Swallow the Air

by

Tara June Winch

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Swallow the Air: 11. Wantok Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In the midst of all her worries, when May spends time with Johnny, she can escape to daydreams of beautiful beaches where they can pick fruit and live off the land. Even when they’re sitting in the park on the Block, they have “escaped with each other.” Together, they often explore the city while Johnny tells her about Waiben (one of the Torres Strait Islands). He’s never been there, but it’s “his real home, where his father lives.” Johnny wanted to return there to be “initiated,” but Justine was in jail so they couldn’t go.
Although their lives are physically restricted, May and Johnny experience freedom and well-being by mentally exploring their Aboriginal heritage. In doing so, they’re repeating a behavior they’ve both seen modeled by their elders—cultivating knowledge and strength through storytelling. However, it’s notable that Johnny’s optimism about life on the Torres Straits corresponds with the harshness of real life, in which his mother is incarcerated.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
When May first arrived at Joyce’s house, Johnny tried to flirt with her, informing her one day that she was his girlfriend. May rejects him flatly, telling him that “all men are bastards.” Now, they’re good friends.
May’s childhood has taught her that the only way to preserve freedom and even sanity is to reject romance altogether. While this may not be an entirely correct assumption, her determination to resist the relationships that Mum and Aunty endured is a sign of strength.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Johnny tells May all the stories about the Torres Strait he’s heard from visiting uncles. There, he says, people live on stilted houses next to mango trees. In their imagination, he and May fish all day in canoes before singing and dancing at night and sleeping in cabins under tropical storms. In turn, May tells Johnny about “Mum’s country” and the lake that was once her tribe’s home. In May’s stories, they “become snakes, silting through the swampy streams, creating mouths and rivers.”
It’s clear that such an idyllic lifestyle can’t actually exist—otherwise Aboriginal people wouldn’t migrate to the dismally poor cities. May and Johnny’s fantasies are both simple—a wholesome life in connection with nature—and futile, since Anglo-Australian society has all but eradicated that way of life. This contrast makes their daydreaming especially poignant.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Related Quotes
When Johnny and May return to Joyce’s house after these long talks, they feel immune to the grim poverty of the Block because “anytime we can leave in our minds.” They can’t quite imagine the families that are waiting for them in the places they imagine, but they promise that one day they will “go to our homelands for our people.” Johnny tells May that she is his wantok, or “black girl ally,” and May says he reminds her of Billy.
May and Johnny conjure up large extended families in order to compensate for the actual dysfunction of their family lives. This tactic reflects both their disillusionment with their parents and their reluctance to give up on the possibility that an intact and stable family structure can exist. However, as May’s comparison of Johnny to Billy shows, they’ve already started to develop that structure though their friendship.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
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