Swallow the Air


Tara June Winch

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Swallow the Air can help.

Aboriginal Identity Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon
Displacement Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Substance Abuse Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Swallow the Air, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Aboriginal Identity Theme Icon

Swallow the Air’s protagonist, May Gibson, is a descendant of the Wiradjuri Aboriginals, who have lived in Australia for millennia. However, several centuries of colonial rule has attacked and suppressed Aboriginal culture, which means that May’s heritage is largely a mystery to her. For May, the allure of traditional Aboriginal culture contrasts starkly with the marginalization of Aborigines by the dominant Anglo-Australian society. To cope with her disheartening reality, May dreams of an intact and powerful Aboriginal society to which she can one day return. This dream fuels her quest to find her remaining family members, only to be shattered when she discovers that the society of her imagination doesn’t exist, and her relatives live in housing projects much like the one in which she grew up. While this experience shows May that lost Aboriginal cultures can’t ever be fully restored, it also leads her to define herself in terms of her identity as an Aborigine, and commit to protecting the remains of her heritage.

In order to demonstrate the precarious and endangered state of Aboriginal culture, the novel associates that culture with nature, while setting the novel in an overdeveloped and hostile urban landscape. Mum, who gives May all her knowledge of Aboriginal culture through stories, always encourages May and Billy to go fishing and immerse themselves in the little nature that exists around their housing project. May’s mother commits suicide under her beloved jacaranda tree; her choice to die in a natural setting reflects her affinity for her Aboriginal heritage.

In contrast, the narrative is located in bleak urban housing projects, which are associated with threats to Aboriginal identity. Mum grew up in a complex filled with women whose children had been taken away from them by the government in an effort to prevent an Aboriginal upbringing and make them more “Australian.” In an important incident, May walks down the bike path of her own development, reminiscing that it used to be connected to a beach where she went fishing as a child. Now, she’s pursued and raped by a white Australian man, who says he’s assaulting her to “show ya where ya don’t belong dumb black bitch.” This horrifying moment emblematizes the dichotomy between a highly positive Aboriginal identity connected to nature and the suppression and hatred of Aboriginal identity in modern Australian society.

While living in the slums of Sydney, May and her friend Johnny dream of an intact Aboriginal society to which they can eventually return. While this dream helps them cope with the grim realities of their lives, it ultimately heightens the sense of tragedy when May discovers that her culture, in its original form, has been annihilated and can’t be recreated. May describes these daydreams as though they’re a present reality, saying that “we scramble up the palms […] we run down to the rocky beaches and cast off our canoe […] we visit other islands and trade food and sing songs.” May combats the degradation of her people by imagining an alternative universe in which their proud way of life still exists—and even thrives—and their identity is embraced instead of suppressed.

Of course, these fantasies prove illusory when May actually tries to pursue them. When May returns to the ancient lands of the Wiradjuri tribe, instead of a big family to give her a “feed” (May’s word for a hearty meal, usually shared with family or friends) May finds a dilapidated public housing project similar to her own. Her one living cousin, Percy, has actively distanced himself from his Aboriginal identity in order to fit in among the Anglo-Australian middle class. At first mocking May’s desire to hear “stories,” or learn about her heritage, May’s cousin later tells her more seriously that “there is a big missing hole between this place and the place you’re looking for.” By informing May that the place she’s searching for is “gone,” Percy suggests that it’s impossible to restore Aboriginal culture to its former state after centuries of oppression.

While this realization is crushing for May, it ultimately causes her to identify even more strongly as Aboriginal, and reaffirms her commitment to safeguarding her heritage. Her cousin proves a disappointment, but May meets Aboriginal elders who increase her knowledge of Aboriginal culture and show her that, even in a modern world where this culture is endangered and severely undervalued, her identity can still be a source of personal pride and strength. Soon after leaving her cousin’s house, May recalls the words of an old woman named Issy, and realizes that “these tears are not only my own. They belong to the whales, to Joyce; they belong to Charlie, to Cary, to Johnny, to Issy…” Even though May hasn’t found the family she longed for, she has acquired a strong sense of connectedness to her culture. May puts this newfound commitment to her heritage into practice by returning to her family and refusing to let it disintegrate, even in the face of eviction. By fighting for cohesion and continuity, she’s working at a microcosmic level to restore the damage that centuries of colonial rule have inflicted on Australian Aborigines.

The novel is hopeful about the prospects of Aboriginal culture, but only cautiously so. At the novel’s end, May notices an excavator starting up outside Aunty’s house and says it’s “digging up our people.” Her remark shows that development, and the oppression associated with it, is still a lurking menace; yet her use of the plural “our” shows that she’s acquired a sense of cultural identity and strength that was lacking at the novel’s outset.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…

Aboriginal Identity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Aboriginal Identity appears in each chapter of Swallow the Air. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
chapter length:
Get the entire Swallow the Air LitChart as a printable PDF.
Swallow the Air PDF

Aboriginal Identity Quotes in Swallow the Air

Below you will find the important quotes in Swallow the Air related to the theme of Aboriginal Identity.
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:
4. My Bleeding Palm Quotes

Paradise Parade, built over the old Paradise Abattoir, bore two long rows of housing commission flats, unregistered cars, busted prams and echoes of broken dreams, all crammed into our own special section of Woonona Beach. Paradise, ha!

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker)
Related Symbols: Housing Projects
Page Number: 33
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:
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

My old man isn’t though; his family are from the First Fleet and everything. Rich folk they were, fancy folk from England.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Dad, Pete
Page Number: 82
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:

She told me about the history of Redfern, about the housing corporation stealing everyone’s money and homes, about how it used to be a real strong community. “And now,” she says shaking her head, “it’s the young fellas taking our money as well and the drugs stealing our community.”

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Joyce / The Old Woman (speaker)
Related Symbols: Housing Projects
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

“May, you got people that you gotta find, things you gotta learn. You will learn them ere, but I don’t want you to. Luck at Justine, smack the only thing teachin her now!”

Related Characters: Joyce / The Old Woman (speaker), May Gibson, Justine
Related Symbols: Housing Projects
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:
10. Chocolate Quotes

He’d never tell you about Africa, and I never asked. It was his secret—his past, that someday, revisited, would become his home again. He never asked me where I was from either—it was an unspoken understanding.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Charlie
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:
11. Wantok Quotes

He takes my hand like always and we scramble up the palms and hack down coconuts with a machete, we run down to the rocky beaches and cast off our canoe, we fish all day, following the reefs and tides and winds […] We rest in the houses as warm tropical storms light up the bruised sky.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Johnny
Page Number: 121
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:
14. Just Dust Quotes

Issy says they don’t understand that just because you can’t see something, don’t mean it’s not there. She says that under the earth, the land we stand on, under all this is water. She says that our people are born from quartz crystal, hard water. We are powerful people, strong people.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Issy
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:
18. Country Quotes

There is a big missing hole between this place and the place you’re looking for. That place, that people, that something you’re looking for. It’s gone. It was taken away. We weren’t told, love; we weren’t allowed to be Aboriginal.

Related Characters: Percy Gibson (speaker), May Gibson
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

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:

An excavator starts its smothering engine over the torrent of each barrel. Over the sun. Over the blue. And I wonder, if we stand here, if we stay, if they stop digging up Aunty’s backyard, stop digging up a mother’s memory, stop digging up our people, maybe then, we’ll all stop crying.

Related Characters: May Gibson (speaker), Aunty
Related Symbols: Housing Projects
Page Number: 198
Explanation and Analysis: