Swallow the Air by indigenous Australian author Tara June Winch has been on Year 12 reading lists almost from its first release in 2006, and I think it’s a very good choice of text to introduce young people to indigenous writing. It’s confronting, because Winch writes with disconcerting frankness about indigenous issues and lifestyles, but it’s also beautiful, uplifting, and often rather funny. In other words, it resists attempts to stereotype indigenous people head on, and I like that.
It is true that there are some very dark themes tackled in this, the author’s first (and so far, only?) novel. Structured in very short chapters which are not always entirely coherent, the novel depicts a life that is not coherent. There is domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, discrimination, depression and suicide. But it is not a ‘misery memoir’ in style, but rather an honest acknowledgement of how things are, for many indigenous people. The central character, May Gibson, of mixed descent, lives in a dysfunctional family, and when after her mother’s suicide she takes off across Australia to find her family, her father and her identity, she encounters more than a few dysfunctional characters on the way. But she herself is strong, and although she briefly drifts into drugs and crime in Redfern, she is determined not to succumb to the hopelessness that dogs her brother.
And luckily for her, she meets up with strong Aboriginal women who are role models for successfully integrating her Aboriginal identity into modern Australian life. There is Joyce who while recognising the appeal of community in Redfern warns her off its hopelessness, and there is Issy in Lake Cowral who shows her that belonging in Aboriginal culture is about a universal spiritual connection to the land. The characterisation of these women is authentic and convincing because we have seen in the media so many inspirational Aboriginal women in modern Australian culture.
What distinguishes Winch’s writing is her powerful imagery. This was an audio book, and I listened to it en route to work so it wasn’t possible to note examples of it as I drove, but time and again I was captivated by the way the author juxtaposed words to mean the opposite of their usual sense. One that stuck in my mind was the image of the unerring aim of May’s father’s fists – ‘perfect, like sunsets’. The beauty and power of her prose is remarkable for such a young writer – Winch was only 20 when the unpublished novel won the State Library of Queensland Young Writers Award.
Tara June Winch’s talent was recognised with a swag of awards for Swallow the Air, including
- the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, David Unaipon Award for unpublished indigenous writers in 2004
- the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for indigenous writing in 2006
- the Dobbie Award 2007, and
- the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, UTS Award for New Writing 2007
The narration, by Tara June Winch herself, is beautifully done.
PS 9.7.12 See also Janine’s excellent review at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip.
Author: Tara June Winch
Title: Swallow the Air
Publisher: Louis Braille Audio, (first published by UQP as a book in 2006)
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library