Essay by Melissa Lucashenko
This novel by Tara June Winch is a narrative of a broken family, of running from unbearable pain, and of the quest to belong. It would be easy, especially for non-Aboriginal readers, to assume that Winch’s protagonist is searching most for her racial identity. But when May Gibson’s mother dies unexpectedly beneath the jacaranda tree in the backyard, and her small family disintegrates around her, May’s search is not for her Aboriginality. It is, rather, for somewhere to belong as she used to belong in her mother’s presence. For somewhere she can feel safe and whole, and simply be loved: probably the most universal of human quests.
The book opens with teenage May living in the housing commission area of a coastal NSW town. Hers resembles one of those great Australian childhoods with bikes and fishing lines and sunshine and sand between the toes. But poverty lurks just beneath the surface.
Way down, past the flags and half a million dollar beachfronts, there hid a little slice of scum . . . Soon they’d demolish all the fibro and move us mob out to the western suburbs. (Winch p. 33)
May’s family, of course, are the ‘scum’. When her brother Billy fishes and hunts, it’s not for amusement, but because he and May are on the verge of starving. And the close cousins of poverty – mental illness and early death – are close at hand. By the end of chapter one, May’s ‘head sick’ mum is dead, and the teenagers are being raised by their Aunt, who loves them but also gambles, drinks and is regularly being knocked around by a sadistic boyfriend.
The violence in May’s life builds and builds. Her beloved beach becomes a theatre of war:
. . . as we got older we began to feel like we didn’t belong on that side of the creek either. Trailing behind the graffiti tags strewn among the grey. ‘Mull up lads . . . fuck off coons.’ I began to hide . . . (p. 34-35)
The local white surfers are arrogant, brutal and territorial. May knows this about them, but she can’t escape the sharp edges of modern Australia. When she is assaulted, she experiences the terrible collision of rape culture and racism:
. . . a blade caresses my cheek like a sympathetic breeze. ‘This gunna show ya where ya don’t belong dumb black bitch.’ (p. 36)
The beach isn’t safe anymore; neither is home. Billy soon runs to a local squat, burying his pain in his veins. May briefly joins him. But an overdose and their response – taking a strangers’ inert, barely alive body to be dumped onto a local train, and carried to an unknown, unknowable fate – haunts May. She flees from Billy’s empty addict eyes. She chooses instead to seek her father, a white stranger she knows only through a single postcard from the Northern Territory that she has hidden in her shorts like a precious jewel.
On the very outskirts of Darwin, May witnesses primitive bare-knuckle fighting that shocks her to the core. Worse, it reminds her of what she has perhaps chosen to forget: her father’s savage bashings of her mother, before he left to become merely an indistinct blur of childish memory. Horrified, May turns around, and heads back down south, her search abandoned.
With all she’s endured, May is no simple victim. Her resilience is astounding. She is lucky too, and finds salvation in the shape of Redfern community Elder, Aunty Joyce. ‘I didn’t need to be saved; I wasn’t waiting for a stupid hero. But one came anyway’ (p. 95).
Aunty Joyce feeds May, body and soul, and helps her find her feet in the city. But the hole in May’s heart is too big even for Aunty Joyce. She and other elders finally tell May that she needs to go home to her people’s ‘country’. There she might find the belonging that she craves like oxygen. Believing the older women, May begins a long journey on foot, back to the western river places of her forebears, back to ‘hard water’ Wiradjuri country. Hoping to find a loving family, she instead discovers a distant uncle (‘the spitting image of mum’) behind a locked screen door, a man more intent on getting to golf practice than discussing their Wiradjuri heritage. He is unintentionally cruel:
‘The thing is, we weren’t allowed to be what you’re looking for . . . There is a big missing hole between this place and the place you’re looking for. That place, that people . . . we weren’t allowed to be Aboriginal.‘ (p. 181-82)
May knows she is unwelcome, and heads back to the coast, back to where she grew up, where Billy has gotten clean and remade his life. Here she finally comes to a kind of peace, and stops running:
. . . we come from the sky and the earth and we go back to the sky and the earth, bone and fluid. The land is belonging, all of it for all of us. This river is that ocean, these clouds are that lake, these tears are not only my own . . . They belong to the spirits. To people I will never even know. I give them to my mother. (p. 183)
Things are still messy, there are no perfect endings. Her Aunt is crying into a bottle of beer as her fibro house is demolished around her to make way for the rich. But May realises, back on this saltwater country, that it is only by knowing the land itself that she can ‘make sense of the world’.
There are two key points to understanding Winch’s intent in this terrific first novel, which won the David Unaipon Award in 2005. The first I have already touched on: that this is primarily auniversal story. A lazy reader could interpret Swallow the Air as about a young girl trying to locate a hidden Aboriginal culture. But this novel is emphatically not the Sally Morgan story. Morgan’s My Place was one bestselling Aboriginal novel, extremely important when published in 1988, which has cast a very long shadow on much Aboriginal writing since. Winch’s novel, published almost two decades later, tells a different tale.
Yes, May is fair skinned compared to the worn-out stereotype of the jet-black Aborigine, but she is indelibly aware that she is Koori. She has heard all her life from her mother how her Aunts and Uncles were placed on missions in the sixties; she has heard, too, the story of Mungi the tribesman who was turned into a turtle. She has also been schooled in Aboriginal etiquette on other people’s country (‘be respectful’). May has spent her childhood affectionately teasing and being teased by a beloved brother much darker than herself:
. . . he’d sometimes tease me and call me ‘halfie’ and ‘coconut’. We’d be laughing and chasing each other around the yard being racist and not even knowing it. (p. 7-8)
Even if May hadn’t been raised by her mother to know she was Koori, the world, and in particular the surf gang, would have informed her soon enough that she was one of the ‘coons’ who needed to ‘fuck off’. Yes, as a fair-skinned blackfella she also hears from the friendly truck driver that classic phrase ‘you don’t look like an Abo’ – but then so have half the Aborigines in Australia. So let us begin – please – with this understanding: May knows she is Aboriginal. She wants to know more about her family and its origins, certainly, but there is a world of difference between deepening an understanding of your culture, and coming to it in ignorance as somebody raised white. This distinction might seem trivial, but for Aboriginal people, and for an accurate reading of May’s story, it is critical. The distinction is one between a white narrator (on a journey to becoming black) and an already Aboriginal narrator speaking from within the Aboriginal world. And in an Australia where a 2008 review in The Australian can (depressingly) refer to May as ‘half-Aboriginal’, there is one starting point readers should bear in mind: Aboriginality is not about skin colour. Nor is it a matter of degree or portions. Ever.
Why does this distinction matter? It matters because May’s story is far more complex than a simple (and in literary terms perhaps clichéd) search for her Koori origins. The multiple losses and traumas in her black life are what underpin her journey. Only a small minority of students in most Australian classrooms will know what it’s like to be seeking an altered racial identity to wear into adult life. But nearly all secondary students, I suggest, will feel some of the vulnerability to public and private violence, and the lure of drugs and alcohol, which May experiences. To focus too hard on identity would be to discount the profound effects of single parent poverty, violence and parental death in May’s life.
The second key point that the novel hinges on is the role of travel, or exile, in May’s life. Anyone who has much contact with troubled young people will find it believable that in trying to make sense of the world, May runs and runs. She runs from her Aunt’s house to the squat, from the squat to Darwin, from Darwin to Sydney, from Sydney to the bush, and on and on it goes.
What is she running from? May runs in an effort to forget the loss of her mother, her rape at the hands of the surf gang, the disappearance of her brother into a junkie void, and the recovered memory of her father’s terrible violence. She runs from the overdose victim they dumped on the train; she runs because she learned very young that hiding will not save her.
What is she running towards? That’s easy. Her quest is universal, though the obstacles she faces are typically Aboriginal ones. Like everyone else on the planet, May is looking for somewhere to be safe, and somewhere to belong. Somewhere that might cancel out, once and for all, what leading Native American novelist Sherman Alexie has called ‘the terrible shortage of love in the world’ (Alexie p. 82).
May’s running journey is crucial not just because it propels the narrative at breakneck speed. It’s also important because it says a lot about the youth and powerlessness of the protagonist. Humans are famously built for either fight or flight. That May chooses flight tells us that as a young, marginal, vulnerable Aboriginal girl, fighting is not a good option. The odds are too great, stacked against her in great granite lumps called Poverty and Racism and Isolation and Rape. Aborigines before Cook were usually nomads, travelling in predictable seasonal patterns across country with clearly defined owners. But in the 21st century May runs blind; and she runs because she knows no other path. That is, until she herself comes to understand her own exile from Wiradjuri lands, and realises that where she grew up is where she must carve a life:
I could run away again . . . I could take the yarndi, the paint, the poppies and all the grog in the world but I couldn’t run from the pain and I couldn’t run from my family either. (Winch p. 195)
Reviewer Kirsten Krauth celebrates Winch’s use of language (‘magnificently jumbled, headstrong’) but argues that at this point in the novel the ‘narrative falters’. And it’s true that May’s journey is certainly not a simple fairy tale, arcing from pain to triumph. Denied a mother, a brother, a father and a clan, May is cut adrift in a sea of loss. But there is finally redemption, of a sort, to be found back on the coast with Billy and her Aunt.
Winch ends this brave semi-autobiographical novel by voicing a dream of better days. May hints at the faint possibility of Aboriginal families undisturbed by ongoing invasions of land; of fibro houses safe from the bulldozers, and Koories nestling happily on saltwater shores. By phrasing it in this way, as a collective hope, Winch is asserting a communal identity for May, who argues as one of ‘our people’ – an Aborigine among others of her kind. But the hope she holds is very fragile. It is still weighted down with uncertainty, framed with the ‘if’ and the ‘maybe’ of a young Koori unsure if the white, adult world will let her dreams survive:
. . . if they stop digging up Aunty’s backyard, stop digging up a mother’s memory, stop digging up all our people, maybe then, we’ll all stop crying. (p. 198)
In Swallow the Air Winch has written of finding tentative meaning through a saga of exile, terrible loss and modern-day nomadism. The paradox of her novel is that its story of profound underlying violence is couched in lyrical, even gentle, language. Winch is no grunge writer, far from it. Like the waters of her Wiradjuri nation, her narrative flows, steadily and inexorably, towards the ocean, containing within it all the pain, and much of the beauty, of being a young southern Aborigine in modern Australia. There is a lot more beneath the surface here than a casual glimpse reveals. And ultimately, for all she has lost and all she has suffered, we leave May close to where we first met her: standing alongside her troubled Aboriginal family, a bit older, a bit stronger, and hoping – though not expecting – that their lives can change for the better.
Alexie, S. Reservation Blues. Grove Press, 1995.
Cornwall, J. “The Face: Tara June Winch.” The Australian 14 Jun. 2008.
Krauth, K. “Swallow the Air by Tara June Winch: 366 Days of Writing.” The NSW Writers Centre.
Winch, T.J. Swallow the Air. University of Queensland Press, 2006.
© Copyright Melissa Lucashenko 2013