When you find a book that is compelling, poignant and just really good, you want to tell everyone you meet about it and have the same experience that you did while reading it. The Swan Book, by acclaimed novelist, Alexis Wright, is one of those books that I could not wait to tell BookTrib’s readers about. There has not been, perhaps, a better or more important time than now to read this book and receive its message.
In The Swan Book, a young girl named Oblivia Ethelyne, the victim of a brutal assault by several boys, is found hiding in a gum tree by Bella Donna of the Champions, a refugee of the climate change wars. Bella Donna takes Oblivia to live on an old warship in a dry, polluted swamp. Cut off from the rest of Australia by the military, the swamp has become a detention camp of sorts for Indigenous Australians. But on that warship, Bella Donna tells stories to Oblivia – stories about swans. When the firs Aboriginal president of Australia invades the swamp, coming with promises of salvation for them all, Oblivia agrees to marry him, the role of acting as wife and First Lady leaving her confined and locked away.
The Swan Book takes place in a future where everything has essentially been turned upside down, some things are recognizable, the struggle with race, gender, environmentalism and others are still present. The material may seem a bit dark, but Wright’s writing is so expressive and deeply intimate that it remains a must-read nonetheless. Imaginative and inventive, Wright examines what we are doing with the world we live in and the realities that face Aboriginal people.
Not only did I enjoy reading this book, but I also enjoyed my talk with author Alexis Wright who shared with me her views on storytelling, the environment, inspiration and the significance of swans.
BookTrib: In this book, there is such a deep connection to the land, nature, and the earth. Can you tell us where that came from and how you translated that connection into words?
AW: I spent a lot of time with my Waanyi grandmother as a child. I adored her, and when I look back at those years of following her around like a shadow, it now seems like another world and way of thinking. Even today many years later, I think she was one of the most fascinating people I had ever met. She would take me on long walks in a landscape of grasslands, rivers, gullies, and hillsides, and she longed to return to her traditional homelands in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
She was a wonderful storyteller, and she was my earliest guide to the world of the imagination, and to be able to acknowledge other realities. She had a very close affiliation with everything in the natural world, including the stars, weather, winds, animals, and in the relationships between people. She noticed almost everything in the natural environment, and she would explain each phenomenon that caught her attention in simple terms and of being something of vast interest, or of it being extraordinary or special or unusual, or of its special aesthetics, or its place in Aboriginal spirituality. I guess she was endorsing the right of all other existence, not just her own. She was my first real teacher of seeing what is truly amazing and wonderful about the world we lived in, to be able to see past the surface of dry grasslands in an arid and dusty environment, always holding strong to her own vision, resilience and sovereignty of the mind, and this was how I came to understand the world from her perspective from a very early age.
I have felt very privileged to know and to have been able to work with many senior Aboriginal people of great wisdom and intellect. I could name many Aboriginal people right across Australia who have influenced my thinking in a lifelong journey of trying to understand how to see, feel and understand our world, and fight for it. Their perspective and worldview is huge and cosmopolitan in its outlook. Our world is one that teaches the benefits of having eyes wide open, to be attuned to a spiritual understanding of the environment and self-knowledge, and this leads to having an ability to maintain and build internal worlds of visualization and exploration, to hold a vision. Perhaps this helped me to create a novel such as ‘The Swan Book’.
BookTrib: Swans are featured prominently throughout the book. How did you first come to be interested in swans and was there anything in particular that inspired you to turn this appreciation into a book?
AW: I come from an arid zone environment where there are no swans, and I had never seen much water except annual floods sometimes, let alone a live swan until I was an adult. When I started working on ideas for this book, I knew nothing about swans, and I am not even sure of the reason why I started to think about swans. Black swans were moving into usually drier regions with changing climate patterns. Were they taking their stories with them? What happens when they move into country where there was no story for them? Can you mix the Dreaming? I knew that I needed something beautiful to think about in the six years that I expected it would take to write a novel that would challenge my ability to write about the way I thought the Aboriginal world could eventually respond to a new path of negative government policy. How much more could Aboriginal culture take? How far could we go to survive? Until the last person standing? And how would that person think? What kind of person would that be?
So why not swans – their right to exist, to juxtapose against other realities? What could be more beautiful and wonderful then exploring how poets and thinkers of the world have thought about swans in their time, and which may have been just as, or more troublesome times than ours? It was a deliberate choice of what I wanted to think and dream about, to expand my thoughts away and outwards, by exploring a world of swans in a book of challenges concerning global climate change, and the stark realities about survival that constantly demand attention in the Aboriginal mind. Hopefully, this is one of the stories of ‘The Swan Book’.
BookTrib: The Swan Book seems like it’s a mythological story or legend given it’s vivid imagery. When did you first being exploring this kind of storytelling?
AW: Again, I look back to my experience of my grandmother’s storytelling and how she saw the world, and how she used stories about country to explain what she found in it. She saw the world anew and marvelous on a constant basis. This is the power of story. I have lived and worked most of my life in our world, and where I have known many people like my grandmother, and I have thought a great deal about what it means to have an oral storytelling culture. Everything we know in our culture and social world is based on story making, storytelling, story keeping, and developing the story telling practice, but what does the emphasis on story mean to a culture?
Aboriginal people in Australia had developed over thousands of years, a society with a pan-continental government through laws and a spirituality based on its ancestral stories. These important law stories have been valued, and kept sacred for perhaps far more than the 60,000 years that scientists believe we have existed on this Continent. These storied laws actually cover every aspect of country and behavior through connections of stories that govern people to land and each other.
I think that it is amazing to have a culture where stories were treasured over countless millenniums, and kept sacred to this day. It is a unique undertaking to have a governing system that was built to ensure the sustainability of the country, and built on the idea of preserving peace and cooperation between people. When you look at it in this way, this was a far more sophisticated form of culture than ones that seek to colonise others or create wars. These laws and spiritual ideas about country are known and understood by every Aboriginal person, and I think because there is such emphasis on stories, storytelling is almost second nature to most Aboriginal people.
BookTrib: Let’s talk about the characters in this book, specifically Oblivia and Bella Donna— such fantastic characters. Was there anyone you knew who inspired these unique characters?
AW: The idea of Oblivia was to create a character to examine, or try to understand the strength of resilience in the Aboriginal world in a more changed and damaged social and physical environment in say, a hundred years from now. The question was how far would we go to survive with our own thoughts, or sovereignty of mind about who we are?
The girl Oblivia was inspired if that is the right word, by the poorer state of contemporary politics set in place in the early years of the 21st century by governments in Australia, and a media campaign that was bent on reshaping the Aboriginal world through threats, fear, and coercion. The idea of the novel was to think about how this type of political thinking which was thoughtlessly based on driving people by force might accelerate worldwide, and perhaps in a way that we have since seen in parts of the world. The expansion of this idea expanded and inspired the Bella Donna character of turning up on the northern shores of Australia out of nowhere, as coming from a future of sea gypsies of landless people, the unwanted in the world, who have been living adrift on the oceans of the world for decades. I was thinking about how culture and the environment might be altered by the politics of how we treat people, and the environment. The question that I was asking myself at the time, was the same as the question that I thought millions of people across the world must be asking themselves: What is the future? Where are we headed?
BookTrib: As a writer, what’s one book you think everyone should read?
AW: There are many great books in the world to read, and many more great books will be written. I could spend all day talking about books but I think people will be inspired to read what they feel is right for them at the time, and for what they want to know about the world.
There have been writers who I have been totally inspired by and thought that everyone should read their books. One was the writing of Patrick Chamoiseau, the author of Texaco. His novel Solibo magnifique was a book I wished I had written. I had the same feeling for Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai and I wait for each of his new works. These great books were like gifts from heaven, and there have been many others, such as Bruce Pascoe’s excellent ground-breaking work to re-write the story of pre-colonial history about Aboriginal people in, Dark Emu – Black Seeds: agriculture or accident?
BookTrib: Finally, what is one thing that you want people to take away from The Swan Book?
AW: Just to be kind to the world – it is the only one we have, and to be kinder to each other and to see the beauty and genius in all our cultures, and to see the beauty and right to exist and thrive of the creatures sharing this planet with us. The Swan Book asks for respect and the need to gain greater knowledge and respect for the responsibilities that Indigenous peoples have for the good stewardship of the world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alexis Wright, a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria, is one of Australia’s most acclaimed and fearless writers. Her previous novel, Carpentaria, won the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s most prestigious literary prize.