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Authors: Alexis Wright

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The Swan Book

BOOK: The Swan Book
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THE SWAN BOOK

OTHER BOOKS BY ALEXIS WRIGHT

PLAINS OF PROMISE

GROG WAR

CROIRE EN L'INCROYABLE

LE PACTE DE SERPENT

TAKE POWER
(AS EDITOR)

CARPENTARIA

ALEXIS WRIGHT

The Swan Book

FIRST PUBLISHED 2013

FROM THE WRITING & SOCIETY RESEARCH CENTRE

AT THE UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN SYDNEY

BY THE GIRAMONDO PUBLISHING COMPANY

PO BOX 752

ARTARMON NSW 1570 AUSTRALIA

WWW.GIRAMONDOPUBLISHING.COM

© ALEXIS WRIGHT 2013

DESIGNED BY HARRY WILLIAMSON

TYPESET BY ANDREW DAVIES

IN 10/17 PT BASKERVILLE

PRINTED AND BOUND BY LIGARE BOOK PRINTERS

DISTRIBUTED IN AUSTRALIA BY NEWSOUTH BOOKS

NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA

CATALOGUING -IN-PUBLICATION DATA:

ALEXIS WRIGHT

THE SWAN BOOK / ALEXIS WRIGHT

ISBN 9781922146410 (PBK.)
        9781922146427 (mobi)
        9781922146434 (epub)
        978-1922146441 (epdf)

A823.3

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

NO PART OF THIS PUBLICATION MAY BE REPRODUCED, STORED IN A RETRIEVAL SYSTEM OR TRANSMITTED IN ANY FORM OR BY ANY MEANS ELECTRONIC MECHANICAL PHOTOCOPYING OR OTHERWISE WITHOUT THE PRIOR PERMISSION OF THE PUBLISHER.

FOR TOLY

All those travelling black swans

Gone to desert lagoons after big rains

In the Todd River next to Schultz Crossing

And thirty flying north along Larapinta Drive in Alice Springs on the 14 January 2010

And in memory of Yari Tjampitjinpa
(Kumantjayi Zimran)

T
HE SWAN BOOK
is set in the future, with Aboriginals still living under the Intervention in the north, in an environment fundamentally altered by climate change. It follows the life of a mute young woman called Oblivia, the victim of gang-rape by petrol-sniffing youths, from the displaced community where she lives in a hulk, in a swamp filled with rusting boats, and thousands of black swans, to her marriage to Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia, and her elevation to the position of First Lady, confined to a tower in a flooded and lawless southern city.
The Swan Book
has all the qualities which made Wright's previous novel,
Carpentaria
, a prize-winning best-seller. It offers an intimate awareness of the realities facing Aboriginal people; the energy and humour in her writing finds hope in the bleakest situations; and the remarkable combination of storytelling elements, drawn from myth and legend and fairy tale, has Oblivia Ethylene in the company of amazing characters like Aunty Bella Donna of the Champions, the Harbour Master, Big Red and the Mechanic, a talking monkey called Rigoletto, three genies with doctorates, and throughout, the guiding presence of swans.
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
and
Carpentaria
, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Victorian and Queensland Premiers' Awards and the ALS Gold Medal, and was published in the US, UK, China, Italy, France, Spain and Poland. She is a Distinguished Fellow in the University of Western Sydney's Writing and Society Research Centre.

Cover image: Darren Gilbert

Black Swan
(2012)

Ink on Illustration Board

Cover design: Harry Williamson

Author photo: Vincent Long

CONTENTS

Prelude: Ignis Fatuus

Dust Cycle

The Dust Ends

The News from the Sea

Brolga and Swan

Twenty Years of Swans

The Yellow Chat's Story

Swan Maiden

Owls in the Grass

A Lake of White Water

The Christmas House

City Swan

Gypsy Swans

City of Refugees

The Street Serpent

Travelling Road Show

The Ghost Walk

Marsh Lake Swans

Epilogue: The Swan Country

A Note on Sources

Acknowledgements

A wild black swan in a cage

Puts all of heaven in a rage

Robert Adamson, ‘After William Blake'

Prelude
Ignis Fatuus

U
pstairs in my brain, there lives this kind of cut snake virus in its doll's house. Little stars shining over the moonscape garden twinkle endlessly in a crisp sky. The crazy virus just sits there on the couch and keeps a good old
qui vive
out the window for intruders. It ignores all of the eviction notices stacked on the door. The virus thinks it is the only pure full-blood virus left in the land. Everything else is just half-caste. Worth nothing! Not even a property owner. Hell yes! it thinks, worse than the swarms of rednecks hanging around the neighbourhood. Hard to believe a brain could get sucked into vomiting bad history over the beautiful sunburnt plains.

Inside the doll's house the virus manufactures really dangerous ideas as arsenal, and if it sees a white flag unfurling, it fires missiles from a bazooka through the window into the flat, space, field or whatever else you want to call life. The really worrying thing about missile-launching fenestrae is what will be left standing in the end, and which splattering of truths running around in my head about a story about a swan with a bone will last on this ground.

So my brain is as stuffed as some old broken-down Commodore you see left dumped in the bush. But I manage. I stumble around
through the rubble. See! There I go – zigzagging like a snake over hot tarmac through the endless traffic. Here I am – ducking for cover from screeching helicopters flying around the massive fireplume storms. And then, I recognise a voice droning from far away, and coming closer.

Oblivia!
The old swan woman's ghost voice jumps right out of the ground in front of me, even though she has been dead for years. White woman still yelling out that name!
Where's that little Aboriginal kid I found?
No name. Mudunyi? Oblivion Ethyl(ene) officially. She asks:
What are you doing girl? I never taught you to go around looking like that.
Her hard eyes look me up and down. The skin and bone. My hair cut clean to the scalp with a knife. I am burnt the same colour as the ground. She takes in the view of the burnt earth, and says,
I never expected you to come back here.
The ghost says she still recognises the child she had once pulled from the bowels of an old eucalyptus tree that had looked as though it could have been a thousand years old. But this is no place for ghosts that don't belong here, and the virus barks continuously, as though he was some kind of watchdog barking,
Oooba, booblah, booblah!
The old woman's ghost is as spooked as a frightened cat in flight by the virus's sick laughter carrying across the charred landscape. It frightens the living daylights out of her, although she still manages to say,
I know who you are
, before swiftly backing off across the landscape until she disappears over the horizon.

If you want to extract a virus like this from your head – you can't come to the door of its little old-fashion prairie house with passé kinds of thinking, because the little king will not answer someone knocking, will not come out of the door to glare into the sunlight, won't talk about anything in level terms, or jump around to appease you like some Chubby Checker impersonator bent over backwards under a limbo stick. Nor will it offer any hospitality – swart summers or not – no matter how much knocking, trick-or-treating,
ceremonial presents, or tantrums about why the door was kept closed.

I can prove that I have this virus. I have kept the bit of crumpled-up paper, the proper results of medical tests completed by top doctors of the scientific world. They claimed I had a remarkable brain. Bush doctors, some of the best in the world, said this kind of virus wasn't any miracle; it was just one of those poor lost assimilated spirits that thought about things that had originated somewhere else on the planet and got bogged in my brain. Just like assimilation of the grog or flagon, or just any
kamukamu
, which was not theirs to cure.

The virus was nostalgia for foreign things, they said, or what the French say,
nostalgie de la boue
; a sickness developed from channelling every scrap of energy towards an imaginary, ideal world with songs of solidarity, like
We Shall Overcome
. My virus sings with a special slow drawling voice, like an Australian with
closed door syndrome
– just singing its heart out about cricket or football without a piece of thought, like Harry Belafonte's
Banana Boat Song
–
Day oh! Oh! Day a day oh! Daylight come and I want to go home,
etc. Well! There was nothing wrong with that. It could sing its homesick head off to the universe of viruses living in the polluted microscopic cities of the backwater swamp etched in my brain.

The extreme loser, not happy with having trapped itself in my brain, was acting like it had driven a brand new Ferrari into the biggest slum of a
dirty
desert in one of the loneliest places in the world, and there had to fit high culture into a hovel. The doctors said it was a remarkable thing, an absolute miracle that nobody else had ended up with a virus like this freak lost in my head, after testing thousands of fundamentalists of one kind or another. They called medical testing a waste of public money and drank polluted swamp water to prove it.

Having learnt how to escape the reality about this place, I have created illusionary ancient homelands to encroach on and destroy the wide-open vista of the virus's real-estate. The prairie house is now surrounded with mountainous foreign countries that dwarf the plains and flatlands in their shadows, and between the mountains, there are deserts where a million thirsty people have travelled, and to the coastlines, seas that are stirred by King Kong waves that are like monsters roaring at the front door. Without meeting any resistance whatsoever, I have become a gypsy, addicted to journeys into these distant illusionary homelands, to try to lure the virus hidden somewhere in its own crowded globe to open the door. This is where it begins as far as I am concerned. This is the quest to regain sovereignty over my own brain.

So I lie in the brochures that I send the virus, saying I must come and visit, saying that I have blood ties in homelands to die for in the continents across the world of my imagination, and a family tree growing in dreams of distant lands. The fact, I say, is that my homeland has grown into such a big spread that it has become a nightmare of constant journeying further and further out. I am like Santa Claus riding the skies in one single
mungamba
night to reach umpteen addresses, and why? Just to deliver the good of myself, whether the receiver wants it or not. The virus was quite interested in my idea of belonging everywhere, and asked why I took these journeys that bring in more places to crowd up its little world. I say that I begin locally, navigating yellow-watered floods that grow into even greater inland sea-crossings, to reach a rich alluvial plain that feeds shaded gardens, where the people who live there say they do not know me and ask why have I come. Always, I move on.

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