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2. Understanding, Acknowledging, Representing Environmental Emergency
IV/ Narrating, representing

From Carpentaria to The Swan Book: finding a voice to narrate and resist the threat of extinction in Alexis Wright’s latest work



Alexis Wright est une romancière australienne reconnue, ainsi qu’une militante dévouée à la lutte pour l’auto-détermination aborigène. Dans son dernier roman, The Swan Book, Wright resitue le changement climatique et les menaces d’extinction, auxquels le lectorat citadin occidental rechigne encore souvent à s’intéresser aujourd’hui, dans le temps plus long de la colonisation européenne de l’Australie, et le temps beaucoup plus long encore de la présence aborigène sur l'île-continent. Wright fait converger l’impact de « l'intervention gouvernementale d'urgence » dans le Territoire du Nord en 2007 et la perspective d'une crise climatique mondiale en un récit qui enjoint de résister, à la fois, à la précipitation de l’action d’urgence et à toute fascination eschatologique.

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1In 2003, Australian environmental historian Tom Griffiths was commissioned by the Australian Academy of Humanities to address what should be the national research priority of an “Environmentally Sustainable Australia”. He delivered a perhaps circumstantially upbeat speech describing the period both as “a critical and exciting time in environmental scholarship” (Griffiths). He said the increasing awareness of an impending global environmental crisis coincided with a sense of “inhabit[ing] a promising moment in the evolution of disciplinary knowledge”. Griffiths cited the editors of a 1999 anthology of humanistic studies of the environment who identified “systemic socioeconomic and cultural causes” (Conway, Keniston, and Marx 6) as being the most pressing environmental problems, and acknowledged that the solutions to these problems lay beyond the reach of scientific or technical knowledge. In his view, “stories” were what changed the way people acted and the way they used available knowledge. Having described Australian history as “a giant experiment in ecological crisis and management, sometimes a horrifying concentration of environmental damage and cultural loss, and sometimes a heartening parable of hope and learning”, he told his audience, “the stories we live by determine the future. So, in harnessing the power of narrative, in listening to, rediscovering and generating true stories, we change the world” (Griffiths).

2In his speech, Griffiths suggested that the theories of uncertainty that had destabilized Newton’s mechanistic cosmology had also percolated into the humanities, “reviving an animistic view of nature that existed in Europe before the scientific revolution, and which still remains in many parts of the world”. Probably inspired by this indirect reference to indigenous (including Aboriginal Australian) cosmogonies, Griffiths went on to describe story as “a piece of disciplined magic, of highly refined science”, which, because it “carries multiple causes along together and enacts connectivity” is not only a most powerful educational tool, but also a valuable complement of the scientific analytic method.

3Although Griffiths never actually mentions fictional storytelling, his focus on the usefulness of imaginative narrative seems to tie in with Donna Haraway’s claim that “in the urgent times called the Anthropocene […] the arts for living on a damaged planet demand sympoietic thinking and action” (Haraway “Symbogenesis” 31). On the other hand, for all his stated enthusiasm and inclusiveness, Griffiths’ use of such words as “experiment”, “management” and “harnessing the power of narrative”, is reminiscent of the terminology developed in the 1990s by the proponents of the “narrativist turn”, which allowed storytelling to “emerge as a technology of communications, control, and power” (Salmon 6). In the face of growing scholarly consensus on climate emergency, Griffiths’ praise of the efficacy of story could be seen as the promotion of a form of top-down, libertarian-paternalistic strategy destined to “nudge” (Thaler and Cass 4-6) consumer societies in the “right” direction, towards greener products and behaviours – or even more radically towards degrowth abstinence. Does the end sought – the mitigation of the most disastrous effects of climate change – justify any method of narrative production, however, including the colonization of indigenous worldviews and storytelling? After the 2019-2020 bushfire season in Australia, Aboriginal associations conducting cultural “cool” burning said there was “huge interest” from farmers, landowners and communities wanting to learn about traditional burning (Huggins). It is doubtful, however, whether this increased interest in Aboriginal fire management techniques to help reduce fire risks reveals an attendant drive to “rejuvenate local flora, protect native animal habitat, all while restoring the kinship to the land”, which are all part of the Aboriginal cultural burning (Huggins). In the past, climate anxieties expressed in dominant discourses have often served to question or condemn minority groups’ land management practices and cultures around the world (Fressoz, Locher). In Australia, even after the legal doctrine of Terra Nullius that denied Indigenous peoples ownership of the land was overturned in 1992-1993, and even in places where the legal rights and interests of Aboriginal peoples have been recognized by the Commonwealth or the state, these rights do not usually include cultural burning (Williamson 9). Respected academic Marcia Langton has also denounced the colonial assumption that Aboriginal land could be treated as a “tabula rasa, for the purpose of sustainable ecological management” (Langton 7).

4Conversely, now co-opting minority worldviews, cultural practices and storytelling in an attempt to raise awareness about the climate emergency can be just as politically and ethically suspect, at least if the argument that urgent action is needed justifies not taking the time to honestly engage with the radical critique of Western modernity indigenous narratives represent. Time is precisely what science predicts humanity is running out of. So, in the current climate of existential, political and epistemological anxiety, when narrative efficiency seems to be the prime concern, what hope is there for such a form of ethically fraught engagement? These are some of the questions that reading Alexis Wright’s latest novel The Swan Book from a non-Indigenous viewpoint brings to mind. In view of current definitions of what a climate change novel is, or should be, this article will first situate The Swan Book with regards to what ecocritical expectations are today, but also to Wright’s own writing career. Building on Lawrence Buell’s notion that the current way of life is one that requires a “dwelling in crisis” (Buell 173) consciousness, and taking into account the distinction Ursula Heise makes between apocalyptic and risk perspectives (Heise 141-142), I will briefly compare The Swan Book with Wright’s earlier novel Carpentaria to show how, in her latest effort, Wright weaves together the memory of the 2007 Emergency Response in the Northern Territory and the perspective of a global climate crisis to provide a narrative that resists a fascination with end times, and invites her reader to “sit down” imaginatively in the heat of Country (Wright 334), and, as Donna Haraway famously put it, “stay with the trouble” a while.

1. Defining the climate change novel: what’s in a name?

5In the face of an increasing sense of doom and the continuing difficulty of bringing about a change in social and climate constructions, some scholars in the field of ecocriticism have undertaken to evaluate the capacity of existing literary genres to reimagine the ways in which humans might relate to non-humans or other-than-humans. For Adeline Johns-Putra, the term “Anthropocene” which identifies humanity as an agent of geological evolution concurrently “exposes the fallacy of human exceptionalism, reminding us of the entangled nature of human and nonhuman agency, and the vast and decidedly nonhuman proportions of human action” (Johns-Putra 26). Consequently, for Ursula Heise, climate change, as a process of global systemic transformation, “poses a challenge for narrative and lyrical forms that have conventionally focused above all on individuals, families, or nations, since it requires the articulation of connections between events at vastly different scales.” (Heise 205) Relationality across vast expanses of time and space is also what post-colonial ecocritic and novelist Amitav Ghosh identifies as the main challenge to “the grid of literary forms and conventions that came to shape the narrative imagination in precisely that period when the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the destiny of the earth.” (Ghosh 7) While asserting that the conventions of the realist novel which reflect the regularity and orderliness of bourgeois life are incompatible with the task of representing the improbability and even the “uncanniness” (Marshall 95) of climate change events, Ghosh, however, also argues that resorting to magic realism or surrealism misses the point, since current weather events, freakish though they might seem, are neither surreal nor magical but “overwhelmingly, urgently, astoundingly real [and] to treat them as magical or surreal would be to rob them of precisely the quality that makes them so urgently compelling–which is that they are actually happening on this earth, at this time” (Ghosh 27).

6Writing in 2005, Robert Macfarlane accepted Bill McKibben’s earlier view that people would not begin to act against climate change until they “felt fear in their guts”. (McKibben 11) But he argued that because of its incremental nature, climate change was uncongenial to the swift and charismatic apocalyptic mode. The apocalyptic scenarios of “millennial ecology” (Killingsworth and Palmer 21) having been discredited in the 1970s and 1980s by their seemingly unfounded catastrophism, Macfarlane called for ways of imagining that remained more faithful to scientific evidence, and for “literary languages which are attentive to the creep of change; which practise a vigilance of attention and a precision of utterance” (MacFarlane). In the last decade, however, the rhythm of climate change degradation has accelerated, particularly in the Australian context, giving renewed credence to the apocalyptic imagination. Yet for Graham Huggan the more recent discourse of climate change, especially in mass media representations, is so inflationary and “suffocating” that it creates a critical climate detrimental to literary creativity (Huggan 4-5). Wary of any “deadening prescriptivism” (4) that seeks to predefine what the social realist, the apocalyptic and speculative novels can or ought (not) to do, Huggan, citing Ulrich Beck’s work on risk, contends:

a good climate change novel may not be “about” climate change at all, or at least about the deliberate attempt to thematize its main issues; rather, it may take place within the general context of climate change, a context marked by a high degree of uncertainty and contingency, and by a strong ethical awareness of the issues at stake in the social staging of risk in a globally interconnected world. (Huggan 5)

7Huggan’s point regarding the capacity of the novel form to adapt to new conditions, and more particularly to include a variety of ethical concerns, echoes Griffith’s view that storytelling is capable of carrying multiple causes along together. A different, yet related, view of how the definitions of ecological novelistic relevance need to be more inclusive, is that while the dangers of climate change are very real and pressing, focusing exclusively on the climate emergency detracts from the planet’s dire ecological predicament as a whole (Crist 12). Furthermore, although, as Ghosh points out, “the Anthropocene has reversed the temporal order of modernity: those at the margins are now the first to be experiencing the future that awaits all of us” (Ghosh 63), climate apocalypticism and the concern for non-human ecologies tend to give voice mainly to the anxieties of urban, relatively affluent social groups, and to overlook the long history of crisis faced by marginalized populations. In Australia, for instance, natural disasters get a great deal of media attention when they hit the densely populated areas of the South-East, less so when they impact non-urban and remote communities where Aboriginal and Torres Straits people are more highly represented than in the rest of the continent. Comparing how vividly the nation remembers Cyclone Tracy which flattened Darwin in 1974, and has all but forgotten the fires that destroyed almost one-third of the Northern Territory the same year, historian Danielle Clode reflects: “Rural disasters just don’t seem to evoke the same horror that urban disasters do.” (Clode 93) Scholars representing northern Australian Indigenous and research interests have also documented in what they describe as a “general lack of of recognition that […] current fire regimes are exerting significant impacts on regions environmental, greenhouse gas emissions, human health, social and community values” (Russell-Smith et al. 285).

2. Traditional knowledge and contemporary Indigenous fiction vs apocalyptic environmentalism

8Countering the specific forms of cultural prescriptivism levelled at Indigenous writers, Alexis Wright has stated that practising new modes of storytelling have not altered what traditional anthropologists would call the “authenticity” of the story told:

the story does not only come from colonisation or assimilation or having learnt to write English, or arguing whether people with an oral history should write books, but is sung just as strongly from those of our ancestors who wrote our stories on the walls of caves and on the surface of weathered rock. (Wright “The Politics of Writing”, 13)

9The cultural continuity stated here is not something non-Indigenous readers are in a position to assess: as any attentive reader can sense, underlying cultural references or motifs in the works of contemporary Aboriginal writers like Alexis Wright, Bruce Pascoe, Kim Scott, Melissa Lucashenko, or Ellen Van Neerven, to name but a few, are sometimes foreclosed by authorial reticence. Furthermore, the deep experiential ties to “Country” – the particular place Indigenous Australians are connected to through kinship, language and custodianship – which are at the heart of works by Indigenous authors, are not always easy to comprehend for mainstream readers, particularly when a group’s ancestral land is as horribly altered by colonization as has been the “deepwater lake [once] fed by an old-spring relative” (8), which lies at the heart of The Swan Book. On the other hand, the study of the way an experienced writer like Wright has adapted the novel form to her cultural worldview can provide illuminating insights into alternative representations of reality that, in turn, can feed into the collective reconsideration of human to other-than-human relationships. It is interesting to note, for instance, that Wright’s specifically Indigenous perspective on current local and global issues seems to make her particularly wary of the apocalyptic mode and what she terms the “language of extinction”.

10While the apocalyptic perspective is obsessed with endings, complete annihilation is beyond the reach of narrative, which depends on a specific site of enunciation that cannot be imagined after the end of the last human gaze. Utter destruction must therefore be at least fractionally averted, so as to hold out at least a glimmer of possibility of an improved future society, championed by a few select survivors. From where Wright and other Australian Indigenous people are standing, however, the apocalyptic perspective makes no sense. Their world has been in crisis since the beginning of colonization in 1788, and although their struggle to mitigate its deleterious consequences has never relented, a future without their impact is impossible to imagine.

11Alexis Wright is a member of the Waanyi people from the Gulf of Carpentaria region in northern Australia. She is an acclaimed novelist as well as a dedicated activist for indigenous sovereignty. She was commissioned by an Aboriginal community of Central Australia to write a book of fictionalized testimonies (The Grog War, 1997), and also published an anthology of writings on land rights in Central Australia (Take Power, Like This Old Man Here, 1998), as well as a collective memoir of an influential Northern Territory Aboriginal leader (Tracker, 2017). In her first novel, Plains of Promise (1997), Wright wrote about the effects of the eugenicist policies that led to the removal of Aboriginal children from their families from the mid-19th to the 1970s; in Carpentaria (2006), she wrote about the massive social and environmental disruption caused by multinational mining companies in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

12In 2007, Wright’s national literary breakthrough coincided with a great societal setback for Aboriginal sovereignty: on the very day she received the prestigious Australian Miles Franklin award for her second novel, the Commonwealth Government sent a military and police taskforce to deal with systemic child abuse in remote Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory. The Indigenous academic Marcia Langton wrote at the time that this move, and the emergency intervention measures that were implemented, subverting the self-government powers of the Northern Territory, represented “the most extraordinary federal takeover in Australian history” (Langton). In The Swan Book, Wright’s third novel, the tremendously disruptive after-effects of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response still loom large, even though the novel is set in the late 21st century. Although climate change is ostensibly one of the larger issues dealt with in the book, it is always filtered, therefore, through the perceptions of the Aboriginal protagonists, and never dissociated from the other forms of socio-cultural and ecological disruptions they have to endure.

13The first chapter opens with what seems to be a surprisingly catchall and bland sentence, the italics being the only marker indicating that something dramatic happened: “When the world changed, people were different.” (Wright, The Swan Book 6) The following three paragraphs list a variety of apocalyptic situations all over the world. The tone is conversational and matter-of-fact; the point of view is all encompassing and seemingly neutral. Both characterize the informal storytelling mode inspired by Indigenous oral narrative, which Wright also used in Carpentaria. What is strikingly different, however, is that while Carpentaria begins with a creation story describing, as if it were happening under our very eyes, how the Rainbow Serpent fashioned the Gulf of Carpentaria landscape over eons of time, The Swan Book opens on a global story of extinction narrated in the past tense:

When the world changed, people were different. Towns closed, cities were boarded up, communities abandoned, their governments collapsed. They seemed to have no qualms that were obvious to you or me about walking away from what they called a useless pile of rubbish, and never looking back.
Mother Nature? Hah! Who knows how many hearts she could rip out? She never got tired of it. Who knows where on Earth you would find your heart again? People on the road called her the Mother Catastrophe of flood, fire, drought and blizzard. These were the four seasons which she threw around the world whenever she liked.
In every neck of the woods people walked in the imagination of doomsayers and talked the language of extinction.
They talked about surviving a continuous storm under the old rain shadow, or they talked about living out the best part of their lives with floods lapping around their bellies; or they talked about tsunamis and dealing with nuclear fallout on their shores and fields forever. Elsewhere on the planet, people didn’t talk much at all while crawling through blizzards to save themselves from being buried alive in snow. You could bet your life on it–they hardly talked while all around the world governments fell as quickly as they rose in one extinction event after another. You be the judge. Believe it or not. (6-7)

14What caused these apocalyptic situations is not mentioned, nor are their locations specified. Even more importantly, these events are not situated in a specific timeframe. Indeed, the passage ends in a way that suggests all this may not have really happened (yet). In an ironic twist, Wright thus reverses the perspective: instead of portraying climate sceptics who refuse to believe that the world is sliding into chaos, she posits an imaginary, unspecified audience who will have to decide whether the story about to unfold is a fable or a faithful account of long past events. The narrative pre-emptively absorbs the forward-looking perspective, typical of the speculative or apocalyptic novels, into the traditional, temporally multi-scalar Indigenous art of storytelling. It thus posits the equally unspecified narrator and his audience in the future, looking back at our present, rather in the manner of “future ancestors” who are amazed that the living of our times could have been so oblivious of their role and responsibility within situated and global ecosystems.

15But the passage can also be read in light of post-2000 considerations of the way the geological concept of the “Anthropocene” has disrupted “humanist histories of modernity” (Chakrabarty, 207-212). The Anthropocene is in fact a kind of “‘prospective archaeology’ [which] will only be detectable as a geological stratum after humans have ceased to exist”. (Mertens, Craps, 135) To be able to conceive such a perspective, we need to imagine “the future perfect tense”, (Klein, 83) a future in which our own future will already be in the past.

16Another, more obvious indication that the novel opts for a cyclical, rather than an apocalyptic, end-oriented structure, is the title of the first chapter: “Dust Cycle”. This is by far the longest chapter in the book, mirroring the drawn-out waiting for the return of the wet season in tropical northern Australia, and it depicts much human, animal and vegetal suffering and dying in a parched environment. Yet the last paragraph of the next chapter, “The Dust Ends”, confirms the possibility of renewal, or rather continuity, as manifested by the return of the rainy season: “[…] constant winds flowing across sheets of floodwater rippled each pulse of the country’s heartbeat” (92).

17Apocalypticism is therefore explicitly rejected in the first programmatic paragraphs of the first chapter, and first two chapter titles. The idea of corrective punishment, however, is not. In the animist Aboriginal worldview Wright gives voice to, the personified concept of a Gaia-like “Mother Nature” makes sense even when, or rather, particularly when she (in one of her many forms) punishes custodians for not having behaved in an appropriately caring way.

3. Opposing the responsibilities of custodianship to the “language of extinction”

18Indeed, the unified, domesticated and comfortingly infantilizing representation of Nature that was developed, and until quite recently cultivated by post-Enlightenment, industrialized societies, is completely alien to the traditional Aboriginal outlook. One reason for this could be that unpredictable and violent weather events, such as droughts, bushfires, cyclones and flash floods, have long been part of the island-continent’s environmental conditions. The main reason, however, is that contrary to what Chakrabarty identifies as the humanist distinction between natural history and human history (201), in Indigenous beliefs, the environment is a living organism into which human history, culture and identity are subsumed. Humans and “nature” are therefore connected and interrelated: at the end of Carpentaria, a massive storm flushes out the town of Desperance after the spirit forces unleashed by the various human conflicts wage an epic war. This reciprocity or continuity explains why in the first paragraph of the book, any hope of post-Deluge redemption is ironically dismissed:

[Church bells] calling innocent little black girls from a distant community where the little white dove bearing an olive branch never lands. Little girls who come back home after Church on Sunday, who look around themselves at the human fallout and announce matter-of-factly, Armageddon begins here. (Wright, Carpentaria 1)

19The appeasement and renewal, which do occur at the end of the novel, are not a gift from above; they can only be achieved through multi-vocal, multispecies harmonisation, represented by the “mass choir of frogs–green, grey, speckled, striped, big and small, dozens of species all assembled […] singing the country afresh” (Wright, Carpentaria 499).

20The storm is not so much the equivalent of a Deluge, therefore, as a paroxystic form of crisis management. In both Carpentaria and The Swan Book, hosts of ancestral spirits are constantly keeping watch to make sure humans do not take lightly their caretaking responsibilities towards the flourishing of each individual living or inanimate part of the ecosystem entrusted to them.

  • 1 “With their country completely destroyed and radioactive, who could return? Which millennium, this (...)

21In light of this worldview, the sentence “When the world changed, people were different”, can be interpreted in two different ways. Since there is no chronological or causal relation between the two clauses, the global environmental disaster cannot be conclusively understood to have preceded, let alone caused, the change in the people. In fact, the opposite is suggested by the stative verb “were”. It seems the weather became erratic precisely because the people stopped caring for the lands under their custodianship. Indeed, having “no qualms […] about walking away from” tribal land and calling it “a useless pile of rubbish and never looking back” (Wright, The Swan Book 6) makes no sense. The phrase “no planet B”, attributed to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, was meant to warn mankind that there could be no escape from the mess created on Earth. In the traditional Indigenous perspective, which Wright refers to in her novel, the very notion of wanting to escape from, or abandon Country, is meaningless. As Aboriginal elders tell a climate war refugee: “country never leaves its people1” because connection to “Country” is what defines people in Indigenous culture. This is also why, for Wright, the “imagination of doomsayers” and “the language of extinction” is unacceptable.

  • 2 The phrase refers to the Council of Australian Governments 2008 pledge to “close the gap” on Indige (...)

22Furthermore, extinction is a politically loaded term in the context of Australia’s colonial history and in The Swan Book. Euphemistic phrases such “protecting” the Aborigines, and “smoothing the pillow” for the “dying race” were used in the colonial past to justify Australia’s eugenicist policies, which aimed to make the nation ethnically and culturally White. In the novel, Wright presents the ongoing “Closing the Gap2” policies, which were supposed to achieve equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait people in health and life expectancy, as a duplicitous continuation of the same agenda:

These were past times for kicking Aboriginal people around the head with more and more interventionist policies that were charmingly called, Closing the Gap. But, so what? […] So what if it was just another moment in a repetitious black and white history repeated one more time for Aboriginal people from wherever about the place, after having their lives classified and reassigned yet again? (49)

23These policies are presented as just another way of denying the Indigenous population any form of sovereignty, and forcing them instead either to live under surveillance in detention camps, or to become assimilated, which are different ways of letting them die.

24The effects of climate change on the swamp which is home to the main character, Oblivia Ethyl(ene), are therefore presented as just one of the many interrelated calamities heralded by the irruption of the Armed Forces men into that quiet world:

the dikili ghost gums old as the hills [which] once grew next to deep water lake fed by an old spring-spirit relative […] had all slowly died. This happened during the massive sand storms that cursed the place after the arrival of the strangers from the sea. (8)

25The lake first becomes a dumping ground for all kinds of old boats and floating junk that the army drags up the channel from the sea, then “freak weather”, the result of a changing climate, blows in so much sand that it banks up into a mountain, cutting off the lake from the sea. The environmental disconnection of the lake from both spring and sea by drought and changed wind circulation patterns parallels the effects of the deadly policies enforced on the Indigenous population. As the increasingly polluted lake dries out and turns into a swamp, it also becomes an “Australian government growth community” in which the local population are kept under guard, and where thousands of Aboriginal people from all over the country, as well as groups of asylum seekers, are forcefully relocated: “the swamp now renamed Swan Lake was nothing special. It was the same as dozens of fenced and locked Aboriginal detention centres” (49).

  • 3 The inland lake, both hidden away and vitally connected, is an important trope in Wright’s work. On (...)

26Detention “facilities” have controversially been used by the Australian government since the 1990s to detain illegal immigrants and asylum seekers who, in the novel, are also presented as climate refugees. By referring to “Aboriginal detention centres” Wright thus symbolically links two very real situations that illustrate her view of the Australian government’s biopolitics: the situation of unwanted immigrants, incarcerated in the infamous detention camps of Manus Island, Nauru, or on the continent, and the situation of Indigenous Australians who have been displaced, dispossessed, and are dramatically overrepresented in the nation’s prisons. The creation of concentration camps is, according to Agamben (117), the biopolitical paradigm of the modern. The evolution from the old form of power, which was the right to take life or let live, to the modern state which is focused on maintaining the biological existence of its population, race, species (Foucault, 136-137), “justifies” the creation of spaces of exception where “unwanted” groups can be kept from threatening the nation’s population. In these abnormal spaces, immigrants and Indigenous people who refuse to be absorbed into the “wanted” group are kept in a liminal zone between life and death, where “a decision on life becomes a decision on death”, and where biopolitics turn into thanatopolitics (Agamben, 222). In the novel, the once life-giving environment of the inland lake3 is thus turned into a toxic, overcrowded place where disease, hunger and death are common but not immediate, where “social care” dissolves the last and most fundamental links between people, and where the inhabitants know they are entirely helpless:

little people […] can’t fight a big thing like the Army in charge of all the Aboriginal children–little pets owned by the Mothers of Government who claimed to love them more than their own ‘inhumane’ families. (50)

27The Aboriginal elders of the camp are fully aware that their homeland has become “a social-science experiment with a very big cemetery” (31) but having been deprived of the last remnants of their cultural and moral authority by the Intervention, even they can only use their “traditional knowledge” as an excuse for not having to face the reality forced upon them by a hostile government:

Some [of the swamp people] would not even look at the decaying boats. Some claimed that they could not see any dumped boats out there on their pristine swamp. Ya only see what you want to see and that’s that. They did not go around looking for things outside of the sanctum of traditional knowledge. (57)

28In this deeply dysfunctional community, a small girl is raped by a group of crazed, petrol-sniffing teenagers. Having found shelter in a hollowed-out tree, she is quickly “forgotten” by her relatives who would rather not have to face the shame of not having been able to protect her. Even when she is found again, she is shunned by them, because the mainstream media have used her case to justify ever more disruptive interventionist policies. So Oblivia, the unwanted, traumatised child, is taken in by an old gypsy woman who has survived the climate wars of Europe, then drifted on the oceans as an unwanted stateless person, until she reached the northern coast of Australia. Bella Donna sees herself as a “caller of swans” and obsessively tells the girl stories about the swans that guided her, and the rest of her now long-dead people, out of their war- and blizzard-ravaged homeland. The migratory swan (both the classic literary white swan but also the black Australian one) thus constitutes a nexus between environmental and political concerns, as well as a vehicle for intercultural literary explorations of exclusion, suffering, death, but also love, faith and hope in renewal. For instance, the unprecedented arrival of a black swan in that part of the country signals a possible way out of Oblivia’s traumatized isolation. A pariah in her own community, the girl rediscovers a connection with another dislocated living being: “She knew as a fact that the swan had been banished from where it should be singing its stories and was searching for its soul in her.” (15) She becomes a carer for the swans, who in turn seek her out when she is kidnapped and taken to a faraway city in the South. When the city is destroyed by cyclonic storms, Oblivia joins the crowds of fleeing refugees, sheltering a cygnet under her clothes. Drawn north by migrating swans, she finally finds her way back to the ghostly, “ravaged landscape that had once been a swamp”. (330) Oblivia’s rediscovery of her purpose in life is thus achieved through an affective and spiritual connection to other living beings, and through them, to a place.  In the end, it matters little that Oblivia’s totemic swan did not originally belong to the lake’s ecosystem, considering how comprehensively this environment has been disrupted. Against all odds, what matters is that despairing acquiescence to the finality of extinction, evoked at the end of Plains of Promise (“So the great lake dried up and is no more” 304) should be averted: “Swans might come back. Who knows what madness will be calling them in the end?” (The Swan Book 334)

4. Aesthetic and ethical interconnectivity

29Interestingly, several aspects of the relation between the – by choice – mute Oblivia and the swans constitute clear references to Andersen’s “The Wild Swans” and other similar West European stories, for example in this passage which describes how the girl is able to follow the migrating swans:

She and the swans were caught in the winds of a ghost net dragged forward by the spirits of the country. The long strands of hair flying among the swans, holding them together, and those long strands capturing her, made her fly too, close to the ground, across the country. (326)

  • 4 “Ces récits sont ce que nous appelons les pistes du Rêve, qui sillonnent tout le continent australi (...)

30Intertextuality is one of the narrative strategies deployed by Wright to compensate for the toxic sterility of the environment in which Oblivia’s story is set. In Carpentaria, Wright told stories from the Aboriginal Dreaming that spread out from her own ancestral country and across the whole continent4. In The Swan Book, however, she uses the topos of the swan to weave into her narrative of place many quotations, allusions, images and plotlines from a wide array of literary and naturalist, popular and high culture sources from all over the world. Meditations on the cyclical, migratory behaviour of the swans allows Wright to cast her narrative net wide, but also to tie together, thematically and structurally, the various threads of story. The novelist is able to tap into the poetic beauty and power of the natural world that is usually associated with the image of the real swan, but also the visual and literary poignancy of the downcast and dying swan that, nevertheless, never gives up aspiring to the skies. The following passage, for example, weaves an allusion to Baudelaire’s poem “The Swan, to Victor Hugo” and a reference to the spirit flight of Indigenous cosmogony:

  • 5 Baudelaire’s poem is quoted from earlier in the novel (291) and referenced in “A Note on Sources” ( (...)

They stand on baked earth and hiss at the sky they cannot reach, then the time arrives when no more sound comes from their open beaks. The weak, feather-torn necks drop to the ground, and eventually, with wings spread, they wait for the spirit flight5. (328)

  • 6 “There was no hotter topic in the mind than rejection in this swamp, so to prove that they were not (...)

31Furthermore, Wright’s use of intertextuality reflects the inclusiveness of the Aboriginal cultural tradition, which, while deeply rooted in particular localities, is also outward-looking and welcoming6, not in a vague, self-indulgent New Age way, but always in the exacting “duty of care” mindset evoked earlier. Not only is the swan allowed to “place […] itself within the story of this country” (19), but when the swans disappear from their new resting place, the “drought woman” herself goes looking for them. When Oblivia finally returns to her northern homeland, still carrying the now fully-grown swan, and tries handing it over to the care of the drought spirit, all she gets in lieu of thanks is bad-tempered reproach:

The drought woman seared the atmosphere like ancient chastising aunties anywhere across the world from the back of beyond, and screeched: Don’t drop the swan. […] Oblivia always sensed the way old fingers work, that were now invisibly examining the swan she was holding next to her chest.
Feathers ruffle across the bird’s back, on its breast, along its neck–in a manner suggesting all was not well, of things not being done good enough, of things not being taken care of properly. (330-331)

32Giving up on her duty of care is not admissible, however angrily Oblivia may try to shift responsibility for the swan onto the drought-spirit she talks to as to “a close relative who had always lived in the same house.” (330) So, the language of extinction the girl resentfully turns against her protégé is a parody of White-Australia’s eugenicist discourse, which she uses to vent her frustration, rather than the expression of a real desire to be rid of her burden:

[She] thought she was being put upon by some proper big dependency that was now far too much for her, and she snapped at the swan, That was the big problem about being a survivor swan–outliving your lifespan, getting too fond of gobbling up the muck in the sewerage ponds of life, and not laying down and dying like the others! (331-332)

33Although Oblivia, after all she has gone through, is aware that her own mind has become “a lonely mansion for the stories of extinction”, she continues “hold[ing the swan’s] beating heart closer to prevent its wings from spreading through the dust” (333). The fact that she does fulfil her caretaking duties to the end is honoured by the storytelling narrative voice in the last pages of the novel:

This might be the same story about some important person carrying a swan centuries ago, and it might be the same story in centuries to come when someone will carry a swan back to this ground where its story once lived. Well! Talk about acts of love. (333)

34The interlocutory comment, here, invites the non-Indigenous reader to link Oblivia’s story with all the care-giving figures in the fairy tales and folk stories that Enlightenment rationality pushed to the margins of the collective imagination, in the same way as popular natural lore was pushed to the margins of scientific knowledge. At the end of the novel, Oblivia has herself become a driven, restless spirit that the “heart-broken-homes” people who still visit the destroyed swamp say they can hear screaming:

kayi, kayi kala-wurru nganyi, your country is calling out for you, which they described was just like listening to a sigh of a moth extending out over the landscape, or a whisper from the scrub ancestor catching a little stick falling from a dead tree, although nothing that could truly be heard–just a sensation of straining to hear something. (334)

35The choral summing up of Oblivia’s whole story as an act of “love” and the equivalence that is established between Oblivia’s ghostly screaming and the “sigh of a moth” makes the reader realize that however strident or unsentimental the custodians’ calls for environmental care may sometimes seem in the novel, they always serve an exigency of balance and continuity, and are ignored at the world’s peril. Even the drought’s destructive impact takes on a new meaning, associated with the spirit’s concern for the sudden disappearance of the swans from the swamp:

Having lived in the dry country for several thousands of years, the ghostly spectre of the drought woman had seen as many generations born and die and when those beautiful swans rose up one day to the skies and disappeared, it broke the water lilies and weed-covered lagoon, pulled itself out of its resting place, and filled the atmosphere from coastline to coastline of rotted tree stumps, flat plains, or solemn river bends across the country. Then it continued in the southerly direction that the birds had flown.
In its far-flung search for the swans, the slow-moving drought left behind smouldering ashes and soil baked by the dryness, and the whole country looking as though it had been turned over with a pick and flattened with a shovel. When the swans were found, the drought turned around on its hot heels and howling winds, while fires blew smoke across the lands on fast moving currents, and came back to the swamp. (330)

36The personification of the seasonal drought and the perception of her movements across the country as intentional, associated with the comparison of its effects with human activity (digging up and flattening a plot of land), are combined here with a particular attention to topographical and meteorological detail. This creates a visual image of shifting weather patterns that draw emotional meaning from being integrated within the narrative arc of Oblivia’s rescue of the swans, and of her rescue by the swans; conversely, the human-centred plot is given a more global ecological scope. As ecocritic Joni Adamson puts it, referring to the long memory of environmental evolution encrypted in traditional cosmogonic narratives:

These stories are offering ecocritics and activists new tools, or “seeing instruments,” for making abstract, often intangible global patterns associated with climate change accessible to the wider public. (Adamson 172)

37Wright’s assertion of an existing continuity between pre-colonial narrative traditions and the highly sophisticated writerly work produced by her, and other contemporary Indigenous writers, is verified by the way her stories, like traditional cosmogonies, integrate both empirical weather- and scientific climate-change observations. This concern for the other-than-human, however personified, and the narrative space allotted to the description of places and swan’s migratory patterns, invites the reader to adopt a more reflective, less plot-driven approach. The reader is required to “sit down” with a story that although partly obscure, constitutes, in its complex unfolding, an invitation to devote sustained attention to an increasingly shared, global problem: “Jungku ngamba, burrangkunu-barri. We’re sitting down in the heat now” (334).

38As The Swan Book clearly suggests, destruction, complete erasure, and extinction are easier to imagine, and if not to accept, then at least to resign oneself to, when one’s socio-cultural memory of place is short, as is the case in colonizing, market-driven, future-oriented societies. Traditional Aboriginal culture, on the other hand, envisions human beings' relation to the living world as being mythically grounded in deep time. Certainly, the transmission, from generation to generation, of stories about totemic ancestors and of environmental observation accumulated over many thousand years has been greatly disrupted by the colonizers’ bio- and thanatopolics. But in The Swan Book, Wright challenges dominant narratives of extinction by using the swan’s associated symbolism of death and resurrection in folklore and literature from around the world. Although it is sometimes difficult to fully comprehend the richly layered and intermeshed meanings of the novel, devoting attention and time to such a work as this provides a useful counterpoint to the frenzied urgency of mass media communication about climate change and extinction threats. The novel’s loose, accretional structure, the ever-shifting quality of the narrative voice, the occasional un-translated Waanyi language words and phrases, the cultural opacity of some references, all contribute to making reading the novel a challenging experience. But “staying with the trouble” represented by this readerly challenge could be seen as an ethical engagement with a form of otherness, both human and environmental, that “invites us beyond the domain of conventional conceptualization and classification, beyond the commonsensical and habitual, to a place from which we begin to know, again, as human beings” (Rapport 256). As growing numbers of natural scientists and “slow science” proponents insist, understanding the complexity of interrelations on the different scales of the other-than-human world is something that must be worked at with patience, attentiveness and respect (Stengers, Mc Fall-Ngai, Gilbert).

39Of course, finding a way to narrate a more sustainable way of being in the world in times of climate emergency is no mean thing. In an article published after yet more, devastating fires in Australia, Wright mentioned the media’s reference to “insane” flames, as well as more precise climate science terms such as “super cell thunderstorms”, or “pyroconvection” and “cumulonimbus flammagenitus clouds”: “the new language of climate change. Words most of us have never heard before but we are now learning to understand.” (Wright “We all smell the smoke”) But for the novelist, this lexical and meteorological novelty must be incorporated into a form of narrative that has already weathered many changes, as is the case in The Swan Book where the mingling of realism and intertextuality, in particular, metaphorically sediment meaning. The story is neither consoling, nor reassuring, as it offers no possibility of returning to a kind of ecologically prelapsarian innocence, nor of post-apocalyptic renewal. Wright does not idealize or essentialize Aboriginal identity, and she writes truthfully about culture loss and individual frailty. She nevertheless refuses to give in to despair, or to allow the burning issue of climate change to upstage the problems of disenfranchised Aboriginal populations in Australia. Instead, she steadfastly, and often wrathfully, insists on giving voice to her people’s way of seeing the world “as a sacred site that is holy” (Wright “We all smell the smoke”) and granting personhood to the land in her fiction, as a way to campaign for the recognition of its legal rights as a living ecological entity. As Australia was teetering on the brink of its next fire season after Black Summer, the Australian magazine The Monthly published an essay by Alexis Wright in which she asks: “In times like these, what would Oodgeroo do?” Like Oodgeroo Noonuccal, the great Aboriginal poet, activist, educator and public speaker, who came to prominence in the 1960s and 70s, Wright believes in the power of a poetic vision honed down the ages to create a poiesis that can “break through the nexus of indifference, the violence of forgetting”:

[O]ne day we will eventually meet the challenges of imagining how to live in worldwide catastrophic times because, if anything, global warming is expanding our imagination, and it is already eclipsing all normality in our current literary concerns. We will be left to create from the new normalities rupturing the country of the soul. (Wright “In times like these…”)

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1 “With their country completely destroyed and radioactive, who could return? Which millennium, this one or next? What would her people be then? Her words were caustic and frightening, but beguiling too in the minds of the overwhelmed swamp people trying to imagine this ghost country where nobody goes.

Then, without country, imagine that? Imagining! Can’t imagine. For country never leaves its people” (26).

2 The phrase refers to the Council of Australian Governments 2008 pledge to “close the gap” on Indigenous disadvantage, and notably on what was then a 17-year difference in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. In the 2020 annual report, the average life expectancy gap is still about 8 years, 13.4 years for males in Western Australia, and 12.8 years for females in The Northern Territory. “Closing the Gap Report”.

3 The inland lake, both hidden away and vitally connected, is an important trope in Wright’s work. One of the causes of cosmic disruption in Carpentaria is the ghoulish desecration of a secret lagoon by the mine’s employees (164), and in Plains of Promise, the great “Disappearing Lake” dries up and “is no more” when the grief of loss makes the “waterbirds” go mad, when “the crows [are] too interested in evil things” and the lake’s “secret” is lost (304).

4 “Ces récits sont ce que nous appelons les pistes du Rêve, qui sillonnent tout le continent australien. Imaginez l’Australie, ses terres et ses eaux, recouverte d’une sorte d’immense filet de pêche ou de millions de bouts de corde qui auraient été jetés sur le pays”, Croire en l’incroyable (11). The book was only ever published in its French translation.

5 Baudelaire’s poem is quoted from earlier in the novel (291) and referenced in “A Note on Sources” (337). It bears striking thematic resemblances to the novel since in it, the poetic persona laments the urban development of Paris and the oblivion of cultural greatness, through the parallel allegories of the drying up of Andromache’s stream of “widowed” tears and of a caged, “exiled” swan.

6 “There was no hotter topic in the mind than rejection in this swamp, so to prove that they were not assimilated into the Australian way of life, the ancient laws of good manners about welcoming strangers were bestowed–Here! Stay! Have a go! We don’t mind” (32).

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Anne LE GUELLEC-MINEL, « From Carpentaria to The Swan Book: finding a voice to narrate and resist the threat of extinction in Alexis Wright’s latest work »E-rea [En ligne], 18.2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2021, consulté le 05 août 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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University of Brest, HCTI
Anne Le Guellec-Minel’s field of research is Australian studies, and more largely postcolonial studies. She has published articles on Patrick White, David Malouf, Richard Flanagan, David Foster, and Kim Scott. In 2019, she edited a collection of articles entitled La mémoire face à l’Histoire : traces, effacement, réinscriptions, Rennes UP.

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