Swallow the Air

by

Tara June Winch

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Water Symbol Icon

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

The Swallow the Air quotes below all refer to the symbol of Water. 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.
6. Leaving Paradise Quotes

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.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Billy Gibson
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 59
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:
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

Water Symbol Timeline in Swallow the Air

The timeline below shows where the symbol Water 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
...brother, Billy, out of ice cream boxes, and sends them to go fishing in the ocean. She reminds them to go to Aunty’s house when it gets dark, and tells them... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...their bikes on the dunes and run to the point, where they can see the water and the surfers. Last summer May saw a turtle from the same spot. It reminded... (full context)
3. Cloud Busting
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...They collect many different kinds of shells, dance in the waves, and dive in the water. They’re too young to be afraid of the ocean, and they both feel perfectly at... (full context)
4. My Bleeding Palm
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
...connects May to the expensive real estate on the other side of the beach. The ocean spray flies in her face and makes her feel calm. From behind a tree, May... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
The man finds May and drops the bottle he’s carrying. She runs toward the water but trips and falls. The man puts his knife against her throat. Telling her that... (full context)
8. Territory
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
...says is a big town with “nice people and good pubs.” As they leave the ocean behind, May feels that she can breathe freely and finally stop thinking about the overdose... (full context)
13. Mapping Waterglass
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
...man in a pickup truck named 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... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
...a place to stay. May thanks him but says she wants to stay by the water; she’s full of “daydreams of Windradyne.” (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
...not even “the black fellas out there at the blockade.” May asks why there’s no water in the lake, and Gary laughs, saying it’s been dry since he was a child. (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
May gets out 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... (full context)
14. Just Dust
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
At the lake, May meets an old woman named Issy, who lives near the lake and has dedicated... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Issy tells May that the lake “works like a heart, pumping its lifeblood from under the skin.” Everything is part of... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
...if she wants to find her family, the other Gibsons, she should follow the Lachlan river to Eubalong. May asks her about the meaning of her drawings, but she cryptically says... (full context)
15. Cocoon
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...and cooked the fish on the fire pit. Billy said he was happy on the ocean, and May felt that they shared his happiness. (full context)
16. Bila Snake
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
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... (full context)
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...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,... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
...reaches the big sign Issy told her about and knows it’s time to leave the river and follow the highway. (full context)
17. Mission
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
...To May, they look like “fancy concentration camps.” In the distance she can see a river tributary that’s almost dried up; instead, water tanks supply water to the settlement. (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
...and only “bad spirits” remain here. He says that the bad spirits live by the river and that’s why no one goes there anymore. (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
...the elderly woman what she’s looking for, Betty says the only remaining Gibsons live at Lake Cargelligo . Betty’s daughter, Jo, can drive May there. Soon, May is speeding away from the... (full context)
18. Country
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...drawing; now, she knows that it illustrated the lack of boundaries between the land, the water, and the people that inhabit it. For May, “this land is belonging, all of it... (full context)
20. Home
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
When May arrives at her neighborhood the tide is coming in. She walks to the water and when she feels the salt on her shins, she knows she’s truly home, feeling... (full context)
Displacement Theme Icon
...she’s made it here. Moreover, she knows that she’ll always be at home wherever there’s water—after all, she, Aunty, Mum, and Billy are all of the Wiradjuri, or “hard water” people.... (full context)
Family Theme Icon
...died, she and Billy both became lost. It was as if they were in the ocean and “forgot to come up for mouthfuls of air,” losing trust in the thing that... (full context)
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
May looks outside at the gulls that are whirling over the water. The wind has changed and for a moment the ocean appears clear. May can see... (full context)