Swallow the Air

by

Tara June Winch

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Swallow the Air: 16. Bila Snake Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The morning after speaking with Issy, May stands looking at the sleepy river and its slow-moving, dusty water. It seems to her that dust is everywhere. Issy points along the river and tells May to follow its course for four days, crossing when the water gets shallow. She’ll know she’s reached the right place when she finds a tourist sign. To feed herself, May can catch fish. Issy places her hand on May’s shoulder and tells her she’ll be back soon. Then she turns and walks away. May starts off down the river.
May has always felt happiest when near the ocean; now, the water is an explicit guide, leading her to her mother’s family. Providing her meals along the way, the river also literally sustains her. May’s ability to undertake this journey shows her growing comfort with her Aboriginal identity.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
May remembers that Mum always said that “when we worry […] we should take a walk.” Indeed, walking now helps her soothe the “crying inside me” that she can never resolve elsewhere. Each day as she walks along the river, she wonders “why I’m here? What I’m doing?” Even though she can’t find the answers, she still feels better.
May’s description of her inner turmoil as “crying” matches earlier description of Mum’s declining mental state. However, she’s looking for answers and meaningful life, not spiraling out of control. In doing so, she’s redeeming some of her mother’s deep suffering.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
May catches a carp in her jumper. It’s hard to cook and she wishes to be at her familiar beach, with the shellfish she’s used to eating. The next morning, she reaches the big sign Issy told her about and knows it’s time to leave the river and follow the highway.
Although May finds it difficult, her ability to sustain herself off the land is impressive. It’s a notable contrast to the way she flounders within mainstream society, and shows the extent to which that society is set up to disadvantage people like her.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
May buys a hamburger with her last bit of money. She’s not worried about her next meal, because she knows when she reaches Mum’s family they’ll give her a big dinner. She imagines them telling her the same stories her mother shared years ago, sitting around a fire in head-dresses, “matching my odd looking eyes with theirs.” Finally, she’ll feel that she’s among her own people. She imagines them greeting her in the ancient language they share.
May’s reverence for shared meals—from the iconic bonfires of her childhood to the watermelon she shares with Charlie—all contribute to her expectations of how she’ll be received by her long-lost family. She’s combining the traditions that have marked her lived experience with those she’s only been able to imagine.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
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