe Indigenous people in much the same way as they are represented in Eliza Fraser’s account of her time with the Butchulla people, and also in the books written by John Curtis, Charles Barrett and Michael Alexander.
Obviously Indigenous people want to challenge these representations. That is certainly Larissa Behrendt’s project in Finding Eliza. How can this be done? (7.25 to 8.06)
‘Post’ means ‘after’ and ‘colonialism’ means the period when powerful countries, especially European powers such as Great Britain, invaded and exploited other countries like India. The invaded countries were then called colonies. When the invading countries finally left or relinquished power, these colonised countries had to try to establish a new sense of national identity. This often involved ‘writing back’ against the worldview and culture of the invader. This is what Larissa Behrendt sets out to do in Finding Eliza.
(Of course, in Australia the invader has not left and, in fact, Bruce Pascoe, the author of Dark Emu, argues that Australia is still a colonial country, what he calls a Raj.)
Discuss with students the following points made by Larissa Behrendt (9.20 to 10.45):
A number of settler groups benefited from the negative representation of the Butchulla people. These included:
- white settlers who wanted to seize Indigenous territory
- Christian missionaries who felt that they had to ‘civilise’ Indigenous people
- politicians who supported the occupation of Aboriginal lands.
The reasons that Larissa Behrendt recommends that whites look at themselves in a mirror:
- The Moreton Bay settlement was a secondary penal settlement to which repeat offenders were sent for harsher punishment.
- Their punishment was often very cruel and sadistic.
- It was white men in rural areas who kidnapped and sexually exploited Aboriginal women. (15.10 to 16.00)
Behrendt (11.26 to 11.52) explores the motives that white writers had in the way they wrote their histories to support the interests of white settlement and Indigenous dispossession.
(ACEEN060) (ACEEN062) (ACEEN064) (ACEEN077)
The writer’s craft including:
- Point of View
- Language and style
(13.50 to 14.54)
A colonial worldview saw Aboriginal people as ‘other’ people who were the complete opposite of the way in which white people wanted to see themselves. This worldview contributed to the representation of Aboriginal people that Larissa Behrendt now explores in Finding Eliza.
In her Garret interview (1.21 to 3.20) Behrendt explains to the interviewer that her main aim in writing Finding Eliza was to ‘deconstruct’ Eliza Fraser’s colonial story of what happened to her after the shipwreck of the Stirling Castle in 1836.
One way of ‘deconstructing’ the story is to analyse the way in which the writer represents certain characters in the story and then to ask what purpose she may have had for representing them in this way.
A powerful method for analysing how representations of people in texts are used to position readers to adopt a particular attitude to the subject is called Appraisal. Look at this comprehensive example of how Appraisal works to unpack a positive profile of Aboriginal writer, actress and producer, Leah Purcell, whose latest work is the transformation of Henry Lawson’s short story The Drover’s Wife into a stage play and novel. The feature article representing Leah Purcell is on page 7 so read it first before exploring how Appraisal is used to unpack her representation.
However, for this exercise use this simplified version of the main aspects of Appraisal:
- Look for words that express emotions, positive or negative. (Affect)
- Look for words that express judgements (social esteem and social sanction), again, positive and negative. (Judgement)
- Look for words that express appreciation, positive and negative, of the subject.
- Assess how force is scaled up or down and focus is sharpened or softened.
- Find ways in which words are used to identify how many ‘voices’ are involved in the representation.
Read the extracts from Eliza Fraser’s first-hand account of her time with the Butchulla people in Chapter 2 of Finding Eliza and then unpack her representation of them.
|Dimension of attitude:||Write down examples from Eliza Fraser’s book, Narrative of the Capture, Sufferings, and Miraculous Escape of Mrs. Eliza Fraser.|
|Words that express positive or negative feelings (emotions)
|e.g. ‘her fits of rage’|
|Words expressing positive or negative judgements
|e.g. ‘Great was the abuse that I received’|
|Words expressing positive or negative evaluations of beauty or worth
|Ways in which the force of representation is scaled up or down and focus is sharpened or softened.
|e.g. ‘extremely filthy’; ‘greatly enraged’|
|Locate how many ‘voices’ are in the text.
|Only Eliza Fraser’s ‘voice’, her account of her experiences on the island, is heard.
In Chapter 2 readers also learn about three other accounts by writers who embellish her story without really knowing anything about the episode.
Now, using this analysis, write a short reflective piece in which you explain how the Butchulla have been represented, Eliza Fraser’s likely purpose in representing them in this way (was she telling the truth?) and how the Butchulla themselves could argue back against their representation.
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The word ‘stereotype’ is used a number of times in the interview.
- Discuss with students the meaning of ‘stereotype’: for example, ‘A stereotype is a one dimensional representation of certain racial or ethnic groups that purports to capture the essence of a group.’
- Ask students to suggest some stereotypes with which they are familiar.
- Ask them to consider the positive and negative features of stereotypes.
- The negative representation of Aboriginal people as noble savages and cannibals
- The problems with seemingly positive representations of Aboriginal people as having special relations with nature or having telepathic spiritual powers.
- Revisit the way in which a negative stereotype of the Butchulla people was created by Eliza Fraser and the other writers who told her story.
Another important word is ‘Icon’. Larissa Behrendt (12.52 to 13.33) says that over time the actual person Eliza Fraser disappeared into the texts that had been written about her and her name instead became a symbol.
- Discuss with students the meaning of ‘icon’.
- Ask them to suggest some icons in Australian popular culture (e.g. the kangaroo symbol on QANTAS planes) and what they mean in a symbolic way.
- Share with students the values that Eliza Fraser, the icon, was created to promote, for example:
- her middle-class status
- her ‘whiteness’
- her British ‘race’
- her role as a representative of British imperialism
- her ‘superiority’ because of these qualities.
‘Writing back’ against colonial stories: Friday’s reconstruction of his first meeting with Robinson Crusoe
(34.08 to 36.06)
‘Writing back’ is a strategy promoted by post-colonial theory as a way of challenging (‘deconstructing’) the values, attitudes and beliefs of imperialism and colonialism.
In Finding Eliza Larissa Behrendt refers to a famous novel, Robinson Crusoe by an English writer, Daniel Defoe, as an example of the way in which Europeans as far back as the early eighteenth century (Robinson Crusoe was first published in 1719) visualised people in other parts of the world as different and inferior (the ‘Other’). The story of Robinson Crusoe is told in first-person narration by Crusoe himself, who has been cast away on a desert island where he then spends twenty-eight years. In his twenty-fourth year on the island he rescues an Araucanian man from captors who Crusoe calls ‘savages’ and ‘cannibals’.
Defoe represents Crusoe as the very epitome of the superior white man. He is:
- keen to start businesses after he leaves the island, including entering the slave trade
- and so on.
As students read these two extracts from Robinson Crusoe (PDF, 251 KB) they should use the following short activities as a way of understanding the representations of the characters Robinson Crusoe and Friday and the power relationship between them:
- Notice how the use of the personal pronoun ‘I’ makes Crusoe the focus of the story, the one who has the power to interpret his limited ‘world’.
- List some of the verbs that construct Crusoe as the brave actor in this episode.
- List words (especially adjectives and verbs) in Crusoe’s story that construct ‘his savage’ as dependent on the European man.
- Explain how Crusoe’s assumption of the right for him to describe the ‘savage’ in detail reveals his sense of entitlement as a white man.
- Point out how the complimentary description of ‘the savage’ nevertheless reveals Crusoe’s racist view of the other natives of the area.
- Again, consider Crusoe’s assumption of the right to name the ‘savage’ as Friday, a day of the week. (Would Friday already have a name given to him by his parents within his own world?)
- How do some of Friday’s actions reveal his instant acknowledgement of Robinson Crusoe’s superiority?
A powerful way of resisting colonial storytelling is to retell the story from a different perspective and through the ‘voice’ of those constructed as ‘other’ in the original text.
Have students retell in the persona of Friday the original story (or parts of it) from his point of view. Focus not only on the action of the episode but also on Friday’s thoughts, feelings and understandings of the situation. They can decide how far Friday’s story fits in with Crusoe’s.
Some things to consider:
- Does Friday think about why Crusoe is in this part of the world at all?
- Is he submissive because he recognises Crusoe’s superiority or only because Crusoe has a gun?
- Is he happy to be called Friday or would he like to tell Crusoe his real name?
- How does he feel about being described as looking ‘European’?
Some strategies to tell the story from Friday’s point of view:
- Have Friday tell the story in first person using the pronoun ‘I’.
- Let Friday tell readers his real name.
- Associate Friday with verbs realising both ‘doing’ and ‘thinking’ processes.
- Let Friday rename Crusoe.
- Let Friday apply some stereotypes about white sailors to Crusoe (e.g. greedy, violent, ignorant of other humans.)
Rich assessment task
Begin by watching the SBS interactive animated documentary K’gari. (K’gari is the Butchulla name for their home, called Fraser Island today.) The documentary juxtaposes Eliza Fraser’s story (spoken by Miranda Otto) with a counter-story spoken by a Butchulla woman, Fiona Foley.
Then, in role as a newspaper journalist, write a newspaper article in which you explore the story of Eliza Fraser from several points of view. Draw on Eliza’s recount of her time on the island but then use information that you have learned during this unit and from reading Finding Eliza to challenge the truth of her account. Include information about how representations of the Butchulla people were used to dispossess them of their land and list the various settler groups that benefited from these tactics.
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Comparison with other writers and texts:
- evaluation of the body of work within Australian culture and literature
- other writers using similar approaches
There has been an explosion in recent times of mainly literary texts written by Indigenous authors. Some of these include:
- Novels by Kim Scott (Benang; Taboo; That Deadman Dance)
- Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
- Ghost River and The White Girl by Tony Birch
- The Yield by Tara June Winch
- and many others.
- Beneath Clouds written and directed by Ivan Sen
- Ten Canoes directed by Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr
Poetry, art, theatre and songs
All of these texts obviously present a uniquely Indigenous point of view of life in Australia, past and present.
- However, over the last four years, Leah Purcell, a Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri actor and writer from Murgon in rural Queensland, has done something very similar to Larissa Behrendt in deconstructing and rewriting an iconic ‘bush story’, The Drover’s Wife by Henry Lawson as, first, a stage play and then as a novel and film. She has taken the original story, which had one marginalised stereotypical Aboriginal character, and transformed it into a story featuring three Aboriginal hero characters. Again, this rewrite challenges the dominant myths of early settler Australia. As Indigenous writer, Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu) says, Lawson ‘ignored Aboriginal people…one of the only times he mentioned them was to condemn them as cheats and scoundrels in The Drover’s Wife.’
- In the year of the 150th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s voyage along the east coast of what is now known as Australia, Indigenous cultural groups are beginning to undertake a revision of the Australian colonial story. For example, in Cairns, Far North Queensland, an Undercurrents – Cook 2020 art exhibition in July, 2020 featured a number of paintings that challenged the dominant version of the story. As Jack Wilkie-Jans, the writer of the introduction to the exhibition, states: ‘Part of the way this (the #BlackLivesMatter campaign) manifested in “Australia” has been to review how colonial history is presented and revered in a contemporary paradigm and attempting to assert blak narratives into what the dominant social culture accepts as true history.’ The writer continues, ‘In a year celebrating colonial conquest Undercurrents is but one artistic space offering alternative insights into the history of this country.’