Swallow the Air follows Aboriginal protagonist May Gibson as she searches for a sense of belonging after her mother commits suicide. As the novel progresses, May travels from the small town where she grew up to inner-city Sydney and finally rural areas where her tribe, the Wiradjuri, once lived. In every place she visits, she describes the lives of poor members of minority groups living on the margins of Australian society, people who are systematically oppressed and then reviled for their poverty and desperation. The novel creates a strong sense of displacement through its disjointed style and the structure of its narrative, which leaps erratically from place to place. Through these techniques, Winch emphasizes the plight of Australian Aborigines, who are excluded from and oppressed within modern contemporary society, while also noting that this unjust phenomenon isn’t limited to them but applies to other disadvantaged groups as well. Closing with Aunty’s imminent eviction from her house, the novel promises no end to this exclusion and oppression; however, by stressing the Gibson family’s emotional strength in the midst of crisis, the novel suggests that the family will prevail over the constant displacement it experiences.
Frequent use of the literary technique of estrangement—describing commonplace things or events in such a way that they seem strange or even difficult to comprehend—creates a sense of uncertainty and volatility in the narrative. For example, when May witnesses the brutal prizefight at the rodeo, she gives a highly disjointed description of the event, skipping from the “jawbone [that] crunches” to the “bloodied eyeballs [that] throw blank expressions.” She never explicitly names the event she’s watching, leaving the reader to deduce what’s happening. By using estrangement to create a fragmentary and sometimes confusing tone, Winch prevents the reader from developing complacency or even security within the narrative. The reader’s experience of instability and confusion reflects May’s attitude toward her own unsettled, transitory life.
Creating an additional sense of transience by following May as she moves frequently from place to place, the novel reflects the inability of Australian Aborigines to find a meaningful place in society. Just as the narrative rejects stylistic security, May lacks a stable or satisfying home for most of the novel. Instead, she moves from place to place to escape drugs, domestic violence, or demoralizing poverty. Her journeys frequently involve danger and prevent her from considering any particular place a home. Such displacement reflects the tragically ironic experience of Australian Aborigines. Although they’ve inhabited the land for tens of thousands of years, colonial rule has not only destroyed their traditional society and abolished their lands, but it has also prevented them from settling anywhere else or finding meaningful occupation.
It’s also important that this phenomenon of exclusion extends beyond Australian Aborigines to marginalized groups of all sorts. In one of the novel’s poignant incidents, May’s coworker Charlie, an undocumented African immigrant, is deported unceremoniously by the police. His displacement from his native country and subsequent expulsion from Australia mirrors May’s displacement, both from her traditional land and from modern Australian society.
While the novel ends on a moment of familial reunion and solidarity, it promises no end to this cycle of displacement. May eventually returns home, but there she finds Aunty facing imminent eviction. Although May cheers Aunty up by taking her to buy a tablecloth—a cherished memory for them both—this isn’t a real solution for the problem at hand, and it’s clear that the family will soon have to uproot itself and try to establish a new life elsewhere. May’s modest triumph is that, while the stress and instability of displacement can cause family units to disintegrate, May refuses to let this impinge on her family’s cohesion now.
In the last paragraph, May watches an excavator prepare to dig up Aunty’s backyard, a tangible signal that their home will soon be lost, and she uncertainly imagines in a future in which “maybe” things like this won’t happen. It’s a sign of May’s personal strength that she can conceive of a future in which she’s no longer displaced. However, given the word “maybe,” her inability to truly envision such a future is an indictment of her oppressive society.
Examining May’s itinerant and unsettled lifestyle, Swallow the Air meditates on the suffering of Australian Aborigines, who undergo not only physical displacement from their land but also the psychological displacement that occurs when they are excluded from any meaningful role in society.
Displacement 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!
Soon they’d demolish all the fibro and move us mob out to the western suburbs. For now we were to be satisfied with the elitist postcode and our anonymity.
My old man isn’t though; his family are from the First Fleet and everything. Rich folk they were, fancy folk from England.
A jawbone crunches under a slice of bare knuckles. Bloodied eyeballs throw blank expressions. Mouths fling spittle streamers about the dirt red ring. Frantic, finger-bitten punches claw tangled in the shiny skin.
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.
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.
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.