Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book deals with the complexities of the ongoing colonisation of Australia, the loss of traditional stories and the horror that continues to be inflicted upon Indigenous Australians.
Much of this is achieved through the characterisation of protagonist, Oblivion (Oblivia) Ethyl(ene) who is rendered mute after a vicious gang-rape. She escaped into the “bowels of a giant eucalyptus tree…locked in the world of sleep” (pg 8). After ten years, she was dragged out from the tree by Bella Donna of the Champions, rendered unable to speak. This essay will analyse the status of Oblivia’s silence, and the ways in which Wright uses it to represent a myriad of ongoing injustices faced by Aboriginal Australians including ongoing colonisation and appropriation of Indigenous stories.
An ongoing colonisation of Indigenous minds
One way in which Wright uses Oblivia’s silence to represent stolen Indigenous autonomy is via the characterisation of the ongoing colonisation of Indigenous minds. That is, Oblivia’s silence represents the ways in which colonisation seeks to strip the autonomy and power of the colonised. The colonisation of Oblivia’s mind can be examined in the nature of her relationship with Bella Donna of the Champions, Oblivia’s adopted mother figure. In the same way that the white-washing of history silences Indigenous stories, Oblivia’s “one act of violation [her rape] becomes a story of another [Bella Donna” (pg. 20). After emerging from the tree, Oblivia has “no memory of the past,” rather, “her memory was created by what the old woman [Bella Donna] had chosen to tell her” (pg. 89). These misguided attempts to protect Oblivia from a traumatic past instead strip her of autonomy. By extension, the past and history of Aboriginal Australians have been erased through the process of violent colonisation. Therefore, white Australia similarly seeks to create new memories for them, rewriting history to eradicate any wrongdoing. This can be compared to Warren Finch’s relationship with Oblivia. Despite being an Indigenous man himself, Warren is a product of white Australia. During his journey to becoming the first Aboriginal president of Australia, he compromised his Indigenous heritage to become tolerable to the general Australian public. Like his “grey-feathered brolgas,” Warren has had the blackness stolen from him by the ongoing colonisation of Indigenous Australians. In what Holgate claims is a symbolic “reversal of colonialism,” Warren’s relationship with Oblivia is based upon his assumption that she is his “promised wife” (pg. 148.) In the same way that white Australia moulded Warren into a less Aboriginal, more palatable, version of himself, he seeks to manipulate Oblivia for his own personal and political gain. Warren’s calls for reconciliation are thus positioned to be based upon a colonial articulation of hope for one unified nation. In this way, Wright rejects the notion of reconciliation as a product of colonisation and forced assimilation. Rather, the idea of being ‘one people,’ ‘one nation,’ seeks to erase Indigenous identity (Sefton-Rowston, 2016). Therefore, Oblivia’s experience of forced assimilation under Bella Donna and then Warren erodes her personal autonomy, in a similar way by which colonisation renders the colonised powerless.
Literary allegories in The Swan Book
Oblivia’s ongoing oppression and related muteness are represented in a number of literary allegories in The Swan Book. One of which is the “virus” which afflicts her mind. Like colonialism, which ravages the traditional lands with violence and disease, The virus continues “vomiting bad history [the trauma of being a rape victim, colonialism and forced assimilation] over the beautiful sunburnt plains [her sovereign mind]” (pg. 1). The virus is often positioned to be the reason for Oblivia’s muteness, a “cut snake” living in her brain (pg. 1). This poses a significant question to readers: if Oblvia’s ‘virus’ is some sort of post-traumatic mental disorder, why does she refer to it as a ‘virus’ at all? Viruses are of course, contagious in nature. Therefore, one can conclude that the ‘virus’ is yet another one of Wright’s many metaphors for colonisation which is contagious by its very nature. The serpent is a subtend slithering through Oblivia’s perception of reality, threatening to crush it at any given moment. Of course, Oblivia’s virus and mind-serpent are only some of the many ways by which Wright blurs the lines between Oblivia’s objective and subjective reality, including her apparent muteness. When Oblivia falls into the Eucalyptus tree, she absorbs the “primordial memory” of the ancient lands, the “oldest language coming to birth again instinctively” (pg. 2). Thus, Oblivia is established as the medium through which the voice of Country emerges. The reader is left to question, is Oblivia a character, a narrator, or a reflection of Wright herself? Oblivia’s muteness reinforces this strange blending of boundaries, in some ways transgressing the creation of her story world (Barras, 2015). In Of Exiles and Fairy Tales: The Swan Book by Alexis Wright Alex Brown writes” The Swan Book is not a tale of truths. The line between what is really happening to Oblivia and what she imagines is meaningless and blurred. It is the story that counts, not its veracity.” In this way, it could be argued that the status of Oblivia’s silence is irrelevant in the grand scheme of understanding the novel. That is, the cause and nature of her muteness are less important than the ways in which she experiences and expresses her version of reality.
Reality and fantasy in The Swan Book
Much of the narrative hinges upon events and characters that lie somewhere between the extraordinary and impossible, leaving readers to wonder whether the proceedings are in fact real or just a product of Oblivia’s troubled imagination. How did Oblivia survive asleep inside a tree for ten years? — is this some sort of metaphor or some miracle? Through the lens of Stephen Slemon’s theory of magical realism, Wright constructs this tension between what is magical and what is real in order to allow readers to create individual meaning. For a reader of Western heritage, they may find elements of traditional fairytales or fables in The Swan Book: Bella Donna as the fairy godmother, Warren a saviour prince, the three disappearing ‘genies’ and a talking monkey. In this way, The Swan Book transcends reality, incorporating the “human-animal [Oblivia and her swans] metamorphoses are common in Aboriginal cosmology” (Sheridan, 2016). It, therefore, becomes a Dreamtime Tale, developing Slemon’s theory of magical realism in new directions by drawing on Aboriginal mythology, spirituality and traditional oral storytelling techniques (Holgate, 2015). In this sense, Oblivia is silent because to give her a voice and platform to share her reality would be too vile and awful to comprehend. Another theory, spearheaded by Sheridan in Feminist Fables and Alexis Wright’s Art of the Fabulous in The Swan Book, perhaps Wright chose to communicate narrative in this manner because the “issues explored are so violent and threatening to life itself that fable rather than realist narrative becomes the best vehicle for staging them.” Perhaps the most “threatening” and “violent” understandings are those which are too close to a reality in which Indigenous Australians are treated like second-class citizens on their own traditional lands. For without the elements of magic, The Swan Book is a rather bleak tale in which a child is raped, falls into a coma and is brought to a detention centre which houses the traditional owners of the land. She is removed from her home against her own will by a strange man and forced to play the role of first-lady. In this way, Oblivia is silent because Australia does not have the capacity to comprehend a reality that is so violent and horrific in nature.
Reflections of a violent reality for Indigenous Australians
Of course, this “violent” reality does not stray too far from the awful truth. Like Oblivia, as an Indigenous Australian woman Wright says that she too “learnt to be silent” in The Politics of Writing (2001). The stories about the horrors inflicted upon her family during the times that white cattlemen came to visit were too “shameful” to tell, much like Oblivia’s rape and the subsequent onset of her ‘virus’. These too were stories so horrific that they couldn’t be told without the emotional buffering of magical elements, as discussed above. This concept of shame naturally leads to the question of who, or rather what, is shameful? Is it the stories of Oblivia’s people, which Bella Donna claims are like “the chapters in a nightmarish book,” (pg. 62) or is it white Australia’s ongoing refusal to take ownership for a colonial history strewn with violence and injustice? In this sense, Wright draws attention to what Barras regards as being “the importance of narratives in shaping identity and providing agency [to marginalised or oppressed groups]” (2015). Wright’s evaluation of this concept’s significance permeates through all her work, including 2006 novel, Carpentaria. She writes, a nation chants, we know your [Aboriginal Australians’] story already”. Of course, this ‘known story’ is of discovery rather than invasion, oneness rather than individuality (Crane, 2019). That is, white Australia insists that they understand the story of their nation’s Indigenous heritage, but they neglect to create space for any Indigenous voices in this process. In this way, perhaps contrary to Bella Donna’s appraisal, Oblivia chooses to be silent because “it was not worth speaking” to those who had already proven their inability to listen (pg. 10). In this sense, Oblivia’s muteness both indicative of the ways in which Indigenous stories have been appropriated through colonisation, but also serves as a reclamation of her mind’s sovereignty.
Summary of Oblivia’s Silence
The complex nature of Oblivia’s silence in Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book cannot truly be summarised. Perhaps her silence serves to represent the many ways in which Indigenous Australians continue to be silenced, communicated through a number of literary allegories reminiscent of Aboriginal storytelling traditions. Perhaps she is mute because the alternative, in which she speaks of the awful realities that her community faces is too terrible to consider. Or perhaps her silence is a choice made to regain some control over her own mind in light of a traumatic past. Regardless, to ponder over the status of Oblivia’s silence for too long would be to neglect the true meaning behind Wright’s work. That is, each of these theories points to a reality in which Australian Indigenous people are oppressed, misunderstood and ultimately; silenced.
Barras, Arnaud, et al. “‘An Australian-Made Hell’: Postcolonial Katabasis in Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book.” A Quest for Remembrance: The Underworld in Classical and Modern Literature, 1st ed., Routledge, 2020, pp. 196–217.
Barras, Arnaud. “The Law of Storytelling: The Hermeneutics of Relationality in Alexis Wright’s the Swan Book.” Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL, vol. 15, no. 3, 2015, pp. 1-12. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.its.rmit.edu.au/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.rmit.edu.au/docview/1772792325?accountid=13552.
Crane, Kylie. (2019). Anthropocene Presences and the Limits of Deferral: Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and The Swan Book. Open Library of Humanities. 5. 10.16995/olh.348.
Holgate, Ben. Climate and Crises : Magical Realism As Environmental Discourse, Taylor & Francis Group, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/rmit/detail.action?docID=5675736.
Holgate, Ben. “Unsettling Narratives: Re-Evaluating Magical Realism as Postcolonial Discourse through Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and The Swan Book.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 51, no. 6, 2015, pp. 634–647.
Sefton-Rowston, Adelle. “Hope at the End of the World: Creation Stories and Apocalypse in Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and the Swan Book.” Antipodes, vol. 30, no. 2, 2016, pp. 355-368,436-437. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.its.rmit.edu.au/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.rmit.edu.au/docview/2003598481?accountid=13552.
Sheridan, Susan. “Feminist Fables and Alexis Wright’s Art of the Fabulous in The Swan Book.” Hecate, vol. 43, no. 1/2, 2017, pp. 197–233.
Wright, Alexis. Swan Book, Giramondo Publishing, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/rmit/detail.action?docID=1331783.