The Ancient Library and a Self-Governing Literature
My literary journey has been such an amazing opportunity to work and play with the possibilities of the imagination, but it has also been a long hard battle of working through insecurities about the plan to write a proper good book. Even the idea of story is a cultural understanding that story involves all times and realities, the ancient and new, the story within story within story – all interconnected, all unresolved – and this perspective is a truly wonderful way of seeing and embracing the world of the imagination.
I guess it is difficult for any writer who is trying to create stories of an increasing complicated world, and which for Aboriginal writers, will have many extra layers of complexities. We live in an ever-increasing world of ideas, vision, images, memories, understandings and cultural realities. But what becomes clearer to me the more I write, is that I have been trying to create a self-governing literary landscape through what I have learnt from our ancient library, and our knowledge of always governing ourselves.
Sovereign thinking empowered all of my earlier experiences and work, and this was especially so while I was working on our rights agenda for the Combined Nations of Central Australia, or CANCA, and always hearing our old people say: We have always governed ourselves. The overall vision our people had in CANCA, was to implement Aboriginal Self Government in the Northern Territory. It was a big vision, but Aboriginal governance, and its recognition in Australia, is absolutely vital as our people work towards our own self-defined future. Such a major step would bring an end to decades of failure and wasted money — millions of dollars that the Commonwealth gave to the Northern Territory Government over several decades as untied grant monies — supposedly for the purpose of building better lives for Aboriginal people, but no one really knows how this money was spent. The CANCA vision of self-governance was totally ignored, and Australian governments have continued to waste colossal amounts of money to implement their dominating and failed policies over the lives of Aboriginal people since the Intervention in the Northern Territory began in 2007.
Our sovereign thinking is apparent in my most recent book Tracker, where I abandoned the idea of writing a mainstream western style biography, to use instead a storytelling model that incorporated our ideas and sense of ourselves. A conventional biography was not the right way to tell the story of the visionary thinker and economist, the eastern Arrernte man, Tracker Tilmouth. I felt such a biography would not be adequate, and would simply be my take and perspective on an extraordinary Aboriginal leader, a person who was a great force of life, and who was considered by everyone who knew him to be one of a kind in our world. So instead, I drew from our knowledge about ourselves, our way of doing things, to develop a collective memoir by using our ideas of consensus decision-making. Everyone had a chance to tell their part of the story — as happens in all of our forums where decisions are reached after hearing all sides, and this was what Tracker also wanted.
Tracker became a book of multiple perspectives about Tracker’s life and work, and his vision of how Aboriginal people could enjoy land rights. How do you enjoy being on your land? This was a question that Tracker always asked. He thought the question about the enjoyment of land rights was the most important question we had to deal with for our culture to survive in the future. He believed that the only way we would enjoy land rights was through our economic independence – a segregated Aboriginal economy. He thought this was the independence we needed to care for our culture, land, and people. All three are interconnected – culture, land and people – to economic independence, to give Aboriginal people in Northern Australia where he mostly worked, the security they needed to work towards and create our own long-term vision for our culture. He tried to create this economic vision through the wide ranging and complex nature of his thinking, strategies and work. He firmly believed that once we were in a strong economic position, then we would no longer be reliant on having to endure more failed policies of governments, which have not given us the answers, or the solutions we require for our survival.
Tracker thought that once we were economically secure as a people, we would independently determine the survival for our culture and lands, and be able to work towards our future. His vision and thinking is now successfully at work in parts of the country where he was able to grow his ideas. By becoming economically independent, our people are stronger and are more secure to care for their responsibilities to land and culture, and the ability to envision and build a future for themselves on their lands. He also thought that once we were in a firm economic position as a people, then and only then, would we be in a position to negotiate a treaty if we wanted to go down that track; otherwise, we should never go to a negotiating table for a treaty if we did not have anything to back us up.
Tracker is a blueprint for building an independent Aboriginal-controlled university, one that is tied to land, culture and people. This would be a world-class, state of the art learning place for our people. One which works towards building new economic forms of visionary thinking and stories in which to create cultural sustainability for our future, and the long-term enjoyment of land rights.
This principle of consensus in Tracker allowed everyone to be involved in decision-making from the point of view of seeing ourselves collectively, and as tied to a long vision of ourselves through our relationship to our land, culture, and people. The long vision is integral to our regenerative story-telling practices, with its foundations deep in our knowledge of the Law stories of our culture – the ancient library, the oldest surviving library on Earth. Patrick Nunn, Professor of Geography, and Associate Director of the Sustainability Research Centre at the University of the Sunshine Coast, in his book The Edge of Memory (2018), analyses the deep knowledge of ancient stories and how oral traditions record history. In describing the Dreaming (Tjukurrpa) in Australia, Nunn states: The rich and varied world of the mind within which Aboriginal people’s culture has long been grounded, and which is believed to exist in parallel with the tangible one renders the past far beyond the memory of any person, but conserved in the collective memory of the whole community.
These important stories of deep knowledge in our culture have always helped us to understand the creative and regenerative powers of this Continent, and to know how country is always alive, and can catastrophically change the world around us. Through our system of ancient laws kept to this day in our culture, we understand that country is alive through the power of the ancestral creation spirits residing in it, and from their awakening, how dangerous these laws are when broken. One example of this deep knowledge can be found for example, in the stories of a great elder and knowledge man, artist and storyteller, Goobalathaldin Dick Roughsey – his name meaning ‘the ocean, dancing,’ or a ‘rough sea.’ Dick Roughsey was an important Lardil elder from Mornington Island and he explained the inter-relationships very clearly in his children stories: All the people were terrified of the thunder on the mountain as Goorialla (the Rainbow Serpent) knocked it to pieces. They ran away and hid themselves, turning themselves into all the kinds of animals, birds, insects, fish and plant life that now exists in the country.
So this country is alive, and you can see this if you look at it in deep time, as Robert MacFarlane, the British writer and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge explained in his essay, ‘What lies beneath a restless Earth’. MacFarlane explained that things come alive when you look at it in deep time, but of course, we are now seeing this happen with a scale and speeds of anthropogenic change at a planetary level. MacFarlane quotes the archaeologist Þóra Pétursdóttir of The Arctic University of Norway who wrote: The problem is not that things become buried far down in strata – but that they endure, outlive us, and come back at us with a force we didn’t realise they had, a dark force of ‘sleeping giants,’ roused from their deep-time slumber.
One of the most compelling reasons for writing literary fiction, or to keep telling stories, and for what or how I write, has been to complete major literary challenges that I have set for myself.
In my work as a writer, my overall aim is to try to achieve the highest standard in the art form of literary fiction, the practice of imagining, by working more forcibly with literature. My personal challenge has always been to develop a literature more suited to the powerful, ancient cultural landscape of this country. It is a journey of imagining our own unique perspective, one that belongs here, and which is the legacy that has been passed down to us through countless generations so that we can know who we are in this place.
I set higher challenges for each book I write, and I set aside a large space in my mind to create imaginary storytelling worlds. Sometimes, I feel that the work I do as a writer is similar to working on a large construction site – of blending ideas with images to build epic worlds that hopefully will live in the future because the images and stories have enough life, and will bring enough meaning in the book to allow it to survive. The process of creating epic stories feels as though I am working in a form of alchemy – perhaps these are the spirits of country working all the time in the mind of a storyteller, to bring an invisible or imaginary world to life. Sometimes I feel as though I am constructing a multi-storied building single-handedly, and feel inadequate for the task, having only the basic skills for something that really requires the skills of structural engineering.
The growth of the manuscript can start to look like a rickety twenty-storied shed being patched together, and where any false move is able to bring it down while each floor of the structure is somehow made to fit perfectly on top of the floor beneath, and so forth, all the way to the top. It will take a vast amount of work to build a firm structure with stories formed from your imagination, and to ensure that each chapter in a large work of literature is bolted together securely, to ensure that the whole structure will stand firm, that it will not be blown down with the next breath of wind from the guardians of the literary world where books try to survive.
This world of literary construction is for exploring imaginative ideas, thoughts and questions that I have felt deeply and passionate enough about to sustain the long journey of many years to complete a book. The work requires a great deal of time to explore the collectivity and inter-connectivity of all times in our cultural world and thinking, where everything has a story. I have tried to develop a style of spiritual characterisation of people and place connected together by ancient and more powerful laws than those governing the circumstances of our current political realities, and with the aim of achieving a faithful construct of how many of our people think: who in reality continue to regard our laws as being more powerful than Australian laws, which they believe are not very meaningful in their thinking, of the more powerful and interconnected laws of country, spirit and life in our culture.
The great visual artist, Vernon Ah Kee, a member of the Kuku Yalandji, Waanji, Yidinji and Gugu Yimithirr peoples, is often described in the Aboriginal world as a sovereign warrior. Vernon recently explained some very important concerns he had about Aboriginal art on the ABC’s Radio National’s Big Ideas program. He wanted to know how come white artists get to say that, I made this art because…, whereas blackfellas have to say, this work is about … His advice was that we should not make a statement about our work, and that what we should provide is a rationale for doing it. He explained that you should always say I made this because …
Vernon said that his art practice is underpinned by the high level of hard skills he has developed, and his real experience, and this helps him to think more conceptually, and with clearer ideas. So I should talk about what I make with my hands, and with my mind, how I apply my imagination to what I have been able to learn and think about life, and of my experience and understanding in my work as a writer.
I also wanted to pick up on something else that Vernon Ah Kee explained about art in Australia, and which I thought was very important. He said that Australian art is fine, it just doesn’t display much courage or risk at a core level, and he thought that this was because the art industry is so overwhelmingly conservative in this country. I often feel this about literature too, not just Australian literature, but also literature from other places, and I would like writers to be braver, because writers and storytellers have one of the most important jobs of all in explaining who we are, where we have been, and where we are going in our mind. Storytelling in our increasingly complex world is likely to become far more difficult, as storytellers grapple with all the complexities now shaking the world in quicker succession, and they will need to become far more innovative and imaginative. The work of literature will become increasingly important, because it will be literature that is capable of offering more thoughtful scope, and far more imaginative possibilities, that will have the capability of transmitting knowledge to expand our understanding of how to think through the realities of our future times. Literature that contains well-considered ideas of a global humanity, and are planetary in scope as well as being local, and that are highly imagined, will have their place in the future, and will hold far greater importance and significance than other art forms such as TV, films, or social media.
In the Wildness issue of Emergence Magazine, Dr Martin Shaw, a writer, teacher, and mythologist from the moorlands of Dartmoor, described the human need to be in the presence of stories, but not prescribed stories, or captured stories, because stories he explained are like a wild animal that do not want to be captured, and if they are, if you think you know what a story means from the beginning to end, it loses its danger, it loses its life. He explained that, Much opportunity is heading towards us as loss, and we are going to need deep, powerful, alchemical stories – to help guide us through such a time. So he tells young people wherever he meets them, You were born for these times … this is like you’re sitting at Camelot’s table. This is the moment to take courage, to raise yourself, to proceed with a degree of urgency … with a sense of humour, but to know that the mechanics of this time, the quests of this time, are utterly mythical in nature. And he offered this advice, Of course, every generation says we’ve never lived through anything like this before. But we have really never lived through anything before where we are now.
You might ask why take up literature, and why not the law if you want to work on the concerns in the world such as Aboriginal rights, or global warming? If you became a lawyer, and then a judge perhaps, or a university professor in constitutional law and working at the highest levels in government, or the High Court, or on the world stage at the United Nations, then you would hope that you could change everything for the better in Australian law. Not necessarily so. In my experiences, I have seen many of the great difficulties we have confronted in trying to change Australian law to the level required to accommodate Aboriginal Laws and Aboriginal rights, to demonstrate the equity, justice and decency that many of us had hoped would happen in our lifetime.
So why do I write? Apart from the art, or the ability to create art, my writing is also due to a set of circumstances related to our cultural understanding, know-how and expectations to which I was exposed in my background and experiences, and through the teaching of our own people – our atlases, and walking encyclopedias of natural history, as described by the late historian, anthropologist and writer Inga Clendennin in her 1999 Boyer Lectures. I was educated by my family, our people and communities to understand the seamless interconnectedness of all things in our culture, which is the opposite to Western thinking in mainstream Australia about how the world operates by keeping things separate from each other: ecology, cosmology, theology, social morality, art, time and so on.
As a writer, I wanted to think about the independence of our interconnected culture, and how necessary our independent thinking needed to be for our survival. This work, as I had already learnt in our political actions, required ideas capable of creating ruptures forcefully and powerfully enough to subvert other narratives and thinking about what was happening in our world, and which created the clash in law between the Aboriginal world and the non-Aboriginal world of Western thinking. We are grounded in the experiences of what happens in our world, and as the British writer Zia Haider Rahman explained and I believe, fiction is a very good process of delivering our subjective understanding to the world.
We live in powerful cultural places that have meaning and value to our people, so I have wanted to create a meaningful, forceful and powerful literature that would feel authentic and true to what I know and understand. An overall concern which I have had in my own work has been to try to change perceptions about this country through literature by contributing to what I am coming to understand more clearly, a self-governing literature. I take risks with literature in ways that might be seen as dangerous, with risky or difficult ideas, but I want to challenge the status quo in Australian literature by writing in a way that is very important to me. If my books feel uncomfortable, threatening, or too edgy and too challenging as some have claimed, well good, I have done my job. If I have to move mountains to write, then I will, and I have, and I am passionate about my commitment to further developing higher levels of conceptual and technical skills in my practice as a writer, to be able to think clearer about the worlds I am developing in my writing, so that each book sings with the magic of our thinking and humour, and is a book that I can live with. I have learnt what writing can do from writers all over the world, but I never forget where I come from, the lessons of our ancestors, and the investment made by the senior people of our communities and my family who made sure I had the opportunities to learn how to see our world and to take notice of it. They made sure that I learnt how to think, and how to build something from what I had been taught, and this is what I needed to bring to what I have learnt about literature.
Part of my rationale for writing is to respond to our times by considering some important questions about the realities in the Aboriginal world to which I belong. This was a natural progression to follow from my earlier work as a researcher on large constitutional issues of Aboriginal rights, to become an independent writer working in the local, but with an eye on the greater world. This was a way to use the art of literature, or the art of working with the mind to think about the world we live in, and how to apply this thinking in the structuring of imaginary worlds to reach a truth to questions I have felt passionately about and wanted to work on. I feel that the true art of imagination for a writer is to be challenging in interpreting ideas, worlds, questions, understandings, and to actively interrogate and try to understand what is out of reach, or unreachable, by crafting words that flow through the finger tips as skilfully as a fish gliding through water.
In my work as a practising writer, I undertake enormous research for each book to learn about the various elements that will be involved in the work. I continuously build on a comprehensive set of ideas in my mind about the world, in the story I want to write. I load notebooks with images and notes. But when I am writing, I put all that aside, and will only come back to the notes to check facts, ideas, or images. I have to rely on my imagination to construct a story world from everything I am able to draw from my mind, from what I know, and through experiencing what I have learnt. I have come to understand that my job is to imagine, to think independently, and I know how lucky I have been to have this work. I have learnt from practice that the more you imagine, the more you can imagine being in other places, in other worlds, in the mind of your characters, or to put yourself in the natural world. In this work of the imagination, I will work and rework each word and sentence until I have created finely tuned image after image to fit together into a story line that resembles a truthful reality, and that will become the sum total of an imagined reality.
There are not many people who have the opportunity and freedom to work independently with their imagination, and sadly in this ‘emergency century’ as we are becoming to know it through Global Warming, our Planet is crying out for greater imagination. Amitav Ghosh explained in his book, The Great Derangement – Climate Change and the Unthinkable, that the global climate crisis we have today is not only a crisis of culture and of losing our roots in the environment, it is also a crisis of imagination. Writers such as Richard Powers, this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winner for his novel The Overstory, speak about how we have become incapable of moving away from our dependency of seeing ourselves as exceptional and apart from all else in the world. For a long time much of literary fiction was committed to the idea that meaning is primarily subjective and synthetic, mediated by commodity and defined by the morally ambiguous private self. Powers believes human society needs to get away from what the psychologists call ‘species loneliness’ — the sense we’re here by ourselves, and that there can be no purposeful act except to gratify ourselves, and that we need to move back to living the cycles that the living world requires. Power described his thinking in this sense as of un-blind(ing) ourselves to human exceptionalism. His thinking is similar to what we already know of the continuing ancient knowledge of interconnectedness that you will find in Indigenous storytelling.
The Anthropocene, or the human epoch in reference to the environment, man-made climate change, and global warming, is the catastrophic crisis of our times and what Robert MacFarlane calls the deep time legacies we are leaving for the future … to imagine us. The most distinctive experiences of the Anthropocene epoch are described by MacFarlane as claustrophobia, a sense of time and space running out, and of feeling stuck. It is also a debate about when this epoch began. I generally talk about Aboriginal people’s relationship to time in this country as being related to all times, and have also learnt how to understand this concept from the great writer Carlos Fuentes who in his book of essays titled A New Time for Mexico, said that all time in Mexico was important, and that no time in Mexico had ever been resolved. This is how I believe Aboriginal people see time and place as being interconnected and related, and encompassing all times and realities, and possibly, how the vast number of people from the global south for instance, and of the third world, also see time from ancient times, and having a non-linear framework. With this perception of timelessness comes eternal hope and great strength from our understanding that our world has everlasting life, and that we are only a small part of it as caretakers and guardians.
This understanding became an important breakthrough idea when I was writing my second novel Carpentaria, a novel which I knew had to be vastly different to the literary constraints of linear time that I had struggled with in my first novel, Plains of Promise. I felt that there had to be some growth in what I did as a writer, and the greater challenges in writing that I saw were how to remain closer to an Aboriginal way of seeing the world. I wanted to be able to imagine with an independence from literary constraints or conventions, such as I also saw in Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who Milan Kundera, the Franco-Czech novelist described as free imagination itself … a narrator who describes nothing, only recounts, but recounts with the freedom of fantasy never seen before.
The vision I had for my novel Carpentaria was that it would be as authentic as I could make it to honour my traditional Waanyi homeland. I wanted to develop a contemporary epic that would in some ways be similar to a long ancestral story. While writing the book, I often felt as though I was telling a story of our times to our ancestors. The book itself was written as a result of the deep sadness I felt about how we were left gutted from the huge fight undertaken by our people against the development of a massive mine on our country, and our concerns about the environmental destruction to some of its important living parts – non-human, the all-spiritual of our pristine country. I wanted to show that we were much more than the racist nature of national narratives used to contain and entrap us, and rob us of our dignity, humanity and sovereign rights. I wanted to write a book that pushed our story across all boundaries, to squash the national narrative which at that time accused us of being un-Australian because we would not agree to mining on our sacred country.
Carpentaria is a book that I felt resembled a spinning helix of many stands of stories of all times, and this gives the book its strength and backbone. The strong characters of Carpentaria – Norm Phantom, Will Phantom, Mozzie Fishman, and Angel Day, were inspired by the strength of our people, epic unconquerable people, who I believe are totally imbued with the essence of our powerful spiritual ancestral stories, and this is what I believe give us our strength, and because of the interconnectivity and our understanding of our inter-relativeness to all things in our world, comes with the belief that our country hears its people, it is listening all the time, and it speaks back to us. Milan Kundera also explained that stories of epic heroes, whether they conquer, or are conquered should retain their grandeur to the last breath, so even though no heroes died in Carpentaria, they retained their grandeur, and this was a most important idea I had with the book, to achieve a work of art at the highest level of literary endeavour, and told in a way that could be understood anywhere in the world.
In 2002-03, I decided to write a futuristic global climate change novel to describe some of the findings of environmental science of climate change, and this eventually became The Swan Book. At the time, I thought everyone in the world – or at least millions of people across the world – had to be asking the same question that I was asking myself about the future of the world. I was not only concerned about what was happening to Aboriginal people during these early years of the NT Intervention – a policy aimed at destroying the spirit of Aboriginal sovereign thinking. I thought the whole world had to be collectively asking, what was the fate of the world? iI our governments were in denial about climate change, and would not accept what the science was telling us about global warming. The Swan Book is about this future of a warming world in Australia in a hundred years’ time, and how this will lead to more displacement of Aboriginal people, and the unprecedented displacement of millions of people from their homelands across the world.
Since writing The Swan Book, there have been catastrophic and extreme weather events occurring more frequently across the world, with immense consequences for all life, and we have graver concerns about the realities of Global Warming. And along with mounting evidence of changes taking place through changing weather patterns, we have also witnessed the unprecedented movement of people in our times with more and more countries closing borders to refugees. The office of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), the UN Refugee Agency, states that there are an unprecedented 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, over ten million are stateless, and over 25 million are refugees.
In studies undertaken in Northern Australia by the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF), and published in 2013, the results of the research found that Aboriginal people are experiencing climate changes in our traditional lands and readily see the changes happening to the seasons, and the impact on country. Our people are the ultimate weather people who notice the slightest variations in the rhythms of country, and are discussing global warming in terms of the changes they have experienced on their homelands from the frequency and severity of cyclones, flooding, extreme heat, droughts, dust, bushfires, and the threat to habitat with loss of flora and fauna weakened from the prolonged severity of changing climate, and extreme weather events. Our communities continue to be concerned with the ongoing struggles to retain cultural spirituality and meaning in our lives. We deeply feel for any loss of our ancient knowledge, loss of habitat, and the old knowledge people who could sing ‘the thunder songs,’ to ‘keep the bad weather away.’
Peter Parlow, a senior Waynagardena elder in the Northern Territory, was quoted in the study of Aboriginal perceptions of climate change, We’ve had some real funny weather in recent years. Even in summer you get cool change. Now you just can’t tell … Growing up with my people they were the weather people. They could change the weather. I’ve seen it myself. You may not believe me but they’ve all gone and they didn’t pass it on to us. They had songs for cyclone, wind, you could ask them for help. Good for hunting. The old people could control the seasons.
We understand our place is sacred country, and our interconnectedness to the spiritual and physical world, but it is not only our homelands that are sacred. The whole planet is a sacred place – we are all interconnected, and just as our people treat our place as sacred and powerful and hold responsibility for the ancient religious law practices of keeping country safe, so too should the Earth be treated with the greatest of care and understanding since its power far exceeds our combined humanity. Richard Powers for instance, speaks quite eloquently of our need to move away from the belief that we can get away with making Earth revolve around our personal appetites and fantasies, to the belief that a vast, multi-million-pronged project four and a half billion years old deserves a little reverent humility.
When we walk though this country for instance, we should see ourselves as walking through stories and laws that tell us of ancient knowledge and its power. This concept of a sacred map is very familiar to Aboriginal people. The UK theologian and author Martin Palmer, the secretary-general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), which works with faith-based communities, explains that, We are all walking through the stories of a sacred map – stories that we in the west have largely forgotten, that speak to our connection to what we once understood as the foundation of a sacred reality: the world around us. And he adds: You take out the sacred things at your peril. You’re changing the map of where you live. So when you see catastrophic climate-changing events such as drought country becoming an inland sea and killing in excess of a half a million cattle, as it did in March 2019 when an enormous slow weather system moved over North West Queensland, it is also important to think about the links to the sacredness of country – its stories, its wisdom, and the ongoing devastation in the lives of the Aboriginal caretakers, who hold those powerful knowledge stories, and responsibility for caring for country according to Aboriginal laws that were designed long ago with deep knowledge for keeping the country strong.
While my aim with The Swan Book was to create a work of literature that attempted to tell a story about the implications of Global Warming to answer my initial question about the future, I also wanted to look at another question. This question concerned our survival as Aboriginal people. I wondered how far we would go to retain our sovereignty of the mind in Aboriginal culture. My question was how far we would go to continue believing in ourselves. I have no doubt that in future times of global warming, our struggle to survive will become far more enormous than the catastrophic realities of our current times. The destructiveness heaped on our culture is likely to extend into more heightened levels in future times. I wondered what would the last Aboriginal person standing be like in a fictionalised projection of current policies, and how much more we could endure until our spirit is finally destroyed? Or would our sovereignty of mind ever be destroyed even if we were driven into becoming totally unhinged and deranged, as is the main character of the book, a perpetual girl named Oblivia.
I believe cosmopolitan ideas are a very strong feature in the Aboriginal world through our willingness to reach out to the world of other people, and in particular, the spiritual world of other people, to find ways of accommodating them into the spirit of place in this country. We were encouraged as young people working for our elders to understand global thinking in Indigenous rights, in order to expand the depth of our own sovereign thinking in which to find our own solutions. So how could I create a world story that recognised anyone’s realities of climate change? It is easy for Aboriginal people to imagine that there would be greater populations oppressed and dispossessed, and unprecedented poverty creating even greater divisions in all of humanity. These are issues that we have been dealing with as Aboriginal peoples for a long time.
One of the approaches I took in my challenge to write a global book of future times, was to write about the movement of swans, even though I knew next to nothing about these beautiful creatures when I started thinking about how to write the book. I found that our black swans — indigenous to this country and considered not to be migratory over long distances — were migrating further into more arid regions with the changing weather patterns. One of the questions I had at the time was what happens if animals such as swans, because of climate change, move into areas where there was no spiritual law story for them? I wondered how their presence could be accommodated in the spiritual realm – for of course culture is not static, and new stories of great significance and of particular circumstances, have been incorporated in our local culture and law.
Through research, and while growing a great passion for swans and studying swans, I found that the swan species through the ages have inspired great beauty in literature, poetry, myths and beliefs across the world. Swans are seen as birds of gracefulness, splendour, beauty and mystery. They have drawn humans into their world like a spell cast over our feelings and emotions. So somehow, in all of the research of writers, poets, thinkers and storytellers across the world who have written about swans, I found that our collective humanity can act better towards these animals, or non-human animals, and relate to their beauty. We can feel empathy towards swans, and feel good for doing so. We can feel comfortable about their right to exist. We care for the places where swans live. The idea for The Swan Book, was then to link swans to the universal feeling, knowledge and understanding for these creatures since ancient times, to create a novel in such a way that it could be powerful enough to force itself into the imagination of the world through a swan narrative. So even though the narrative is tied to our unique part of the world, it is related to a world concern about climate change. I think of The Swan Book as survival literature. The idea was hopefully to inspire greater imaginative thinking about our times – by creating a dystopia, we might understand utopia better.
I seem to take a long period of time to write each book, including six to eight years for my novel Carpentaria, six years for The Swan Book, and as many for Tracker. But the work of writing is a step by step process of deep thought, and extensive research into conceptual ideas, in order to slowly build literary worlds from our complicated world, and allow enough time to bring the characters portrayed in these novels to life, to give them time to grow full-bodied in mind and spirit. My aim is to create literary worlds as authentically as I can with the aesthetics and values gained from ancient knowledge of this great land, and through these long endeavours, to produce an art form by living in these fictional worlds until I fulfil the reasons that had driven me to write the books in the first place.
Deanne Bird, Jeanie Govan, Helen Murphy, Sharon Harwood, Katharine Haynes, Dean Carson, Shephen Russell, David King, Ed Wensing, Nicole Tsakissiris and Steven Karkin, Future change in ancient worlds: Indigenous adaptation in northern Australia, Final Report, Publ. National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF), 2013.
Everett Hamner, Here’s to Un-suicide: An interview with Richard Powers, Los Angeles Review of Books, 7 April 2018.
Milan Kundera, The Curtain – an essay in seven parts. Harper Collins, New York, 2005.
Paul Memmott, Joseph Reser, Brian Head, James Davison, Daphne Nash, Tim O’Rourke, Harshi Gamage, Samid Suliman, Andrew Lowry, and Keith Marshall, Aboriginal responses to climate change in arid zone Australia: Regional understandings and capacity building for adaptation, Final Report, The University of Queensland and National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF), 2013.
Patrick Nunn, The Edge of Memory. Bloomsbury Sigma, London, 2018.
Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder, Hallowed Ground, Emergence Magazine, Issue No. 04.
Goobalathaldin Dick Roughsay, Stories of this Land. Exhibition catalogue, Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art and Cairns Art Gallery, 2019.
Martin Shaw, Mud and Antler Bone, Interview with Martin Shaw, Emergence Magazine, Wildness, Issue No. 2.