Chapter 3 Overcoming the ‘Crisis of Nonrelation’ through Formal Innovation

Aboriginal Short Story Cycles

In: Representing Poverty and Precarity in a Postcolonial World
Dorothee Klein
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1 Introduction

The 2016 report of the Australian Council of Social Service (acoss) documents the widespread poverty and the precarious living conditions prevalent in numerous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Analysing data from the 2014 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (hilda) survey, the report states that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were more likely to experience poverty than other Australians, and are less likely to ‘exit welfare’ than other Australians” (acoss 37). As the 2020 hilda survey found, rates of material deprivation are still significantly higher for Indigenous people than for non-Indigenous Australians, thus making them more likely to live in poverty, which is conceived of “as relative deprivation or socio-economic disadvantage” (Wilkins et al. 54, 35). Moreover, according to the 2020 Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report, even though the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians has improved for many indicators over the last two decades, including employment rates, there has been little change or even a worsening in others areas, such as imprisonment and youth detention, alcoholism and substance misuse (Steering Committee 6). And even in areas such as employment, which has seen improvements, at least until 2008, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in terms of their respective employment rates is still considerable with around 49 percent for Indigenous people compared to around 75 percent for non-Indigenous Australians (Closing the Gap 65).1

In public discourse, Indigenous poverty and other, often related problems such as violence and drug abuse are frequently linked to dysfunctional cultural traditions. As Barbara Schmidt-Haberkamp and Elisabeth Baehr (5) point out, this line of argument blames social issues on Indigenous culture rather than on the traumata of colonialism. According to Judy Atkinson, the traumatic experiences of the past, such as frontier violence, dislocation from traditional lands and forced child removal, have a continuing impact on later generations. As she explains, many of the problems that Indigenous communities face today, such as poverty, alcoholism and family violence, are symptomatic of the transgenerational transmission of traumatic behaviours resulting from Australia’s long history of oppression and marginalisation (Atkinson esp. 24, 82–83, 226–34).

The narrative of Indigenous dysfunction has been heavily criticised by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers, scholars and activists. In her essay “On Writing Carpentaria”, the Waanyi author Alexis Wright, for example, states that she wants to move beyond the “typical, pathological, paternalist viewpoint” that prevails in non-Indigenous discourse on Indigenous subject matters and that perceives Indigenous people as “pathetic welfare cases” (85). Similarly, Goenpul scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson argues that “according to the logic of neo-liberalism, the impoverished conditions under which Indigenous people live are a product of dysfunctional cultural traditions and social pathology” (6), and, as she contends, this populist view is used to deny Indigenous people their sovereignty.

A note on terminology seems necessary at this point. Overall, I use the terms ‘poverty’ and ‘precarity’ in the sense outlined by Barbara Korte. As she explains, in critical discourse, poverty is commonly conceived of as (material) deprivation that is inextricably linked to social exclusion as well as a lack of “agency, opportunities and access to knowledge, traditions, rights or capabilities” (1). The existential insecurity that may result from these deprivations and exclusions is often subsumed under the term ‘precarity’. However, as Boyd Hunter (9) reminds us, Indigenous poverty is multi-dimensional, including not only income but also health, housing, justice and affinity with the land, all of which have an impact on the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Since Vicky Grieves argues that “Aboriginal Spirituality”, in the sense of a “wholistic [sic] notion of the interconnectedness of the elements of the earth and the universe” (7) is essential for Indigenous people’s social and emotional well-being, this article focuses in particular on the relationship between experiences of poverty and precarity and the feeling of being alienated from the land.

Given the economic deprivation and social exclusion that many Indigenous Australians face, it comes as little surprise that issues such as poverty, domestic violence, alcoholism and drug abuse also feature prominently in Aboriginal literature, across all genres.2 More recent examples include, for instance, poetry by Romaine Moreton, the poetic memoir Too Afraid to Cry by Ali Cobby Eckermann (2012), short stories by Alf Taylor, and novels such as Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (2006) or Tony Birch’s Blood (2011) and Ghost River (2015). Many of these works question the equation of poverty and Aboriginality by presenting, for example, self-confident Aboriginal characters that uphold cultural traditions despite, or in the face of their socio-economic disadvantage.3

One genre that I wish to argue is particularly well-suited to counter this populist discourse of Indigenous poverty and dysfunction is the short story cycle – a genre which has become prominent in Aboriginal writing in the last decade, including works by Tony Birch (Shadowboxing, 2006), Jeanine Leane (Purple Threads, 2011), Marie Munkara (Every Secret Thing, 2009) and Ellen van Neerven (Heat and Light, 2014). Using the figure of thought of relationality as an analytical tool, I wish to illustrate how the short story cycle through its very form fosters a critical engagement with prevalent discourses that simply equate Aboriginality, or being Aboriginal, with poverty and precarity. This article focuses primarily on Tara June Winch’s award-winning debut fiction Swallow the Air (2006), a short story cycle composed of twenty short stories. Swallow the Air traces how the narrator-protagonist, May Gibson, attempts to overcome what I call her ‘crisis of nonrelation’ – a term which I take from Leela Gandhi’s study Affective Communities (148) and which I use to refer to an existential lack of relationality, a loss of feeling interconnected to other human beings and to the land. Winch’s cycle foregrounds the importance of relationality on a formal as well as on the content level, as I will demonstrate in my analysis. Moreover, this inscription and mediation of relationality extends to the reader as well in that the narrative encourages an intersubjective and participatory reading that pays heed to notions of plurality and multiplicity, while raising awareness of our own reading positions, as Davis (18) has also argued with regard to Asian American and Asian Canadian short story cycles. Ultimately, Aboriginal short story cycles such as Swallow the Air present an ambiguous view on the issue of poverty, oscillating between an emphasis on cultural specificity and inclusiveness, the potential of traditions to instigate a process of healing and the shortcomings of such a mono-dimensional approach. As a loosely connected series of short stories, these texts provide us with a kaleidoscope of individual accounts of living a precarious life, reflecting the multi-dimensional nature of Aboriginal poverty. Through their form, they warn us against homogenising and teleological readings that lump together diverse forms and experiences of poverty and that try to account for them on the basis of just one parameter, such as culture.

The first section briefly expounds the formal specificity of the short story cycle as a promising field for investigating the cultural function these texts perform in and through their form. The next section then traces how Swallow the Air mediates the potential of relationality, especially on the level of form, as an ambiguous (and partly utopian) means to overcome the ‘crisis of nonrelation’, that is, the problems of precarious living conditions and social exclusion that lead to a feeling of profound alienation and which are to some extent the result of a disconnection from the land. After these formal considerations, the third part turns to the level of reader-text relations, looking at how Swallow the Air positions us as readers through evading a sense of finality and defying reader expectations. A brief comparison with Tony Birch’s Shadowboxing (2006) complements this analysis, illustrating how the form of the short story cycle may serve to complicate questions of ethnicity and ethnic identity. Overall, I wish to show how Aboriginal short story cycles potentially undermine simplistic discourses of Aboriginal poverty and dysfunctional cultural traditions by engaging us in a web of narrative relations that make us aware of the moral responsibility involved in discussing the reasons for and potential solutions to the multi-faceted challenges that Aboriginal (and Torres Strait Islander) people in Australia face today.

2 The Promise of Relations – Aboriginal Short Story Cycles and Reading Practices

The genre of the short story cycle is notoriously difficult to define. However, while there is much disagreement on terminology (short story cycle, composite novel, short story composite, short story sequence)4, critics are surprisingly unanimous in describing its central characteristic: several interrelated short stories that compose a larger unit.5 Interrelation, or what I prefer to call relationality, can hence be considered the central formal characteristic of this particular genre in that the individual short stories assume additional meaning when read in relation to one another. For the most part, short story cycle criticism, especially on North American literature, has focused on specific thematic concerns such as the representation of fragmented identities, migrant experiences and communities, and how notions of hybridity and multiplicity are reflected in the very form of the short story cycle.6 In my analysis, I wish to combine this focus on the work’s socio-political agenda with the attention to formal detail that is often found in short story criticism, trying to delineate how the poetics of representation in Swallow the Air influences and reflects its politics.7 This influence, I contend, extends to the reader as well in that its particular form affects how we read the narrative, calling for an intersubjective and participatory engagement with the text.

In her book Transcultural Reinventions (2001), Rocío Davis argues that the form of the short story cycle requires new reading strategies.8 Through its necessarily elliptical form, this genre invites the reader to participate in the production of meaning, placing us in a strategic position because we need to bridge the gaps between the individual short stories. In particular, we need to abandon the self-contained world of one short story before moving on to the next one. As the following analysis attempts to show, this positioning of the reader as well as certain formal features within individual short stories make the short story cycle a particularly effective medium to (re)present a multifaceted view of Aboriginal cultures and hence to subvert and challenge simplistic discourses of Aboriginal poverty.

3 Swallow the Air – Overcoming the ‘Crisis of Nonrelation’

Swallow the Air is a short story cycle written in the form of a bildungsroman and tells of the narrator-protagonist May’s quest for a place to belong. Growing up, May’s life is shaped by the stories her mother told her about the land and about ancestral spirits such as Mungi, the turtle (Winch 4–5). As the first short story in the cycle indicates, May’s childhood years are marked by an intimate relation to the land, more specifically the beach and the ocean (“Swallow the Air”). However, after her mother’s suicide, at the end of the first short story, she is unable to appreciate or live an interconnected life anymore. As she explains in retrospect: “When Billy and me lost our mother, we lost ourselves. We stopped swimming in the ocean, scared that we’d forget to breathe. Forget to come up for mouthfuls of air. We lost trust because we didn’t want to touch something that was going to fall away. Like bubbles, too delicate, too fragile, too brief” (Winch 195). Through her mother’s stories, which May experienced directly in that her mother took her to the places that held these stories (137), she “felt Aboriginal […] felt like [she] belonged” – a feeling that she loses with her mother’s death (97). Instead, she feels as if she did not belong anywhere (97) and with cultural traditions as a source of strength fading away, issues of loss, poverty and alcohol abuse come increasingly to the fore.

In many stories, especially in the first half of the cycle, the reader is introduced to a world that is shaped by poverty, domestic violence and drugs. May lives in precarious conditions with her brother and her aunt, an alcoholic and gambler, and she repeatedly witnesses how her aunt is beaten up by her boyfriend. After one of these incidences, May runs away from home and stays at a junkies’ home, a place that she describes as “a drug house of anxious nobodies” (Winch 65). It is here that her ‘crisis of nonrelation’ reaches its peak, because, as she says, she “did not know any of them; [she] did not know [her] brother” (74). In other words, many stories depict how May becomes increasingly alienated from the land and from other people and finds herself in an environment dominated by material deprivation, violence and drugs. This particular arrangement of the short stories – moving from a focus on the beach as a place of ease and interconnectedness to several locations marked by the absence of meaningful relationships – suggests that alienation from the land may be one factor that contributes to May’s descent into poverty.

However, other stories, especially in the second half of the cycle, oblige us to abandon this world of precarious living conditions. Instead, the focus shifts to the ways in which May attempts to overcome her ‘crisis of nonrelation’. In this context, the significance of Aboriginal, or more specifically Wiradjuri cultural traditions comes to the fore. Many later stories focus on the experience of feeling interrelated with other people and with the land, thus mediating the centrality of relationality for Aboriginal wellbeing. A turning point is the short story “Wantok”, in which May and Johnny, a Torres Strait Island boy, tell each other stories about their ancestral lands, which they have never been able to visit. Their storytelling is not detached, or merely descriptive; instead, they imaginatively take each other to places that they feel connected with. The short story begins as follows: “Johnny takes me away, together we run the white-sanded beaches, and we eat mangoes and pick coconuts and wade through swamps to pull up lily roots and eat them as sugar rhubarb” (Winch 119). Though physically still in Sydney, they mentally relocate themselves to distant places through stories. In other words, they undergo what Marie-Laure Ryan terms “fictional recentering” (21–23) and what Marco Caracciolo refers to as “imaginative projection” (117); that is, they feel present in places that they have never visited but can only experience through narrative.

This short story is particularly noteworthy in terms of its formal features. For one, it makes extensive use of the present tense, exploring the potential of this pluri-significant tense, which, as Dorrit Cohn (106–107) has pointed out, can refer to imagined scenarios as well as to perceptions and descriptions of the real world. The present-tense narration in “Wantok” fuses the narrated story world, Sydney, with the children’s imaginative world of their ancestral homelands. Both ‘worlds’ have the same experiential quality for the characters, which reflects the importance of an imagined homeland for them since their connections to the real land are broken. Moreover, the present tense in this short story indicates a sense of momentariness, presenting us with extensively imagined, and narratively experienced, moments of feeling interconnected with the land instead of with an authoritative and coherent account of reconnecting with Country. Furthermore, May and Johnny are presented as a joint consciousness, as the first-person plural pronoun “we” underlines – “we scramble”, “we run”, “we fish”, “we read”, “we beachcomb”, “we visit”, “we dance”, “we rest” (Winch 121). Through this projection of a joint consciousness, the narrative further highlights the importance of relationality, with other human beings as well as with the land, by making it impossible to attribute any of the perceptions and actions rendered in this passage to just one person. Put slightly differently, the short story depicts a communal experience of relating to the land.

“Wantok” assumes a crucial function in Swallow the Air in that it epitomises the moment in which a joint immersion in an imagined place leads to a desire for the real place, at least for the protagonist May. The later short stories tell of the journey May undertakes to her mother’s Country in order to find a place to belong. This ‘Journey to Country’ theme is a common trope in many Aboriginal narratives, starting with Sally Morgan’s My Place (1987), but also in more recent ones such as Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby (2013). However, Winch introduces a different version of this theme. May’s ancestral Country does not serve as a straightforward source of healing in the sense of helping her to overcome her ‘crisis of nonrelation’, as Robert Clarke (134) also suggests. Structurally, this continuous disconnection is emphasised in that the short story titled “Country” precedes and is set apart from the one titled “Home”. The cycle hence requires us to abandon the almost romanticised and stereotypical notion that ancestral Country always and unproblematically provides the character with a sense of belonging. Instead, May feels at home in her aunt’s place, the place she returns to in the very last short story, “Home”.

This concluding short story contains a tension that is never resolved. On the one hand, May has finally rediscovered her ability to relate to the land in the sense of experiencing it. The experiential importance of this development is again emphasised through the use of the present tense. As Matthew DelConte (430–31) contends, in simultaneous narration the narrative location constantly shifts so that the narrating location is often identical with the experiencing location. DelConte is here indebted to Cohn, who has pointed out that in present-tense narration the distinction between narrating and experiencing is “literally reduced to zero: the moment of narration is the moment of experience, the narrating self is the experiencing self” (107). Coming home, May notes that “[w]e don’t need words. I can smell it. I can feel it. […] As I walk up toward the beach entrance, across the little raindrop dimples on yesterday’s footprints, and feel the gritty warm-wet sand carry me. As the starburst eelgrass clusters roll like tumbleweeds off the dunes. As all the salt hits me. I know what the word really means, home” (Winch 194). Through the use of present-tense, i.e., simultaneous narration, the narrative foregrounds the important experiential feeling that the beach holds for May. May’s intimacy with the land is reflected on the level of narration in that the distinction between experiencing and narrating is levelled. The form of the short story cycle in combination with present-tense narration in some stories thus mediates the subconscious, fragmented yet immediate nature of May’s experiences of the land. This provisional and discontinuous form of establishing relationality is mirrored and re-created in our reading of the narrative, firstly through the elliptical form of the short story cycle, and secondly through the use of present-tense narration, in which, as James Phelan (234) has argued, our reading experience is very close to the ongoing experiences of the protagonist.

This analysis of present-tense narration seems to suggest that May has found a tentative and provisional place to belong by learning to relate to any place, not necessarily her ancestor’s Country. As she maintains, “[e]ven though this country is not my mother’s country, even though we are freshwater, not saltwater people, this place still owns us, still owns our history, my brother’s and my own, Aunty’s too. Mum’s. They are part of this place” (Winch 194). Ken Gelder describes this as a “displaced form of belonging” (62). Indeed, Swallow the Air does not end on a decidedly positive note. The home that May returns to is the same that she has left earlier: her aunt is drinking, the house is dilapidated, and the neighbourhood is in the process of being demolished. In other words, May’s circular journey brings her back to the precarious living conditions she has sought to leave behind. In fact, the final short story “Home”, and thus the whole cycle, ends in a way that in some regard stands in marked contrast to the positive narrative thread that tells of May’s re-found ability to connect to the land. The final paragraph reads as follows: “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” (Winch 198). The cycle closes on a note of profound uncertainty, as emphasised by the recurring “if”. Although May is now able to connect to the land, this feeling does not alleviate the precariousness she and her family experience in their everyday life, such as the threat of becoming homeless. While many short stories in Swallow the Air highlight the function of Wiradjuri cultural traditions as a source of confidence and resilience, other stories remind us of the pervasive problems of Aboriginal material deprivation and social exclusion. The form of the short story cycle presents these two worlds both as coexistent and in partial opposition, prohibiting a reading in which a world of lived relationality functions as a simple solution to socio-economic problems.

The utopian quality of relating to any land in order to feel at home is, for instance, juxtaposed to the harsh reality of the dire living conditions in remote communities, which is brought to the fore in the short story “Mission”. May experiences this place as a desolate and bleak locale, devoid of any hope: “Dead land. […] The windows have no shutters, some doorways have no doors, and every house is exactly the same, like someone’s idea of fancy concentration camps” (Winch 167). May’s observation is partly confirmed and supplemented by an old Aboriginal man, Uncle, who talks about the problems this remote station community faces on a daily basis. As he notes, alcoholism is pervasive – “too much grog” (169), “so much drinkin, drinkin, drinkin” (170) – as is violence – “so much anger” (170). Uncle attributes these problems to the fact that Aboriginal people are “still seen as second-rate person [sic], still treated like they don’t matter” (171), and his monologue bristles with railings against genocidal government policies and against racist attitudes towards Aboriginal people. However, it is noteworthy that this bleak assessment of government policies is clearly framed as an individual and subjective perception. As Uncle stresses at the end, “[y]ou know what, maybe I don’t know what I’m talkin bout, I sure as hell would like someone to tell me I’m wrong, I wish someone would just tell me I’m wrong” (172). Instead of pretending to give an authoritative insider account of the hardship Aboriginal people face in this community, the text frames these depictions as clearly subjective ones – May’s observations and Uncle’s personal interpretation. While this brief passage on the dire living conditions in a remote community serves as a means to counter idealistic images of living a harmonious, interconnected life, it also highlights that all we are presented with are short, isolated and individual perceptions and “attempts to make sense of the world”, as stated in the dedication and as the overall form of the short story cycle further reinforces. Moreover, as Wiradjuri academic and writer Jeanine Leane has pointed out, the narrative emphasises that the substance abuse and violence of some Aboriginal characters is not the result of “innate dysfunctional behaviour” but “part of a generational response to institutionalized racism and mistreatment” (“Rites” 117). Put slightly differently, Winch presents us exclusively with individual opinions and actions within a specific context, thereby subverting generalising notions of the inherent dysfunctionality of Aboriginal communities.

Overall, Swallow the Air urges readers to constantly move not only between stories but between the two worlds that are contained in them: one which depicts the problems and challenges of poverty, drug addiction and domestic violence, and one which foregrounds the relationality between people and the land, or, more broadly speaking, Aboriginal cultural traditions and knowledge systems as a potential source of belonging and healing. The tension between these two worlds is never resolved. Instead, the short story cycle provides us with a kaleidoscopic account of a Wiradjuri family’s life – a life which is characterised by both hope of reconnecting to people and places and despair in the light of poverty, alcoholism and dispossession. The form of the short story cycle privileges this focus on the individual nature of experiencing precarity in its many guises, including alienation from the land, over telling a teleological story about Indigenous poverty that presents us with straightforward conclusions.

4 Defying Reader Expectations

Especially through the ambiguous concluding short story, Swallow the Air seems to evade a sense of finality, which, as Davis (16) has pointed out, is a common feature of many short story cycles by minority writers. This rejection of a conclusive narrative is often linked to a refusal to fulfil reader expectations (16), which Winch’s cycle does in two regards, thus fostering a critical engagement with our alleged knowledge about Indigenous poverty. For one, a return to Country does not lead to a sense of belonging, that is, it offers a different, inconclusive ‘Journey to Country’ story. This alternation on a common theme in Aboriginal literature scrutinises idealised notions of Country as a source of healing.9 On the other hand, Winch’s text is not what Melissa Lucashenko in her review calls the “Sally Morgan story”. It is not about May discovering her Aboriginality – she grows up knowing that she is Wiradjuri (Winch 97). While May’s Aboriginal heritage contributes to the hardship she suffers especially in the first half of the cycle – for instance racism and rape (“My Bleeding Palm”) – the narrative has at the same time an inclusive outlook, and thus exceeds notions of absolute otherness. This inclusive quality is already implied in the dedication “for all of us, attempting to make sense of the world”, and it is “the most universal of human quests” that is at the heart of Swallow the Air: a place to feel home and safe (Lucashenko, “Review”). The short story cycle, I would argue, warns us against reading it through an exclusively ‘ethnic’ lens, which runs the danger of simply equating poverty, alcoholism and violence with Wiradjuri culture.

To be more precise, instead of focusing exclusively on questions of Aboriginality, Swallow the Air also points towards our common humanity, to what we share, and especially criticises using skin colour as a marker of difference. As May maintains, for example, “[w]hen I looked into the mirror I saw a girl, lost and hollow – the same as every other fifteen-year-old, I guessed. I didn’t see the colour that everyone else saw” (Winch 97). Skin colour only provides a superficial difference that does not withstand scrutiny. Visiting an illegal fist fight event near Darwin, May notes “[b]lack men and white men, separated by only skin, only by skin until it rips open and the red blood and red dirt become the same, same red brute” (84). Violence, this particular short story emphasises, is not in any way linked to a person’s cultural background or skin colour.

This countering of notions of absolute otherness, which may translate into equating Aboriginality with issues of poverty or domestic violence, becomes even more pronounced in Tony Birch’s short story cycle Shadowboxing (2006), a text that defies reader expectations, especially with regard to cultural identity, to an even greater extent than Swallow the Air. Tony Birch’s fiction, such as his novels Blood (2011) and Ghost River (2015), is characterised by two recurring features: a social-realist framework that concentrates on people who live on the social and economic margins, and the scarcity of any references to or indications of the characters’ cultural background. Unlike Kim Scott or Alexis Wright, for example, Birch does not draw on Aboriginal cultural traditions or narratives and thus he does not direct attention to his work as a contemporary Aboriginal cultural form, as Eve Vincent has pointed out.

These observations also hold true for Shadowboxing, a collection of ten linked short stories about the experiences of the narrator-protagonist Michael, a boy growing up in a working-class neighbourhood in Fitzroy in the 1960s. He lives in a world of poverty, a world in which domestic violence is widespread, and where the law of the jungle prevails on the streets. The ethnic identity of most characters remains unexplained throughout the whole cycle. There is only one passage in the short story “The Bulldozer” that refers explicitly to Michael’s ethnicity. One of the workers looks at Michael and asks: “‘What about you, kid? An Abo, an Indian, or a no-hoper? What are you? A bit of each, maybe?’ He called over his shoulder to his workmate. ‘What do you reckon, Andy? This kid? Do you reckon he’s one of us, or one of them? Hard to tell, hey?” (Birch, Shadowboxing 79). This passage is significant in two respects. For one, the narrative defies the workmen’s desire to unambiguously establish Michael’s ethnicity by classifying him as “one of us, or one of them” based on his bodily appearance and thus foregrounds the arbitrariness and superficiality of these exclusive and reductive categories. Secondly, this passage and the workmen’s behaviour can be read as a mirroring of and critical comment on our engagement with the text. Even though readers may recoil from the racism depicted in this scene, there may still be a subconscious wish to come to terms with Michael’s cultural background, as Vincent has argued. Shadowboxing therefore most poignantly challenges what Maria Löschnigg has termed “the common ‘reader fallacy’ of automatically attributing the ethnic identity of the author to his/her fictional characters” (162). By leaving out “obvious ethnic markers” (162), Birch foregrounds that the themes of poverty, domestic violence and generally life at the socio-economic margins are not in any way directly and inextricably linked to questions of culture and traditions. The elision of “ethnic markers”, I would argue, is an especially effective means to counter discourses that equate Aboriginality and poverty in that it confronts us with our own prejudices and the subconscious expectations and assumptions that we bring to the text. The form of the short story cycle further enhances this effect. It requires us to continually scrutinise our own reading positions, since the loose connections between the individual stories complicate a simple transfer of insights gained from one story to the next. In other words, the narrative form favours individuality and encourages us to respect that focus on the particular by making it difficult to come up with a unifying thread, including ethnicity, as an overarching, meaning providing category.

5 Conclusion – The Potential of Relationality

Winch’s short story cycle Swallow the Air as well as Birch’s Shadowboxing warn us against exclusively ‘ethnic’ readings that run the danger of simply equating poverty and violence with Aboriginality. The form of the short story cycle reflects the episodic, fragmented and subjective nature of the narrator-protagonists’ experiences, providing us with a kaleidoscopic insight into diverse lived realities instead of an authoritative, univocal account of Aboriginal living conditions. Swallow the Air in particular uses several narrative strategies to counter pathological discourses of Aboriginal poverty. It juggles culture-specific and universal themes and depicts two simultaneous worlds, one of poverty, domestic violence and drug abuse, and one of cultural resilience and hope through relationality with other people and with the land. However, despite this emphasis on relationality as a means to overcome the ‘crisis of nonrelation’, there remains a constant tension between these two worlds. Through this unresolved tension the narrative subverts pathological and paternalistic discourses of Aboriginal poverty and precarity without resorting to an idealised and romanticised view of Aboriginal cultures.

In this context, the genre of the short story cycle assigns a crucial role to readers. Moving between the individual short stories and between the different worlds depicted in them, we are encouraged to constantly shift our reading positions. In particular, through the use of present-tense narration in Swallow the Air, we are invited to experience the potential of relationality, with other people and with the land, as one possibility to counter the ‘crisis of nonrelation’. Tony Birch, on the other hand, confronts us with our (subconscious) attempts to read Aboriginal-authored narratives of poverty and precarity through an exclusively ‘ethnic’ lens. This negation of ethnicity as a primary meaning-providing feature of Aboriginal fiction and the emphasis on relationality can be seen as gesturing towards the potential of what the Caribbean writer and theorist Édouard Glissant terms “Relation”, in which “the whole is not the finality of its parts: for multiplicity in totality is totally diversity” (192). Diversity, for Glissant, provides the “real foundation of Relation” (190), where Relation describes a “fluid and unsystematic system whose elements are engaged in a radically nonhierarchical free play of interrelatedness” (Britton 11). This is what the very form of the short story cycle also reflects in that it offers us loosely connected stories about diverse experiences regarding, for instance, alienation from the land, material deprivation and alcohol abuse, without subsuming them under a conclusive, unified narrative of Indigenous struggles or cultural dysfunction.

Moreover, the short story cycle can be seen to embody a politics of communality in that it acknowledges the larger framework of a common humanity, the quest for a place to belong and to feel safe, but without discarding cultural differences and individual experiences. In such a reading, poverty and precarity constitute factors that have a profound impact on the lives of individuals and whole communities, but they are not inextricably or directly linked to the values and customs of a particular culture. The fragmented nature of the cycle, which encourages participation in the reading process and raises awareness of our own reading positions, suggests that confronting our prejudices and alleged knowledge about Indigenous poverty may be a first step in a long, open-ended process that necessarily concerns all of Australian society.


These are the most recent data available on Indigenous poverty. The figures presented here are merely meant to give a general, statistical overview of Indigenous socio-economic disadvantage; they do not, for instance, reflect differences with regard to geographical location, gender or education. For the most recent, comprehensive overview of Indigenous employment, education and health cf. Closing the Gap.


I use the term ‘Aboriginal’ in the following, since my analysis does not include works by Torres Strait Islander writers.


Cf. also Jan Alber on how recent Aboriginal fiction uses humour and references to cultural traditions in its representations of Indigenous poverty in order to “counteract the potential victimization of indigenous Australians” (148).


For an overview, cf. Lundén (12–18).


Cf., for instance, Dunn and Morris (2), Mann (15) and Nagel (15).


Cf., for instance, Davis, Löschnigg, Lynch and O’Connor.


Two noteworthy exceptions from this dominance of thematic analyses in short story cycle criticism are Davis’s Transcultural Reinventions and Löschnigg’s The Contemporary Canadian Short Story. To date, hardly any scholarly attention has been paid to Aboriginal short story cycles, despite their growing visibility on the Australian literary scene.


The following is based on Davis (18).


Cf. van Toorn, who argues that “the Aboriginal subject’s journey is usually towards home and traditional country” (37).

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