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.
Aboriginal Identity ThemeTracker
Aboriginal Identity Quotes in Swallow the Air
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!
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.
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.
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.”
“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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.