Swallow the Air

by

Tara June Winch

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Swallow the Air: 9. The Block Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
May sits aimlessly in a park in Sydney, imagining she’s in “a castle where I wait for a carriage made of baked pumpkin,” although she actually has nowhere to go. After the rodeo, she hitchhiked with some backpackers, still revisiting the bloody fights in her head. She ended up in Sydney and made her way through the chaotic streets until she stumbled upon Belmore Park. It has a gazebo where she can sleep, just like a castle—except that the castles she sees on TV aren’t populated by drunks or visited by the police.
May’s ironic comment about her life being part of a fairy tale reflects the contrast between the city’s veneer of sophistication and excitement, and the squalid and dangerous underbelly in which the impoverished exist. May is becoming more and more conscious of the large discrepancy between the way her society presents itself and the way it behaves towards people like her.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
One day, an old woman walking through the park sees May and coaxes her out of the gazebo. She tells May not to be ashamed of being homeless, and invites her to come home to her house and eat. May, who hasn’t eaten since a meal in a soup kitchen the day before, agrees.
In times of danger or despair, it’s often a generous individual who steps in to help May. While this pattern demonstrates faith in human empathy, it also points out the lack of social structures to aid the poor and marginalized.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
In the train station, May washes her face and looks at herself in the mirror. The old woman’s kindly reassurance that “you got family in the city too girl” makes her think of the hostility with which others have treated her, like the rapist on the beach. When May looks at her face in the mirror, she doesn’t see the “different shades—black, and brown, white” that everyone else seems to see. Instead, she feels Aboriginal “because Mum had made me proud to bed.” However, without Mum to hold her up, she no longer feels like she belongs in the world around her.
May is so conditioned to expect mistreatment and prejudice that it’s hard to trust the woman’s apparent kindliness. However, looking in the mirror May is able to reckon with this history for a minute. She puts aside the classifications many people—notably, the rapist—assign to her, and starts to recover the whole and complex identity she had before Mum died.
Themes
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Related Quotes
May and the old woman, who introduces herself as Joyce, take the train to a crowded suburb lined with narrow buildings. Lots of people call out greetings to Joyce, but she keeps walking until they reach her house, which is tiny and decorated with pictures of her large family. She says that everyone in the family comes from different places “but we’re all one mob.” The kitchen window looks onto a dirty shared terrace filled with trash, where they can hear neighboring families yelling or fighting. Joyce calls it the Block.
Home to underprivileged Aboriginal people, the Block is reminiscent of Paradise Parade. Joyce’s remark that everyone comes from different places implies that they were forcibly relocated here or pushed off their original land. The pattern of displacement that May observed in her home town is evidently widespread across the country.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
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May says that life in her own impoverished town is nothing compared with her stint on the Block, which makes her toughened and more mature. She lives with Joyce, Joyce’s daughter Justine, and Justine’s son Johnny. At night, Joyce and other neighborhood women stay up late playing card games and drinking wine, while sirens scream outside. May loves watching them.
Although the Block is a harsher environment than home, she feels part of a family here, instead of isolated and alone. Joyce’s strong sense of community—especially with other women—shows that people can retain dignity, empathy, and joy even amid grim poverty.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
During the day, Joyce tells May about growing up on the Block and working in a nearby factory. She says that the community was strong until the “housing corporation [stole] everyone’s money and homes.” Now, they don’t just face danger from the outside but also from the drugs and violence that tear apart the community from within.
Like Mum, Joyce transmits knowledge of Aboriginal history through storytelling. However, while Mum focused on myths and family stories, Joyce seems very aware that the history of the Block is emblematic of wider trends of government oppression and substance abuse.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Substance Abuse Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Joyce takes care of May, making sure she doesn’t stay out late and has enough food, even finding her a job at a local carwash. Still, May doesn’t like when Joyce pries about her own life and the whereabouts of her family. When May tells her that she’s of Wiradjuri descent, Joyce laughs and says her relatives are probably “out ere in the park drinkin’.” But when May laughs along with her, she becomes serious and tells May to respect her people. Joyce tells May that the Block isn’t a good place to live, and that she is too old to worry about her safety. Joyce’s own daughter Justine is succumbing to drugs, and Joyce believes that May has “sumthin to find” away from the city.
Joyce is very aware of the huge problems—especially regarding substance abuse—that plague the Aboriginal community. At the same time, she doesn’t want May to view those problems as an excuse for disrespect. Joyce shares Mum’s reverence for Aboriginal heritage, but she’s much more practical and able to cope with the world around her. Because of this, she’s able to provide guidance to May and help her grow in a way that Mum couldn’t.
Themes
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Substance Abuse Theme Icon
Related Quotes
May feels that Joyce doesn’t want her in the house anymore and is ashamed. She stands in silence until Joyce goes to bed, and then she goes to her room and cries. Even with all her hardships, this is the first time she’s cried since arriving in Sydney.
Although she’s thick-skinned in most respects, May is acutely sensitive to perceived slights, probably because her family life has always been so precarious.
Themes
Family Theme Icon