To ensure well-rounded and non-stereotypical Indigenous characters, says tutor Jane Harrison, the writer must continually question their motives and their writing. Ahead of her upcoming workshop, we talked to Jane about the changing depictions of Indigenous people and stories.
You’ve written Indigenous characters for the stage and in YA fiction – do you approach the character development process differently for each writing form?
Not really – although characters express themselves very differently in the two forms. In plays the characters are shown by their dialogue and their actions and subtext is so important – what they are not saying and doing tells as big a story as what is. While with fiction, especially when written in the first person, you are free to write what is inside their heads and therefore expose their inner motivations – even though there needs to be another layer, or subtext, to that as well. A character thinks they know what they want, but is rarely accurate, and the true ‘desire’ or need that has to be met, is not obvious to them and needs to be teased out. Description is another thing that is minimal in playwriting but can be another ‘character’ in a novel. I have to remember to write descriptions in prose!
Several of your plays are studied on the VCE and HSC syllabi – what role do you hope the inclusion of these pieces in high school curricula plays in the development of young readers and writers?
I put a lot of hope in the younger generations in terms of understanding our shared history in Australia. I am of the belief that there is no ‘Aboriginal history’ without understanding ‘non Aboriginal history’ and vice versa. We need to know both, to understand how we got to where we are at now, in order to move forward - together. I think young readers and audiences can get this more easily, and therefore get past the positions taken by older generations, that haven’t proved useful.
Certainly when I was at school – long time ago – there were no books or plays that had Aboriginal protagonists, and certainly none that featured urban-based Aboriginal people. I read the Boney books – written by a non-Aboriginal writer, and that’s the closest I got to seeing representations of my culture in fiction. As a sometime university tutor, when I have asked how much students know about Aboriginal culture and history, many of them are still floundering – it isn’t being taught in high schools enough. And certainly not in a way that ‘normalises’ (aka humanises) Aboriginal people. How sad is that? But young people seem eager to learn (gross generalization perhaps), so that gives me hope.
Having written plays so successfully for many years, what made you decide to tell the story of your character Kirrali Lewis in long form fiction?
Plays can be hugely rewarding – as they consist of humans displaying emotions in the dark in front of you – that is very powerful. But plays are also ethereal – they occur in a specific place and time. A book is enduring and accessible – it can be borrowed from a library anywhere in the country or world, can be passed on from friend to friend. A writer of prose has a one-on-one relationship with the reader – that’s special. I wanted to tell a story that lots of young people (and not so young) could have access to, so when they do go to university and into the workforce they have some knowledge and have thought about some of the issues facing Aboriginal people today, as a result of past policies. And just as important to know about the richness of Aboriginal culture – there is so much that is positive and you don’t hear those stories enough. I think Aboriginal stories and culture should be part of every level of our education system – kindergarten, primary, secondary and university. We share this country, we cannot live in ignorance any more.
Your upcoming workshop provides an opportunity for participants to learn how to write well-rounded and non-stereotypical Indigenous characters – do you have any starting points for how to achieve this?
The writer needs to question their motives for writing Aboriginal characters and themes. Find out what you don’t know that you don’t know…(such as doing this course). And then they need to keep questioning what they are writing. Get feedback. I still do all of those things – it never ends for me.
You have said that there is a need for greater representation of Indigenous characters and voices in Australian fiction – what needs to happen in order to make this a reality?
See the previous answer! There is still a need to privilege Aboriginal writers writing our own stories, in all literary forms. Which means the publishers, TV execs, theatre artistic directors, film funders etc. need to make (more) space for Aboriginal stories. And for every one of us to read (more) Black, listen, participate, enjoy, acknowledge that you probably don’t know the Aboriginal life unless you’ve lived it. However, if you haven’t lived it, there are ways to ensure you avoid writing stereotypical stories and characters.
I think depictions of Indigenous people are changing – especially in TV – Redfern Now, Black Comedy, and so on. Fiction also has an important role there. A book such as ‘Becoming Kirrali Lewis’ is relatable, while threading through Aboriginal perspectives and recent events in our history.
About Jane Harrison
Jane Harrison (Muruwari) is an award-winning playwright and writer. Her play ‘Stolen’ has been performed throughout Australia and in the UK, Hong Kong and Tokyo. ‘Rainbow’s End’ has also had a Tokyo production and toured across Australia in 2011, winning the Drover’s Award for Tour of the Year. ‘The Visitors’ was part of the MTC Cybec Electric series and the Melbourne Indigenous Festival in February 2014. Jane’s other publications include YA novel ‘Becoming Kirrali Lewis’ (2015), winner of the 2014 Black & Write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship.
About Amy Adeney
Amy Adeney is a Writers Victoria intern. She is a primary teacher and founder of Busy Bookworms, a bookclub for preschoolers.