Swallow the Air

by

Tara June Winch

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May and Billy’s beloved mother. Mum is a source of traditional Aboriginal stories that delight and inspire her children; she encourages them to explore the beach near their house and cultivate a connection with nature, even though they live in an overdeveloped and impoverished housing project. Her emphasis on the importance of Aboriginal heritage provides the impetus for May’s quest to find her family and tribe. However, Mum is mentally ill and sometimes an unstable caregiver. Even as a child, May notices the sadness that stalks her; she’s unable to stand up to May’s abusive father, and after Dad leaves she becomes increasingly paranoid about the government and “conspiracies.” Eventually, Mum commits suicide, leaving May and Billy in Aunty’s hands. While Mum isn’t alive during any of the novel’s present action, May is dogged by memories of their life together, and Mum’s principles inspire her actions throughout her journey.

Mum Quotes in Swallow the Air

The Swallow the Air quotes below are all either spoken by Mum or refer to Mum. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the University of Queensland Press edition of Swallow the Air published in 2006.
1. Swallow the Air Quotes

I thought about Mum’s pain being freed from her wrists, leaving her body, or what was left […] And I knew it was all right not to forget.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Mum
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:
5. Bushfire Quotes

It is their land, Mum would say, so we have to help look after it for them in exchange for our staying here. Be respectful, she’d say.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Mum
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:
8. Territory Quotes

The screams must have been so deafening, the river of tears so overflowing that the current could only steal her. The flood breaking so high, that she had to leave us behind. We couldn’t swim either.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Mum, Dad
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:
9. The Block Quotes

I didn’t see the color that everyone else saw, some saw different shades—black, and brown, white. I saw me, May Gibson with one eye a little bigger than the other. I felt Aboriginal because Mum had made me proud to be […] but when Mum left, I stopped being Aboriginal.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Mum
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:
12. Painted Dreaming Quotes

The sky showing the journey the waters make, the tracks, the beds balancing liquid from cloud to crevasse. Follow the leatherback turtle through tide, the waterbirds fly between currents. I knew I had to get out of the city, get out of the boxes they put you in.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Mum
Page Number: 129
Explanation and Analysis:
13. Mapping Waterglass Quotes

Mum’s stories would always come back to this place, to the lake, where all Wiradjuri would stop to drink. Footprints of your ancestors, she’d say, one day I’ll take you there.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Mum
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:
18. Country Quotes

This land is belonging, all of it for all of us. This river is that ocean, these clouds are that lake, these tears are not only my own. They belong to the whales, to Joyce […] they belong to the spirits. To people I will never even know. I give them to my mother.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Mum, Joyce / The Old Woman
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:
20. Home Quotes

My mother knows that I am home, at the water I am always home. Aunty and my brother, we are from the same people, we are of the Wiradjuri nation, hard water. We are of the river country, and we have flowed down the rivers to estuaries to oceans.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Mum, Billy Gibson, Aunty
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Swallow the Air LitChart as a printable PDF.
Swallow the Air PDF

Mum Character Timeline in Swallow the Air

The timeline below shows where the character Mum appears in Swallow the Air. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
1. Swallow the Air
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
May remembers the day she realized her mother was “head sick,” or mentally ill. That morning, Mum makes helmets for May and her... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...same spot. It reminded her of Mungi, the “first turtle ever” according to the stories Mum tells. Mungi was a tribesman who suffered a fatal neck injury, but a watching ancestor... (full context)
Family Theme Icon
Substance Abuse Theme Icon
...sit down at the table before she tells them what’s wrong. Finally, she announces that Mum is “gone” and “had to leave us,” sounding unsure of what she’s saying. (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...off the makeshift helmet and thinks about the dead stingray she saw before, and about “Mum’s pain being freed from her wrists.” She feels that her mother has instructed her to... (full context)
3. Cloud Busting
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
When May and Billy get home, they decorate the house with shells and Mum fries any fish they’ve caught. While she cooks, Mum tells them the story of her... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
In 1967, Mum lives with her own mother, Alice, in a dismal housing project. The rest of her... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
When Mum finishes the story, she always cries too. She’s inherited the pots and pans from Alice,... (full context)
5. Bushfire
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
After Mum dies, the summer forest fires intensify and the whole coast is dry and smoky. An... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
...a small clearing. Normally, the clearing is damp and home to many leeches. According to Mum, leeches are prized by the Dtharawahl people, who used to live here, and they have... (full context)
6. Leaving Paradise
Family Theme Icon
Mum once told May that although “no one taught Billy how to fight,” he was tough... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Feeling that her son needed a father figure, Mum found another partner, this one a white man, and gave birth to May a few... (full context)
Family Theme Icon
...a cake and Aunty gives him a flask filled with bourbon. She tells him that Mum would be proud of them both. Billy invites May to see Terminator with him and... (full context)
7. To Run
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Substance Abuse Theme Icon
...blood is spilling down his legs. Then she imagines she’s swimming in the ocean with Mum and neither of them need to breathe. She closes her eyes, and when she opens... (full context)
8. Territory
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...May about her ethnicity, unable to guess by her skin color. May tells him that Mum was Aboriginal, but lies that Dad is descended from “fancy folk from England.” (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
...outside and play and enters the house. Soon, May can hear him yelling and hitting Mum with the very same tools he used to fix the bike. May remembers watching her... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Now, it seems to May that Mum was “a beaten person,” unable to stand up to Dad or even scream at him.... (full context)
9. The Block
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
11. Wantok
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
13. Mapping Waterglass
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
...Gary offers her a ride toward Lake Cowal, the lake she’s always heard about from Mum. He tells her about his pregnant wife and plays Van Morrison tapes; May loves the... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
...of the car and walks to the dusty edge of the lake. All the stories Mum told her centered around this place, “where all Wiradjuri would stop to drink.” The lake... (full context)
15. Cocoon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
In a flashback, May remembers sitting by the fire pit in her backyard and watching Mum pull up in her bike, carrying food. May always loved nights around the fire pit,... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...catch red snapper for dinner. When he finally brought home a big fish one day, Mum was incredibly proud and cooked the fish on the fire pit. Billy said he was... (full context)
16. Bila Snake
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
May remembers that Mum always said that “when we worry […] we should take a walk.” Indeed, walking now... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
18. Country
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
...visit, Percy invites May to sit down and pours her a drink. He asks after Mum and May tells him that she’s dead. Percy says that “all your Gibson family” are... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
...him that she wanted to know about her family and learn more about the stories Mum always told her. (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...Percy relents and, in a kinder voice, tells her that just as May did, her grandmother Alice left home on foot looking for meaning. Thirty years later, she came back to... (full context)
Family Theme Icon
...at table and tells May that he has a “good life” now. He thinks that Mum probably got her stories from books and May too should read books if she wants... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...the Block to May’s own family and ancestors. May wants to “give them to my mother.” (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
...can go fishing and swimming in the Torres Islands, just like the turtle Mungi that Mum always talked about. (full context)
19. The Jacaranda Tree
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
...she is from those times. She tries to use her memories to feel close to Mum, but mostly her mother’s “real face is lost.” (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
One of the memories May always return to is the jacaranda tree in Mum’s backyard, bare for most of the year and then suddenly blooming without warning and “heaving... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...of nature in the middle of so much that is not natural. May remembers that Mum commits suicide in the summer, when the jacaranda tree would have been blooming. She was... (full context)
20. Home
Displacement Theme Icon
...understands the meaning of the word “home” for the first time. She feels that somehow Mum is conscious that she’s made it here. Moreover, she knows that she’ll always be at... (full context)
Family Theme Icon
...she’ll never be able to leave her family behind. It occurs to May that when Mum died, she and Billy both became lost. It was as if they were in the... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...on the kitchen table, all different colors and materials. She remembers visiting the house with Mum every time Aunty bought a new tablecloth. As a young girl, she was always excited... (full context)