Water and bodies of water are present at many important parts of the novel, reminding May of her important but tenuous connection to her Aboriginal identity. During her childhood, she and Billy play constantly in the ocean and explore the beach; a refuge from their chaotic, sometimes abusive home, it provides not only psychological fulfillment but physical sustenance, as they often catch fish for dinner there. May says that she’s not scared of the ocean until she grows up, showing her primeval connection with the water. Issy, an Aboriginal elder, tells May that their tribe, the Wiradjuri, are “people of the river and the lakes.” Mum, who transmits the little knowledge of Aboriginal culture May possesses, often tells stories about the lake where the tribe used to live and “where all Wiradjuri would stop to drink.” In their stories, bodies of water are manifestations of the individual’s connection both to tribal culture and to nature itself.
However, many of these bodies of water are endangered or becoming inaccessible to their Aboriginal inhabitants. The lake that Mum spoke about is threatened by mining operations when May visits it, and although May’s neighborhood is close to the beach, she predicts that it will soon be developed into expensive real estate and its occupants pushed somewhere else. Throughout the novel, Aboriginal characters’ spiritual affinity for water contrasts with their imminent or remembered loss of the water. Thus, water symbolizes not only the beauty and power of traditional Aboriginal culture but the extent to which that culture is undervalued and destroyed in the dominant Anglo-Australian society.
Water Quotes in Swallow the Air
Billy and me were like shadows; we could merge into the walls without being noticed. We’d move on the same tides; when we were laughing we couldn’t stop each other, when we were talking neither of us could get a word in, when we were fishing, being sad, or being silent, we were both empty cups.
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.
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.
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.
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.