Jane Harrison on ‘Becoming Kirrali Lewis’

Jane Harrison, a descendant of the Muruwari people of NSW, is a playwright, novelist, and the Festival Director of Blak & Bright, the First Nations Literary Festival based in Melbourne.

Her novel Becoming Kirrali Lewis won the 2014 Black&Write! Prize, and was shortlisted for the Prime Minster’s Literary Awards and the Victorian Premier’s Awards.

In terms of her works for the stage, Stolen, her first play, was the co-winner of the Kate Challis RAKA Award and has been performed throughout Australia as well as the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and Japan. She has also written The Visitors, Rainbow’s End, On A Park Bench and Blakvelvet.

Jane Harrison_The Garret_2020


ASTRID: Jane Harrison is an award-winning playwright, and her works include Stolen, Rainbow's End, and most recently, The Visitors. Jane is also the Festival Director of Black & Bright, the First Nations Literary Festival in Melbourne. Her first novel Becoming Kirrali Lewis is an extraordinary YA a novel, and this interview will be a close reading of her work from 2015. Jane, welcome to The Garret.

JANE: Thank you very much Astrid. Lovely to be here.

ASTRID: So today we are going to talk about Becoming Kirrali Lewis, and for those listeners who may not have read your work yet – and I think everybody should, clearly – but for those readers who haven't read it, can you give us the one-minute introduction to Becoming Kirrali Lewis?

JANE: So, it's set in 1985, and Kirrali is 18 years old and just about to embark on a law degree. She's Aboriginal, but has been brought up in a white family and has had a really great experience with her family, obviously knowing she's been adopted. At university she meets other people, other Aboriginal people, and becomes a little bit more aware of her strong opinions that are not always accurate, and becomes more political. And these things happen to her along the way, and of course she meets all these interesting people and she sets off to meet her birth family.

ASTRID: Now we should say that in this interview we will have spoilers, because this interview is going to be used by Reading Australia to develop teaching materials for students in the hopes that Becoming Kirrali Lewis actually ends up on the curriculum around Australia. So, listeners beware, there will be spoilers as we discuss this fantastic novel.

So, I'd like to ask you what was your motivation for writing this story, and specifically, you know, you are a playwright, and this is your first novel, so why did you choose the novel form to tell the story?

JANE: I've always been a reader. I came sort of later I guess to play writing. I've always loved books myself, and when I was growing up there weren't really any Aboriginal characters in books. I used to read the Bony books, that were the closest thing I got as a child. But you know, also there wasn't any Aboriginal novels based in cities, metropolitan settings. And so, as someone who grew up in a city with Aboriginal heritage, I didn't see myself reflected in our literature. So, I guess I wanted to write something that did reflect some of the experiences that I had.

The other thing I just want to say about fiction and why I wrote a book not a play… just because books are something that can be in a library anywhere around the place. A play, you have to go to a theatre, and not everyone has access to a theatre, not everyone has money for theatre. You know, if a book's in a school library or in a library you can borrow for free. It can get around. And so, I think it's accessibility. I didn't go to the theatre until I was about 20 something or other, but I read a lot of books from my school library. And so I think I just wanted to get that story into the hands of as many people as I could.

ASTRID: So not only as you've just described is this the story of Kirrali Lewis, who is Aboriginal in a city, in Melbourne, it's also the story of adoption, and it's a story exploring identity, and growing up, and race, and where all of these meet. And it's actually set in the 1980s. So, I found that choice quite interesting. As an adult I was coming up with lots of theories about why you would choose to set the work in the 1980s, but I thought I would ask you why did you do that?

JANE: Well, we do find out that in fact Kirrali was given up for adoption. She's not a Stolen Generation’s child pe se, she was given up, and we do find out when Kirrali comes face to face with her mother that her mother is in fact white. And so, when Kirrali was conceived it was around 1967, and it's such a different era. I think the fact that her mother, Kirrali’s mother, was unmarried, she'd had a relationship with an Aboriginal guy, and being young herself, being only 17 at the time herself, I thought actually we wouldn't be so frightened of that. I say we, but society probably doesn't have the same kind of point of view about all of those things – being an unmarried mother, having a black child to a black man and a mother being white, and a very suburban, very conservative kind of family. So yeah, I had to set it back then to make sense of the fact that she relinquished her child and was in fact, you know, I think there's a whole lot of shame around her adopting out her child.

ASTRID: Very much so. I should say I'm not an Aboriginal person. I have married a man who was adopted and who gave up a child when he was 16 for adoption. So, I read your work on a number of levels and I thought that your depiction of adoption was actually quite beautiful, in the way that you show all of the highs and all of the lows that come with the wondering and the questioning and that you don't know what you're going to find – and of course, Kirrali doesn't know what she's going to find. But of course, your novel has the Stolen Generations in the background at all points on every page, and although Kirrali herself wasn't put up as part of the state, you know, the infrastructure of the state that perpetrated the Stolen Generations, there are other characters who did have that experience, including you know the minor character of Erin.

JANE: Yes.

ASTRID: So, I guess I really wanted to explore how you chose to depict adoption and the Stolen Generations, and even why you actually made that choice for Kirrali not to be a member of the Stolen Generations, but nevertheless to have that as part of her heritage.

JANE: I guess because I had investigated through the play Stolen a lot of those themes, and you know there's as many stories of Aboriginal people – whether they've been relinquished or stolen – as there are Aboriginal people. They're all different. And I in fact came across a number of people who'd had good experiences in their adoptions, but nevertheless, that's still a huge part of their psyche to have been removed or have no connection with their cultural background. And I think it's just something that even the people I know who were in lovely family situations, they needed to find out, they needed to go through that discovery.

And I guess Kirrali, out of loyalty to her parents and that family who brought her up, didn't want to face looking for her birth family, but through other people like Erin, whose sister had been taken and members of the family had been taken, she realised she became aware that that was something she needed to explore. Although being quite an impetuous person, she made a few blues along the way and things didn't quite turn out how they should.

But I also thought for a lot of readers that was a good way to explore race or ethnicity, because it's an Aboriginal girl making the mistakes rather than making a white girl or a white character wrong about her ignorance. She's the one who is a bit ignorant about a lot of cultural things, and I thought that was a really good way to sort of not make readers feel guilty about not knowing things.

ASTRID: Absolutely. And you also do that in the reverse with her friend Martina, who is a white girl who marries an Aboriginal football player, and although that's not part of the story that is definitely a subtext that's running throughout Martina's experience and her character arc… You know, in some ways Martina is ahead of Kirrali, and in other ways she's very far behind, and it's a nice little foil those two characters.

Kirrali is of course the main character, the work is named after her, and she is you know the main point of view character, the entire first the first part of the book it's just Kirrali, and it is a coming of age story. She is looking for her identity, and of course that is her Aboriginal heritage but it's also as an 18, 19 year old going out into the world, moving out of home, going to university, meeting new people, being challenged and realising she is wrong. Where did you find Kirrali? I know she is your character and she is the voice through which you're telling the story, but she's quite powerful.

JANE: [Laughter] Powerful. I think she's strong and opinionated. I think, you know, of course there is a little bit of yourself in all of the characters you write, probably, but I think when I was 13 I knew everything. And the older I get the less I know. And I think she's a little bit that way too. She's got strong opinions and she wants to make her own way in the world and be independent and not rely on anything. She doesn't want to be a stereotype of Aboriginality, but in a way she doesn't know what she doesn't know, and she has to be pulled apart in a way to make herself again and a stronger version of herself.

ASTRID: In addition to Kirrali finding herself and becoming Kirrali Lewis of course, as the title tells us that she does, her experiences are also a way for you, for the novel, to explore broader themes of race and racism in Australia, and particularly in light of the international discussion in 2020, when I read these couple of sentences on page 13, you know, it actually made me stop and think. So, I'm going to be do these few lines, and this is from Kirrali’s point of view.

“Why did people have to categorise? So what if I was black? Did that mean I had to fight every cause championing black people?”

And that's her interior monologue, and you know, you are asking the reader to think about those questions and consider stereotyping and responsibility and race. Can you talk to that – all those themes that are sitting behind at around Kiralli?

JANE: I think there's enormous pressures. And I see a lot of young people, young Aboriginal people now, and actually I'm just blown away by their competence and strength and integrity around speaking out about injustice and things like that. But it's also a huge amount of pressure – to always know the answer, to always have the politically correct point of view or the right point of view, and to know everything. And I think you cannot, you cannot expect every Aboriginal person to know everything or be articulate about all of these things, because she is, you know Kirrali is still an 18 year old going to uni for the first time, she's at a home for the first time, getting a part time job, having to meet all these new people. I think she's afraid to stand up and be counted, and that's part of her journey, I guess.

In a way it's probably a little bit about myself, a little bit similar to my own self, about feeling the confidence to… You know, you can't speak for the whole mob. You can't. You can only speak from your own personal experience. But often you are asked to in the media or on a radio interview or whatever. You need to have a point of view that represents everyone, because not everyone gets the opportunity to. I think Kiralli just is… underneath her bravado she's quite afraid. And yes, she doesn't have the confidence to be able to express her Aboriginality as yet.

ASTRID: Let's talk about Cherie, her mother, her biological mother. You do also write from Cherrie's point of view, and that includes the present, which is of course the 1980s, but also flashbacks to Kirrali’s conception and birth. Talk to me about her character arc. She is of course a white woman who chose to give her child up for adoption at a time very different to the one we find ourselves living in now.

JANE: Yes, I think she was… You know, I mean it terms of age I’m halfway between Kirrali and Cherrie, purely in terms of where they sit. So, there's a little bit of me I guess in both of them. But you know, she's sort of grown up in a more conservative suburban milieu, not that I did. I came from very working class outer suburban background. But she's grown up with parents who I guess sweep things under the carpet a little bit, and not face difficult things. And as a result, she's reacted against that and has been quite radical in her choices and things like that, and very passionate about Aboriginal equity and things like that. And I know a lot of, I've got a lot of friends who similar have similar kind of experiences, where they've been very passionate and working beside Aboriginal people to improve things most of their lives.

And I guess I wanted to upend stereotypes of all my characters, and I think the irony which Cherie is that she has this relationship, a passionate relationship, with a radical Aboriginal man, gets pregnant, doesn't tell him and her mother forces her to give up the child. And yet, she's working around Aboriginal people where the Stolen Generations is so rife, and colonisation and Stolen Generations are the defining characteristics of the Aboriginal community that she's working with, and yet she's told no one. So, she has this secret that's eating away at her.

ASTRID: She has a secret, and in the first instance it's not taken very well when her secret is revealed to the world and she's asked to leave her volunteering position that she's been working at. And if I can phrases maybe in a simple way, she's been trying to be a good white person and she's been trying to be an ally and she's made this really painful mistake for others and for herself. Can you talk to me about all the different ways that you show that while she is an ally and why she has been doing good she has still maybe missed a point on a few occasions and she still does make mistakes, with her own daughter once they meet and begin a relationship, but also with the Aboriginal people around her who she is working beside.

JANE: Well, you know, with some sympathy for her because she was only young herself and in this almost paralysing kind of white conservative environment, so even though she's a radical at heart, she's still does what a mother the parents tell her. And when they finally meet Kirrali I think it's very painful for Cherie to realise that they've moved on in terms of their attitudes as well.

So yes, she does make mistakes. And I think in working in the Aboriginal community without disclosing this – her child – to the people around her, she doesn't trust them in a way. Well, maybe she doesn't trust herself, because she has voluntarily, well kind of voluntarily, relinquished her child. While in the Stolen Generations of course families didn't have a choice around that. She has white privilege, and yet she still like many people of that era, forced to give up their child for adoption – painful for any mother, I imagine.

ASTRID: Absolutely.

JANE: So, she does make mistakes, and you know, they're funny, they're not always likeable the characters, I think. But I wanted to make them real and complicated and messy.

ASTRID: You know people, they're not always likeable but I guess in my reading I did find them always believable, and that made me like them because I felt like I know these characters, they're real. They make mistakes but sometimes they do great things, and it is kind of part of the mess of life and the building of relationships, which can be really hard.

JANE: Yes, that's right.

ASTRID: I'd like to talk about Kirrali’s father, Charlie Jackson. My first question, is he based on anybody?

JANE: (Laughter) That's my little secret. He might be based on one or two people that I first met, you know, when I started to mix in with the Aboriginal community who I was kind of terrified of. You know, they're the kind of really strong Aboriginal men who take no prisoners. And you know, just the sort of complication of that.

ASTRID: Can you interest introduce us to Charlie, particularly as he was when he first met Cherie back in the late 1960s.

JANE: Yes. So, he's the kind of man who would be always at the front of the rally, you know, with a megaphone or something, that everyone looked up to and was just the… I think he's the Black Panther movement kind of guy. And the fact that he's such a strong advocate for Black Rights, the fact that he's had a relationship with this white woman and possibly might have loved her but couldn't allow himself to have a public relationship with a white woman because he felt that it was against his responsibilities I suppose. You know, I've met people who say I won't have a relationship with a white person because my responsibility is to continue my culture and have black children. I mean, of course they are black anyway no matter who the other parent is. Yes, and I think that's a really interesting political position to take.

ASTRID: It is very much a political position and Charlie is clearly the most obvious character where you explore this concept, but other characters bring it up to in various different ways. This idea that being Aboriginal, being an Indigenous person, is… you know the personal is the political. and the political is the personal. Can you talk to that?

JANE: Well. You know, for me I'm a very small p person, you know, the personally is the political. But I guess I have a lot of respect for people who wear their politics on their sleeve and go out and fight for the cause, even in the face of people not listening to that.

I mean, it's been really interesting with the Black Lives Matter protests, how it feels like there's a listening for it in our society. And there always has been a part of our society that's been very attuned to Aboriginal rights and people who fought beside us, but it just feels like now it's just exploded. Yeah. So, I wanted to honour those kind of characters. They are not always easy. You know, I think they can be so tough and uncompromising, I guess. But again, I wanted to show his complexity so that when he does find out that he has this child, an amazing tenderness comes out in him.

ASTRID: An openness, a beauty, a welcoming into the fold. We don't see as much of Charlie as we see of Kirrali and Cherrie, but his presence and his force and in his dynamism is felt throughout the book, not just for those women in his life but for everybody who he comes into contact with. You know, he is revered by many. And he changes a lot as a person. When we meet him when Kirrali is 18, I don’t know, is mellow the right word? He is a little bit less... He is more open to Cherrie, and you, asking essentially for her to come back into his life and help look after him in his final days, which is a very intimate request to make of anyone. And you know, the beautiful letter he writes Kirrali, he is quite an emotional and giving man, and he does pass away and he passes away very young. And I wanted to ask about your narrative choice. You're controlling this story, why did you have Charlie pass away so young?

JANE: Well, I think I’ll have to lie on the psychiatrist’s couch for that. But perhaps again, you know, there's plot choices you make to make a dramatic. But myself, my father died when I was 9 years old, and my father was non-Aboriginal, my mother was Aboriginal. But my mother's father died when she was 11 on Christmas Day. And I guess that feeling of loss of the male figure is probably quite common in Aboriginal families, for whatever reason, for the fact that Aboriginal people die much younger, people in prisons, all of those reasons, sometimes they can be the absence of the male, which was probably a mean thing to do to poor Kirrali.

But it was during my research for Stolen, again it happens so often that people were just on the verge of meeting their birth family members and then passed away. It was just so cruel to hear about those experiences.

So, before I wrote Kirrali as well as Stolen I worked on another project for the National Library and it's called Reflections on Indigenous Child Separation. And it was based on over 300 interviews done all around Australia with Stolen Generations people and those involved in either removing children or social workers or people at the homes, police. I must have read about half a million words of transcripts of interviews, and it was the real life experience of people were more tragic than anything I could make up in fiction.

ASTRID: There is a very brief scene in Becoming Kirrali Lewis where you allude to that. I believe if I remember correctly Cherie is thinking back to her past and a different relationship she had with an Aboriginal man, and he is approached by an older white gentleman at a wedding and they sit and have quite an intense conversation, and we find out that the older white gentleman did participate, he was a policeman and he did remove children, and he came to essentially ask for forgiveness and apologise.

JANE: Yes, I think there's no winners in the Stolen Generation. I'm not saying that the experience of being on the side of removal is as bad as being a member of the Stolen Generations, but I think it's a scar on all of our psyches. So, when you listen to people who have been part of that, you know, I know of people – in fact well-known people, and I don't want to name them now because I don't want to bring any hurt to them – but people who might have adopted an Aboriginal child not even knowing that in fact they're not an orphan, that their parents actually were still alive. And they adopted in ignorance and really did not understand what was going on.

J+ASTRID: Do different age groups respond in different ways to this story? And if so, what are the responses that you get from say a high school student reading becoming Kirrali Lewis compared to maybe somebody of an age with the character of Kirrali?

JANE: Yeah, it's different. And before I… I asked some students what their response was to the idea of having, as you mentioned, one part of the book is from Cherrie’s experience and she's older, she's not a teenage YA character of that age group, and was that a problem for them reading that. And they said we just get sick of some of them said we get sick of reading about 17- and 18-year olds, and it was good to have another character to see through their eyes. So that was really good, because I think before I had it published a couple of publishers said to me, ‘Oh no, kids and young people are not interested in reading about someone who's 40’. But I forged on regardless and I'm glad I did.

The people of an age with Kirrali who grew up in the 1980s, I think what they enjoy is the kind of nostalgia of it – the fact that the word processors and not computers! And I had to do a lot of this research even though I grew up in that era myself. When was the first actual personal computer, pay phones, those kind of things, the technology that's come into our lives, we forget there was a time before it. And a lot of my readers appreciate just that the world of starting university and often being the first person in the family to go to university and the wonder of that. And so, they really relate to those aspects of it of the story.

ASTRID: And have you had different responses from readers who are Indigenous or Torres Strait Islander compared to anyone else coming into contact with Becoming Kirrali Lewis?

JANE: Interestingly of the non-Indigenous readers that have given me feedback, I'm struck by how many who have been adopted have suggested that they can really relate to the story, which is very heartening because I think there are human experiences that are universal. There's obviously many more layers to it if you're Aboriginal and you're also removed from your culture, your language, your country, all of those aspects. But I guess the non-Indigenous tend to like that whole nostalgia of the era aspect of it, while the Indigenous readers seem to appreciate the fact that she's a young girl in an urban setting. And I think 35 percent of Aboriginal people live in cities, not in the Outback or remote areas.

ASTRID: You mentioned Black Lives Matter a few minutes ago, and that is something that is occupying a lot of emotional and mental space around the world in 2020, and I think and I hope that that continues. As a creator of stories and as the writer of this particular story, that you did set in the 1980s with flashbacks to the 1960s, what do you think is the power of fiction? And how do people in 2020 – who are buying books all over the place in an attempt to learn things that they weren't taught and to understand things that they haven't had direct personal experience of. Why does fiction matter? And how can a story set in the 1960s and 1980s still have such resonance today?

JANE: Well I think fiction does matter. I think stories are what we are as humans. Our ability to share stories, knowledge and learning and our emotions and feelings. You know, non-fiction is also really important – reading, watching documentaries or reading a non-fiction book. At the moment I’m reading See What You Made Me Do about domestic violence. And they're powerful, but I think personally I feel that fiction has a way of getting under your skin, and hopefully in good fiction and you can see yourself reflected in those stories. The emotions, inner dialogue, and the messiness of it, yeah, the messiness of life I think fiction kind of can do really well. And I feel that good fiction has to have an emotional truth. That's the most important thing, it doesn't have to so researched base that every I is crossed and whatever, as long as it has that emotional truth to it and that then people can relate to it.

I know with Stolen a Q&A I went to once, a woman got up afterwards and said to me I said I can relate that story because tonight was the first night I left my baby with the babysitter, and then I could see that she got embarrassed by trying to compare the Stolen Generations to going out to the theatre for the night and leaving the baby with a babysitter. But I was actually really moved by that, because just for one moment she knew what it felt like and it wasn't the other, what had happened on stage wasn't the other, it was her experience too. And I think that's what fiction can do, it can put you in someone else's shoes just for a little while. Comfort of your own home, wherever you are, snuggled under the doona, wherever you are.

ASTRID: That is beautifully said Jane.

JANE: Thank you so very much, an absolute pleasure.