April 2023

Arts & Letters

Sovereignty of imagination: Alexis Wright

By Tony Birch

Alexis Wright, 2007. Photograph by Susan Gordon-Brown

A new novel from the acclaimed Indigenous writer occasions a survey of her work, immersed in Country and the ongoing experience of colonisation

On June 21, 2007, two events occurred in Australia that would impact upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the country. The first, a shock that initially arrived in a press release issued by Mal Brough, the then federal minister for Indigenous affairs, authorised the implementation of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act, more commonly known as the Northern Territory “intervention”. The other event was the announcement that evening of the winner of the 2007 Miles Franklin Literary Award: Alexis Wright, a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria, for her novel Carpentaria.

The announcements would become entangled after the awards ceremony, when rather than addressing the remarkable achievements of Carpentaria, a novel regarded as central to the history of literary works produced in this country, journalists interviewing Wright wanted her to tell another story. Wright had spent many years working with Aboriginal people, including a lengthy period in the Northern Territory. She had written about the corrosive impacts of alcohol on Aboriginal communities in her nonfiction work Grog War (1997), which was guided by her approach of patience, deep listening and respect. The result would be a book that, as Wright states it, “belongs to the people who own the story”.

Grog War successfully argued that no solution to the problems of alcohol will succeed without empowering the Aboriginal communities and shifting the blame away from the communities impacted by grog to the debilitating structures of colonisation. The depiction of a mindset that refuses to respect the cultural knowledge of Aboriginal people is present in much of Wright’s work. In her novel The Swan Book (2013), the “one-hit wonders pretending to speak for Aboriginal people” damage communities and Country.

Wright responded to persistent questions about her views on the intervention with her typical strength: “Now we find this terrible situation where the government’s riding roughshod yet again, tramping heavily, bringing down the sledgehammer approach, without understanding that we need greater dialogue and a move towards the future.”

Those comments, made on ABC radio, upset some white commentators, including some critics within the literary world. They should not have been surprised. (Or were they offended, perhaps?) As we’re reminded by Larissa Behrendt, the Aboriginal academic, novelist and filmmaker, Wright has been at the forefront of defending her people – in a dignified manner. “She has never shied away from lending her voice to important national conversations,” Behrendt tells me, when I write to ask about Wright’s influence, “using her wisdom to assist the nation in finding its moral compass.”

The dialogue Wright has asked for, in writing and conversation over the past 30 years, was eloquently expressed on the night of the Miles Franklin announcement, when she said, “I think literature is one area where we can explore who we are and show Australia, which is what I wanted to do in a book like Carpentaria.” Her writing life is an investment in reshaping the conscience of the nation. This is evident in the outstanding works she had produced since Carpentaria: The Swan Book and her 2018 Stella Prize winner, Tracker.

Carpentaria, published the year prior to the Northern Territory intervention, was an exercise in autonomy. It allowed Wright to “affirm our existence on our terms”. Prophetically, considering the events that would unfold in the following year, in 2006 Wright criticised the “extreme pressures of oppression and relentless, ongoing colonisation” that accompanies interference in Aboriginal life and culture. At the time, she asked a direct question of all of us, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. (Wright often asks questions that challenge our thinking.) “Surely, we are more than that?” she demanded. As a nation, a white nation, the country appeared to be something less than that at the time of the intervention. It was a blunt instrument applied to a complex issue, reflecting a telling observation by Wright: “there are more ways to silence voices than locking people in jail”.

The sledgehammer Wright referred to was the federal government’s response to the “Little Children are Sacred” report, the result of an investigation into Indigenous child welfare in the Northern Territory. The report was tabled only a week before the intervention, an act requiring the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, legally supported by another sacred document, the Australian Constitution. Considering the failures of the intervention, to what extent Aboriginal children are truly regarded as sacred by non-Aboriginal Australia is highly debatable, with research indicating that at the commencement of the intervention “265 Indigenous children were in ‘out of home’ care” in the Northern Territory. By 2013, the number had risen to 623. A decade after the intervention the figure exceeded 1000.

Many of those removed from communities were incarcerated in horrific conditions. In 2016, the ABC’s Four Corners program investigated the treatment of Aboriginal children and youth at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre outside Darwin. A subsequent royal commission concluded that those detained at the centre had been subject to extreme violence. The Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory recommended the immediate closure of Don Dale, after concluding that: youth detention centres were not fit for accommodating, let alone rehabilitating, children and young people; children were subject to verbal abuse, physical control and humiliation, including being denied access to basic human needs such as water, food and the use of toilets; and children were dared or bribed to carry out degrading and humiliating acts, or to commit acts of violence on each other.

In 2023, we are witnessing another “crisis” in the Northern Territory: alcohol abuse and a related “crime spree” in and around Alice Springs. Alcohol bans and restrictions are again in place, largely supported by the Aboriginal community. It is alarming, although not surprising, that Aboriginal youth have once more become the target of both political and media attention, with some of the loudest voices calling for action in the form of a tougher law-and-order approach to the problem. Considering the government’s refusal to address the royal commission’s key recommendations, and the fact that Don Dale remains open to this day, it is disheartening to consider that a perceived solution to a social and economic problem, underpinned by systemic disadvantage and racism, is to lock more kids away in torturous conditions.

Alexis Wright’s writing, her fiction and nonfiction, is concerned with the chains of colonisation and its destructive impact on people and non-human species, and attempts by Aboriginal nations to protect Country. Each word, each sentence and image created by Wright addresses what she has described as “the apocalyptic realities of two and a half centuries of continual invasion”. Her counter-interventions provide an insight into Aboriginal self-determination in an applied manner, being on and immersed in Country. Utilising her “own sovereignty of mind [and] sovereignty of imagination”, Wright has created a body of work without peer.

At times, her words explode from the page, eager to take on the battle for sovereignty. Forms of Aboriginal realism, both magical and deeply political, are evident in the novels Carpentaria and The Swan Book. Both books are conversations between Wright and her Ancestors, in defence of people and Country. They range over time and a place so vast that a conventional linear structure in her novels would fail to tell the story that must be heard. In her nonfiction essays, Wright guides us through landscapes where literature, history, identity and the politics of colonial occupation meet. These are big ideas that face off against one another to produce an understanding of where we have come from and consider our ability to move forward with greater investment in each other and the planet.

In Tracker, based on the life of eastern Arrernte man Tracker Tilmouth, Wright utilises what she has referred to as a “consensus” model of storytelling, a structural and democratic approach she also used in Grog War. The first sentence of Tracker poses another Wright question. “How do you tell an impossible story,” she asks, “one that might be almost too big to contain in a single book?” Her response was to engage with 53 witnesses to a life, people who had known Tracker Tilmouth in some capacity. Their voices complement each other, and at times compete, resulting in a fractured choir singing a song of courage and beauty.

Wright’s questions to herself and readers provoke us to engage. She wants us to become accountable for ourselves, to respond to and share stories with others. She wants us to understand that the work of mutual respect requires effort. Some of her own writing could appear, initially at least, impossible to deliver (and would be in less capable hands). Imagine pitching Carpentaria or The Swan Book to a publisher. (The support of Ivor Indyk and Giramondo Publishing must be given due credit here.) Her vision is remarkable, as is her tenacity. Wright carries the burden of self-doubt and the courage of determination in equal measure, and the result produces wonder.

I first interviewed Alexis Wright at the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2007, a few months after her Miles Franklin award for Carpentaria. I knew of and respected Wright without enjoying the close friendship we have now shared for many years. Alexis is a warm and generous person. She is often shy in public and would prefer to sit around a kitchen table having a yarn with friends than appearing at festivals and be expected to perform. When I called to ask her permission to write this essay, she was happy for me to do so, but wasn’t so keen to be formally interviewed, explaining that all she has to say is present in her published work.

In the days before the 2007 interview, I did my research and prepared for the hour scheduled. It was a wonderful conversation, guided by Alexis’s thoughtfulness. More than a decade later I would interview the great Archie Roach and be reminded of Alexis’s responses to my gentle probing years earlier. Both artists epitomise the concept of sovereign thinking. In both interviews my opening question was followed by a lengthy pause. The room crackled with energy as the audience waited for a response.

On both occasions I panicked a little, worrying that the question I’d posed had been so clumsily framed that neither Roach nor Wright had any idea of what I was saying. When their responses did come, they were delivered with thought and care, conviction and wisdom. The process was repeated with each subsequent question, and I quickly realised I was engaged in a conversation with artists who took themselves and the audiences seriously. At the end of both interviews, I understood we had shared a privileged hour. Most of us, at least.

During the interview with Wright, she spoke with tremendous respect for the Aboriginal writers who had come before her, and, importantly, the Elders and Ancestors of the Waanyi nation, storytellers who inform Wright’s sense of who she is as an Aboriginal woman. Near the session’s conclusion, we opened the floor to questions. Often, at festival events, an invitation to ask a question creates an awkward moment of silence between the audience and writer. Few people have the courage to ask a first question. When an Aboriginal writer is presenting at a festival, and a hand immediately shoots up, and the would-be questioner stands to attention in preparation, the warning bells ring loud. The question put to Alexis that afternoon was: “But have you read any non-Aboriginal writers?”

Wright has since written about the impact on her work by writers including the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, who taught her about the fluidity of narrative structure, and that “all times are important … no time has been resolved”. James Baldwin’s words have spoken to Wright many times, reinforcing her lived experience, that “history is literally present in all that we do”. And from Edward Said, Wright is reminded that she is entitled to her autonomy as both a writer and Waanyi woman. For Said and Wright both, “one ought to be able to say somewhere and at length, I am not this ‘we’, and what ‘you’ do, you do not do in my name”.

In her answer to the question about her reading history, Wright spoke eloquently about the many writers and artists who have influenced her thinking and work. The list is as long as it is powerful and includes (in addition to those mentioned above) Stephen Muecke, W.G. Sebald, Mary Graham, Seamus Heaney, Chi Zijian, George Orwell, Toni Morrison, Pablo Neruda, Joni Mitchell, Vernon Ah Kee and Rebecca Solnit. She then asked a question in return: “Is that enough for you?”

The breadth of Wright’s reading has been a major influence on other Aboriginal writers, none more so than Kim Scott, a two-time winner of the Miles Franklin, for Benang in 2000 and That Deadman Dance in 2011. In response to correspondence from me, Scott says he is drawn to Wright’s generous spirit, sharing what she has learnt as a reader with other Aboriginal writers, whether they have written only a few lines on a scrap of paper or published major works. “I love hearing her cite Camus and Fanon and others,” he writes, “and thus giving me the opportunity to reflect on Indigenous cosmopolitanism. Hers specifically.”

An ever-present, and perhaps unanswerable, question sits with Alexis Wright: “How should I be an Aboriginal writer?” The question resonates with those of us who have been influenced by her. Wright accepts that her novels are cast by some as “difficult”. She makes no apology for the style and structure of her work, noting that she doesn’t write for the “tourist reader, someone easily satisfied by a cheap day out”. For younger and emerging Aboriginal writers, such writing is accepted as an offering. For Ellen van Neerven, for example, Wright’s gift is the vibrance created by a formidable “form-master and game-changer”. The multi-disciplined award-winning Aboriginal writer from Queensland tells me: “For those of a new generation of Blak writers (myself included), her work – in all its uncontainable blood and beauty – gives me permission to go big and bold”.

Going big and bold is a lesson learnt from Wright’s approach to writing; the brave act of what she senses as the “taking dangerous risks” with her writing. Her approach had created periods of self-doubt, a fear that she may not get the story right, that perhaps (although I have not heard her say so) she might fail both her Country and the Ancestors who have guided her throughout her life. Again, Kim Scott respects her candour and generosity in this regard, writing: “my heart moves towards hers whenever she talks of the difficulty and the slow process of her writing. The struggle of it. I’m grateful she shares this.” To fully appreciate Wright’s vision for her writing, and the effort that comes with it, we only need read her words from Sydney Review of Books a few years ago:

I set higher challenges for each book I write, and I set aside a large space in my mind to create imaginary storytelling worlds … The process of creating epic stories feels as though I am working in a form of alchemy – perhaps these are the spirits of country working all the time in the mind of a storyteller, to bring an invisible or imaginary world to life.

Alexis Wright’s work is immersed in Country. Whether considering the legal and cultural concepts of land rights or the ecological protection of land, she is concerned with stories that address the complexities of sovereign authority, and she nudges us yet again with a question vital to Indigenous people across the planet: “Who owns the map of the world?” Her responses – not answers – can be found in her words. Both Carpentaria and The Swan Book construct narrative maps drawn by Aboriginal characters. The custodians of these stories are our Ancestors, from the past and those of the future. When we speak of future Ancestors and the responsibility of protecting Country, consciously or not, we are speaking of ourselves. Wright is acutely aware of this. The rainbow serpent of the gulf country in northern Australia that informs Carpentaria is both a topographic and cosmological reality. Without the rainbow serpent, the people of the Waanyi nation would not exist. And without the stories of the map passed down by Ancestors there would be no rainbow serpent. Nor would there be a future.

Wright’s respect for her Ancestors as the knowledge-holders of Country has nurtured her spiritual growth throughout her life. It becomes self-evident in the published works, that her lifelong learning has increasingly guided the writing. For Wright, her own Ancestors, and those of other Aboriginal nations, live in a parallel universe, an Aboriginal place where, as the scholar Wade Davis put it, “the ordinary laws of time, space and motion do not apply, where past, future and present merge into one”. The literary critic Geordie Williamson, a long-time admirer of Wright, has described her approach to writing as a “big-sky style”, a wonderfully poetic description.

The big sky she works with requires dedication and work from readers. Wright asks: “are we not curious to know something about the deeply rooted beliefs of this country and why they were kept in place over many thousands of years?” In her fiction, she attends to her own curiosity, conversing with Ancestors, listening to them, and through the act of reciprocity she then tells stories in return, to those she regards as the master storytellers. Carpentaria, The Swan Book and her new novel, Praiseworthy, are acts of exchange, where the shared stories of Waanyi life, created and received, merge.

The so-called difficulty of Wright’s novels is not an issue of style alone. She has spoken about the beginning, middle and end approach to writing a novel being a “foreign concept” to her. For Wright, not only do the forces of “ecology, cosmology, theology, social morality, art, time and so on” coexist, they speak with each other, sometimes politely and on other occasions raucously, causing disruption. She is not afraid of partisanship. Where there is chaos within the pages of a Wright novel, it is purposeful. Speaking about the writing of Praiseworthy, much of it done during the eerie period of Melbourne’s COVID lockdowns, Wright has described the years spent with both the characters and the story, in notebooks, in her mind and with her body. She reflects on a future story. She wrestles with it, feels occasionally anxious about the story, and then allows it to speak, to voice its autonomy.

Working in the area of climate justice and Indigenous knowledge systems, Aboriginal people often warn of a problem that arises when Western science, intellectuals or activists “cherry-pick” our knowledge. Ideas that are fit for purpose are co-opted, whereas holistic systems of interconnected cultural knowledge underpinning all aspects of life, both human and non-human species, are too often ignored. The complexity of Wright’s fiction is located within this fracture. It is in the space of cohabitation and interconnectedness that work needs to be done by a reader of her fiction. Whether her writing is concerned with ecological vandalism, human rights, lore or ancestral authority, our job as readers is to untangle what Wright speaks of as the “invasive vines of colonialism” that have literally and figuratively attempted to choke informative thinking itself.

Entering the world of Wright’s fiction is to experience turmoil, courage and defiance in the face of oppression. Being welcomed into her Country is also to experience beauty. The land, she wrote in Meanjin in 2020, is a self-determining force, choreographing its own story:

The land can be stilled with great atmospheric quietness while the landscape dances dreamlike in mirages, or the stillness is moved with light breezes rattling the songs of the dry grasses while brolgas dance and call their story of country … Heat sizzles with the voices of ancestral spirits before the skies grow heavy with massive storm clouds and mighty thunderstorms scream through the atmosphere …

Carpentaria expressed a need in Wright to “affirm our existence on our terms”, while The Swan Book is an example of “survival literature”, on behalf of the Waanyi nation and Country. While her writing and intellectual drive is grounded on Country, Wright is also writing for, and creating with, the planet. In the past she has reflected, perhaps with some anxiety, that “the whole world had to be collectively asking, what was the fate of the world?” She not only wants to challenge us with her unique voice, to “build a visionary literature of our times”, Wright also wants us, as members of a global community, to forge a future together that privileges ecological knowledge and care.

In recognition of her place in a wider context, in both a geographic and spiritual sense, has been guided by a global literature throughout her career. She has spoken with deep respect for the Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, and his “digging” pen, burrowing into Irish history and culture. Her extensive range as a reader is driven by an insatiable appetite, of intellect and curiosity, “to know people far away from us and hear their stories”. She wants to know if those who have come here from elsewhere are accompanied by their ancestors (I know of no other writer who has asked this question). Once contemplated, such a question cannot be forgotten.

Wright has a passionate interest in people who, having come from faraway places, find themselves on Aboriginal Country, be they willing migrants or desperate refugees in need of sanctuary. Writing in Meanjin in 2018, she considered what migrant communities bring with them to Aboriginal Country, what must be left behind, and the impact of loss:

I have also thought about the replanting of old roots formed elsewhere, and about those who see themselves as being rootless, being severed from ancient memories, illiterate and immune to the deeply thought-through ancient story, and belonging only to the present time, or to the future.

Geordie Williamson, paying the ultimate compliment, concluded an essay introducing the 25th anniversary of the publication of Wright’s 1997 novel, Plains of Promise, with the following words: “If a place belongs to those who write with fiercest affection for it, all of us now dwell in Wright’s country.” I would ask that we pause on this comment and consider Williamson’s insight.

Alexis Wright is an Aboriginal woman. From January 26, 1788 until this day – the moment that you read these words – no group of people on this continent have suffered greater human rights abuses than Aboriginal women. Their country has been vandalised and stolen, as have their loved ones. Every conceivable barrier – be it the gun, a prison cell, a racist education system, men – has attempted to silence them. To understand the failures of systems of racism and abuse is to know courage and tenacity. Alexis Wright is as strong as any person I know. Never mistake her “auntiness” as a sign that she’s a pushover, for when push comes to shove and she feels a need to defend her people and Country, Wright is a ferocious warrior. She is also loving and generous, and we will always need her.

During the writing of this essay, the new Alexis Wright novel, Praiseworthy, arrived in my letterbox. It is an “advance reading copy – not for quotation”. While obeying that instruction, let me tell you that the novel is big – more than 700 pages, full of big ideas. I know that Alexis faced challenges while writing it, external to the rigour of producing another epic work, which it truly is. Responses to the COVID outbreak messed with most of us, including the tight ring of Victoria’s 5-kilometre “free” zone and the imposition of a curfew (both of which I accept were necessary at the time). Many writers I know have commented that they became creatively immobilised during lockdown. Wright carried Praiseworthy around with her during this period, growing the story, nurturing it and, eventually, putting the words to paper.

As with Carpentaria and The Swan Book, this new novel deals with the potential of an apocalyptic collapse. The Ancestors of contemporary Aboriginal people are key to a story that also addresses issues of sovereignty, colonial violence and the devastation caused by global climate change. In addition, Praiseworthy is a tale of migrations and family connections elsewhere. And it is a story about donkeys. For those seeking the ubiquitous “tourist read”, Praiseworthy may not be for you. Aboriginal life is complex. As is colonial violence and the relentless attempts, throughout a history of occupation, to extinguish Aboriginal culture. A true voice is a multifaceted and complex instrument. Alexis Wright plays her own with virtuosity.

Tony Birch

Tony Birch is a Melbourne-based writer and historian.

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