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Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book: Narrating Climate Change and Animist Realism

Published onMay 19, 2021
Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book: Narrating Climate Change and Animist Realism


Indigenous Australian writer Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (2013) is a work of fiction set in a dystopic future that has been altered irreversibly by climate change. The text, in terms of how it functions as a narrative and represents its narrative space, emerges as a potent example of the absolute interdependence between the non-human environment and the human. In my paper, I explore how such a narrative form deployed on a spatial language not only dissolves the strict division between nature/culture, but also emboldens the discourse on ‘new animism’. It is my argument that when a climate change novel, taking the example of The Swan Book, is also animist realist, it meets one of the biggest challenges facing climate change fiction at present, which is to enable its readers to recognise the fallibility of human exceptionalism.

Keywords: New Animism; Anthropocene; Indigenous Australian Literature; Climate Change Fiction; Decolonisation

The Swan Book is Alexis Wright’s third novel. Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria. She attributes her love for stories and writing to her grandmother, who had passed on to her stories of her country and her heritage, and the importance of not letting these go. As a political activist involved mainly in the struggle for Aboriginal self-determination and land rights, Wright has been working with Indigenous Australian communities since the 1970s. She turned to writing fiction as a means of decolonisation. She found that “literature, the work of fiction, was the best way of presenting a truth – not the real truth, but more of a truth than non-fiction” (2002, p.10). Wright’s debut novel was published in 1997. Titled Plains of Promise, it targeted the assimilation policies put in practice by the government and state authorities of Australia that had a shocking impact on its Indigenous people. The year 2006 marked the publication of Carpentaria, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award. The huge success of this novel catapulted her to the position of being one of the foremost contemporary Indigenous writers of Australia. The Swan Book converges with the first two of Wright’s novels in that they are all part of her heartfelt and conscientious undertaking to talk about the devastating effects of European colonisation on the Indigenous people of Australia.

Reviewed widely, The Swan Book has been called a “counter intervention” (Williamson 2013), in direct reference to the attack it makes, among other things, on the Australian government’s Northern Territory Intervention of 2007.1 Writing for the Sydney Review of Books, Jane Gleeson-White (2013) notes, “It bears all the hallmarks of Wright’s astonishing narrative powers: her linguistic dexterity, mashing words and phrases from high and low culture, from English, Aboriginal languages, French and Latin; her humour and scathing satire; her fierce political purpose; her genre bending; her virtuosic gift for interweaving stories on multiple levels, from the literal to the metaphoric, the folkloric and the mythic”. In another review, Katherine Mulcrone remarks:

Nothing about The Swan Book is easy or straightforward, least of all a conclusion on its merit ... Wright, it seems, is determined to keep her readers unmoored, which she accomplishes via omniscient narration that tends more toward stream of consciousness than linear thought, challenging readers to untangle which strand of narration belongs to which character. The author complicates this task by dispensing with any commitment to standard syntax, so that sentences wind over and around themselves in such a way that only multiple readings can unpick the threads. (2014, p.518)

The composition of the novel consistently evades the usual conventions of literary narratives, making any understanding of it seem less thorough than it should be. The Swan Book, set in the near future, takes place when the world as we know it has changed drastically because of anthropogenic climate change. People have been rendered stateless and homeless, and have migrated to any place possible on the planet where life can be sustained even in a nominal condition. Consequently, hordes of climate refugees have forced themselves into Australia. The central character of the novel, Oblivion Ethylene or Oblivia, is a young Australian Aboriginal girl who was raped by a gang of petrol-sniffing youths, after which she has fallen into the underground bowel of a giant eucalyptus tree where she remains locked in a state of sleep. Her family and community have stopped searching for the missing child, when Bella Donna of the Champions – a European climate refugee in Australia – finds her. Together, they live in an old rusty hulk stuck in the middle of a swamp, which is an Army-run Aboriginal detention camp. Oblivia, however, is unable to recover from the trauma of her past. Symptomatically, she remains mute for the entirety of the novel.

After the death of Bella Donna, she is claimed as wife by Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal President of Australia, who comes for her from the other side of the swamp. Shortly after the wedding, Finch leaves Oblivia behind in a city in the south of Australia, locked in a building called The People’s Palace. Stuck in the palace, one night, suddenly, Oblivia finds that the black swans that were with her in the swamp have come back to her. Soon after the arrival of the swans, Finch is assassinated as he re-enters the city, leading to the Australian government’s decision that his dead body will be taken on a final journey to farewell the nation, during which the government can settle on the burial place of his coffin. It is also decided that, as long as the decision is not made, the journey shall go on and Oblivia will accompany Finch’s dead body in a vehicle. Nonetheless, Oblivia leaves the corpse of Finch behind. Yet again, she finds her black swans from the swamp. “They were heading north, on the way home” (Wright 2013b). She decides to follow them. In the end, we are told that Oblivia can be regularly spotted walking around the old dry swamp as a teenage girl, “screaming, kayi, kayi kala-wurru nganyi, your country is calling out for you” (Wright 2013b).

With such a complex narrative, the novel unlocks discussions on themes that include the loss of Indigenous traditions, Stolen Generations, detention camps, dispossession, the disappearance of Indigenous languages, and the ongoing struggle for Aboriginal rights and sovereignty. Every sentence is a reflection on all these issues. However, the idea for writing The Swan Book, as Wright reported in an interview with Arnold Zable, came to her when she was working in Central Australia in the year 2003 and people started telling her about “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” (2013a). The swans had moved far from their natural habitats, and this was accompanied by a change in the weather patterns, explaining why the swans were migrating in the first place. More importantly, it was the cumulative result of human activities; climate, the environment, and non-human beings were being impacted by human beings. Inspired by these events, Wright wanted to write a story for the Anthropocene. Thus, The Swan Book can be considered first and foremost a climate change novel.2

In literary fiction, climate change is generally regarded as an intrinsically difficult topic to write about, as writers confront a set of scientific and cultural phenomena that is bewildering in its complexity and scale (Garrard 2013). Adam Trexler and Adeline Johns-Putra (2011), in their survey of fictional representations of climate change, conclude that the depiction of climate change in literary fiction, particularly in science fiction, relies on the construction of other-worlds. These other-worlds are either planets other than Earth made habitable for life, or Earth with an altered climate located in the future. Narratives set on Earth rather than other planets have been referred to as “future histories” by Trexler and John-Putra (2011, p.186). The Swan Book is a future history in this regard, but it also goes beyond many other climate change novels that are also future histories by exhibiting an exceptional approach in terms of its setting and characterisation. It has not only tried to depict how human and non-human planetary life can be affected by climate change, but has constructed the narrative space of the novel such that it helps us think about the fallibility of human exceptionalism or anthropocentrism in radically new ways. This, I argue, has been achieved by grounding the text in animism.3

In an illuminating piece of scholarship by Alison Ravenscroft (2018), the novels of Wright, including The Swan Book, have been read with the purpose of revealing the gap in new materialism and post-human theories that critically interrogate nature-culture dualism, such as those posited in the works of Jane Bennett and Bruno Latour, which let Indigenous materialism fall through without any mention of it. Ravenscroft’s essay begins with the all-important question of her own position as a non-Indigenous reader/scholar approaching Indigenous texts. Consciously and conscientiously, she comes to the point that there is a need for new reading practices, and proposes one “where the non-Waanyi reader takes up Alexis Wright’s invitation to be ‘welcomed strangers’… [Ravenscroft is] interested in the possibilities of a reading practice based in estrangement for the possibilities it may hold for de-centring the Western-centric knowing reader-subject” (2018, p.359). While I am grateful to Ravenscroft for confronting the issue of positionality as it affects non-Indigenous readers/scholars like myself who study Indigenous literary texts, and for offering an enabling reading practice that is based on an acknowledgement of the limits of non-Indigenous understanding of Indigenous self-representation, I hope to tackle the question of the binary relation between nature and culture from a different angle. That is, I do not use the term Indigenous materialism, for I have the objective of rehabilitating and decolonising the term ‘animism’, which was once – and to some degree remains at present – used in relation to Indigenous peoples and practitioners of non-mainstream religions in a derogatory fashion. The term ‘animism’ was first used by English anthropologist Edward Tylor (1832–1917). Tylor lived and worked in a Europe that had begun experiencing the spread of the Enlightenment, the ideology of scientific progress, and the theory of evolution. Consequently, for Tylor, animism was not a desirable quality, but was rather an indication of primitiveness among certain cultural groups. It is in his text Primitive Culture (1871) that we find his first detailed account on animism. Now, when scholars refer to animism, as detailed in Tylor’s study, they refer to it as ‘old animism’, by way of ushering in the concept of ‘new animism’.

New animism is animism reinterpreted and redefined to become “a self-designation among some Indigenous and nature-venerating religionists, many of whom are well aware that it can carry negative associations but reject these in favour of its more positive associations" (Harvey 2005, p.3). Graham Harvey, a religious studies scholar based in the United Kingdom, who published Animism: Respecting the Living World in 2005, defines animism as that which “names worldviews and lifeways in which people seek to know how they might respectfully and properly engage with other persons” (2005, p.xiv), and animists as those “who recognize that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others” (2005, p.xi). In literary studies, Nigerian poet and scholar Harry Garuba was one of the first to discuss certain texts, especially by African writers, and to place them in the tradition of ‘animist realism’. Graham Harvey, building on Garuba’s study, offers more examples from literatures, especially Indigenous novels and poetry, that exhibit an animist conception of the world.

Of the characteristics of Indigenous animist realist writings listed by Harvey, the most prominent is that they are not defined solely or predominantly by the presence of magic or spirits in their content. Their primary trait is that they habitually assume a radically plural, “larger-than-human social cosmos” (2014, p.461) in which it is possible for human beings to relate intimately to non-human beings, whether they are animals, plants, spirits, artefacts, ancestors, or divine beings. Another significant feature of Indigenous animist realist texts is that boundaries are transgressed all the time. “Whether it is in relation to the putative division between this and other worlds (whether of spirits or other species), between times, between conscious states (wakefulness or sleep) or between the everyday and the larger-than-human, boundary crossing is rife” (Harvey 2014, p.465).

The principal way animism materialises in The Swan Book is through its narrative space. “Spaces function in a story in different ways. On the one hand they are only a frame, ‘a place of action’. On the other hand, it becomes an ‘acting place’ rather than the place of action. It influences the fabula, and the fabula becomes sub-ordinate to the presentation of space. The fact that ‘this is happening here’ is just as important as ‘the way it is here,’ which allows these events to happen” (Bal 1997, pp.135-136). In The Swan Book, the narrative space is an acting place. It is not just the characters that suffer the consequences of the great climactic derangement, but the space which is the Aboriginal country has been presented as suffering equally. In fact, there is no separation between the characters’ experiences and the country’s; they are interconnected and deeply entangled with each other.

In the first chapter, ‘Dust Cycle’, Oblivia’s rape and her subsequent fall into the bowel of a eucalyptus tree has been linked with the severe drought in the country; one’s trauma has a bearing on the other: “Some say that there was an accident before the drought. A little girl was lost” (Wright 2013b). By speculating on the supposed connection between the natural phenomenon of drought and the Aboriginal girl going missing, the narrative is drawing a parallel between the suffering of the country (induced by climate change) and the traumatic experience of Oblivia. Furthermore, this section of the text neatly illustrates how, in Aboriginal cosmologies, everything relates to everything else, and how the country – along the same lines as a living person – possesses language, memory, story and even emotions that are always being transmitted and transcribed on itself.

To go back to Harvey’s definition, animism recognises that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human beings. Wright understands the non-mutability of this statement and the role it plays in Indigenous worldviews, thus weaving non-human agency and subjectivity seamlessly into the narrative of The Swan Book. Moving beyond examples of anthropomorphism, at a more intricate level, the swans in The Swan Book offer a figure of extreme complexity that remains irreducible and yet open to interpretation. What is quite remarkable is that the characterisation of the swans has escaped the instrumentalisation that non-human characters are often subjected to in literary fiction. The swans in The Swan Book are animate beings and bring their own unique energy to the environment in which they are present. The following passage describes Oblivia’s opening encounter with the swans:

Oblivia remembered thinking that dust had a way of displacing destiny the first time she saw a swan … In all of this vast quietness where the summer sun was warming the dust spirit’s mind, the swan looked like a paragon of anxious premonitions, rather than the arrival of a miracle for saving the world. Seeing the huge bird flying through the common dusty day like this, disturbed whatever peace of mind the stick-like Oblivia possessed. Everyone watched a swan’s feather float down from the sky and land on her head. Oblivia’s skin instantly turned to a darker shade of redbrown ... She knew as a fact that the swan had been banished from wherever it should be singing its stories and was searching for its soul in her. (Wright 2013b)

In the above passage, the figure of the swan, grey-black and alone, has been presented not as a bird that has found itself in a new place, looking perturbed or guarded to be devoid of its flock and away from its former habitat. Rather, it presents a powerful image of a person that has arrived with a mysterious purpose. This purpose unfolds as it drops a single feather on Oblivia. In my reading of the text, this is the moment of entangling when Oblivia and the swan(s) become conjoined in their common purpose of finding a place of belonging. In the prelude, the only section of the text written in the form of a first-person narrative told from the viewpoint of Oblivia, she says: “I must continue on, to reach that one last place in a tinder-dry nimbus where I once felt a sense of belonging” (Wright 2013b). This confirms the connection between the swan(s) and Oblivia. They are fellow-travellers on the same journey, exiled from their homeland and in search of a home that has perhaps been lost forever to the ravages of time.

Elizabeth DeLoughrey (2015), writing in Global Ecologies and the Environmental Humanities: Postcolonial Approaches, believes most current narratives of the Anthropocene position the human subject at the centre of the discourse and as exceptional to non-human species, perpetuating and furthering the ontological split between humans and nature. Emily Potter (2009), in ‘Climate Change and the Problem of Representation’, considers this to be the inheritance of Western thought that operates in binaries. “Within these binaries, power is allocated unevenly, with the capacity to do, to have creative impact, and to author, invested in the human. Where the non-human environment ‘acts’ – for instance, in the case of a ‘natural disaster – it is interpreted with the human at the centre of concern: what does the occurrence mean for humans?” (Potter 2009, p.70). It is, therefore, important that we turn to alternative modes of narrative that do not sideline the non-human others in their depiction of the Anthropocene if we are to overcome the overpowering influence of the nature/culture dualism. The Swan Book, being an animist realist environmental narrative, offers such an alternative.

Wright’s subjects in the novel are both human and non-human. The Aboriginal country, inclusive of all beings, is itself sentient and collapses our conventional understanding of the terms ‘life’ and ‘non-life’. In Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason, where Val Plumwood (2002) argues that the logical structure of Eurocentrism, ethnocentrism, and androcentrism is the same, she lists the tendency to homogenise the other as one of the chief features of such structures. In the case of the nature/culture divide, the other-than-human entities are conceptualised as being interchangeable, replaceable units located under broad categories, whether they are trees, flowers, or animals. As Plumwood puts it, “an Anthropocentric culture rarely sees animals and plants as individual centres of striving and need, doing their best for themselves and their children in their condition of life” (2002, pp.107-108). This type of culture, as Plumwood explains, promotes human insensitivity toward non-humans, an underestimation of the complexity of nature and a mechanistic culture – all of which predictably polarises nature from culture.4

“To counter polarisation, it is necessary to acknowledge and reclaim continuity and overlap between the polarised groups as well as internal diversity within them” (Plumwood 2002, p.102). Wright has, throughout The Swan Book, consciously tried to decentre the human/nature contrast by attending to the factors of both continuity and diversity. In recognition of nature’s amazing diversity, Wright has featured in the novel brolgas, owls, monkeys, myna birds, crows, dogs, and other hybrid figures such as that of the ghost, genie and the Chinese dragon. More prominently, Wright recognises the continuity and convergence between all life forms, with Oblivia’s relationship with the swans being emblematic of this continuity. Throughout the text, there are more instances of cross-species contact. The ancestral tree in whose bowel Oblivia lay asleep for almost a decade shares a divine relationship with the Aboriginal people of the swamp. “Old people said that the tree was like all of the holiest places in the world rolled into one for us, no wonder [Oblivia] went straight to it ... The tree watching everything, calling out to her when it saw some people had broken the Law ... This ancestor was our oldest living relative for looking after the memories, so it had to take her” (Wright 2013b). In this instance, Wright makes the sacred ancestral tree the only witness to Oblivia’s rape which, as a protective, generous guardian, takes her in and offers her shelter. What is more important here is the recognition of rape as an act of violation of justice and Aboriginal Law by the ancestral tree. Here, Wright is pointing not only to the profound failure of the constitutional law of Australia to protect the Aboriginal population, but at the same time showing the durability of Aboriginal Law while restoring its relevance to Aboriginal people.

It is necessary to bring in the concept of ‘deep listening’ at this point, because treating nature as alive and interactive may not be sufficient if we do not invite human beings to be attentive observers and listeners. In fact, Val Plumwood considers “listening and attentiveness to the other” (2002, p.194) to be one of the most important of the counter-hegemonic virtues that resist the instrumentalisation and othering of nature. This is so because it is only by paying attention and having an open stance that the relationship between the human and the non-human can move from being monological to dialogical. During my research, I found that there is, in fact, a term used by some Aboriginal people, even though not mentioned by Plumwood, for the quality of listening and attentiveness that helps one receive the disclosures of nature. It is called dadirri.5 Indigenous elder Mirriam Ungunameer, from the Ngangikurungkurr tribe, describes it as “inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness”. Ungunameer attributes this special quality to the years of practice of listening to stories passed on by the ancestors, the cumulative result of which is that Aboriginal people become skilled listeners. She explains: “In our Aboriginal way, we learnt to listen from our earliest days. We could not live good and useful lives unless we listened. This was the normal way for us to learn – not by asking questions” (‘Dadirri’ n.d.). This kind of attentive listening, practised by the Indigenous community to which Miriam Ungunameer belongs, can be developed only by having the patience to stay still, by being truly comfortable with silence, and by exercising mindfulness. This attentiveness, at last, is what will truly enable us to enact the refusal to consider humans as the only repository for agency and re-envision the nonhuman as a source of action and intentionality for the sake of the health of the entire planet.


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