Introductory activities

Too Much Lip contains explicit language, family violence, drug use and sex scenes, so teachers will need to consider carefully their school community context before choosing to introduce this text. It is a text that deliberately sets out to be confronting and challenging and teachers must have licence to explore this thoroughly.

This novel is a masterpiece in exploring the cycles of abuse and trauma in Aboriginal communities and how such intergenerational trauma stems from colonial practices. The suitability of this novel in a school context therefore also depends on the teacher/school’s capacity to spend a good amount of class time exploring these broader historical and social issues in order to appropriately contextualise the novel. Suitable classroom materials that can be used in a socio-historical reading of the text are provided in this resource.

Cultural and historical understanding

It is difficult to read texts by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors without considering their cultural, historical and sociopolitical contexts. Alice Healy-Ingram writes about teaching texts by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors as a non-Indigenous educator and makes the point that, ‘Indigenous writing is necessarily political, whether the purpose is to speak back to past colonial injustices or to offer a more affirmative celebration of Indigenous people…’ [Healy-Ingram, A. (2011), ‘Teaching Indigenous Literature: an ethics of voice’, in Doecke, Brenton, McLean Davies, Larissa and Mead, Philip (ed.) Teaching Australian literature: from classroom conversations to national imaginings. AATE/Wakefield Press.]

In her essay on Too Much Lip, Karen Wyld (a Martu author from the Central Western Desert, Western Australia) suggests that: ‘Writing is a political act, in the same way that surviving as an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person in Australia is a political act. First Peoples’ literature is truth-telling and, sometimes, it provides a mud-map for us to move forward, together’ [Wyld, K. (2018), ‘Review: Karen Wyld on Melissa Lucashenko: Taking Back the Island‘, in Menzies-Pike, Catriona and Brooks, Andrew (eds.) Sydney Review of Books. Western Sydney University Writing and Society Research Centre.]

It is therefore important to spend time ensuring students understand Australia’s colonial history from the point of view of the colonised, so that they can understand the characters’ perspectives, and author’s intent, in Too Much Lip.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ experiences of life since 1770 can largely be divided into the eras of the Frontier Wars, protectionism, assimilation and self-determination under Commonwealth and State Government policies. Much of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature explores the past, present and the ongoing effects of all of these approaches and their underlying attitudes in some way, noting the effects on families in cycles of trauma, or ‘intergenerational trauma’.

Provide students with information on the key ideas below. This could be divided up among groups of students in a jigsaw activity: students have an initial ‘home group’ of six members, who disband to re-form six ‘working groups’. After they complete and share the research about their topic within their working group, they return to their initial home group, where they teach their peers about their own topic. Numbers of topics or groups may be changed to suit class numbers and the needs of individual cohorts.

This activity may serve as an initial assessment activity, specifically evaluating research, collaborative and communication competencies, particularly for Essential English students if you are teaching in combined classes.

The relevance of each key idea to Too Much Lip is included at the end of this section for clarity; however, you may choose to attend to that later in your reading and analysis of the text.
Unit 2: (ACEEN021)

Key ideas

1. Post-1788 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history

Students should research and develop a basic understanding of the eras of protectionism (missions), assimilation and self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people under pre- and post-Federation state laws, as well as under our current federal Australian laws.

Suggested resources are:

Draw out from discussions some understanding of how ongoing interactions between government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders affect people, including impairing connections to culture, altering way of life, and resulting in trauma (e.g. cycles of abuse leading to alcoholism, poverty, crime, mistrust of authority).

2. Diversity of cultures and histories

Australia is made up of different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups. Though these groups are similar in many ways, they have some different cultural customs and languages too (see the Aboriginal languages map). Some groups know more about their traditional culture and language than others due to the impact of colonisation. In heavily colonised areas, many Aboriginal groups have lost a lot of traditional knowledge, or they have some stories and memories but limited language. A lot of this is being re-learned from records that European anthropologists took in the early days of colonisation. In more remote places, where fewer impacts of colonisation were experienced, groups have been able to maintain a lifestyle very close to traditional customs, but children learn how to function in both Aboriginal and Anglo-Australian ‘worlds’.

Ask students to view and compare two Indigenous resources: one from a remote community that lives more ‘traditionally’ and one from an urban environment. If at all possible, invite local Aboriginal guest speakers into the school, visit a local cultural centre, or access web/book resources about local groups.

For example, learn about the Yolngu culture and way of life through the Twelve Canoes digital resource and accompanying study guide. Compare it with your local community’s culture, or the Bundjalung Muurbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-operative who are reconstructing their language from early anthropologist’s recordings. The Miromaa organisation in the Hunter region, NSW (Newcastle area) has information about creation stories (including Biame, ‘god’); possum skin cloaks history (especially interesting as possums are protected under the Wildlife Act 1975); and terminology.

It is important that students do not take away the message that one group is superior to another, or that a group who seems to have less access to traditional cultural knowledge is in any way inferior or not ‘real Aboriginal people’. There is a strong cultural identity in both contexts; however, they are very different depending on their experiences of colonisation. Urban Aboriginal groups do feel a sense of connection to and pride in culture; they are not ‘assimilated’ into European culture and society. The iceberg model of culture may be an interesting discussion point in this area – the outward signs of culture compared to the more subtle signs. It is useful to help us realise why urban Indigenous people think, act and feel differently than European or Anglo-Australians.

3. Lesbian history in Australia

Kerry Salter is not only Aboriginal but ‘queer’, which is not particularly welcomed in her family. Pop never had ‘time’ for people who identify as queer (p. 42). While Pretty Mary considers Kerry’s sexuality a ‘shame’, she is more upset about Kerry leaving the family and living a ‘white’ lifestyle in the city (p. 43).

It is worth students comparing the marginalisation of Indigenous Australians with that of the LGBTQIA+ community (even, in itself, the evolution of names from homosexual to gay and then gay and lesbian; to gay, lesbian and transgender, to now being referred to as lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer/questioning and intersex).

Andrew Gorman-Murray explores the distinct lack of academic historical research into these communities. Of particular note is that the legislation around homosexuality has traditionally always been concerned with legislating against male homosexual relations. This is often seen as a product of the history of marginalisation of women – lesbians were simply ‘invisible’ in the public sphere due to the fact of being women. As awareness and acceptance has grown, it has reinforced society’s inequitable treatment of males and females: for example, the AIDS epidemic and subsequent awareness campaigns, vigils and commemorations were public displays of growing acceptance of gay men while lesbian women remained pushed to the margins.

Resources for discussion include:

Unit 2: (ACEEN021)   (ACEEN024)   (ACEEN038)   (ACEEN039)   (ACEEN040)

Key ideas: specific notes on their relevance to Too Much Lip

1. Post-1788 Aboriginal history (intergenerational trauma):
  • Pop and granddaughter Donna

A major revelation in the novel is that revered elder, Pop, had repeatedly sexually abused Kerry’s sister, Donna, leading her to run away at 16 and cut herself off from the family. Donna explains this when she is found and invited back to the family home twenty years after becoming a missing person and presumed dead (p. 246).

It is later revealed that Pop had been gang-raped by Queensland Police as a 14-year-old boy (p. 295), and he had also suffered brutality at the hands of the missionaries who raised him (pp. 215–6). At 14, Pop was a boxing sensation touring in order to gain fame and approval for the Rivertown mission so that the predatory reverends and authorities would leave him and his sisters alone. Much of this he had not shared with family, only revealing the rape to his daughter-in-law Pretty Mary on his death bed. This may go some way toward unpacking his mistreatment of his family:

And when Owen died … there were seven decades of agony caged in him, held down by liquor and a steely pride, and by various acts of bastardry his family could never quite manage to forget. But he held one thing dear. Since the night the sergeant locked the cell door behind them, laughing with the other white men waiting there, nobody – not his wife, nor his brother, nor any of his descendants – would ever see Owen Addison cry. He had left his tears behind on the cracked cement floor of a Queensland watch house (p. 3).

An important debate/discussion point would be whether Pop’s history allows the reader to have empathy for him, and whether this in turn means that intergenerational violence and abuse could be looked at and examined in a more informed way.

There is another discussion of intergenerational trauma and whether or not this can ‘excuse’ the repetition of abuse in the depiction of Black Superman’s foster child, Brendon – see pp. 214–221.
Unit 2: (ACEEN021)

2. Diversity of cultures and histories

In this text, we see diverse connections to land, language and culture in several of the characters:

  • Pretty Mary (the protagonist, Kerry’s, mum) is living on her ancestral land and maintains some traditional language and cultural traditions as well as adopting contemporary urban Aboriginal culture. A good example of this is when Pretty Mary is talking with Kerry about their relations at Westville while basket weaving (pp. 102–5). Their conversation is peppered with Aboriginal English words and phrases: ‘Which way!’; ‘gorn proper silly’; ‘And Jamey boy bin go hospital’; ‘sissy’. At the same time, Pretty Mary is assessing the quality of the reeds she collected for weaving, and explains to Kerry what type of reeds she requires. Kerry considers learning to weave and asks Pretty Mary ‘What’s the lingo again?’, prompting Pretty Mary to begin explaining Bundjalung words her grandmother, Granny Ava, used to say. Kerry reflects on this, and on Granny Ava as ‘the link’ with their language, on p. 105.
  • Having been removed from his family with his siblings and brought up on a mission (a member of the Stolen Generation), with his every move managed by white people and disconnected from his land and culture, Pop becomes part of the Bundjalung land he moved to when his son Charlie married Pretty Mary (p. 34). Pop’s connection to cultural practices is contemporised, as seen when he takes Kerry hunting with him, even though hunting is traditionally a male pursuit, and secures the family dinner with a shotgun, trespassing on local farmland to catch a grazing wallaby (p. 60).
  • Kerry, although not knowing a lot of her traditional language or culture, has a deep connection to the river and Granny Ava’s island where her ancestors are buried. She maintains this connection even while living a life of crime in the city and while incarcerated: ‘Many a night at Trinder Park or at Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre had really been spent beneath Granny Ava’s pine. Not dozens, or hundreds, but thousands of times she had come in her imagination to this spot on the island where the fruit bats nestled and where cormorants perched on fallen logs, their wings high, surrendering to invisible enemies. The family had practically lived there when Granny Ruth was still around. In and out of the river all day long’ (p. 28).
  • Kerry’s nephew, Donny, knows that his totem is the whale, and seeks his knowledge from documentaries: ‘David Attenborough began explaining the impact of past whaling on humpback numbers with the enthusiasm of someone a quarter of his age … Whale was his personal totem, and so he was obliged to discover everything he could about the animal … If Granny Ava was still alive he might have learned to call them in off some coastal headland, Kerry reflected. Mighta been taught them special songs, and all them special whale ways, but Uncle Richard in Lismore had only passed on the fact of the totem, and the lingo name for the animal. It was up to Donny what he did with that in the twenty-first century’ (p. 51). Donny later has his father tattoo a whale below his shoulder (p. 211).

In each of these characters, their connections to Country and culture are a source of strength and key part of their identity, regardless of how traditional or contemporary their experience of culture may be.
Unit 2: (ACEEN021)

3. ‘Queer’ or LGBTQIA+ history in Australia

Students can be encouraged to consider how Kerry Salter has to deal with not only racism but homophobia, which, to make matters worse, also comes from her own family. Drawn to the city where there is a more active lesbian community, Kerry not only faces family homophobia but a kind of ‘reverse racism’ where they criticise her for going and living a ‘white’ city lifestyle.

Students can also consider the significance of her falling in love with a man when she returns home (and a white man at that). In what ways is the author challenging stereotypes? Is this decision also downplaying her lesbian identity as a ‘phase’ she’s gone through, or is it more complex than that?
Unit 2: (ACEEN024)   (ACEEN038)   (ACEEN039)   (ACEEN040)

Culminating discussion

Students should be supported in discussion to make some general reflections on what they have learned so far on:

  • the role of storytelling in maintaining connections to culture
  • the role of Aboriginal writing as ‘necessarily political’, and ‘truth-telling’
  • what ‘connection to Country’ means for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • how different Aboriginal and Islander groups may have different contemporary cultural expressions due to their experience of colonisation
  • how the impacts of colonisation have continuing implications for family histories, confused identities, isolation, disadvantage
  • the ways the history of gay and lesbian rights activism and legislation in Australia mirror the themes of Indigenous disadvantage and how the intersecting identities of ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Lesbian’ position a woman in Australia

Unit 2: (ACEEN021)   (ACEEN024)   (ACEEN038)   (ACEEN039)   (ACEEN040)

Personal response on reading the text

Students can complete the discussion questions from UQP’s Book Club Notes individually and in class discussion.

Set up a double-entry journal with students before reading and ensure there is time in class to add to the journal throughout the unit. In the double-entry journal, students rule a page in their book in half (or create a two-column table electronically) and enter key events and quotes in the left-hand column as they read. In the right-hand column they enter questions, thoughts, personal responses and connections to their own experience, and identification with characters and situations.
Unit 2: (ACEEN021)   (ACEEN024)   (ACEEN027)   (ACEEN028)   (ACEEN038)   (ACEEN039)   (ACEEN040)
Unit 3: (ACEEN041)   (ACEEN047)   (ACEEN049)

 

Outline of key elements of the text

Plot

An excellent plot outline very suitable for use with students is provided in the Book Club Notes.

Themes

Pop’s story, as previously discussed, is a useful vehicle for considering the Stolen Generations and intergenerational trauma. Students can also be supported to consider the key quotes and references provided in this handout (PDF, 107KB).

Character

The characterisation in Too Much Lip is masterful and should be highlighted as a key feature of the author’s writing style. Each character is raw, real, full of contradictions and just keeping their head above water. Each is a volcano of injustices and pain, with the potential to explode at any time. In this way, the characters actually embody intergenerational trauma. The exception to this is the Mayor, who, as the main antagonist, is characterised using a fairly stereotypical and two-dimensional ‘villain’ trope. The author’s choice to present Jim Buckley without a detailed backstory or insight into his family history, juxtaposed against the complex characters in the Salter family, is worth discussing in and of itself.

Kerry

Kerry’s searing intelligence and irreverence is evident in the first scene where she enters the novel riding a stolen motorbike into her home town of Durrongo:

Kerry dropped into second as she cruised past the corner store, clocking the whitenormalsavages, a dozen blue eyeballs popping fair outta their moogle heads at the sight of her … let’s all have a real good dorrie at the blackfella du jour. Kerry resisted the urge to elevate both middle fingers as she rode past the astounded locals, past the produce store … ‘Been a while,’ Kerry murmured to nobody and to everybody. ‘Been a fair old while.’ She let out a sharp bark of laughter. There was no telling what today might bring, or who might be alive at the end of it. Same as any other fucking day in Durrongo, in other words, only more so. (pp. 6–7).

In a couple of sentences, Lucashenko not only characterises Durrongo as a small town with gossiping locals and a dangerous undercurrent, but shows how easily Kerry straddles different worlds.

Kerry is obviously well-read, making a play on words with ‘blackfella du jour’ and ‘whitenormalsavages’. In this reference, there is a play on the concept of the ‘noble savage’: a trope drawn from 1700s literature which characterises Indigenous peoples across the world as ‘wild humans’ living ‘untouched’ by civilisation, therefore symbolising the innate goodness of humankind, uncorrupted by civilisation, modern diseases, modern evils such as alcohol, capitalism and greed. Many imperialist European cultures believed ‘noble savages’ were curiosities to be studied, and then lamented, as they began ‘dying out’ when colonisers spread the evils of civilisation across the globe. Such colonisation and resulting ‘dying out’ was presented as a sad but inevitable fate. The term ‘whitenormalsavages’ turns the anthropological gaze onto white people and, although conceding they are now the ‘normal’ or dominant culture in Australia, the point is made that they are savages.

Pop Owen knew all too well how savage white people could be, as previously referenced on pp. 3, 215–6 and 295, and he warned Kerry when she was about to start high school: ‘Lotta new whitefellas there. Steer clear of em, ya hear? They’re savages.’ (p. 62)

Kerry is down to earth, using Aboriginal English to refer to the white people as ‘moogles’ and inviting them to have a ‘dorrie’ (Doris or dorrie means to be nosy, have a good look). She is also rebellious, shown through her actions, i.e. her stolen bike (this is hinted at later in her conversation with her brother, Ken, on p. 23).

Kerry’s ‘sharp bark of laughter’ and cynical acknowledgement of Durrongo as a place where anything [bad] could happen completes the picture of Kerry as a hardened woman who you wouldn’t want to mess with. And yet, in her tenderness toward her nephew, Donny, and her revelling in Bundjalung language, we see a soft and earthy woman who is connected with her culture and protective of family.

Refer to the table of key quotes provided in the following character analysis of Kerry Salter (PDF, 96KB). Using the aforementioned metaphor of the volcano, students can discuss which parts of the characterisation are ‘above’ or ‘below’ the surface – distinguishing between Kerry’s inner voice and outer thoughts and actions.

Students can complete a similar character analysis on the other characters using the key references provided in this handout (PDF, 129KB).
Unit 2: (ACEEN024)   (ACEEN027)   (ACEEN038)   (ACEEN039)   (ACEEN040)
Unit 3: (ACEEN041)   (ACEEN047)

 

Synthesising task

The characters in Too Much Lip are complex and dynamic, showing many contradictory actions and beliefs and showing hidden depths under the facades they maintain.

It is difficult to describe someone as simply a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person in binary terms. It may be a surprise to see a hardened criminal like Kerry being kind to the children in her family; or the successful Sydney government worker, Black Superman, being disrespectful to his elders.

Ask students to select a main character and write a one to two page statement on whether they believe the character is inherently or intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad’, using evidence from the text and explaining the reasons behind the characters’ behaviour where possible. Guiding questions for consideration include:

  1. Can the character’s attitude toward others be justified?
  2. Can the reader empathise with the character’s background in order to understand why they behave the way they do?
  3. Is the character’s motivation ‘pure’ or well-intentioned, even if their behaviour is not?
  4. Does the character’s negative traits (such as involvement in crime) detract from their essential goodness and dedication to their faith, culture and/or family?

Unit 2: (ACEEN024)   (ACEEN027)   (ACEEN032)   (ACEEN035)   (ACEEN036)   (ACEEN037)
Unit 3: (ACEEN041)   (ACEEN047)   (ACEEN053)   (ACEEN055)   (ACEEN056)

The writer’s craft: intent, structure, setting, language and style

Purpose

Melissa Lucashenko explains her purpose in writing this novel:

[It’s] a foray into the harder edges of Aboriginal life in country NSW. It’s a book about class, but set away from the urban centres, a kind of a hillbilly gothic. The book was inspired by the black and queer women I know who’ve done jail time … I wanted to write about the grassroots mob who are constantly living on the edge of things: the law, racist violence, various kinds of family implosions … It’s a very gritty novel, and violent, but I like to think it’s pretty damn funny too. Kind of Beverley Hillbillies meets Once Were Warriors. No doubt some readers will find it shocking, but then I’m not writing to make people feel warm and comfortable. (2018, Melissa Lucashenko Q&A)

This is a raw novel which explores the poverty, violence, crime and dysfunction that permeate many Aboriginal (and indeed all) families and communities in Australia and beyond, but does so in a very accessible and often humorous way. The danger, however, would be that teachers allow their class to read this text in a reductionist way that promotes a deficit discourse: either reinforcing negative stereotypes of Aboriginal people, or pitying Aboriginal people as helpless victims. Karen Wyld suggests that to avoid this, teachers and students should understand how colonial practices have led to intergenerational trauma, how the Salters’ lifestyle is a product of this trauma, and recognise their continuing connection to Country and culture as a strength supporting them to move forward.

Refer to the previous handout on themes (PDF, 107KB) to explore the strength in culture and resilience shown by the characters in this novel.
Unit 2: (ACEEN021)   (ACEEN024)   (ACEEN027)   (ACEEN038)   (ACEEN039)   (ACEEN040)
Unit 3: (ACEEN041)   (ACEEN047)

Foreword and Afterword: the author’s great-grandmother, Christina Copson

The author chooses to begin and end the novel with the historical records of her great-grandmother, Christina Copson, who was arrested for shooting her attempted rapist in 1907. The attempted rapist, also Aboriginal, testified in court that she was ‘only a gin’ and that he could ‘do what he liked with her.’ Copson was acquitted of the charges, after testifying in court that ‘although she had shot her attacker in the hip, she had been aiming for his heart and she was only sorry that she had not killed him.’ (Lucashenko, 2018, Afterword, p. 318)

It would be interesting to discuss whether the would-be rapist’s attitude was possibly, in some way, a reflection of colonial influences and whether Copson’s fate would have been different had their racial profiles been different. It is also interesting to consider why Melissa Lucashenko chose to frame the novel within this historical example of violence and abuse within an Aboriginal community which is three to four generations into life in a colonised Australia. Discussion questions could include:

  1. What is the significance of starting the novel with an image of an abused woman who had retaliated against her attacker? How could this frame the male-female relationships in the novel? What does it suggest about the kind of women we will meet in the novel?
  2. In this case an Aboriginal woman is attacked by an Aboriginal man, who adopts the white male attitude that ‘she’s only a gin’ (‘gin’ being a highly offensive and derogatory word for Aboriginal females). What might this suggest about the impact of colonisation on Aboriginal communities at the time (1907)? What light does this possibly shed on the abuse later found in the Salter family?
  3. Is it surprising to you that the woman was so rebellious in her attitude and yet was acquitted?
  4. Consider whether the case and the outcome would have been different if the man was an Anglo-Australian male, or if the woman was an Anglo-Australian female.
  5. What is the main message Lucashenko is conveying by framing the novel with a tale of abuse in an Aboriginal community?

Unit 2: (ACEEN024)   (ACEEN028)
Unit 3: (ACEEN041)

Anthropomorphism at the start and end of the novel

In her review, Karen Wyld notes that the scenes using anthropomorphism – where the crows and shark speak to the characters – shows that Durrongo and its land, waters and wildlife is more than just a setting for a story. Such anthropomorphism in this novel speaks directly to the Salters’ deep relationship with Country, and this belonging to Country brings the strength to survive hardship.

It is also interesting to consider the effect of placing these scenes at the start and end of the novel. They demarcate something important about the author’s style – this is an Aboriginal writer who is writing from a place of connection to Country and belief in the interconnectedness of all living things, whose spirituality is grounded in ancestral connections through totems, resulting in a novel that by Anglocentric standards could sit within the genre of ‘magic realism’. But this placement of the crow and shark scenes also emphasises and privileges Aboriginal spirituality and connection to Country – using the allegorical nature common to Indigenous stories that often includes animals as speaking characters (i.e. Dreaming stories and Songlines do this).

Students can analyse the crow scene on pp. 7–8 and the shark scene on pp. 309–312 and consider:

  1. What is the effect of the animals’ use of Bundjalung language and Aboriginal English in these scenes?
  2. The animals are portrayed as powerful and knowledgeable, and equal to the humans they speak with. What does this tell us about their relationship with Aboriginal people?
  3. In what ways do the scenes reinforce that Aboriginal people can find strength in culture?
  4. Discuss the irony in the shark scene. The shark had been promised the blood of a white man in exchange for sparing the pregnant Granny Ava as she crossed the river to escape the white men hunting her down. Failing to lure her white pursuers into the water, the debt has lingered over generations of the Salter family. Whilst Ken has protection from a shark attack due to the shark being his totem through his mother’s bloodline, his blood also technically contains the blood of a white man. This would suggest that Granny Ava’s baby was born to a white ‘stranger’, so she was perhaps the victim of rape – and this tragedy is what sets the family free of their debt to the shark.

Unit 2: (ACEEN021)   (ACEEN024)   (ACEEN028)
Unit 3: (ACEEN041)

Aboriginal English and humour as a feature of the Salters’ resilience

The use of Aboriginal English, with its made-up comical words, puns and words used in changed contexts – interchanged with Aboriginal language words – provides a source of humour in the novel and is central to the development of most of the characters. Consider the following exchange between Pretty Mary, Ken and Kerry:

‘Our Old People are watching down and they’re proper happy with you, my son. Praise God!’

‘Why not praise Biame up if you gotta be praising any god?’ asked Ken, who was getting more cultural by the day.

‘How ’bout praise my big black dot,’ Kerry snapped, still dirty about the funeral money.’ (p. 212)

Black Comedy, an ABC comedy sketch series written and performed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander actors, sometimes makes fun of non-Aboriginal people trying to adopt Aboriginal English, and in doing so provides a great understanding of the words and cadences of this dialect.

Discuss with students how Aboriginal English and ‘blak humour’ as seen in Too Much Lip and Black Comedy is symbolic of the resilience of Aboriginal communities who have survived colonisation.
Unit 2: (ACEEN022)   (ACEEN024)   (ACEEN027)   (ACEEN039)
Unit 3: (ACEEN041)   (ACEEN043)

 

Synthesising task

Language and cultural references are central to a person’s (or rather, a group of people’s) identity. We know that during the mission era, a key aim was to prevent Aboriginal people practising culture and language.

Select a character and identify two to three quotes that demonstrate their use of Bundjalung, Aboriginal English and connection to culture/Country. Discuss how the language style adopted is central to the characterisation. Does it make the character seem irreverent, cheeky, kind and loving, angry and intimidating, peaceful and reflective? In what ways do their references to culture and Country reinforce the character’s identity?

Re-write a section of the text (two to four paragraphs) involving your chosen character, changing the language to standard Australian English and removing the Aboriginal language.

  1. Reflect on how different the character’s personality would be if they used only standard Australian English.
  2. How would this change the character’s identity?
  3. How does doing this exercise reinforce for you the impact of language and culture loss during colonisation?

Unit 2: (ACEEN021)   (ACEEN024)   (ACEEN028)   (ACEEN032)   (ACEEN034)   (ACEEN036)   (ACEEN037)
Unit 3: (ACEEN041)   (ACEEN052)   (ACEEN055)   (ACEEN056)

Ways of reading the text

Postcolonial and postmodernist theory

Postcolonial literature seeks to explore the impacts of colonisation on the colonised, and redress or reverse the assumptions and cultural bias of the colonisers. Postcolonial fiction may:

  • Incorporate the native language of the colonised, or in this novel’s case, the Aboriginal English that has been adopted when fluent native language has been lost
  • Re-write ‘traditional’ history so that colonisers are no longer seen as the victors and brave warriors but recognised for the violent atrocities inflicted upon the colonised
  • Valorise cultural identity – we admire the deep spirituality and cultural knowledge of the colonised, challenging the view that they are inferior to the colonisers
  • Ask questions about the nation’s cultural, political and social identity which can then be debated and interrogated

Postmodernist critical theory criticises twentieth- and twenty-first century society, with particular concern for the ‘other’. The continuing intergenerational trauma of a colonised people is recognised and it is understood that the trauma is not solely in response to the historical actions of unenlightened past governments, but that fresh traumas are wrought daily by contemporary Australian society and government.

In this context, it is well worth mentioning that many First Nations people do not consider Australia to be a postcolonial country. See Professor Anita Heiss’s Teaching Guide for the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature.

Questions students can be encouraged to consider
  1. What information about the poor treatment of Aboriginal people have you discovered in this novel? Does this challenge the ‘Captain Cook’ view of history for you?
  2. In what ways is Aboriginal culture valorised – held up for admiration – in this novel? Is the culture romanticised in any way?
  3. How does the novel interrogate stereotypes and reverse those stereotypes in order to portray the white characters negatively? (Ken’s attack on the policemen, outlining white men as the real criminals, pp. 229–230; Aunty Tall Mary’s assertion that the abuse in Aboriginal communities is behaviour learned from white people, p. 218)

Unit 2: (ACEEN021)   (ACEEN038)   (ACEEN039)
Unit 3: (ACEEN059)

 

Comparison with other texts

Lucashenko’s depiction of Aboriginal family life, with conflict, drama and brushes with the law, could easily be compared with the ABC television series The Gods of Wheat Street. This series also uses magic realism, with spirits of the dead returning to converse with the living and guide them on their journey. It is also set and filmed in Northern NSW. There are various resources to help with an examination of this series:

A useful contrast text could be Jeanine Leane’s Purple Threads, a collection of stories exploring the family history of two sisters growing up near Gundagai in the 1960s and based on the author’s own family and experiences. It uses Aboriginal English and covers a range of family secrets and family members who try to ‘run away’ from their problems. It is, however, somewhat more positive and optimistic than Lucashenko’s novel, and therefore provides a useful counterexample of Aboriginal family life, but still with enough commonalities to highlight the impacts of colonisation. Resources include:

 

Evaluation of the text

Lucashenko writes:

The book was inspired by the black and queer women I know who’ve done jail time, or who’ve only barely escaped that fate by the skin of their teeth. Who are these people when they’re not locked up, not demonised, not chucked away and locked away by society? … I really strongly wanted to pen a high-energy antidote to the deathly depression which it’s easy for us to slide into in this racist, heterosexist country. (2018, Melissa Lucashenko Q&A)

Discussion questions:
  1. Has Lucashenko succeeded in humanising the Aboriginal criminals who have been ‘demonised’ and ‘chucked away’ by Australian society?
  2. Does the notion of Australia as a ‘racist, heterosexist country’ fit with your understanding of Australian identity and culture? Does this novel help you to understand why some minority groups might feel this way about Australian culture?
  3. To what extent does the writing style and use of humour prevent this from being a completely depressing novel?

Unit 2: (ACEEN021)   (ACEEN027)   (ACEEN038)   (ACEEN039)
Unit 3: (ACEEN059)

Reflection activity

In recognising the intergenerational cycles of trauma that impact on the Salter family and Aboriginal communities broadly, it is important to understand that the cycles continue in the present day with new government policies and community actions that contribute to this. Discrimination and dispossession are still ongoing and creating fresh trauma in the affected communities.

Teachers should select stimulus material about a recent example of ongoing discrimination and dispossession of Aboriginal communities and present this to students for discussion. Ideally, teachers could draw upon current affairs local to them.

Challenge students to identify how recent events, policies and community actions are continuing the cycle of trauma, and therefore we cannot just talk about such acts being in the past. This directly challenges the common perspective presented in community discourse that ‘we shouldn’t be held responsible for past mistakes’ and Aboriginal people should just ‘get over it and move on’.

Teachers may draw upon current events such as Sorry Day marches and bridge walks, National Reconciliation Week and NAIDOC Week activities, all of which include reflections on the ongoing struggles and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Good resources for current media commentary on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs include:

A nationally-recognised and highly controversial recent government policy that Aboriginal communities felt reinstated the ‘mission days’ culture of government control of Aboriginal people was the Northern Territory Intervention. Two great resources on the NT Intervention include:

 

Rich assessment task 1 (receptive mode)

Students can complete a comparative analysis of the lyrics in Archie Roach’s ‘Took the Children Away’ and Briggs’ ‘The Children Came Back’. Consider some of the traumatic events that Aboriginal people have had to endure during colonisation right through to the present day, and in what ways they have shown (and are still showing) resilience in surviving the trauma.

Using this analysis as well as quotes and examples from Too Much Lip, students can complete a discussion-style essay using key quotations to illustrate the following statement:

Aboriginal people show great resilience in managing the effects of racist community attitudes and the harmful government policies of the past and the present.
Unit 2: (ACEEN021)   (ACEEN022)   (ACEEN029)   (ACEEN032)   (ACEEN035)   (ACEEN036)   (ACEEN037)
Unit 3: (ACEEN043)   (ACEEN053)   (ACEEN055)   (ACEEN056)

Synthesising core ideas

Too Much Lip explores family history through Pop and Granny Ava, showing how events in their ancestors’ lives not only shaped those ancestors but in turn impacted on each of the present-day Salter family members in different ways. The stories and experiences that run through our family histories continue to influence how we see ourselves in relation to the world and how we respond to new people and experiences. In an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander family, these historical influences can be both positive (cultural knowledge) and negative (experiences of colonisation).

Students should review their double-entry journals as used in the Initial Response section of this unit, in which they have noted key events and quotes in the left-hand column as they read. In the right-hand column they should have some questions, thoughts, personal responses, connections to their own experience, and identification with characters and situations. Ask students to select two different colour highlighters and mark the following in their personal response journal:

  1. Find two to three of the most impactful quotes/thoughts/personal responses that they have had while reading the novel.
  2. Highlight any connections they have made to their own experience or identification with characters/situations.

Students can share their quotes and responses in small groups before then sharing with the class (they may only wish to share the first set of highlighted sections – they don’t have to share personal connections made).

Following this discussion, refer students back to the initial discussions about post-1788 Aboriginal history and intergenerational trauma and diversity of cultures and histories. Students can also be referred back to the discussion on a postcolonial reading of the text in the Significance section.

Post-1788 Aboriginal history and intergenerational trauma

Reflecting on the novel after reading, refer back to the Initial Response section about whether Pop’s history allows the reader to have empathy for him, and whether this in turn means that intergenerational violence and abuse could be excused. Consider also the discussion about Black Superman’s foster child, Brendon (pp. 214–221). Have any students changed their thinking around these issues? Do they have a deeper sense of how past events have shaped current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families?

Diversity of cultures and histories

Consider Pop’s connection to land; Pretty Mary’s knowledge of plants and weaving and some of the ‘lingo’; and the family totems (Donny’s connection to whales, Ken’s to sharks). In what ways do these different connections to pre-1788 Aboriginal culture and way of life help build resilience within the family? Can students see how the characters’ cultural knowledge gives them strength to face challenges?
Unit 2: (ACEEN021)
Unit 3: (ACEEN043)

 

Rich assessment task 2 (productive mode)

Students are to write a family yarn about a formative experience, using the yarn on pp. 214–6 as a model. Aunty Tall Mary tells the family about a time when Pop had been locked in the morgue by the cruel mission manager, Father O. It serves as another explanation for why Pop behaved the way he did as an adult. He was only 14 at the time and after the incident, his hair had gone white and he had no fear left.

The story is told with humour, almost like a ghost story to shock the newest member of the family, Kerry’s boyfriend Steve (p. 215). It is told with enough drama that no-one is really sure how much of it is true, although there is an understanding that the general theme – the missionaries’ cruelty – is indisputable.

While it would not be appropriate for students to write their family yarn with Aboriginal English (unless their families do speak that way), students should follow Lucashenko by paying careful attention to the linguistic style featured in their own family conversations. That may include Aussie slang, words particular to their place of origin (such as Victorian, Tasmanian or South Australian cultural references), and/or elements of their family’s language if they speak a language other than English at home.

The passage should feature the following:

  • an event and resolution that reflects the concerns of the original text
  • an exploration of the character’s opinions, beliefs, perspectives
  • a writing style that reflects knowledge of Lucashenko’s linguistic and narrative techniques

Students are also to write a short commentary or rationale of 600 words that explains their own authorial choices in the construction of their work. In this rationale, students should demonstrate how doing this task has helped them reflect on the fact that past events shape identity and make an imprint on a family (whether positive or negative) and through this understanding we can acknowledge the way in which Pop’s mission days had a long term effect on the Salters.
Unit 2: (ACEEN034)   (ACEEN036)   (ACEEN037)
Unit 3: (ACEEN052)   (ACEEN055)   (ACEEN056)