How far would Aboriginal people go to survive? What’s their future?

As the world falters, threatening native ecosystems and Indigenous lifeways, acclaimed Australian Aboriginal author ALEXIS WRIGHT turns inward to the dwelling place of ancestral story. From here, she considers how her ancient culture has responded to ongoing destruction—and how to bear witness to the creation of a post-apocalyptic world

A BUDDHIST MONK and Zen poet named Huineng once wrote a gatha, or poem, over a thousand years ago. The poem, “There Was No Tree to the Bodhi,” was essentially about how the purity of enlightenment would not be corrupted by the dust particles of life. The four-line poem ends by asking, “Where then was the dust?”1

The essential truths of my people, held within our land and within the knowledge of country, have endured great storms of dust—cultural oppression, drought, fires. As I was thinking about this at the turn of the century, two questions arose: How far would we as Aboriginal people go to survive? What is the future of the planet?

Seeking answers to these questions, I ended up writing The Swan Book, a novel that imagines an apocalyptic future and shows how Aboriginal people are tied through globalization to the inequalities and suffering experienced by millions of others across the planet. I could not foresee the global pandemic emergency, nor how it would link all of humanity in a global tragedy and an urgent worldwide fight for our survival, but I was drawn to write about our struggle in the worst conditions.

The book is also about swans. I felt a great sense of comfort in being able to lose myself in the world of swans while working on this book. I did this in a kind of obsessive way, through contemplating how their universally felt beauty shone through the ages in poetry and epic stories. I felt the joy and wonder of their existence by imagining being in their presence during times of extreme drought, then rain, and in different parts of the world, while also feeling the sadness of how their fate has become tied to ours amid the growing emergency of man-made climate change.

The swan offers an image of something incorruptible amid the dust. While in their presence, metaphorically speaking, I tried to capture the beauty dancing in us still, even in the worst of times, and I began imagining stories like this:

Its journey took the black swan over the place where hungry warrki dingoes, foxes and dara kurrijbi buju wild dogs had dug out shelters away from the dust, and lay in overcrowded burrows in the soil; and in the grasses, up in the rooftops, in the forests of dead trees, all the fine and fancy birds that had once lived in stories of marsh country, migrating swallows and plains-dancing brolgas, were busy shelving the passing years into a lacy webbed labyrinth of mud-caked stickling nests brimmed by knickknacks, and waves of flimsy old plastic threads dancing the wind’s crazy dance with their faded partners of silvery-white lolly cellophane, that crowded the shores of the overused swamp.

When The Swan Book was published in 2013, the Australian literary critic Geordie Williamson described the book as a curse poem, comparing it to Ibis, a poem that Ovid composed in exile—a period during which he considered himself to be buried alive and created poetry that reeked of sadness, isolation, pride, self-pity, and anger. Williamson felt that my novel, like Ibis, emerges from the experience of exile: “in this case, the physical displacement and inward migration of Indigenous Australians since European arrival in 1788.”

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