Swallow the Air

Swallow the Air Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Tara June Winch's Swallow the Air. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Tara June Winch

Born in Wollongong (where parts of Swallow the Air are set) in 1983, Tara June Winch is an Australian of European and Aboriginal (Wiradjuri) descent. After dropping out of high school Winch hitchhiked through Australia and traveled to India before returning to attend the University of Wollongong. Swallow the Air, her first book, won the David Unaipon Award, which honors emerging indigenous writers. More than ten years later, in 2016, she published her second book, a collection of short stories called After the Carnage. Besides writing, Winch is an activist for indigenous rights and works for Australia’s Indigenous Literacy Project. She currently lives in the countryside outside Paris with her husband and daughter.
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Historical Context of Swallow the Air

Traveling by boat from Southeast Asia, the first indigenous Australians arrived in the continent between 30,000 and 60,000 BCE. When James Cook, an English explorer, arrived in 1770, hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal Australians lived in settled and nomadic communities; however, Cook “claimed” the continent for the United Kingdom and a colonial government soon took hold. British settlers appropriated arable land and water resources, making it difficult for indigenous communities to survive; they were further decimated by infectious and venereal disease, which the settlers brought with them. The colonists also introduced alcohol and tobacco, creating a substance abuse problem that persists today. Since its inception, the Australian government has often been hostile to Aboriginal Australians and actively suppressed their traditional culture, which it considered detrimental to white Australian society. Between 1900 and 1970, approximately 100,000 Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in government institutions, which attempted to inculcate Anglo-Australian values and prevented children from speaking their own languages or having contact with their families. Currently, the Aboriginal population experiences high rates of suicide (especially among children), incarceration, and domestic violence, “tracking near the bottom in almost every economic and social indicator,” according to Reuters.

Other Books Related to Swallow the Air

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a number of prominent Australian Aboriginal writers have emerged, whose works document the historical mistreatment of the population and denounce the dire consequences of colonization Aborigines still experience today. Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book conjures a dystopian future in which indigenous communities live under a hostile government in a wasteland fundamentally damaged by climate change. Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance returns to the past to reimagine the first interactions between the Noongar people and British colonists. Doris Pilkington’s Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, which chronicles the lives of three mixed-race girls who are taken from their families by the government, has become a widely-known classic. The chronology and concerns of Aboriginal and Native American literature track similarly, as the Native American population faced a comparable pattern of colonization and faces similar problems today. Like Swallow the Air, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony meditates on the relationship between native people and the society that marginalizes and mistreats them.
Key Facts about Swallow the Air
  • Full Title: Swallow the Air
  • When Written: 2003
  • Where Written: Australia and France
  • When Published: 2003
  • Literary Period: Contemporary Australian Literature
  • Genre: Novel
  • Setting: Aboriginal communities in northern and eastern Australia
  • Climax: May’s journey to find the remains of her tribe culminates in the realization that it has disintegrated and no longer occupies its traditional lands.
  • Antagonist: Racism and colonialism, the rapist
  • Point of View: First person limited

Extra Credit for Swallow the Air

Young Mother. Winch became a single mother at age 21 but insists she wasn’t daunted by the challenge, even when she and her daughter immigrated to Paris. The city has a “generosity of spirit,” Winch says, which made it easy to write and parent there.

Art follows life. While there are over 500 different tribes, or “nations,” of Australian Aborigines, Swallow the Air’s protagonist May Gibson shares her creator’s Wiradjuri heritage.