Deep truths revealed with deceptive simplicity

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Swallow the Air, by Tara June Winch. Published by University of Queensland Press in 2006. ISBN 0702235210, RRP $28.

Swallow the AirAuthors reading their works before an audience can usually anticipate a couple of questions. They will likely be asked whether their characters are based on real people and whether the events in the plot are autobiographical.

These questions are somewhat demeaning because they imply that the writer’s creativity is severely constrained. There are limits to the author’s imagination, and so older readers might wonder whether a young writer can adequately represent people and times that they have not experienced personally. On the other hand, the existence of the historical romance genre suggests that readers sometimes happily relax their scepticism.

Cross-cultural creativity may be another matter, and some Australian critics appear to be determined to spot the next Demidenko. While critics might legitimately feel obliged to expose frauds, it would be limiting if not absurd to expect writers to establish some special authority to create characters. Recently, a reviewer in a newspaper expressed admiration for the courage of a middle aged white male author writing about the thoughts of a young indigenous woman. This was fair comment, but it reminds the reader that the current critical paradigm has some odd priorities. In fact, there is no guarantee that one middle-aged white male can realistically reproduce the mind of another, and no one fictional character should be considered as a prototype for every young indigenous woman.

Tara June Winch has no such problems, and neither will most of her readers. The stories in Winch’s Swallow the Air are so personal that readers might wonder whether anything within is merely imaginative. Sometimes, it seems possible that such a young writer could have experienced the life extremes that Winch describes so vividly in her first person stories. Sometimes, you wish it were not so, because the mature reflections in this volume are so often sad, tragic and painful. In ‘Territory’ for example, narrator May Gibson fondly remembers her father fixing her mother’s bike. ‘He looks over to me and smiles. Perfect.’ But then, watching a bare knuckle fight she remembers how her mother was ‘a beaten person’.

‘Mum’s stories changed when he left. She became paranoid and afraid of a world that existed only in her head. Who was going to beat her mind?’

Her mother bottled it up ‘until one day all those silent screams and tears came at once. And with such force that they took her away.'

This collection contains twenty stories, each of which demands admiration. Most of us would be proud to write even one as good. The stories are bound together sequentially as May’s experiences and it is possible to think of them as a novel. Returning from the Territory, May goes to ‘The Block’ where life is intense.

‘Growing up in the bloody Gong was nothing compared to a year living in the Block. I went in like a buttery cake and came out like a shotgun or a Monaro or a gaol sentence. Came out like a steel wall adorned in black tar.'

Swallow the AirIf anything stops you reading these stories at one sitting it will be their intensity. It is often difficult to cope with the deep truths they state in such deceptive simplicity. These stories are not just for indigenous people, nor even for those readers who have great empathy with indigenous people and their precarious social position. There are themes here of familial love, of curiosity about one’s ancestry, of the quest for personal growth, of the gaining of knowledge about people and society, of the ways that we should relate to the environment, and of the despair felt when these yearnings are frustrated. These are universal and essential elements of the human condition.

While there is power in the way that Winch evinces such serious themes, humour is never far below the surface. Sometimes it erupts, free of self-consciousness, in that feast of enthusiasm that has assisted the survival of Australia’s indigenous peoples despite the almost overwhelming pressures on their lives and culture. In ‘Grab’, Aunty wins the opportunity to fill shopping trolleys free for three minutes. Determined that they will have a turkey for Christmas, Aunty manages to fill three trolleys, two with frozen food. ‘Aunty leant over the barricades to Billy and me to give us a big hug, clapping her hands together and laughing. We don’t even own a bloody freezer.'

Reading Tara June Winch’s Swallow the Air, expect to feel the warmth of sand between your toes, taste the ocean’s salty water, smell the bushfires above the Illawarra scarp, breathe the passing air as a child pedals its bike and to cringe at the mould and desolation in the drug addict’s squat. Most of all, you will marvel at how this young indigenous woman makes you remember the feelings of your home, your family, your losses and regrets, and yet makes you determined to continue. This is powerful prose indeed.



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Existing comments

I am delighted to see this review. I had the joy of meeting Tara while she was writer in residence at Booranga in Wagga. A few of us in Albury met and shared a meal with her. Like all the young talented Aboriginal people I have met she is full of life and has an interesting empathy with older people. I have Swallow the Air on my shelf to read, judging from the small piece she read on that night I have much to look forward to. I'm glad you reviewed this book.
Margaret McDonald | 02 November 2007


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