Tara June Winch’s Swallow the air is another book that has been languishing too long on my TBR pile, though not as long as Sara Dowse’s Schemetime. For Swallow the air, it was a case of third time lucky, because this was the third year I planned to read it for ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week. Like the proverbial boomerang, it kept coming back, saying “pick me!” Finally, I did.
Winner of the 2004 David Unaipon Award for unpublished indigenous writers, Swallow the air made quite a splash when it was published in 2006, winning or being shortlisted for many of Australia’s major literary awards. (See Tara June Winch’s Wikipedia entry). I believe Winch is working on another novel, but it hasn’t appeared yet.
Now, though, to the book. The first thing to confront the reader is its form. It looks and even reads a little like a collection of short stories*, but it can be read as a novella. There is a narrative trajectory that takes us from the devastating death of narrator May Gibson’s mother, when May was around 9 years old, to when she’s around 15 years old and has made some sense of her self, her past, her people. May’s mother is Wiradjuri, her father English. At the novel’s opening, she is living in coastal Wollongong, which is not her mother’s country, in a single-parent household with her mother and her brother, Billy, who has a different and indigenous father. Absent fathers are, I should say, disproportionately common in indigenous families.
In fact, one of the impressive things about this debut novel is how subtly, but clearly, Winch weaves through it many of the issues facing indigenous people and communities. Poverty, loss of connection to country, the stolen generations, mining and land rights, alcoholism, drug addiction, racism, rape, child abuse by the church, imprisonment and the tent embassy are among the concerns she touches on during May’s journey. Listing them here makes it sound like a political “ideas” novel but, while Swallow the air is “political” in the way that most indigenous writing can’t help but be, its centre is a searching heart, for May has been cast adrift by the suicide of her mother. Life, which was tenuous anyhow, becomes impossible to hold together as her brother and aunt, both loving, struggle with their own pain.
This is where I become a little uncomfortable as a non-indigenous person making a generalisation about indigenous literature, but I’m going to do it anyhow, because I think I’m on firm ground. I’m talking about story-telling and what I understand to be its intrinsic role in indigenous culture. It imparts – or can do – a different flavour to the writing. Marie Munkara’s David Unaipon Award winning Every secret thing (my review) has some similarities in form to Swallow the air, and covers some similar thematic territory, but is very different in tone. Munkara’s novel also presents as a bunch of stories, with a uniting narrative thread. Swallow the air is more subtle, but nonetheless it’s the idea of stories that underpins the narrative.
What particularly impressed me about Winch’s writing is the way she manages tone and structures her story. She understands the Shakespearean imperative to offer some light after dark. For example, there’s a lovely little chapter/story called “Wantok” about family closeness which occurs after a story about a difficult work experience. In another situation, with just one word at the end of a story (“Mission”) – “Seemed [my emphasis] all so perfect, so right” – she prepares us for the opposite in the next (“Country”).
This flow – with shifts in tone that are sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, and with a narrative that is mostly linear but with the occasional flashback – kept me reading and engaged until the end. As did the writing itself. It’s deliciously poetic. Sometimes it is tight and spare, as in:
I do not cry, my eyes are hardened, like honey-comb, like toffee. Brittle, crumbling sugar. He puts his hand out toward me; we shake hands, a pact that I won’t be here digging up his past when he gets back.
And I’m not.
And in this description of life in the city: “Suits and handbags begin to fill the emptiness of the morning”. Other times it is gorgeously lyrical (a review buzz word, I know, but sometimes there’s no other word):
The river sleeps, nascent of limpid green, tree bones of spirit people, arms stretched out and screaming. And at their fingertips claws of blue bonnets, sulphur-crested cockatoos and the erratic dips and weaves of wild galahs, grapefruit pink and ghost grey splash the sky.
But back now to the story. As May makes her journey, we meet many characters – her brother, aunt, women like Joyce who care for her but also know when to push her on, men with whom she hitchhikes, to name a few. None of these characters are developed to any degree, but we learn what we need to know about them by how they relate to May. Most are kind, generous, nurturing. May’s journey, in other words, is not challenged so much by human barriers, but by emotional, social, political and historical ones. It is a generous thing that when she starts to understand her place, it’s an inclusive understanding, one that encompasses all of us who occupy this land:
And it all makes sense to me now. Issy’s drawing in the sand, boundaries between the land and the water, us, we come from the sky and the earth and we go back to the sky and the earth. This land is belonging, all of it for all of us.
However, while May comes to a better understanding of the land and her relationship to it, there is no easy resolution to the ongoing struggle of living in a place in which there is still “a big missing hole” created by the loss of connection to culture. It will take a long time to refill that hole, if indeed it can be done, but books like this will help communicate just what it means, and how it feels, to be so disconnected.
* One chapter/story, “Cloud busting” was published in Best Australian Stories 2005.