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The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa

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Foreign Soil – Maxine Beneba Clarke

‘The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa’

Summary of the story:

‘The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa’ is the story of a young refugee boy trapped in Sydney’s Villawood detention centre and an Australian woman struggling to make anyone care about him.

The bulk of this story belongs to Asanka, a young boy seeking refuge from the horrors of his homeland. Asanka, a child who was taken from his family and forced to fight with the Tamil Tigers, has fled Sri Lanka on a small crowded fishing boat, which is making its way to Australian waters. These horrors are sharply drawn alongside those he experiences upon his arrival in Australia. No more than a teenager, Asanka has already endured torture at the hands of the Tamil, and been dragged, half dead, through the salty ocean towards a dream of a safe place only to be locked up indefinitely before even reaching Australian shores. His only friend was Chaminda, an older man who saved him more than once on the long ocean voyage. The boat is intercepted by an Australian Navy vessel and Asanka is incarcerated and trapped in Villawood Detention Centre.  After Chaminda’s death, Asanka paces the corridors, restless, helpless and alone.

The stilt fishermen of the title (who fish while perched on a stilt platform, wrapping one arm around a pole planted in the waters off the beach) are noted around the south coast of Sri Lanka, a tradition since WWII days, particularly near Galle and Koggara and Kathaluwa, and seem to inspire visions in this young man’s dreams. He ‘sees’ the Australian ship long before it appears, as the fishermen told him.

One Saturday at Villawood, he meets a lawyer, Loretta, who works with asylum seekers and has previously met with Chaminda, a fellow asylum seeker who befriended him and protected him during the voyage but has since died in Villawood. Chaminda has previously described Loretta to him. Loretta is struggling to deal with aspects of her own life, let alone the lives of asylum-seekers. Unable to rid himself of the images of blood on his body and the memories of his past violence, Asanka takes drastic action.

Loretta has left her job at the Asylum Seekers’ Support Centre because of pressure from her husband. In this story, she is the outsider, the helpless ‘other’ who lacks the language to explain who she is or what she can possibly offer. Chaminda was certain Loretta could help Asanka, but as she sits in front of him, sizing up a boy who has lost all hope, she knows that she cannot. Asanka can see it in her. He knows there is no hope, and so all he asks of her is a gift, of some toiletries. What harm could there be? What harm, until a hairpin becomes a needle and dental floss, a thread.

This piece ruthlessly drags the reader’s attention towards issues that are often suppressed and ignored in Australian society. Based on conversations the author had with refugees, Asanka is faithfully created and authentic. His journey is not idealised or diluted and, like the other stories in this collection, ‘The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa’ asks readers to question their own attitudes and responses.


  1. Focus on structure

The story is narrated in discrete but interwoven sections, the voyage in the small fishing boat (initially and in flashbacks), Loretta’s story and Asanka’s story at Villawood. It offers a sympathetic account of the traumas faced by those who seek protection in Australia.

There are a number of narrative threads within the story

  • Asanka’s journey with Chaminda on the boat
  • Asanka in Villawood
  • Loretta preparing to visit Villawood (including, the relationship between Loretta and Sam)
  • Loretta’s meeting with Asanka in Villawood

Fill in the template below, which follows the story as written by Clarke.

Working in pairs complete one or two section/s of the narrative.

Share with the class.

Place the story threads in chronological order.

Event and pages

Summary of events

Dot point the events that occur. Highlight a crucial event or reflection in the section.

Character details

What do you find out about the character’s life (past and present), their values, and beliefs? Look at the way they respond to situations. What conclusions can you draw in relation to their personality traits?

Explain and provide supportive evidence (quote) for claims that you make.

Language Features

Examples of language used

How does the author allow the reader to connect to the story via the chosen language? Provide an example and explain its purpose and effect on the reader.

See Appendix 1.

Symbols and motifs

Identify these and analyse their use.

Example/quote and explanation is required.

See Appendix 2.


What are the key ideas and themes examined in the section?

See Appendix 3

  1. Pg 192 – 198

Asanka on the boat (1)

  1. Pg 198 – 205

Loretta preparing to visit Villawood

Relationship with Sam

Focus on the hints provided by the author in relation to the relationship between Loretta and Sam.

  1. Pg 205 – 211

Asanka in Villawood

How does the author create a sense of torment/a sense of distress?

  1. Pg 211 – 213

Asanka on the boat (2)

Journey is difficult and long

What can you say about Chaminda?




  1. Pg 213 – 217

Loretta’s journey to Villawood

Compare Loretta’s journey to Villawood to Asanka’s journey

  1. Pg 217 – 221

Asanka in the library in Villawood

Leaflet – motif of blood

  1. Pg 221 – 222

Asanka on the boat (3)

  1. Pg 222 – 223

Loretta entering Villawood

Loretta’s connection to Chaminda

  1. Pg 223 – 225

Asanka waiting in Villawood visitors waiting area

  1. Pg 225 – 227

Asanka on the boat (4)


Ocean is like a ‘monster’

Stilt fishermen

  1. Pg 227 – 228

Loretta in Villawood – why?

What is her role?

What insights are seen from her character?

  1. Pg 228 – 229

Asanka meets Loretta


Past is always near

  1. Pg 229 – 230

Asanka on the boat (5)

Spot the Australian naval boat

Humour within the indignity of the situation

  1. Pg 230 -232

Loretta’s views and values

  1. Pg 232 – 233

Asanka’s point of view – meeting Loretta

Waiting for hope

Longing for home

Need for human connection

Intense emotions and feelings

  1. Pg 233 – 235

Asanka and others are saved – on the boat (6)

  1. Pg 235 – 238

Loretta and Asanka

The world globe

Tight rope

  1. Pg 238 -240

Asanka in Villawood



Stilt fishermen

  1. Pg 241 – 242

Asanka on the Australian naval boat

Hope is lost

Sense of impending danger

  1. Pg 243

Loretta leaving Villawood

Post activity reflective questions:

  1. Why does the author choose to tell the story of Asanka, Chaminda and Loretta in the order chosen? Consider the effect this has on the reader.

  1. Answer the following questions:
  • Why does Asanka count? Why is Asanka so focused on measuring time?
  • How do Chaminda and Asanka become friends? What unites them?
  • How does the author demonstrate Asanka's feelings of helplessness and disconnection from the world? Why does he feel this way?
  • What does Asanka hope for? Is this likely to happen?
  • For Asanka, what is real?
  • Why does Loretta feel that she cannot help Asanka?
  • Why is she frustrated with her family and friends' lack of understanding? How could she explain it so they would understand, and would they listen?
  • How do the conditions faced by Asanka on his journey predispose our sympathies towards him?
  • What images are suggested by the ‘stilt fishermen’? (Consider the image of the three crosses on Calvary?)
  • Why does Asanka take the action that he does?
  • Why might this story be difficult to read? What ideas does it challenge?
  1. Creative responses- ‘The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa’
  1. What happens next in Loretta’s story?
  1. 2.         Create a newspaper account or a transcript of a TV news report on the incident at Villawood. You may need to create additional characters to generate multiple perspectives.
  1. Create an opinion piece, written by one of Loretta’s colleagues, for the Sydney Morning Herald commenting on the conditions faced by asylum-seekers in detention at Villawood.
  2. Retell the events of the boat journey and Villawood from the point of view of Chaminda.
  3. What does Loretta see when she turns back to look at the crowd of journalists moving pack like to a figure near the fence? What does she do?
  4. Another detainee’s perspective. He is watching Asanka in the visitors area interacting with Loretta and then as he appears again in the visitors yard walking towards the fence.
  5. Brainstorm other alternatives…… so many possibilities.

Compared to ‘Foreign Soil’ and to ‘The Sukiyaki Book Club’

Compare some of its ideas about trauma, entrapment, violence and racial stereotyping with other stories in the collection. In ‘Foreign Soil’, Mukasa, a Ugandan doctor living in Australia, takes Ange back to Uganda with him, where he becomes controlling and abusive, confining Ange to the house. Ange is trapped. She is trapped in both an abusive relationship and geographically: ‘Uganda was locked by land … Every escape would be ever more foreign soil’ (p. 85).



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