Inside Story

The voice of Alexis Wright

Her novels paradoxically activate readers’ critical faculties while compelling us to trust the narrative voice

Tony Hughes-d’Aeth 11 October 2023 3023 words

“More than anything, her writing introduces into Australian letters a completely new form of thought and speech.” Vincent L. Long/Giramondo

Alexis Wright, the Waanyi novelist and activist, is among the greatest writers to emerge in Australia in recent times. Her writing provides a unique and powerful portrait of life in Indigenous Australia and offers a searching critique of the effects of colonialism in this country.

She is best known for her startling, sprawling novels, especially Carpentaria (2007), which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award and was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. Since then, each of her new works has been a major literary event. There have been two further dizzying novels — The Swan Book (2013) and Praiseworthy (2023) — as well as the Stella Prize–winning Tracker (2017), a complex choral biography of Aboriginal activist Tracker Tilmouth.

Wright enjoys a significant reputation overseas, and her work has been translated into French, Italian, Polish and Chinese. The Chinese language translation of Carpentaria (2006) was launched by the Nobel Prize–winning author Mo Yan. In France, Carpentaria is the first Indigenous novel to be set for the Agrégation, the national civil service exam, and the first Australian novel since Patrick White’s Voss (1957) to have that honour.

It is difficult to encapsulate the full significance of Wright’s works because it is so far-reaching — cutting across boundaries of time, space and culture — and because it is still emerging. More than anything, her writing introduces into Australian letters a completely new form of thought and speech. In the linguistic universe opened up by Wright’s writing, the reader is made aware of ways of being in the world that are completely distinct from those of capitalist modernity. The achievement of her writing is that this does not come over as either a lost world or a forbidden enclave, but as an open challenge and invitation.

The mesmeric Prelude to her novel The Swan Book begins by asking its reader (listener) to entertain an image…

Upstairs in my brain, there lives this kind of cut-snake virus in its doll’s house. Little starts shining over the moonscape garden twinkle endlessly in a crisp sky. The crazy virus just sits there on the couch and keeps a good old qui vive out the window for intruders. It ignores all of the eviction notices stacked on the door. The virus thinks it is the only pure full-blood virus left in the land. Everything else is just half-caste. Worth nothing! Not even a property owner. Hell yes! It thinks, worse than the swarms of rednecks hanging around the neighbourhood. Hard to believe a brain could get sucked into vomiting bad history over the beautiful sunburnt plains.

What are we to make of this? The virus that lives in the doll’s house of this speaker’s mind is an intriguing revision of the angel in the house. This virus is the demand for an impossible purity, for an ideal purity that only exists to cast all real things into abject impurity.

This ideal, which is said to be far worse than the outward disparagement of “rednecks,” ignores all notices of eviction. It is not the emblem of any living value but the insidious product of “bad history.” It is at the same time something residing in the innermost recesses, and spewed forth in all directions across the plains. These “beautiful sunburnt plains” steal a wry glance at Dorothea Mackellar’s ubiquitous poem, but decide that, nevertheless, they are still beautiful sunburnt plains.

This kind of teasing circularity is the basic metier of Wright’s prose. She never lets you hold onto a metaphor too long before she gives it another twist and sends it in a new direction. She never lets her conceits become conceited. For this reason, her writing presents its difficulties. But it achieves its central aim when it forces you to stop and listen. If you try to skim ahead in Wright’s novels you lose the plot, even though in many cases the novels seem not to have one. But when you lose the idea that there is a plot, that means you have stopped listening, and it is time to slow down and bend an ear.

Reading an Alexis Wright novel is like being placed under a spell. When I teach Alexis Wright to my students at the University of Western Australia, I tell them not to read but listen. Her writing pulses with the unmistakeably cadences of the spoken word. The rhythm of this speech, even though it takes place in English, draws on an entirely different social world and cosmology. The voice in Wright’s work gains a substance and life that convert her writing into speech.

Wright’s adult life was forged in the rough and tumble world of central Australian Indigenous politics of the 1980s and 90s. Her writing, for all its wild wonder, is also intensely and intimately political. The politics is overt in her nonfiction works Grog War (1997), Take Power (1998) and Tracker, but is never far from the surface of her novels either.

Wright’s novels are often classified as magical realist. Certainly, a novel like Carpentaria is indebted to the tradition of writing that became globally influential with Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the late 1960s. But it is important to not lose sight of the “realism” in magical realism. What the concept of realism captures, on the one hand, is that Wright’s works deal with real-world problems — colonialism, climate change, family breakdown, sexual abuse, addiction. But more than these problems, Wright’s realism institutes a relationship with the real conditions of human life. Here there is a sharp break from Western secularism, because these real conditions are nothing other than the determinations of Country. In this respect, the real is exactly what we might, from a secular point of view, call magic.

Carpentaria begins with a cosmic joke about the fictional town of Desperance, where much of the novel is set. The town had been built at a river mouth to serve as a port for the surrounding region. Then, after a big wet, the river shifted course and decided to join the sea somewhere else. The town became pointless. A river port without a river. The real joke, though, is the town was always pointless and the river was simply drawing attention to this fact.

What becomes clear in Wright’s work is that Country has its moods, and if you have ever tried to reason yourself out of a mood, you will quickly meet the limits of reason. But though reason founders, knowledge continues, albeit a particular kind of knowledge.

It takes a particular kind of knowledge to go with the river, whatever its mood. It is about there being no difference between you and the movement of water as it seasonally shifts its tracks according to its mood. A river spurns human endeavour in one dramatic gesture, jilting a lover who has never really been known, as it did to the frontier town built on its banks in the hectic heyday of colonial vigour.

In Wright’s work, the living bridge of signification between day-to-day life and the insistence of Country is the basis of meaningful voice. The flawed father in Carpentaria, Norm Phantom, has many failings, but he possesses the gift of voice:

Norm had a hypnotic voice, his eyes cast spells, he distilled memory like the flooding river emptying into the sea. He made people wish they were there when it really happened. He made them feel that it was better to have been alive in the time of the real people, his ancestors.

It is one of the striking things in Wright’s work that someone who lives in a shanty at the edge of a country town in the middle of nowhere is endowed with this singular power. The power, that is, of carrying the world inside their voice. The power of connecting people to the ground of their being.

Wright’s work teaches us about the close relationship between voice and listening. For Wright, listening is the direct complement of voice. Everyone might think they listen, but more and more we seem to be entering an age of listening deficit disorder. Indeed, the refusal to listen has almost become a virtue, since it means you are no one’s fool, that nobody will take you for a ride. This points to the close correspondence of trust to listening. The refusal to listen is the triumph of non-trust. But Wright shows us that trusting what is good is the foundation for ethical life.

She seems to be saying that being taken for a ride is not the worst thing in the world. There is a soft spot in her writing for those who are prepared to take on the work of narrating the universe, from Norm Phantom in Carpentaria to Cause Man Steel in Praiseworthy.

The charisma of these rough-hewn men who speak without fear is something that Wright found fascinating in Tracker Tilmouth. She knows they are flawed and full of themselves, but she can also see the crucial thing that they offer their people, which is to remain uncowed. In Wright’s world you are stupid if you take these people too seriously, but you are even more stupid if you fail to take them seriously enough.

Having known Tracker for much of his political life, and having worked closely with him in a range of campaigns, it fell to Wright to find an adequate way to express the life of this extraordinary person. She knew instinctively that conventional biography was not the answer. What emerged instead was a sprawling oral history — an oral history of a man who was also an event.

This does not get rendered in the genteel distance of the “life and times” biography. Instead, it transpires in the real time of the spoken word. The book is written in a tumble of intersecting chapters by those who knew Tracker. Her informants include Tracker himself, who is able to maintain a sly detachment from his larger-than-life persona. The cast of authors spend time — they are in no hurry — recalling, reminiscing, castigating and fuming about Tracker and his exploits. Half the time, even in moments of great seriousness and the gravest importance, they just shake their heads and laugh.

One can sense a certain element of Tracker in many of the more memorable characters in Wright’s novels. One can also see something of the author herself. Her admiration for Tracker expresses qualities that are also the hallmark of Wright:

An extraordinary reader of the times, he spared no one from hearing his verdict on them, be it those from his own communities, politicians, business people or professional academics, whether they wanted to hear exactly what he thought of them or not.

Wright herself learned to write by listening, as she made clear in a lecture given at the Sydney Opera House in 2001 (published as an essay in Southerly magazine in 2002). She recalls a childhood spent listening to her grandmother:

[My grandmother] had stories to explain everything — who we are, who each of us were, and the place on our traditional country that was very deep and special to her. She was our memory. She was what not forgetting was all about. It was through her that I learnt to imagine.

Here Wright makes clear that her grandmother’s voice was not something that belonged simply to the woman who was speaking. Her grandmother’s voice was speaking the Country. Or more to the point, the Country was speaking through her. In Ambelin Kwaymullina’s lyrical treatise on Indigenous sovereignty, Living on Stolen Land (2020), she writes that “Life doesn’t move through time / Time moves through life.”

The voice of Wright’s grandmother instantiates this movement of time through the self. This voice held everything — memory, significance, relationships, rules, rights. It also provided the very ground of imagination. This fundamental precept of Indigenous cosmology — we don’t move through Country, Country moves through us — continually works its way through Wright’s work. This moving through is experienced as a voice. This is what makes listening so important in Wright’s world because in the act of listening, Country is given the opportunity to move through its human subjects.

The visionary characters in Wright’s novels, whether black or white, are marked by the fact that their voices are not their own. In Carpentaria, Elias Smith washes up miraculously one day on the mudflats near the town, where he is nursed back to health by Norm Phantom. His ocean ordeal has rendered Elias fully in the service of this deeper voice, in a way that clearly recalls Wright’s description of her grandmother.

Although Elias never remembered his origins, he was able to acquire other people’s memory. They gave him their imagination. Through adopting their childhood memories as his own, he was able to close the gap on the past he could not remember… He told his story so persuasively he was able to convince people just about anything.

In The Swan Book, set in a climate-devastated near future, we follow the life of an abandoned Aboriginal girl, Oblivia Ethylene, who finds herself catapulted into national life. While the book opens with an interior monologue in Oblivia’s voice, she never speaks in the main part of the novel. Instead, she is forever spoken for.

In this respect the novel offers Oblivia as the sine qua non of Australian Indigenous policy, in which the Indigene is a silent object whom everyone is trying to co-opt for a different purpose. At every point when Indigenous voice threatens to emerge — that is to say, in a politically meaningful way, rather than as multicultural ornamentation — the Australian polity reacts in a way to silence it. Or, to put it more accurately, to speak over the top of it.

But at the same time the muteness of Oblivia is also the face of genuine traumatic speechlessness. Wright’s novels are loquacious. The mainly Indigenous people constantly argue with each other over almost everything. Sometimes this is given in direct dialogue, but often we get it paraphrased by Wright’s narrator in their distinctive dry irony. But even so, this bubbling speech is occasionally punctuated by moments of sudden overwhelming traumatic stillness. Points at which speech stops.

Oblivia’s muteness is also an expression of this moment when speech, even the capacious, multitudinous vocality of Wright’s speakers, reaches its traumatic limit. Oblivia’s own people were brought to silence by the loss she embodied:

They were too speechless to talk about a loss that was so great, it made them feel unhinged from their own bodies, unmoored, vulnerable, separated from eternity. They had been cut off.

This kind of speechlessness was memorably dramatised in the harrowing scene in Warwick Thornton’s frontier film Sweet Country (2017) where the Aboriginal woman Lizzie is unable to provide testimony of her own rape, even though this testimony will likely save her husband who is on trial for killing the perpetrator.

In The Swan Book, we thus have this strange experience of a silent protagonist. But one who constantly attracts the speech of the other. Her subjectivity is not so much removed as collapsed, like a dying star into a darker denser orb. Is Oblivia a victim? Is she a figure of picaresque pathos? Is her silence really an oblivion? A mute silhouette in the space of subjectivity? She is, in the end, not quite any of these things because she is never really abandoned, for the simple reason that she is sustained by the narrative voice itself.

But how can we tell the difference between a voice that speaks for and over the top of Oblivia and one that holds her firmly in its metaphysical hands? The main difference is that the narrative voice, which is the characteristic voice we find in all of Wright’s novels from Plains of Promise (1997) to Praiseworthy, does not especially care for Oblivia.

It may seem a little paradoxical to assert that the voices that care most for Oblivia are the ones that suck the life out of her, and the voice that does not is the one that upholds her right to exist. Yet, this is the situation that Indigenous people have had to contend with insofar as their colonisation has been heavily mediated through the discourse of humanitarianism.

This aspect of what might be called tough love is something that we see throughout Wright’s writing. One of the attractions of her work is the rigorous way in which it denies certain convenient pieties. For example, while the white people in her novels are often mercilessly caricatured for their hypocrisy and venality, the Indigenous people are far from saints.

Her novels have little time for what is considered nice. They begin from the position that niceties never prevented, and will never prevent, the destitution of Indigenous people nor the continuing extraction of material wealth from their lands. Her novels do not depict Indigenous people as a deserving poor or make a case for charitable redress. Thus, her Indigenous characters, for all their flaws — and in a certain sense, because of their flaws — retain their sovereignty.

There is a strange double movement in Wright’s writing. On the one hand her novels activate the critical faculties, making you question things, weigh contending positions, see bitter ironies, appreciate the most profound dilemmas. But on the other hand, one is also compelled to surrender to the voice. As Australia votes on whether it is fitting to amend the Constitution to guarantee an Indigenous Voice to parliament and government, Wright’s work offers a sense of what this means and why it is important.

Indeed, Wright’s works are a living enactment of Indigenous voice, a subject that Australians have been asked to form a view on. Because it was immediately and brazenly converted into a culture war, this historic opportunity to listen might become yet another act of silencing. By rejecting the voice, Australia will not only reject a constitutionally recognised Voice but deprive itself of a mechanism to learn what it is to live in a world where voice is truly meaningful. •