Reviewed: Alexis Wright, Praiseworthy, GIRAMONDO
‘Disruption’ may have been a ubiquitous corporate buzzword in recent decades, but nothing seemed to have prepared the world for the upheavals of a global pandemic. In a matter of weeks, the incessant cross-border flows of globalisation were abruptly halted by lockdowns, border closures, supply chain interruptions and labour shortages. We had imagined a future with limitless movement; now suddenly movement itself was impossible.
Writers have already started to respond to recent events with a groundswell of post-pandemic fiction. Some have dealt specifically with the experience of lockdown, such as Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat (2021) or Ian McEwan’s Lessons (2022), or have been prompted to ask basic existential questions, as we see in Fred D’Aguiar’s memoir about battling cancer during this period, Year of Plagues: A Memoir of 2020 (2021). Others have focused on the new historical perspective that COVID-19 lends to the pandemic-ridden past: Isabel Allende’s Violeta (2022) and Ali Smith’s Companion Piece (2022), for instance, reorient our previous understanding of globality by bookending their stories between COVID-19 and the Spanish flu. Finally, another branch of post-pandemic fiction is emerging, which sees our battle against pathogens as innately tied to the issue of climate change.
Alexis Wright’s first novel in a decade—Praiseworthy—falls into this latter category. Wright came to international attention in 2006 with Carpentaria, a landmark in Australian fiction that helped pave the way for the current renaissance of Aboriginal literature. She is known for pushing the boundaries of the English language, using the novel to assert Aboriginal culture as inherently modern, adaptive and—most crucially—sustainable. The environmental concerns expressed throughout Wright’s body of work reflect an Aboriginal worldview that sees human beings as caretakers of the land. Aboriginal political resistance is therefore closely aligned with planetary survival. From the act of sabotage that Will Phantom carries out against an international mining company in Carpentaria, to the wedge of swans that Oblivia leads triumphantly back to Country in The Swan Book (2013), Wright is adamant that a shared future will only be possible if we can stage a return to more harmonious ways of living with nature.
Coming in at over 700 pages, Praiseworthy is the finest distillation yet of Wright’s themes—a bold assertion of Aboriginal sovereignty that successfully encompasses all areas of life: culture, economy, and jurisprudence. The novel harks back to Carpentaria in the way it presents a small, regional community as a microcosm of Australian society, this time the fictional town of Praiseworthy instead of Desperance. However, where Carpentaria stood out for its sprawling, operatic cast of characters, Praiseworthy is a chamber piece by comparison. Wright centres her narrative around the nuclear family of Cause Man Steel, his wife Dance Steel and their two sons, Aboriginal Sovereignty (Ab.Sov for short) and Tommyhawk. The disappearance of Aboriginal Sovereignty into the waters late at night, and subsequent descent of the entire town into mourning, seems pointedly geared towards allegorical readings. Indeed, the novel’s official blurb declares it ‘a fable for the end of days’. Yet the only logical conclusion to be drawn from the numerous references to Trumpism, Twitter, social media disinformation, and the challenges facing the airline industry—especially Qantas, Australia’s national carrier—is that the end of days being depicted here is our own.
Prior to COVID-19, contemporary novelists often toyed with the idea of a pandemic as an extinction event. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) imagines a world where a manufactured virus has wiped out most of the human population, whereas the Georgian flu in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) is so infectious and deadly that only those rare pockets of people who were able to quarantine themselves in the early years survive. Praiseworthy is similarly concerned with the question of human survival, but here the threat posed by disease pales in comparison to the natural disasters that will decimate the town, a place ‘that will either end up being burnt to a crisp, or flooded with tidal waves’. Wright now draws from the direct experience of having lived through pandemic conditions; infectious viral agents acquire a certain humdrum quality as a result. Rather than commandeering a central place in her novel, the pandemic seeps into the narrative in mundane ways. The reader will be startled by moments of recognition, such as when Wright talks about ‘the recent online shopping blitz in the time of a global pandemic’ or chooses to describe the government surveillance of Aboriginal Sovereignty in these terms:
Was he threatening their existence with some magic emanating from his shuffling feet? Spitting where he should not be spitting? Putting the privileged people protected from the viral load of worldwide pandemics at risk of being spat at while going about their normal lives?
More frequent global pandemics are an inevitable outcome of climate change, and Wright’s almost prosaic description of the ensuing social adaptations seems to emphasise this.
Wright’s work differs most significantly from that of Atwood or Mandel in her understanding that we cannot speak about matters of health without also considering the central role of culture and language, race and politics, in the maintenance of one’s wellbeing. Pandemic conditions exposed the degree to which racial inequality remains deeply encoded within global systems of trade, politics and public health. These forms of structural inequality came as no surprise to Aboriginal peoples, who have historically recorded higher health risks and a lower life expectancy than the general population in Australia. The pressures of COVID-19 shone a spotlight on the under-resourced status of regional Australia, where proportionally more Aboriginal peoples live than in urban areas. Overseas, it can hardly be a coincidence that the onset of the pandemic precipitated an upswell in the Black Lives Matter movement, with a record number of protesters taking to the streets in June 2020 throughout the United States, Europe, and even parts of Asia.
It is well acknowledged that racial bias (whether intended or unconscious) within the medical system can adversely affect health outcomes.¹ In this context, language is revealed to be a powerful tool that mediates the construct of race, capable of either countering or sanctioning forms of discrimination. This is why shortly after sounding the alarm about the Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) on 30 January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) swiftly moved to designate an official name for the pathogen that was already being referred to as the ‘Wuhan’ or ‘China’ virus. Two weeks later, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus held a press conference to remind people that WHO guidelines explicitly stated that ‘names for new infections may not include geographic locations, animals, individuals or groups of people’.² Announcing that the new virus was to be called COVID-19, Ghebreyesus said: ‘Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatising.’³ The US president at the time, Donald Trump, pointedly ignored this directive and chose instead to refer to COVID-19 as the ‘Chinese virus’ or the ‘Kung flu’, deliberately stoking the flames of anti-Asian sentiment in the process.⁴
In Praiseworthy, Wright engages with the resurgence of anti-Chinese sentiment by refracting it through the historical lens of anti-Aboriginal sentiment. Despite Praiseworthy’s remote location in the regional outback, China looms large in the imagination of its inhabitants, a sobering reminder of the country’s position as Australia’s largest trading partner. The town’s local politics plays out against a complex, entangled background of Aboriginal, Chinese and British allegiances and their shifting significations within Australian culture. Wright’s Australia is one where Chinese ghosts talk to each other on the radio (‘Nobody could say how some Chinese ghosts showing up might talk politics on Australian radio’) and where the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs is suspicious ‘that Praiseworthy was full of Aboriginal people trying to betray her government to China’. Thanks to the internet, Praiseworthy’s inhabitants have a courtside view of global events and a strong sense of being a marginalised people situated in the world.
Wright has long been fascinated by China—from the Chinaman in her first novel, Plains of Promise (1997), to the Chinese hermit in The Swan Book. In her essay ‘Rewriting to Reclaim Ourselves’, Wright goes into detail about her own Cantonese great-grandfather, Chui (Xu) Saam Bo, and the difficulties of being an Aboriginal person of Chinese descent:
Our story and its deeply felt heritage and our sense of both its normality and abnormality in Aboriginal culture have existed over several generations. It is a story that is similar to many other families and their descendants in the Aboriginal world. Throughout my childhood I was surrounded by families who had both an Aboriginal and Chinese identity and were living with the realities and regenerative consequences of our heritage.⁵
The rise of anti-Chinese sentiment is therefore something that integrally involves and affects the Aboriginal community, and Wright’s decision to feature China so prominently in Praiseworthy is as much a gesture of solidarity as it is a nod to her family background. Wright bestows the Lepidoptera-obsessed Dance Steel (the Moth-er) with Chinese ancestry and uses her to present a strong counter-narrative to the overt Sinophobia exhibited recently both overseas and in Australia.
The difficulty of claiming Native Title, which requires Aboriginal peoples to prove they have had a continuous and unbroken connection to their Country since colonisation, functions as a disincentive for people to talk openly about their Chinese heritage. We see these dynamics play out in Praiseworthy when Dance finds herself at odds with the rest of the townsfolk while trying to get feral donkeys removed from the cemetery, telling the mayor to ‘get them the hell off my pristine Native Title land’. The rest of the town takes umbrage, assuming that she is trying to claim Native Title for herself, when ‘Everyone owned the cemetery’. In response, rumours spring up that Cause Man Steel and his family came from China and did not have the right to claim Native Title at all.
The townsfolk tell Dance: ‘You take your family away from here, you are really Chinese, not Aboriginal. Go somewhere else, back to where you come from, go back to China.’ But far from taking offence, Dance finds a certain appeal in this idea: ‘In those wild carried- away dreams of emigration, Dance had already moved the true Native Title family to the other homeland—the unknown China—and out of racist Australia.’ She begins to email the Chinese embassy in Canberra incessantly, asking for their assistance in locating her ancestral homeland, and eventually resorts to placing ads on Twitter seeking a people-smuggler willing to take her and her family to China. Dance envisages China as a sort of paradise where she might be able to live without facing discrimination: ‘So of course one day, a brilliant idea jumped right into her head when she heard of China becoming the greatest country on Earth where phenomenal levels of poverty had been crushed, and she had thought, Why not? We’ll go. Take me.’ Wright’s idealised portrayal of China as a modern, advanced and progressive nation stands in stark contrast to the sinister narratives of technical incompetence or biological warfare that have circulated in the wake of COVID-19.
The rise of anti-Asian sentiment in the United States was so extreme that elderly Asian Americans were afraid to leave their homes to purchase food. A media outlet in 2021 quoted Anni Chung, CEO of the organisation Self-Help for the Elderly, saying that the elderly were hit by ‘a second virus that is a hate virus’.⁶ Wright has long argued that colonialism operates like an infectious disease, one that is difficult to ward off or recover from. The Swan Book opens with the sentence: ‘Upstairs in my brain, there lives this kind of cut snake virus in its doll’s house.’ The short monologue that follows is the only time we get to hear a first-person perspective from Oblivia, the novel’s mute protagonist, and the virus she refers to is the legacy of British colonialism that continues to replicate across generations in the bodies and minds of Aboriginal peoples. No vaccine exists against this disease. It must instead be warded off through mental strength and what Wright terms a ‘sovereignty of the mind’. One’s ability to resist colonisation rests on the ability to retain memories of one’s own culture and of pre-colonial independence. It hinges on an understanding that language can be used as a tool that shapes not only minds but realities.
As a young girl, Oblivia endures the harrowing experience of being gang- raped and left for dead. In the aftermath of this unimaginable violence, she seeks refuge in the hollow of a eucalyptus tree, where nature protects and heals her by erasing her memories of the event. She also loses the capacity for human speech in this process. From the outside, it may seem that she has retreated into an inner world, but The Swan Book allows us to see this rupture with human society as a return to more traditional ways of communing with nature. In her opening monologue, Oblivia tells us: ‘Having learnt how to escape the reality about this place, I have created illusionary ancient homelands to encroach on and destroy the wide-open vista of the virus’ real-estate.’ Oblivia’s ability to remember a time before colonial history—even if this necessitates conjuring up homelands in the face of destruction—proves to be her salvation.
In Praiseworthy, Dance seems to find a similar strength through acknowledging her ties to China. The moths and butterflies that swirl around her provide a constant reminder that being connected to Country does not mean one is static or planted in one place. Dance is at the centre of a whirlwind; she nurtures a never-ending cycle of birth, death and renewal. At the novel’s close, she waits in a house full of moths ‘for the story people to come with their stories about moths on the cyber tribe’. COVID-19 happens to be the virus that sparked the current pandemic, but Wright looks ahead to the inevitable waves of migration, disease and disruption to come. Our collective destiny is one of ‘broken’ or ‘disappeared’ homelands and lost origins, where the state of global health cannot be imagined without maintaining a strong sense of continuity across local cultures and communities. In the long run, guarding against the virus of hate is going to be the most important factor that determines our survival as a species. Wright has always stood out for her distinctly open and cosmopolitan approach to the lands beyond Australia’s borders. Here in Praiseworthy, she suggests that the only way forward in a world facing climate change comes not just by acknowledging our shared histories, but admitting our entangled and interdependent futures.
Lynda Ng is a lecturer in the School of Culture and Communication at The University of Melbourne. She is the editor of Indigenous Transnationalism: Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (Giramondo Press, 2018).
1. See Williams, D R & Wyatt, R (2015). Racial Bias in Health Care and Health: Challenges and Opportunities. JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association). 314(6), 555–556.
2. World Health Organization (2020). WHO Director- General’s remarks at the media briefing on 2019-nCov on 11 February 2020. https://www.who.int/director-general/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-2019-ncov-on-11-february-2020
4. Hswen, Y, Xu, X, Hing, A, Hawkins, J B, Brownstein, J S, & Gee, G C (2021). Association of ‘#covid19” Versus ‘#chinesevirus’ With Anti-Chinese Sentiments on Twitter: March 9–23, 2020. American Journal of Public Health. 111(5), 956–964. https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/10.2105/AJPH.2021.306154
5. Wright, A (2021). Rewriting to Reclaim Ourselves. In Jose, A & Madden, B (Eds), Antipodean China: Reflections on Literary Exchange. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo Publishing Company. 22–28.
6. Associated Press (2021, August 12). More than 9,000 Anti-Asian incidents Reported Since the Pandemic Began. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/08/12/1027236499/anti-asian-hate-crimes-assaults-pandemic-incidents-aapi