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Perception Revitalisation and Resistance in The Swan Book

Temiti Lehartel


This paper investigates the potential of Alexis Wright’s novel The Swan Book to revitalise readers’ apprehension of place, and human entanglements with the non-human world. It ponders over how Wright calls readers to question ways of being and knowing. Finally, the paper explores how The Swan Book’s complexity and thus its resistance to readers’ perception demands an ethics of reading Indigenous literature.

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The green and blue plastic playground balls bounce

crash against the gentle riri plants

roll back down

the white coral bones

the crushed vana spines

the polymer encrusted multicolored sand

te moana howls

regurgitates cogs and wheels

from the depths of its full belly

E nehenehe anei te pa’umara’a o te moana

  • 1 “Will sea level rise sever the ties we have with our land?”

’e fati to tatou nei natira’a i to tatou fenua?1

  • 2 The IPCC is a United Nations scientific body which prepares exhaustive reports about climate change (...)

2With two decades of increasing wave surges ushering coastal land disfiguration, cyclones and tropical depressions punctuating my observation of the eroding littorals and bleaching coral gardens around where I was brought up in Tahiti Iti, I understand climate change as unquestioningly real. Reading the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) successive assessment reports that have been published since the 2000s does not leave me challenging the “scientify” to quote from Wright’s Carpentaria (2007a, 118).2 On the contrary, scientific reports confirm what many already perceive is happening in Mā’ohi Nui or French Polynesia. My cultural background and my training in literature, paired with a deep concern as to how people are resisting and mitigating climate change in Oceania, have led me to read novels by Indigenous Oceanian authors, in search of voices that would speak about climate stories, fears, hopes and responses. Alexis Wright’s voice and her third novel The Swan Book found their way to me in Naarm (Melbourne), as I was studying there in 2017.

  • 3 Cli-fi refers to climate fiction. The genre is speculative and explores a future where ecological a (...)
  • 4 In line with Indigenous Australian usage, this paper uses Country with a capital C to refer to Indi (...)

3The Swan Book (2013) is a dystopian cli-fi3 novel. Set some decades in the future when Australia has become a republic and climate change and political unrest are exacerbated, the story follows the trials and tribulations of an Indigenous Australian girl called Oblivia Ethylene. Gang raped by petrol-sniffing youths, Oblivia is left mute and her growth into a full-fledged woman is somehow stunted. When the girl witnesses black swans arriving on her Country from the south, an inexplicable bond forms between her and the animals.4 After her foster parent Bella Donna dies, Oblivia is taken away by Warren Finch, the future president of Australia. He plans to wed her in accordance with old promises made between his family and hers. Following Warren’s mysterious death, Oblivia returns home following her swans’ migration route. The novel finishes on Oblivia remaining in the swamp as a ghostly figure yelling to people that “their country waits for them” in a voice sounding like “the sigh of a moth extending out over the landscape” (Wright 2015, 334).

  • 5 For example, in The Swan Book, homeless people are described thus: “Those who slept there in rubbis (...)
  • 6 According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to revitalise something means to make something stronge (...)

4Although speculative and set in the future, the novel enables readers to ponder on how the current capitalist/modern/colonial boom and bust economy relies on extractive practices, the spoliation of Indigenous lands, the deprivation of human dignity and the endangerment of the planet’s vital organs. In its representation of the north and the south of Australia, and its contrasts between homeless city dwellers and the inside of rich people’s fridges, the narrative enables readers to perceive the stark inequality between the rich and the poor.5 However, while certain themes are familiar enough to help readers perceive that the dystopian narrative they are reading is uncomfortably close to reality, the many layers, events, stories and voices overlapping create a complexity that challenges and resists the readers’ understanding of Wright’s work. This article aims to explore how The Swan Book revitalises the readers’ perception of the world.6 The article will first examine how Wright informs her readers’ understanding of Australian Country and perception of non-humans, namely animals. It then considers how the novel resists capitalistic extractive practices and authority by denouncing them. Last, it analyses how The Swan Book contributes to change the ethics of reading stories by Indigenous writers for a world readership.

Reconfiguring readers’ approach to Country and animals

Bevies of swans crossed the man-made catchments and cubby dams on pastoral lands, and flew down to the tailing dams of mines, and the sewerage ponds of inland towns, where story after story was laid in the earth again. (Wright 2015, 16)

  • 7 The Northern Territory Intervention was rolled out by the Howard government in 2007 with the offici (...)

5In an interview with Steph Craps in 2020, Wright explained that she was deeply concerned by Australia’s “conservative government and their policies which were taking the advances in self-determination back about thirty years” (Wright 2020, 179). She argues that in The Swan Book she wanted to imagine a dystopian, future world where these policies still existed and were even amplified to draw attention to their fundamentally harmful logic. This concern for Australian politics transpires in the novel due to the recurrent evocation of legal texts and references to “self-serving politicians […] tragedians and thespians mouthing off” (Wright 2015, 314). In order to build her novel’s setting in Australia, Wright not only describes its environment, fauna and flora, and uses Waanyi language, she also represents its political landscape. The author mentions a wide range of policies such as the March 2008 “Closing the gap” policy (79, 80, 82, 116, 125, 295), the Stolen Generations and Australian Indigenous children removal policies when Half-Life thinks about how if he has children the government might take them away (319), before finally evoking the “rigid nationality test” (304) – which could be read as a reference to the 2007 Australian citizenship test. The novel is set in the north under the Intervention, a set of policies which were primarily designed in reaction to the “Little Children Are Sacred” report.7 Finally, the Indigenous Australian relocation policy Wright inscribes in her book is very similar to what was done in 1897 under the “Restriction of the Sale of Opium and Protection of Aborigines Act of 1897” which depopulated regions and relocated Indigenous Australians to “far away places as wards of the state” (Langton 2002, 254–55), and more specifically aimed to make land available for settler occupancy. By referring to a wide range of past and contemporary Australian policies, Wright not only complicates readers’ perception of Australia because it requires them to know or look into these policies to get a grasp of what the narrator is recounting but also informs their understanding of its political space. The author maps Australia as a place of unfair treatment and dramatises its possible evolution by imagining it going forward with marginalising Indigenous Australians, boat people, asylum seekers and other unwanted people to the swamp. Wright’s dry humor provides the finishing touches to her political landscape when the narrator explains:

genocide, or mass murder, which were crimes thought to be so morally un-Australian, it was officially denied that anything like it ever happened, like in the rhetoric of the history wars era – genocide, a horrendous crime against humanity that was unheard of. It never happened. Not in this country. (Wright 2015, 295)

6As Sarah Maddison writes in her work Beyond White Guilt, in many Australian minds “genocide brings to mind Hitler and the Jews, not Australia and the Aborigines” (2011, 18). However, Indigenous Australian artists, activists, academics, politicians and their non-Indigenous allies are working to set the record straight. The narrator’s ironic insistence that genocide is un-Australian and “never happened” enables readers to understand it did. In having the narrator referring to so many policies, the author anchors her speculative narrative in social realism.

  • 8 However, in Wright’s dystopia, fairy-tale topos such as that of the prince and the princess are pre (...)
  • 9 In Carpentaria, white settlers fight to keep Australian authorities from renaming Desperance “Maste (...)

7However, Wright challenges her realist setting by crafting unstable locations in her narrative. The story begins in the swamp but the place is renamed “Swan Lake,” a fictitious name reminiscent of a fairy-tale or the ballet of the same name.8 Arguably, this re-naming of the swamp highlights the instability of place-naming in settler colonial nations. Renaming is a topic which is even more salient in Carpentaria where a river renaming scene is parodied, for the river “only had one name since the beginning of time,” an Aboriginal one, Wangala (Wright 2007a, 9).9 However, the swamp or Swan Lake ends up being the otherworldly stage Wright uses and needs to represent and exacerbate Australia’s policies and climate deterioration. As explained by Adam Trexler and Adeline Johns-Putra, climate fiction necessitates the construction of other-worlds (2011, 86). Contrary to Carpentaria, The Swan Book provides no precise coordinates for the location of this swamp in the vast North of Australia and is, according to Wright, meant to “bring the facts and speculation about climate change to life” (Wright 2020, 179). We may imagine it takes place on her ancestral lands, but a clear understanding of geographical location is destabilised. What is more, the swamp is nicknamed “Hell” (a place which has no coordinates either), by the narrator (Wright 2015, 34) and Warren Finch (131), and is opposed to the “cities of Heaven” which we understand as being located in the south of Australia (121).

8The lack of stability in location due to naming frees readers’ imagination. This freedom is furthered by how little cartographic detail the reader gets regarding the swamp. For example, the only clues which are given by the narrator about the swamp’s basic cartography are mediated by a light used by the army to oversee the space it occupies (Wright 2015, 48). The narrative gives topographic prominence only to piling dust, humpies and overall decay. Finally, the glimpses of the swamp/Swan Lake’s cartography are complexified by the oxymoronic expression used by the narrator: an “oasis of abandonment” (52), as well as the liminal position of the place (between present policies and their exacerbated future, between mud and water, etc.). All in all, the reader is left to both piece the narrator’s kaleidoscopic dystopian Australia together and reimagine Australia according to a triad reconfiguration of Heaven and Hell with Canberra as the seat of political power (34). The balance achieved between social realism and uncertainty in place enables readers to read climate fiction and “to entertain hypothetical situations – alternative lives, or futures, or landscapes – as though they were real. It has a unique capacity to help us connect present action with future consequence” (Macfarlane 2005).

9Yet, even as the place is renamed, and its ancestral sacredness squandered, this settler colonial climate-stricken “Hell” (Wright 2015, 34) is still Country to Indigenous Australians:

That could not be allowed to rot into the sacredness of the ground. Their conscience flatly refused to have junk buried among the ancestral spirits. These were really stubborn people sticking to the earth of the ancestors, even though they knew well enough that the contaminated lake caused bellyaches, having to eye each cup of tainted water they drank from the lake, but drinking it anyway. (11)

  • 10 See Spicer 2020 for more information about cyclones.

In foregrounding the ancestral nature of Country even in the future and in such dire conditions, Wright demonstrates how pollution, “the man-made catchments and cubby dams on pastoral lands” (16), “the tailing dams of mines” (16), “the sewerage ponds of inland towns” (16), the passing of time, the passing of policies, the “laying of stories time and time again in the earth” (16), and the disruptive climate do not manage to entirely destroy Country or its relationship with Indigenous Australians. As the ultimate symbol of resistance, Oblivia resists all tides of obliteration and manages to eventually return home, even as a ghost. Therefore, the novel proposes that regardless of how many layers of policies, events and history are laid over Country to disrupt the connection between Indigenous Australians and their land, Indigenous connection perdures. The narrative layering comes to the same conclusion as the one provided in Carpentaria: Australia is, and always will be Aboriginal land, even in a climate-disrupted dystopian future. Not all hope is eradicated in this climate fiction which is, however, “more bleak” (Wright 2020, 180) than Carpentaria. Swans die, Oblivia appears to die, yet her spirit or legend survives beyond death: people can hear Oblivia speaking to them albeit in a voice which requires paying attention. Birds are inventing a new language and the narrator hopes to see Bunjimala the rainbow serpent bring in cyclones again. The end of the novel emphasises hopes for climate reparation through cyclones and dust storms. Although such reparation through dust and cyclonic activity might seem impossible in the Pacific, in Wright’s writing, cyclones have structural and symbolic importance.10 Finally, similarly to how Country has “a will toward life” (Bird-Rose 1996, 7) and is “reclaiming its original habitat” in the novel (Wright 2015, 208), birds and other animals in Wright’s narrative also demonstrate a will toward life and expression. For example, Brolgas dance for Warren and express their love for him even if he does not reciprocate; and black swans, in the face of climate change, actively try to adapt their migratory patterns in search of “rainwaters and cyclones” (16).

  • 11 The term “non-human” is used by Marcia Langton in her work Burning Questions: Emerging Environmenta (...)

10In The Swan Book, Wright foregrounds the importance of Country and Indigenous Australians’ relationship to it at the same time as she highlights the importance of non-human beings along with human relationships to the non-human.11 Bella Donna is close to European swans, Warren Finch to brolgas and more generally to birds, the Harbour Master to a monkey friend, Machine the butler and Red to cats, Half-Life has a cicada and a camel, the genies are fond of owls, the homeless kids have Staffordshire bull terriers, and Oblivia can speak to cats, trusts an owl to guide her through the city of Heaven and is close to swans. Humans develop various relationships with animals throughout the novel, whose narrative is also propelled by animals. Marcia Langton explains in her work that “in the Aboriginal cosmology, humans and non-humans are related in special ways, as if they were kin, through their common descent from the ancestral beings” (1998, 14). Moreover, Wright explained in an interview at the Wheeler Center with Adjunct Professor Sophie Cunningham that she loves animals and that “Indigenous people view animals as sacred” (Wright 2013). Thus, the story’s attention to human relationships with animals can be seen as informed by the author’s cultural background in which the non-human is not considered peripheral.

  • 12 Sovereignty of the mind is a concept Wright developed in Carpentaria and pursues in The Swan Book: (...)

11The narrative highlights that human lives are closely related to the animal world, whether it is for overconsumption (the wedding banquet), subsistence (the Chinese fisherman and the fisherman Oblivia watches from the People’s Palace), kinship (Warren and the Brolgas), companionship or friendship (the Harbour master, the children in the city, Half-Life and his cicada brother), Indigenous scientific research or observation (the genies), pest control (Half-Life’s tribe with the donkeys, the people of Heaven with the snakes), anthropogenic climate change victims (swans, owls, etc.), or even to help with the sovereignty of the mind (Oblivia escapes her trauma by imagining herself in a nimbus cloud, as a swan).12 Moreover, in referring to international swan music, stories, poems, lore and constructions (subanahongsa swan barges for example), Wright reminds readers of the many ways humans (not just Indigenous people) perceive themselves and perhaps better understand themselves in relation to animals, reinvigorating our perception that humans relate to animals in many ways across the world. The narrative’s emphasis on Indigenous Australian closeness to animals extends to other cultures. At the end of the novel, Wright thanks her cats and kelpies for their companionship, showing her personal understanding of how animals and humans mutually impact each other’s lives. In focusing on animals’ relationships with humans, Wright also addresses the negative relationships of domination and overconsumption over animals that are perpetuated through capitalism, economic colonialism and anthroparchy more generally. In doing so, she combines a resistance to the legitimacy of certain ways of knowing land and animals and to certain ways of being or existing in the world today.

“Simply sacrificing the whole Earth”: denouncing capitalistic extractive practices and authority

12Wright clearly stated that she wants to generate change through her writing (Wright 2020, 179). While it is impossible to reduce The Swan Book to a pamphlet (there are too many voices and positions in the author’s novels, which convey a representation of life’s complexity), Wright’s narrator often adopts a denunciative attitude. For example, the narrator states:

Only heaven knows, there were millions of people throughout the world who either offered pigs as sacrifices to their Gods, or flowers, or the first grain of the new season’s crop. There were even others who offered their own people to the Gods. Now the day had come when modern man had become the new face of God, and simply sacrificed the whole Earth. (Wright 2015, 12)

This is one of the clearest passages in the novel where the narrator’s critique of the sacrificial destruction brought about by exploitative approaches to humans and the Earth appears. Modernity (with the terms “modern man” above) can here be linked to a certain form of hubris and brings to mind modernity’s link to coloniality which is widely developed in Walter Mignolo and Catherine Walsh’s work On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, and Praxis (2018). In the novel, the sacrificial behaviour harboured by certain populations has led to climate change. Nevertheless, this comment on sacrificial behavior is not the only occurrence of denunciation.

13An inability to act on climate change is showcased by the narrator in The Swan Book. As Warren takes Oblivia down South and away from the swamp, it is “Christmas time” and abnormally cold and rainy:

Whatever happened to the good, old, hot Australian Christmas, hey, Warren? It will be snowing next thing. Warren said it was all to do with global warming and climate change, but his moving-mouth friends were more concerned with the failure of electricity. (Wright 2015, 214)

  • 13 For instance, the Kyoto protocol was not legally binding and the Paris agreement is not entirely le (...)

In this passage, the reader is confronted with the direct consequences of a change in climate on Australian Christmas culture. Here again, the narrator comments and highlights how concern for electricity overtakes the opportunity given to Warren, the future head of state, to properly consider and address climate change. The moving-mouth friends do not move their mouths for the right reasons. For instance: “their voices shouted to be heard above each other to complain about power surges in the city, and the malfunctioning Christmas lights that were never like this before… they talked endlessly of things of no importance to anyone but themselves, and now about the brands of butter you could buy in places called the ‘new’ supermarkets” (215). These short quotes and running commentary from the narrator thus highlight anthropocentric concerns for short-term energy fixes, lack of understanding of long-term environmental impacts, and lack of deep conversation regarding what is of relevance to human and non-human survival – butter brands are more important. In the face of climate change, current political debates stall, international conventions and protocols or agreements are hardly ever legally-binding, and the environmental care promoted by people on the ground, the world’s Indigenous peoples, climate strikers and scientific and academic communities is rarely taken on board by governments or the elites to address the crisis.13

14Moreover, as Warren and Oblivia celebrate their wedding in Red’s house, rich polluters and high-profile advocates of worthy causes are present in the same room:

These are all very close friendships […]. Red said they were rolling in money. Most of which is the laundered profits of exploiting natural resources which has wound every cent of its way around the globe many times before it lands in this multi-coloured fashion parade, my dear […]. Warren smiled amicably, briefly, politely to hear snippets of important news among these high-profile advocates of worthy causes, human rights, moral judgement, espousing correct answers for saving the lives of Aborigines, displaced people, freedom of speech, endangered species, the environment. And in fact, Red said, Between them all, all of them have enough causes to cover the entire planet. You think they could bloody well save it. (Wright 2015, 224)

In this quote in which Red confides (in italics) and the narrator comments, both rich investors and rich activists appear to belong to the same crowd. Red describes them as a “multi-coloured fashion parade,” and nudges readers to reflect on performative activism in elite circles. This subtle narratorial critique of legitimacy, power and authority can also be found in Wright’s second novel Carpentaria, where privileged white Uptowners generate garbage and waste, while the marginal Aboriginal characters manage to transform such waste into priceless creations. Angel Day, for example, builds her house entirely out of trash from the dump, thus upcycling waste and creatively regenerating what had been discarded.

15Whilst the narrator criticises power, their narration also sheds a critical light on the accumulation of wealth and the normalisation of such an accumulation. In Red’s home, the fridge is “worshipped. Glorified like the supreme spirits of the city,” “huge,” and “dominating the kitchen […] like a house within a house” (Wright 2015, 214), like a food safe. The narrator seamlessly shuffles between excessively large items (“large door,” “adult size-glowing snowmen” and “giant people” [210–11]) and uncanny miniature reproductions of Christmas festivities where “there was no miniature black girl and no swamp world of people quarreling over food” (219). They report Red’s cat’s thoughts or speech, saying that it “knows about the consequences of falling in love with constructed fairylands” (217), which refers to the miniature microcosm of society present in the house and thus calls attention to the artificiality of it. The recurrence of words such as “created,” “theater” (217) and the presence of miniaturised versions of “images of nostalgia” (217), along with Oblivia’s search for “proof of fault” and “deception” (219), point at how this safe place, this house, this construction filled with food and light is deceitful and artificial in a world of scarcity and climate decay. Overall, the Christmas house appears as a place of extremes in a world of desolation and paucity, a representation of what is abnormal with the “typical” (211) safe house, emblematic of the modern/colonial/capitalist society.

16In the same vein, the narrator also draws readers’ attention to how characters such as Oblivia perceive opulence. She perceives the house as a “burial chamber” and thus a metaphorical death rather than a promising beginning in her life after living in “Hell.” Ironically, the “safe house” can be understood as both a house providing safety or as a house-size vault full of riches. In Big Red’s “Christmas” house which is “prehistoric green and lit up like the solar system” (Wright 2015, 210), abundance is presented as sickening and strange by the narrator’s gaze but also through Oblivia’s discomfort. For instance, the narrator recounts: “even she could believe it was a place that nobody of right mind would want to come to” (211). Furthermore, in relating Oblivia’s reaction to the banquet at her wedding, the narrator initiates a questioning of overconsumption:

It was a banquet, more food than the girl had seen in her entire life, and the sight of so much food for one meal made her nauseous, and unable to eat. Inside her loneliness, she felt the pangs of hunger the night she had raided the fishing nets in the swamp, and had not found a single fish. Then, she lost track of the number of cattle, pigs, sheep, and poultry slaughtered, and vegetable fields that had been raided, the sea emptied, and all of this – deteriorating into the guts of seagulls eating the rubbish. (225)

Although famished, Oblivia does not react positively to the buffet. Instead of diving in and enjoying the banquet, she perceives the food processing scheme and tracks back where the food items come from and how they were obtained. The use of the preterit verbs “slaughtered,” “raided,” “emptied” and present progressive “deteriorating” point to the current short-sighted extractive capitalist model paired with a progressing throw-away culture.

17However, even if Wright uses her narrator and Oblivia’s reactions to unsettle the normalcy of extractive capitalism, opulence and throw-away culture, the author makes it clear that Indigenous people can also fall in line or in love with capitalist fairylands. Warren for example has embraced that system. His enjoyment in Heaven is foregrounded when the character is described as being “marvelously at ease” and “relaxed” (Wright 2015, 207). He finds the Christmas decorations to be “an extravaganza” (213) and sees the house as a “typical” (211) safe house – which highlights his approval of and support for western capitalism. Even if Warren appears to care about climate change and justice, he is shown to integrate this system in order to become palatable to rich and powerful white people, to gain power and visibility to be seen and heard by benefactors at the wedding reception. Similarly to the East mob in Carpentaria, the Brolga mob has grown rich “with flukes of luck here and there called mining, and saying yes” (103), and Warren is a child of that nation – a nation which gave in to insidious colonial expectations in order for Warren to become their ultimate saviour. Adeline Johns-Putra points out that “Warren’s biculturalism figures him as an assimilated other,” and reveals the “insidiousness of colonial power” and capitalism (2018, 36). In the process of fitting into the western world, Warren loses his “memory of home […] and all he could think about were better memories of his life and having closer familiarity with other places buzzing non-stop in his head”; the smell of the swamp and of food cooked in his homeland no longer agree with him (Wright 2015, 126). Warren has fallen in love with Heaven and can no longer completely appreciate his own homeland and its idiosyncrasies. Wright’s narrator asserts: “you should always know where to find your home” (6). A cat also warns readers of the “consequences of falling in love with constructed fairylands” (217) or modern exploitative systems which disregard the direct link between human and environmental wellbeing. Both point fingers at the artificiality of extractive human existences and consumption modes which are precipitating global warming and pollution. Another type of consumption which can be questioned is the too easy consumption of Indigenous artistic productions and knowledge in general.

“It is strange what a view can do to how people think”: the ethics of reading Indigenous novels

18Indigenous Australians have been telling stories for millennia and their literature is inscribed within an Aboriginal cosmovision. With her words acting as “weapons,” “time bombs” which “are breaking down many barriers on their way across the world” (Wright 2002, 20), Wright’s artistic arsenal owes much to world literatures to which she openly pays tribute in her academic essays and at the end of the note on sources in The Swan Book. In her writing in English – which is in itself a powerful tool for a rebuttal to the dominant culture – the author incorporates a critical assessment of Aboriginal conditions, of what might arise from those conditions, and of how to provide resources for resistance and renewal within the Australian context and internationally. In “Politics of Writing,” Wright explains that she believes “literature could succeed in imprinting upon a bigoted, stubborn human creature the distant joy and grief of others” (Wright 2002, 14). Thus, Wright’s storytelling demonstrates a clear intention of being understood by a wider world audience.

19However, in her novels, the complex narrative voice is sometimes hard to locate because it is wide in scope, multi-layered, multi-focal and multi-lingual in its attempt to question simplistic approaches, homogeneity and unilaterality. The plurality and complexity of voices and references in Wright’s novels, although decried by some readers and critics, ought to be seen as an encouragement towards new ways of seeing and acknowledging multiplicity, and a feat of strength that addresses both the local and global. Just as in Carpentaria, the narrator in The Swan Book is an obtrusive one, to use western narratological terms. At the beginning of the novel, their use of “you” (Wright 2015, 6) to address readers positions them in medias res after the prelude in the first-person in which Oblivia is speaking. Largely omniscient, the narrator is present throughout the novel, appearing intradiegetic when they use the pronoun “us” (78–79), but remaining mostly heterodiegetic. Acting as a narrating agent and a commentator throughout the novel, the narrator adopts many tones and reports wide ranges of viewpoints and voices in both direct and reported speech. As a result of this narrative choice, it is sometimes impossible to perceive who the narrator really is and whether to locate them within or outside the text. Additionally, the dichotomy between the written and the oral is blurred with the recurrence of exclamatory interjections in the narration, such as “well” throughout The Swan Book (43, 84, 230, 280) and “So then” (125), along with a plethora of rhetorical questions directed to the implied reader.

  • 14 Gumbayngirr and Kulin nations Neal Margo and non-Indigenous Lynne Kelly explain that in Aboriginal (...)

20As opposed to reading and analysing Wright’s crafting of the narrative voice in western narratological terms, we may also see this voice as generating a complex songline. For instance, in her second novel Carpentaria, Old Joseph Midnight shares a songline or dreaming track to a safe place with Will.14 We may see Wright’s story as a songline which attempts to lead the reader to new places, perhaps to a safer place than what is described in the dystopian novel (Renes 2021). Cornelis Martin Renes suggests that “Wright’s dystopian epic can be considered a literary equivalent of a songline, the musical mnemonic device by which Aborigines narrate or ‘sing’ country into being and place, and so fix and transmit orally defining features of their environment and its inhabitants from one generation to another” (2021, 5). However, the new places and the polyphonic voice Wright uses for her narrator are sometimes difficult to find and hear: there is, at times, a certain inability to hear every component of the song at once. A remaining opacity renders sweeping perception impossible. In creating this opacity, Wright challenges readers’ expectations of an Indigenous Australian narratorial voice or story and confronts them with notions of positionality, cultural limitations and the impossibility to sense, hear, understand or perceive everything in a story. Wright thus engages in a twofold action: she revitalises Indigenous storytelling techniques and resists all-encompassing consumeristic/colonialistic perceptions of what an Indigenous Australian voice and story should sound like. Her narrator is perhaps a bit like Half-Life: “Thick with the spirits from all over the world” (315) yet with their feet anchored in their Country.

21In fine, in The Swan Book, the I and the “eye” of the reader Ravenscroft writes about in The Postcolonial Eye are constantly challenged by Wright’s stylistic and narratorial choices. In her work, Ravenscroft explains:

There is a positivism in […] reading practices that will insist on telling what an Indigenous-signed text is about, that looks for correspondences through which a signifier from one world of meaning can be tied to a signifier from another, making an equation, taking pleasure in decoding the Indigenous text […]. This is a critical approach which emphasizes a reader’s capacity to see and know. (2016, 51)

  • 15 Ravenscroft analyses “the ethics of reading” in an Indigenous context. For a theorising of the noti (...)

Just as in Plains of Promise, things “fall from view” for Ravenscroft (2016, 49) in The Swan Book, the songline’s components cannot all be perceived. In The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins, Graham Huggan highlights how the postcolonial has become a “watchword for the fashionable study of cultural otherness” (2009, vii) and discusses “the influence of publishing houses and academic institutions on the selection, distribution and evaluation of these works” (vii). As a consequence of this ongoing scrutiny and consumption in the postcolonial field, modern Indigenous cultural and artistic productions can be profoundly strange and impossible to read on white cultural terms, all the while retaining the creativity that renders them attractive to western audiences. Ravenscroft has eloquently written on allowing Indigenous productions to remain outlandish to the eye and understanding of white onlookers (2016). As an early-career Indigenous researcher interested in Oceanian productions and trained in Western institutions, I have come to understand that I cannot open an Indigenous book expecting to perceive everything. Ravenscroft explains that “there are things an other knows (there are objects that are made) that we will never know/see/hear” (2010, 206),15 and I concur.

22While “it is strange what a view can do to how people think” (Wright 2013, 11), it can be argued that not seeing or hearing and thus not being able to consume something can do as much in so far as it may help readers and researchers face and accept the impossibility to perceive the world, a story or a voice in its complex entirety. Wright once stated in an oration that “the world is becoming more in need of writers who can think far more deeply and bravely than ever before, to tell of the complexities, scope and connectiveness of our existence” (2018, 214). She goes on to say that “to be the reader of literature, to listen to the story told, is to give the story company” (217). Thus, storytellers need listeners who will humbly strain to give the story company yet accept not to consume/hear/see/interpret everything told.

23To conclude, Wright’s writing resists and revitalises readers’ perception of place, animals and Indigenous literature. The author uses the novel and its social realist possibilities to inform readers’ perception of Australia as a highly contested and political space. The Swan Book builds an other-worldly place to ensure the possibility for readers to imagine political and climate deterioration running its full course, yet it upholds ancestral love for Country, even in an intensely destabilised world. In resisting colonial severance of Indigenous ties to Country, Wright also resists the complete reification of animals by bringing visibility to humans’ various relationships with them. The narrator of the story denounces extractive practices and consumerism along with performative activism. Wright’s complex narrative style proposes a critique of another type of consumption: the easy mis-conception or mis-consumption of Indigenous Australian literature.

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Attridge, Derek. 2004. J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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1 “Will sea level rise sever the ties we have with our land?”

2 The IPCC is a United Nations scientific body which prepares exhaustive reports about climate change.

3 Cli-fi refers to climate fiction. The genre is speculative and explores a future where ecological and political disaster has run its course. It enables readers to envision climate decay by making it fit into a narrative set in the near or distant future. Several academics have engaged with The Swan Book as climate fiction prior to this article and have analysed how climate change is represented in The Swan Book: see for example White 2014, Gleeson-White 2017, Mead 2018.

4 In line with Indigenous Australian usage, this paper uses Country with a capital C to refer to Indigenous land with which Indigenous groups have a custodianship link whereas country with a “c” refers to country in more general terms.

5 For example, in The Swan Book, homeless people are described thus: “Those who slept there in rubbish-bag coffins stuffed with newspaper to keep warm, while water leaked continuously from the rooftops, were unable to get a decent night’s sleep. Nor could they die in a sweet dream. So, they just lay there, and cursed the fact that they were still alive” (Wright 2013, 246). They are deprived of their human dignity and only wish to die.

6 According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to revitalise something means to make something stronger, more active or healthier. I use the word “revitalise” to argue that Wright’s work enables a healthier view of land and the non-human, one that involves less extraction and destruction.

7 The Northern Territory Intervention was rolled out by the Howard government in 2007 with the official aim to address and control issues affecting communities living in the Northern Territory. Its implementation received a lot of criticism from both Indigenous Australians and the Australian Human Rights Commission.

8 However, in Wright’s dystopia, fairy-tale topos such as that of the prince and the princess are present but never work out, which brings a humorous dimension to the novel.

9 In Carpentaria, white settlers fight to keep Australian authorities from renaming Desperance “Masterton”; this ironically brings to mind how Indigenous places were renamed in the colonial process. The Wangala river which the town wants to rename Normal, after Norm Phantom, also brings to mind such processes along with tokenistic, manipulative and senseless symbolic gestures.

10 See Spicer 2020 for more information about cyclones.

11 The term “non-human” is used by Marcia Langton in her work Burning Questions: Emerging Environmental Issues for Indigenous Peoples in Northern Australia (1998) and by Barbara Glowcewski’s recent work Indigenizing Anthropology with Deleuze and Guatarri (2020) to refer to non-human species, namely animals. Whilst these terms may be contested, I have decided to use them in this article.

12 Sovereignty of the mind is a concept Wright developed in Carpentaria and pursues in The Swan Book: “When faced with too much bad reality, the mind will try to survive by creating alternative narratives and places to visit from time to time, or live in, or believe in, if given the space” (Wright 2007b, 6).

13 For instance, the Kyoto protocol was not legally binding and the Paris agreement is not entirely legally binding; namely, there are no penalties if a nation does not meet its emission reduction targets.

14 Gumbayngirr and Kulin nations Neal Margo and non-Indigenous Lynne Kelly explain that in Aboriginal cultures, songlines are more than powerful navigational tools for they store enormous amounts of encoded knowledge (2020); see their work for more information about songlines.

15 Ravenscroft analyses “the ethics of reading” in an Indigenous context. For a theorising of the notion from a different context, see for example Derek Attridge’s J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event (2004).

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Electronic reference

Temiti Lehartel, Perception Revitalisation and Resistance in The Swan BookCommonwealth Essays and Studies [Online], 44.2 | 2022, Online since 25 February 2022, connection on 22 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Temiti Lehartel

Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology / Université Paul Valéry

Of Samoan, Tahitian, and European descent, born in Papeete and raised in Mā’ohi Nui, Samoa, Aotearoa and Kanaky, Temiti Lehartel is a first year cotutelle PhD candidate in Global Urban and Social Studies (RMIT) and in Literature (Paul Valéry University, Montpellier III). Currently working as a full-time senior school teacher in French Polynesia, Temiti holds the Agrégation and has co-edited the Ellipses textbook on Carpentaria for the 2022 Agrégation. Her research focuses on Indigenous Oceanian literature, Indigenous policy and rights, climate change responses, and relationality.

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