Review: Mykaela Saunderson Alexis Wright

Think of the Children!

We all have a cop in our heads, apparently. Mine is a real piece of work. She wants my job to be streamlined and easy. She wants to read plain things that get to the point so she can power through them quickly. She gets bored by long rambling yarns, and by people who talk in circles. She doesn’t see the point of poetry. She wants the facts in chronological order. I hate this little cop, especially when I am reading beautiful prose, and for a review no less – when I have a deadline and I have to think up clever things to say and find a novel angle for the piece.

Praiseworthy and I got off on the wrong foot, and I blame it on the cop in my head. When I agreed to write this review, I thought I would read the book and file my piece within a few short weeks. Ha! Reading this book as an Aboriginal reader, I was never going to be let off the hook that easily. Makes sense, as cops and blackfellas don’t mix.

I wanted to understand everything in this story and I didn’t want to miss a thing, so I read the book all wrong: sitting at my desk, in front of my computer, taking copious notes. I wish I had just read this book at leisure, sitting outside or relaxing in bed, because Praiseworthy is classic Wright: a book made of beautiful, mutable and playful language, designed to be enjoyed. I’ve tried to kill this cop in my head over the years, and I am delighted to say that Praiseworthy left her for dead.

Although I was trying to speedread Praiseworthy, it forced me to read slowly and for pleasure, to just bask in the language and its music and the headiness of the book’s atmosphere, rather than just skimming the story for important plot points. My speed doesn’t matter at this point anyway, because now I am watching all the other wonderful reviews roll in, as I’m sure you are too, dear reader. For this reason I am going to avoid rehashing all of the main plot points as many other reviewers are doing, and I won’t focus on the whimsical, absurdist elements of this book either. Instead I want to think deeply about one aspect of the story: the treatment of children and their inner lives. I want to run my hands along the dark underbelly of this sad part of the larger story, and make some sense of the sobbing and despair that I feel as an Aboriginal reader.

To clue you into some of these feelings, I encourage you to read the novel alongside Alexis Wright’s 2017 Meanjin essay ‘What Happens When You Tell Somebody Else’s Story?‘. I’ll offer a few choice quotes from this essay for you to consider throughout.

Unlike my experiences with Wright’s two preceding novels The Swan Book and Carpentaria, I was not hooked into this story straightaway.

Whereas Carpentaria opens with a stunning scene of life-giving climate change brought forth by the ancestral serpent, and The Swan Book opens with a first person monologue that fights to retain a young girl’s personal sovereignty, in Praiseworthy we are introduced to what happens to an entire community when their collective sovereignty is subjugated and they are feeling the full effects of colonial oppression, which has led to life-destroying climate change for the world. Locally, this takes the form of the strange polluted haze that is hanging over the town and pissing everyone off. Talking of the way our wants and needs are hijacked in her Meanjin essay, Wright says, ‘The cloud is always present.’

The first seventy-ish pages of Praiseworthy are an introduction to the town of Praiseworthy. There is lots of fun and funny, weird, allegorical, frivolous and silly stuff in these opening pages. The story unfolds in an animated and haunted land, populated by ancestors, animals, spirits, stories, ghosts and laws, all of whom interact and co-influence the main events. The way Wright writes the systems and processes of country in this book – the physical, spiritual, storied and temporal dimensions – is as beautiful and epical as in her previous work. And mirrored in this macro view of whole ecosystems and entanglements are the causes and effects of the media and its messaging on the Aboriginal spirit.

Cause Man is the patriarch of the Steel family, and we are introduced to his tedious, blue-sky thinking about his end-of-the-world crisis venture capital mission that might save himself, his people and the world (in that order). Cause, the donkey man, is married to Dance, the moth woman, and they are parents to Aboriginal Sovereignty and Tommyhawk, aged 17 and 8 respectively.

It was only when things became grim and heavy around page 72 of Praiseworthy that I realised the stakes of this book. Here, we are introduced to Cause and Dance’s youngest son, the fascist Tommyhawk. This grim as fuck page shows us how the Australian media beats this little boy down to a messy pulp – and this is when the novel begins to bare its teeth. This is when the story started getting serious for me, and when I was properly taken in by what is the most interesting storyline in this book, and by consequence of its placement, it seems to be the least urgent dynamic for characters, and for real world people too by this implication. Wright, in her Meanjin essay:

The truth is, we have simply become other people’s subject matter in the stories they tell, and pay the high price of their foolishly playing around with the Aboriginal sense of self, aimed at dismantling our knowledge and belief in our rights, to have us question our truths and our times.

If we consider her two previous novels, one thing that is not new in Praiseworthy is Wright’s interest in the inner lives of children – especially those who are troubled by the adult world and feel its mighty weight upon their little shoulders. We are mostly saddled to the mindset of Tommyhawk in this sense, with his grim outlook on life and his assimilationist goals and the deep, dark secrets that have gouged horrific wounds into his soul, leaving him spiritually conflicted yet still striving to achieve the goals of the voices in his head – voices which have their origins in the nation’s white commentary on black lives.

This brings me to the first of two personal hurdles I had while reading this massive book. The first was that I found it hard to sustain interest in the lives of the adult characters once I got to know the children.

We spend the first part of the book moving around the adult world – their relationships and politics and antagonisms – much of which grated on me, yet they are foregrounded in the book the way adult concerns are foregrounded in life. I was especially annoyed by Cause Man and Dance Steel, as they were both fantasists in their own ways and disinterested in the lives of their troubled children. And at whose expense? The kids’, of course. Children, though they are ostensibly the lightning rods in all culture wars great and small, are really the sacrificial lambs, their needs always side-lined in favour of the people who run the world.

Tommyhawk is equal parts a little shit who deserves a good flogging and who definitely needs to have his gadgets confiscated to decompress his inflated internet brain, and he is also the most psychologically manipulated and tragically tormented player in Praiseworthy’s culture wars. This is an explanation, but not an excuse for his actions. Through the character of Tommyhawk, Wright asks and answers the question: what is the logical endpoint of all this talk in media and policy circuses that paints Aboriginal people as neglectful, degenerate paedophiles? How does all this chatter imprint on the souls of children – the very group of vulnerable people these conversations are purporting to protect?

Tommyhawk is terminally online and fixated on news reports of paedophilia in Aboriginal communities, so much so that he is depriving himself of sleep to the point of psychosis, imagining predators everywhere in his own remote community, and especially seeing it where it doesn’t exist in the older men of his own family.

For these were the bedtime stories he listened to in the dead wakeful night, just like every Aboriginal child heard from the uncensored media that never assumed Aboriginal children were listening to all those assumptions about Aboriginal communities.

Tommy lives in a permanent state of fear that something bad will happen to him and this poisons his mind against his own people as a defense. His escape plan? To appeal to the object of his parasocial fixation: the golden-haired white saviour Mother of all Aboriginal Children, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, who he constantly texts, begging her to rescue and adopt him to save him from his fate of being prey to paedos, and to live out a good life as a white child in Canberra soaking in the spoils and riches he believes he deserves.

Praiseworthy’s narrator says we might think of Tommy as naïve, but he is no more so than anyone else who swallows this rubbish. In the first chapter of Another Day in The Colony, Chelsea Watego details how these deficit narratives are created and how they come to infect us as Aboriginal people. This is a prescient storyline, in light of all the recent media coverage of Aboriginal youth crime in the Northern Territory and Queensland – stories which set white Australia a-panic, and invoke their desire to police and punish our kids. This kind of panic has been previously used to justify racist interventions by cops and armies, most notably in 2007’s Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), orchestrated by John Howard and co. Howard’s heavy-handed decision was an overreaction to, and misunderstanding of a few findings of the Little Children Are Sacred Report. I touched on this appalling overreach in my 2022 SRB essay ‘Stories of Our Dysfunction Have Been Greatly Exaggerated’, writing that Howard et al ‘in building upon existing fictions about us, amplified and perpetuated our people’s supposed dysfunction as whole, but also in a gendered way as parents and partners.’ Child suicide and self-harm has sky-rocketed since the NTER. This comes as no surprise to those of us invested in evidence-based research. Praiseworthy is a novel that shows what this looks like in one Aboriginal community.

When I was younger, paedo was my favourite insult.

It is still one of the worst things you can call someone, because one thing all races, cultures and classes can agree on is that there’s no worse crime than abusing children. The problem is that nobody can agree on who the real culprits are.

Growing up, we knew all manner of synonyms for the dreaded paedophile bogeyman – rock spiders, kiddy fiddlers, and other much more sexually explicit descriptors. We were part of child whisper networks who warned each other about certain leatherbacks (ie. people who tan for hours every day at the beach); these old men would wear the shortest of shorts without underwear and expose themselves to kids. There was also a paedo teacher at our primary school who we all knew to stay away from. His decades-long abuse was only recently brought to light.

Whether they were an actual paedo or not, it was the ultimate insult to spit at older people meddling in our business when we were powerless children. That’s all well and good when you’re a smart-arse kid looking to hurt some busybody adult stranger trying to tell you what to do. But this all begs the question, one that’s been kicking around in my mind lately: What is it with the plague of paedophile fantasists in the media these days – and all of them adults who should know better, no less?

The tragedy of Praiseworthy comes when Tommy uses the white definition of paedophilia against his older teen brother Aboriginal Sovereignty, who is married in the traditional sense to his 15-year-old wife, which then legally allows the coppers to use their law to beat Aboriginal Sovereignty into submission, and when that doesn’t quite kill him, he walks into the ocean to do the job himself. This is where the story shapeshifts into allegory and the town starts asking, What really happened to Aboriginal Sovereignty?

Wright clues us in through her Meanjin essay:

I have seen firsthand the shameful and injurious impact that many public stories have had on of our people over a long period of time. We have been boxed in by the Australian psyche, its fear of the other. It is widely understood that we are being pressured by this country to assimilate, to abandon our culture in order to survive. 

From 1788, when Sydney was magically conjured on stolen Dharug land, Australia has always been a nation of cop-lovers, evident in its love of heavy-handed, paternalistic laws, enacted by both large-scale military interventions as well as its smaller-scale culture of policing and dobbing on thy neighbours.

The first cops on this continent were snitches and lags. Sydney’s ever-growing colonial penal colony needed more and more people to police themselves, and so good convicts were promoted above those of their peers who would not lick the boot of the state. This is how the very first police force was established on this continent for the first time in all times, paving the way for a violent state apparatus tasked with protecting the private property of governments and corporations, and controlling and brutalising civilians throughout its short history marked by widespread corruption, racism, domestic abuse and sexual assault. And who is it that bears the brunt of this violence? Us. Always us. We are criminalised, overpoliced, and not worthy of justice when we deserve it. And this ethos even seeps into the civilian conscience of this country, with the everyman urge to call the cops on each other, or to send the cops into rough neighbourhoods, or to give the cops funding that is dearly needed by health and education and other social services so they can have shiny new weapons to beat up blacks and other activists, and to especially give the cops the benefit of the doubt in every hairy situation they get themselves into.

What would happen if a community of assimilationist-minded Aboriginal people became cops to each other? Everyone would start dobbing on everyone else, and even children would police each other too. So it is in Praiseworthy, a town full of people simultaneously aiming to assimilate and also using that goal as the ultimate insult. Tommy’s only solution to the perceived paedophilia of his older brother is to give in to the cop in his head and call the cops on him, knowing full well what they will do. And they do it properly, belting this kid to within an inch of his life, using Judge Dredd Robocop levels of extra judiciary force.

I have previously written about how Wright uses the temporal structure of ‘everywhen’ to tell her stories, especially in Carpentaria, exploring the ways that time works in that novel’s story shape and structure, then at the sentence level, and also in her characterisation. But I don’t think everywhen is the right framing for Praiseworthy. Time works differently in this book. Though it is set in 2008, a year into the NTER, this timeline feels too messy and mashed up to be true – particularly owing to the ubiquitousness of social media and accelerated global climate change. There is little focus on the history of this town, but lots of future talk. I read this story as taking place out of time rather than encompassing all times in the cultural sense of everywhen.

I don’t know anything about Waanyi funerary rites, but I do know there are some coastal Aboriginal peoples who hold ceremonies for the dead where their cremains are placed into a special vessel, which is rolled back and forth in the shallows of the water for a certain number of tides. Aboriginal Sovereignty’s suicide takes this shape for its own story within the larger story of the novel, and the way the grief rolls in my mind feels similar to this process too. The narration is tidal – always returning back to the suicide event, despite the many ebbs and flows away from it. The central act of Aboriginal Sovereignty walking into the ocean is returned to over and over – first alluded to in the lead up to the event, then witnessed in granular, heart-wrenching detail in the hours of the event, and then revisited often in the agonising aftermath. Whenever we think we are moving on from this tragedy, we are rolled back into the mess on the next tide. It’s a reflective and circular way to write, echoing the way grief works: we appear to move forward in time we then we come back, and on and on, and we only move forward incrementally.

It is because of this cyclical nature of storytelling that all new events and characters in the novel creep up on the reader without fanfare. Nothing is ever announced and then fixed in its place, and nobody is ever introduced cleanly or sharply; all new information seeps onto the page (and into our minds) in dribs and drabs before fading out again, to come back with more weight, more presence, later on. In this way characters and events arrive in waves, quietly, then build to later become massive and important in the story. This someone or something will be drip-fed in until it is flooding the story, which only lasts until some new flood wipes it out.

The timescape of the larger narrative is also cyclical, circling events in and out of time; we might be taken to one place but then we end back to somewhere else to glean another vantage point. Wright has a way of stopping a moment in time, and moving in and out of the event for the longest time, so it appears as though it’s still happening (as all times are) and we keep experiencing it from different angles. This happens with Aboriginal Sovereignty’s suicide and the search for his body, Cause’s donkey quests, Dance’s winged ceremonies and Tommy’s obsession with being saved and his intertwined guilt and grief. The reader is constantly thrown around different scenes from different perspectives, each adding something slightly new to our understanding.

The book is mostly written in the past tense, though Wright also moves into the present tense frequently, bringing some distant moment or other into immediate, sharp relief, and imparting a sense of immanence. The narratorial voice can shift from thick kriol to Aboriginal English to more formal English within a few sentences. The text is very musical too, with classical, country and rocknroll songs humming off the page.

This all makes for an incredible experience if you’re not in a hurry, and not reading to follow a linear plot from point to point. I think it works best if you enter into this book to enjoy the playfulness and unexpectedness, because the story itself resists being held down for too long, or being up in the air for too long either. It’s intentionally agile. And why would you want to pin this story and its characters down, like a butterfly? Or keep it all strictly solid and earth-bound like a donkey? The story is already so heavy in many ways that it screams out for a bit of movement. As one example of many, a stunning description of how Dance (as a moth) is witnessing her son Aboriginal Sovereignty fighting with the ocean and coming up and going back under. It’s these unexpected moments of gravity that anchor the yarn from just spinning out in ditzy ways.

These seven hundred-odd pages are chock full of stunning, exhilarating sentences that lead you around by the nose, taking you to some very unexpected places. Wright stretches sentences to their limits; when you think you’re over one sentence, sick of it even, you land on the most satisfying note.

This story operates on multiple levels, in multiple realms: that of thought, taking place in peoples’ heads and their spirits, which is part of the consciousness of country; and it also operates on the literal, actual or actionable level. These realities melt into each other – though as a work of literature, the thought realm is arguably the strongest in the way it influences the action. It is sometimes hard to tell – perhaps because it doesn’t really matter – whether people, butterflies, cats and other creatures throughout this story are real or ghosts, or maybe a bit of both. Many characters are multiply named, and are sometimes named in different ways with a single sentence, giving them depth, dimension and sociability.

In Praiseworthy, Aboriginal Sovereignty is literally and metaphorically believed to be the future in the way Whitney Houston believes that children are. Unlike his younger brother, he is beloved by the community and mourned widely. His name gets taken both literally and metaphorically by different people at different times, and perhaps the least literally by government and law enforcement when he goes missing.

Then, the aftermath of his act. In this story, I am particularly reminded of the denial and bargaining stages of grief – the former when the town of Praiseworthy refuses to believe that their sovereignty has really left them, and the latter when looking to pin the blame somewhere.Who is responsible for Aboriginal Sovereignty’s attempt at suicide? Is he really dead or even gone at all? And whose fault may this be in any case? Does it lie with the young man himself, or do we lay it at the feet of useless Canberra bureaucrats, or the endless media chitchat on Aboriginal affairs, or is it the hammer of the white state that’s to blame? Is it the neglectful parents, or his vengeful little brother?

The Steels are a miserable family, and they are all fantasists in some way or another – all except for Aboriginal Sovereignty. He is the only one who lives in the real world, and so it any wonder he suicides? On the level of allegory, I think Aboriginal Sovereignty has no choice but to attempt suicide in this apocalyptic world of racism and climate doom. How would it be possible for such a powerful, life-affirming spirit to live in such a destructive world?

Wright, again in Meanjin:

The plot line has always been for one outcome, to erode Aboriginal belief in sovereignty, self-governance and land rights, even when it has gotten to the point where most Aboriginal people have been silenced, or feel too overwhelmed to fight any more. 

My second hurdle in reading this book was that I found it impossible to read Aboriginal Sovereignty’s suicide as even the tiniest bit allegorical, because a few years ago my big brother walked into the sea. Only his body returned to us. His spirit swims on out there.

Child suicide by drowning is endemic in Praiseworthy, and it is a shameful national tragedy in our real world communities. What hope did Aboriginal Sovereignty have to endure after his young wife was taken away, and he himself was beaten by cops, and he was tarred as a paedo by the nation – the worst insult one can be called if you are a decent human being – and when his death was encouraged by his own younger brother?

Here we’ve spiralled back to the most interesting themes of this book, and the pressing question – who are the real paedos, and why is it that our most vulnerable people are being charged with this grave accusation? For someone who used to bandy this insult around with real glee, I am fucking sick of the word being used as a cheap sledge. All I’ve heard all my life as an Aboriginal queer person is that it is blacks and queers who are responsible for grooming kids and abusing them in secret paedophile rings when we all know damn well that the majority of paedophiles are older men in positions of power over vulnerable children – and black and/or queer kids are grossly overrepresented in these statistics. So if we are far more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators, who does this narrative serve but those in power, with secrets to protect? No prizes for the correct guess.

Wright says, in her Meanjin essay:

It has been a life’s work of growing increasingly aware of how other people were telling stories on behalf of Aboriginal people in Australia, and how stories are used in campaigns to achieve certain goals. I think it would be fair to say that we are the country’s troubling conscience and managed by its most powerful power brokers through a national narrative. I saw the fallout of this changing negative narrative in our communities, and in the lifetime of hard work our people do to fight against each political story-making trend.

Many of the worst or most absent characters in this story have a bad case of internet brain rot. Tommy is the most obviously infected of them all. His child’s mind feasts and grows fat on all the chatter across social media, corroding his brain and poisoning his heart against his own people, and his family in particular, to his brother’s demise. At the tender age of eight he is already blackpilled, having long been moulded by what national opinions have to say about the blacks in the bush. The mayor of Pariseworthy Ice Pick and his queens are preoccupied with vlogging his messages, live-streaming assimilationist sermons and obsessively checking the socials for likes and shares and comments. Dance goes down her own internet rabbitholes. These aspects of the story were fun for me. This is the first time Wright has really engaged with social media in her novels, and she does it well. When characters talk of cancelling others in their everyday speech, for example, it sounds naturally emergent from this media-obsessed world and not forced at all.

A confession: when it comes to Australia’s goodwill towards us, I am extremely blackpilled myself. I always was and always will be.

What is it like to grow up as an Aboriginal child, only ever hearing how deficient your people are and inflicting deep, soul-piercing shame about who you are in this world? I grew up just before the age of social media, yet I still heard and internalised these messages clearly, and I felt their implications acutely. I believe I would be hard-pressed to find any life-long blackfella who, long before they knew better, never had these moments of shame, loathing, disgust and hatred towards themselves and towards the most needy of our people for giving us a bad name – you know, the drunks and homeless in the street, our locked up and drug-addicted relatives, the neighbours fighting in public. Who among us has not judged ourselves against the impossible standards that this racist country sets for us?

I feel sad and sorry for any young ones coming up in this atmosphere, having to endure all these rabid big mouths bad-breathing us as a people, watching cops get away with our murder, seeing the Prime Minister call for blanket bans on alcohol and sport based on the hysterical lies of fake outback nurses or vigilante bakers who grift our funding. I despair for younger generations who are constantly exposed to this national ambient racism, absorbing it into their beings simply through existing as technologically-literate citizens. How are our babies supposed to feel strong and sure in their own countries when the choices they are given are to either assimilate into alienating whiteness or be labelled as black degenerates?

This is a sad and nightmarish book in many ways, with a bleak and hopeless outlook, highlighting the ways that the destruction of country and culture are orchestrated by racist, extractivist forces, which of course go hand in glove with the way our children are treated like political footballs, or else as the nation’s pet projects, to be saved and fixed up by the pearl-clutching commentariat. And by always demanding that we think of the children first and foremost, they are throwing our children under the bus and using them as grist for the mill, feeding them into the colonial machine to manipulate social media algorithms for precious likes and clicks.

And so then we must ask these people, as Praiseworthy does: if Australia thinks that little Aboriginal children are so sacred, why is it that this country does not give a flying fuck about them?