The future of swans

A PEN dialogue between Arnold Zable and Alexis Wright


Arnold Zable: This session of the Melbourne Writers Festival is sponsored by Melbourne PEN. The empty chair on stage is for a writer who can’t be here because they have been imprisoned or exiled or threatened or harassed in some way. There are about a thousand cases of persecuted writers at any one time that PEN International defends.

PEN also has a connection with the themes of The Swan Book because one of our concerns is the loss of Indigenous languages and the need to respect them rather than allowing them to become extinct as so many have. I thought I’d ask you about that, since you weave the Waanyi language into your writing. How important is that to you?

Alexis Wright: It’s important because the Waanyi language is a really threatened language. There has been a lot of work done to develop a Waanyi dictionary to teach schoolchildren in communities like Doomadgee in the Gulf of Carpentaria, but places like Doomadgee also have children who speak other threatened languages. Doomadgee was once a mission, so there are Waanyi, Gangalidda and Garawa people, and that makes it difficult. I think it is necessary to use the language in our books so that our children can see it today and tomorrow as something of which we are proud. Our language stands for something – it stands for who we are and describes who we are.

AZ: You seem to weave it in quite effortlessly.

AW: I don’t speak the language as I would like to be able to speak it, but I try to learn and then weave it into the book. There are words – things that I am writing about – that I think should be in Waanyi, and so I’ll use a Waanyi word or phrase if I can.

AZ: Among many things, you are a storyteller; your books explode with stories. And then there are stories that explode within those stories. When did it all begin for you, the love of story?

AW: When I was a little girl – and I often talk about this – I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. I would run away from my mother and jump the front fence, and be off around the corner of our street. I was doing this at a very young age, but I knew the way to my grandmother’s place. I just loved being with her. She took me all around the bush, told stories about the different places and people she knew. She would call on people’s camps or people living by themselves by the river, and I’d listen to them telling stories to one another. I think I just grew up with stories. Then I heard stories in all the work I’ve done over the years – you know, around home and in central Australia, and all over the place. We use stories all the time. Telling stories is a very big thing about who we are, and it is often the way that we do business with each other.

AZ: Sometimes I get the feeling when I’m reading your books that they’re like sitting around a camp fire. I think any of us who have sat around camp fires with good friends for hours on end know that, at its best, it’s a time for riffing, with one story leading to another. And when you are writing, it seems to me that stories come in all kinds of ways. Sometimes they come in fully-fledged, sometimes as fragments. It’s as if the stories are desperately trying to be told – a particular story begins but something intrudes on it and then it goes off in another direction.

AW: With The Swan Book, I’m not just talking about the small world of one place – that is, the swamp where the story is centred and begins. I’m talking about the whole country and the whole world. So there are a lot of things impacting on the story because it’s set in the future; it’s looking at issues like climate change, people becoming stateless and homeless. In the last ten years, environmental scientists have been telling us the world is going to change, and I think it is the work of the writer to try to imagine this, to imagine what the world might look like. It’s not a simple thing like going out into the backyard and seeing a hornet’s nest – it’s describing the hornet’s nest of the world.

AZ: The way you do that is quite extraordinary. The first part of the book is set around the swamp, basically the ultimate outcome of intervention policies, where there is military control, almost a concentration camp. In this swamp, Aboriginal people live similarly to the way that asylum seekers do in detention centres. Into their world is towed all the detritus of war, climate change wars, with rusting hulks dumped there. One of the principal characters, Aunty Bella Donna of the Champions, is a European refugee, a victim of the climate change wars, and she adopts Oblivia Ethylene, a young Aboriginal person who had been gang-raped by petrol sniffers and had retreated to live in a tree. Where does Oblivia emerge for you as a character?

AW: Just to go back to the point about the detention camp: what you say there is true, and I wanted to depict that. Aboriginal people are no strangers to detention camps. We had missions, we had reserves where thousands of Aboriginal people were forced to live, and many people still live in former missions and reserves, where once they couldn’t leave unless they were given permission, and they couldn’t marry unless they had permission, and their children could be taken away and so on.

In a way, we’re still living in that world; we’re still detained by policy and restricted in what we can do. Those walls around the Indigenous world are still very much in place with the intervention policies. So I wanted to say that, well, we have had a history of this and it’s still the same thing. If we go further into the future on the same track, what might this world look like for an Aboriginal community or for the Aboriginal population as a whole? That is the idea of detention. It’s an extraordinary thing, I think: we are the guinea pigs as to how other people can be treated in this country. And it’s still happening.

With Oblivia, I wanted a character who, in a way, is unable to grow up. It’s a reflection on Aboriginal communities – unable to grow up if we keep on being shackled by policy and by other people’s ideas of how we should be.

But I also wanted to demonstrate how we maintain an idea of sovereignty of the mind, even if we haven’t got sovereignty of the country or the land. I remember Patrick Dodson saying once years ago to a meeting of Aboriginal people: if you think you are a sovereign people, act like it. And Oblivia is a young woman who has been through a lot of trauma. But she’s quite a strong character, even though she is oppressed in many different ways.

I was reading Six Memos for the Next Millennium, a collection of Italo Calvino lectures, and he has one essay titled ‘Lightness’ in which he talks about shamans unshackling themselves of weight and being able to move in another way – lightly – to find solutions. I immediately saw that this idea was similar for ngangkari, traditional healers in central Australia, who say that they can travel in their dreams to distant places, to heal someone. This is something that happens in the Indigenous world: oppression is there, but you can unshackle yourself in the same way, and be able to maintain your own thoughts and dignity and culture, no matter what happens. This is the strength of Aboriginal law – and a lot of people would say that it is this idea of ourselves that is stronger than any other law, because it’s unbroken – and you can still see this happening and the strength of belief in our world today.

AZ: The juxtaposition here is with Bella Donna of the Champions, who is a sea gypsy, a refugee from the northern hemisphere washed up in this place. At one point, the Indigenous people say: you’re here, you have a story to tell, okay, we’ll listen. You are playing here with two things: the great challenges and struggle facing Indigenous people and then this other challenge of asylum seekers. In a way, she’s a guest of the community and she’s found a temporary home.

AW: Of course! I was recently up in Burketown, where we had a little symposium for people who have written about the Gulf of Carpentaria. Murrandoo Yanner, one of my countrymen and a very strong leader, said, well, boat people are welcome because a good many non-Indigenous people living in this country were all descended from boat people stopping at our shores, once.

AZ: What Bella Donna brings with her, and this is a driving force in the book, is swan lore, the extraordinary stories of the swan that play out in so many cultures worldwide. How did all of that emerge?

AW: She has a lot of knowledge of swans, white swans, but there are eight different species of swans in the world. I also wanted her character to show that we are all in the same boat, in a way, and things can happen to any of us, so we should be careful of how we treat one another. In one of his essays, Calvino also quotes Borges saying that there are many men flying in the air and many men on the ground and on the sea, and what happens to them happens to me. And this is true.

AZ: The people who tend to welcome strangers, those who have a tradition of welcome, are often either nomadic people or they are sea people. In Greek culture, there’s a notion of filoxenia, friend of the stranger. And there is a simple reason for the practice: sea people and nomadic people know that, with a shift in the wind, you can become the stranger, the one knocking on the door. Bella Donna reminded me of this, though it’s complex because in a way she’s an invader, too. With the swan, there’s a kind of – not quite a battle, that’s too strong – but the black swan has to fight for its place.

AW: The black swan is indigenous to Australia. But when I started thinking about writing a book about swans, way back in 2003, I was living in Central Australia and people started telling me stories of swans that they had seen in the desert, sometimes on very shallow stretches of water. People were surprised to see them in these places, so far away from coastal and wetter regions of Australia. I am also from northern Australia and we don’t have swans, so I knew nothing about them … well, back then I didn’t.

AZ: You sure do now!

AW: I do now! But at the time I was doing research for the novel, people were also talking about seeing swans in the sewerage dam in Alice Springs, where they’d never seen them before, and further out in very isolated areas of land where there you would rarely see much water at all. And the same thing was happening up in the Gulf, where there are normally no swans. Someone told me, I saw a swan out there and I didn’t know if I should kill it or not. It’s got no story up in our country. So what do you do? What happens to a bird – or to anyone – who has no story for that country?

There was a change in the environment, in the weather patterns, so we were getting heaps of rain up in central Australia, with a lot of water lying around, and then down south for years there was a drought, and that perhaps explains the reason why the swans were moving. I talked to traditional owners living along the coast and they were saying there used to be a lot of swans here and now there is hardly any and we don’t know why. Well, we do know why. Global warming, perhaps? A change in weather patterns? And over many years, there had been human interference along rivers feeding into the sea, tampering with the flow of the water, and rivers dammed up, which ended up with silt and salt everywhere and other environmental damage. And so the swans just moved. We had taken them out of their habitat through environmental damage that has been mostly man-made, and the swans moved. They have to go somewhere. Where do they go and what stories do they have? How do you make stories for them in a new place?

AZ: A major character for you is the Earth itself. At one point, the Earth cries out to the swans: come, come down, you’re welcome here – I’ll give you a haven. I’ve got a feeling that this sense of the Earth goes way back to your childhood. You once made the remark that you are a bush girl at heart.

AW: I’d like to think so. I hope so. It comes from my family, from my grandmother; it comes from everyone I have been associated with over a long period of time. It’s what we believe in: ancestors, spirit of the country. If you do the wrong thing to the country, the country will get sulky and cause harm. These ideas are very deep in us, it comes from a very early age, and it’s been reinforced through all my work and what I have been taught by exceptional people in the Indigenous world – all of the great people I have met and known, people of great knowledge and wisdom and understanding. You can’t help but be affected by wise people. There are other ways of seeing this world, and their way is not a bad way at all.


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Alexis Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Her books include Grog War, a study of alcohol abuse in Tennant Creek, and the novels Plains of Promise, Carpentaria and The Swan Book, and she was editor/compiler of Take Power. She is a Distinguished Fellow in the University of Western Sydney’s Writing and Society Research Centre.

Arnold Zable is a writer, novelist and human rights advocate. His books include Jewels and Ashes, The Fig Tree, Violin Lessons and three novels – Café Scheherazade, Scraps of Heaven and Sea of Many Returns. He is president of the Melbourne centre of International PEN and a Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at Melbourne University.

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