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Between the Covers Alexis Wright Interview

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David Naimon: Today’s episode of Between the Covers is brought to you by All Lit Up, Canada’s independent online book store and literary space for readers of emerging, quirky, and acclaimed indie books. All Lit Up is your Canadian connection for award-winning fiction and poetry, author interviews, book roundups, recommendations, and more. The only online retailer dedicated to Canadian literature, All Lit Up features books from 60 literary publishers and now they offer e-books in accessible formats through their e-Books for Everyone collection. All Lit Up makes it easy to discover and buy exciting contemporary Canadian literature all in one place. Check out All Lit Up at www.alllitup.ca. US Readers can also shop All Lit Up close to home and save on shipping when they purchase books from its bookshop.org affiliate shop. Browse selected titles at bookshop.org/shop/alllitup. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Myriam J. A. Chancy’s Village Weavers, a novel that confronts the silences around race, class, and nationality, charting the moment when two girls’ lives are irrevocably forced apart. Says Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, “Spanning Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Paris, Florida, Arizona and back again, this is a true Diaspora story—frankly told and sharply contemporary.” Adds Xavier Navarro Aquino, “Chancy teaches us that it is never too late to reconnect with those we care about, to remember the power of love.” Village Weavers is out on April 4th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. I’m excited to present today’s conversation with Alexis Wright, one of the most important Australian writers today, a writer who’s reshaping the novel form to accommodate Aboriginal notions of story, of time, and of scale. As much as it seems like a master plan that the first two Australian conversations on the show ever are coming back to back like this, it’s really an uncanny coincidence, even as both Alexis Wright and Nam Le look at questions of self in relation to land, and nation from their own distinct subject positions and they both look at questions of influence in relation to peoplehood, and identity construction as well. For the bonus audio archive, Alexis Wright contributes the reading of one of her favorite poems by the Chinese poet Bei Dao, which joins an enormous and ever-growing reservoir of readings, Natalie Diaz reading Borges, Richard Powers reading W. S. Merwin, Dionne Brand reading Christina Sharpe and more. This is only one possible benefit to choose from by joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter gets the resources with each episode, which in this case contain the many essays and talks I referenced today by Alexis herself. Every supporter can help shape the future of the show by suggesting writers as guests. Then there are a ton of other things to choose from whether the Tin House Early Readership Subscription, receiving 12 books over the course of one year, months before they’re available to the general public to rare collectibles by everyone from Victoria Chang to Karen Joy Fowler, to bundles of books by some of my favorite presses from the Dorothy Project to The 3rd Thing press. You can find out about all of this and more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with none other than Alexis Wright.

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David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is one of the most celebrated and vital writers in Australia today, Alexis Wright. Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria. A long-time land rights activist, her non-fiction work includes Take Power, an oral history of the Central Land Council, which represents the Aboriginal peoples of the southern half of the Northern Territory of Australia, Grog War, which documents how Aboriginal elders and leaders of Tennant Creek worked together to achieve community-wide alcohol restrictions, a book that challenges assumptions and centers Indigenous-led solutions, and most recently, her award-winning collective memoir Tracker of Aboriginal leader, political thinker, visionary, and strategist Tracker Tilmouth. Tracker won the Queensland Literary Award, the Magarey Medal for Biography awarded by the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, and the 2018 Stella Prize who described Tracker in their award citation as, “A unique, majestic biography. A one man’s story told by many voices, almost operatic in scale.” The Guardian adds, “Wright builds, as much as anyone is able to in writing, a detailed portrait of a complex man, whose vision ‘to sculpt land, country and people into a brilliant future on a grand scale’ is inevitably accompanied by an irrepressible humour and suspicion of authority.” Since Tracker, Wright has conducted another storytelling collaboration with the Aboriginal leader and activist Clarence Walden, which has led to the radio documentary Nothing but the Truth and the documentary film Straight from the Heart. Alexis Wright, however, is probably more well-known for her remarkable novels. Her debut novel was Plains of Promise but it was her 2006 second novel Carpentaria, out again in the United States this year with New Directions, where everyone stood up and took notice. Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan said, “Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria is a masterpiece of the art form, a novel of immense accomplishment that combines local storytelling with national history, interweaving themes of conquest and subjugation with the struggle between indigenous and foreign civilizations.” Library Journal adds, “Wright’s award-winning second novel offers in Phantom one of the most compelling literary protagonists since Odysseus and will surely stand as a masterpiece of modern English-language literature.” Carpentaria won innumerable awards, including Australia’s most prestigious one, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the first Aboriginal writer to win it. She followed this with The Swan Book set in a future Aboriginal Australia deeply reshaped by climate change, a book literary critic Geordie Williamson described as a curse poem, comparing it to the poem Ibis that Ovid composed in exile, suggesting that Wright wrote similarly from exile. In this case, “The physical displacement and inward migration of Indigenous Australians since European arrival in 1788.” Wright was Boisbouvier Chair in Australian Literature at the University of Melbourne, is Distinguished Research Fellow at Western Sydney University, and the inaugural winner of the Creative Australia Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature. It’s a great honor to welcome Alexis Wright to discuss her latest monumental novel Praiseworthy, currently long-listed for the 2024 Stella Prize, the Dublin Literary Award, and winner of the University of Queensland Fiction Book Award. A book The New York Times called “The Most ambitious and accomplished Australian novel of this century.” A book Ruth Padel for The Spectator calls “An impassioned environmental Ulysses of the Northern Territory… Playful, formally innovative, multi-storied, allegorical, protean and dizzyingly exhilarating, it is long, lyrical and enraged – James Joyce crossed with Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Bruce Chatwin and Arundhati Roy.” Robert Macfarlane adds, “I’m awed by the range, experiment and political intelligence of Wright’s work: she is vital on the subject of land and people. Praiseworthy is a magnificent novel by a true giant of literature.” Finally, Declan Fry for The Guardian says, “Its vision is dark, humour tar-black, narration irrepressible, language roiling. All life, as in Balzac, is here. Wright gives us the living and the dead, material and non-material, Country and people; all the masters dreamed of, and all they neglected to; the entire human (and non-human) comedy. Long after the lesser concerns of contemporary fiction have ceased to matter, the work of Alexis Wright will remain.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Alexis Wright. 

Alexis Wright Thank you, David, for the incredible introduction. It’s a great pleasure to be on your program. I think it’s a wonderful program and I’m very lucky to have someone like you doing these long podcasts of writers. I’m not too sure how I’ll go today but let’s see. [laughter]

DN: You’ve talked about how the main protagonist in Praiseworthy is at least in part inspired by the visionary thinking and the strategizing of the real-life Tracker, and that you were working on Praiseworthy at the same time as you were working on the memoir biography of Tracker. Before we enter the fictional world, I was hoping we could start in the non-fictional world and also in the world itself. You’ve pointed to your own work in your youth as an activist of Aboriginal land rights as the origins of your desire to write, that because you had some school education, the people running the organizations you were involved with would often give you the job to focus on the reading and the writing that needed to be done, that you would take the minutes at the meetings as well, which you say is also a traditional way of teaching young people to learn how to listen, and that this listening and note-taking taught you more than any of your schooling. You’ve described your book Tracker as a collective memoir whose principle is consensus and that this collective book, animated by a consensus model, you’ve described in one essay as a blueprint, a blueprint for an Aboriginal university built on these principles but ultimately, I think a blueprint for Aboriginal sovereignty. Talk to us about the consensus model that you experienced in the world and what it means to depart from a Western biographical model to tell the story of Tracker by basing his story on a consensus decision-making model and collectivity. How does this change the book and how are these choices in your mind better choices to capture a figure like Tracker?

AW: With Tracker, Tracker Tilmouth, he was an Eastern Arrernte man from Central Australia. He was a great thinker. He’s a very visionary. He was captivating. People were attracted to him because of what he would say because of his pure guts really. Nobody daunted him. He came from a background. He’s a small child, he and his two brothers taken away from their home loan and their family at a very, very young age. I think he was about four or five and his younger brothers were about a year younger, and two years younger when he was a baby. They were forcibly taken away from their family and taken a thousand kilometers away to a mission, Croker Island Mission off of Darwin, a church-based mission. Quite a number of other children were taken away similarly from their families and the idea was to separate these children from their families, so the family could have no contact and no influence on their lives. In some cases, it was harder for some children than others. It depends on who they had looking after them. In Tracker’s case and his brothers, they had a house mother, a cottage mother. She just passed away recently. She had gone to Croker Island as a qualified nursing assistant and had studied what happens to children who lose their families, their parents, their parents may have died, or something like that. She was a great influence on their lives. She was more astute than some of the other missionaries who were looking after these children. She tried to keep those three boys together so they wouldn’t be separated or fostered out to other people. She maintained a lifetime contact with a number of the children that survived over the years. She wished to play Black American jazz, soul music to the children. She read to them about some of the great Black American leaders. Those created something in their mind that probably a lot of us never got when we were growing up with our families and families struggling just to survive day by day. What happened to Tracker and his brothers, and all those children, they weren’t living in luxury, I can tell you that. But what people would say about Tracker was he was too much, he was full on and he thought nothing of going into Parliament House in Canberra, and walking into the offices of any government minister or anybody he wanted to see. He didn’t make appointments. He just walked in. [laughter] He had so much charisma that people would drop everything and tell the four-star generals to leave the office for 10 minutes, “I need to talk to Tracker.”

DN: Wow.

AW: He was very funny as well. He was greatly loved, sometimes greatly hated by some of the things. He was very forthright in what he had to say to you. If he didn’t think you’re doing your job properly, he would say so and it didn’t matter who you were. That’s the background of Tracker. When he passed away, he was very sick when we were doing the book. He always wanted us to work together to do his book. He always wanted me to do writing for him. He’d want a feature article done or something like that but he wouldn’t stick around to help you write it, write this article and that was difficult because he wasn’t the person who sat around writing things down on paper. He was always on the move, so much to do and so much thinking to do, and vision. Yes, when he got quite ill, he said, “Maybe it’s too late. We can’t do this.” I respected that but then I thought about it overnight, I rang him the next day, I said, “We’re going to do this.” I wanted to stay in his life. I live in Melbourne and we knew each other in Central Australia but he lived in Darwin in his last years. It’s hard to maintain contact with people over time and I wanted that to continue. I said, “We’re going to do this,” and he said, “Yeah, we’ll do it then,” so he fitted it in. During times when he was gravely ill, as soon as he got a little bit better, he was with a thousand meetings to do and people to see, and fitting this in as well to do this book. I also thought that I couldn’t do it as a straight biography on Tracker and that wouldn’t be right. I don’t think anybody in our world would have thanked me for doing that on my take on Tracker. It wouldn’t have been enough. It wouldn’t have been sufficient. I thought hard and long about how to do that book. I thought it should be a collective memoir. At the time, I didn’t even know if it would work and that it would become this big book entirely on one person, and with everybody having their say and which is very much a consensus way of working in our world where everybody can have a say, and a decision would be made eventually. I think it was the right thing to do and it was risk-taking. I think a lot of my work is risk-taking. I liked to challenge myself. Tracker, it worked. It was incredible and amazing really. That book worked. People like it and did well here. It’s coming out in the UK later this year. 

DN: Well, given that the story of Tracker is told through the voices of others, as well as his own, before we talk about the protagonist of Praiseworthy that’s partially inspired by him, a figure who has three names, Cause Man Steel, Planet, and Widespread, let’s begin with a more wide angle lens on Praiseworthy. Maybe we could just spend a moment with you orienting us to the place and the situation that Praiseworthy is in. What is the town of Praiseworthy like and where do we find it as we begin the novel?

AW: Praiseworthy is an imagined place. It comes from deep within me about what I know, what I’ve experienced, and what I think about and worry about. In some ways, it’s a representation of Australia itself. To me, it’s composed of a number of different elements of this country and tied into the world really. It’s interconnected. I think about things being interconnected. This is an Aboriginal way of everything being related to everything around us. Praiseworthy is an imagined place but it’s made up of a lot of concerns and questions that I was asking about our world. Some of those questions were about Aboriginal sovereignty, how strong is our Aboriginal sovereignty given that so many attempts are made to erode it every day and people live in those circumstances. What I was wanting to do was try to capture the spirit of the times really, the spirit of the times of where we’re at as people and given that we’re dealing with issues of ongoing colonization, and now issues of global warming and how we might be affected by these things in the future.

DN: I really love the haze that you’ve created that hovers over Praiseworthy, a haze you describe early on as a ghostly windstorm or a lingering dust storm. Everyone is increasingly desperate to get rid of this haze. In the first 10 pages of the book, we learn about a variety of different ways they want the solution to come. Some want to appeal for fast help from the White government. One Aboriginal elder thinks that playing White music into the haze might help and has Dvorak piped into the haze to pacify the Anthropocene gods. They send a butterfly to the capital where the Australian government shoots it down with a blowtorch. They send an Aboriginal delegation who are met with the threat of assimilate or else. Some in their exasperation about the haze want to nuke the haze. None of these things are engaging with the cause of the haze in the first place, which of course makes me think of the real world, how the countries that pollute the most in the world are also the most enamored with geoengineering solutions which wouldn’t themselves require us to change anything about how we live or our relationship to the Earth. For instance, in the real world, Australia is experimenting with shooting seawater into the sky to brighten the lower clouds. Off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in the United States, they’re dumping sodium hydroxide into the ocean, a component of lye to see how well a more alkalized water would absorb carbon dioxide. But there are more extreme methods being proposed also from injecting the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide in order to mimic the cooling that happens after massive volcanic eruptions to a proposal last year to do extensive mining on the moon, then to shoot massive amounts of moon dust into space to create a sun shield for Earth. There was even an astrophysicist in the 90s who suggested we just blow up the moon altogether to change the orbit of the Earth around the sun. I feel like as climate change gets worse and worse, and more and more unbearable like this haze because we aren’t willing to make the hard and unglamorous choices that we need to, the pressure to do these various real-life versions of nuking the haze is only going to increase as everyone seems to want something to change right away, for the haze to go away at any cost. But what our Tracker-like visionary and strategist Cause Man Steel is suggesting amidst all of this panic is donkeys. So, my question for you, Alexis, imagining for a moment that you are him, that you are Cause Man Steel, otherwise known as Widespread or Planet, sell us on the idea, why donkeys? Why are donkeys, not Dvorak, donkeys, not nuclear weapons? Why are they the answer to solving the increasing crisis that we are experiencing in Praiseworthy and in the world?

AW: Tracker himself was a very sophisticated man living in both worlds and all worlds really. He had a vision to develop an economic future for Aboriginal people across Northern Australia. He thought of big and huge ideas, and if he’d lived longer, I’m sure a lot of those ideas would have come into reality. Now, with a character like Cause Man Steel, he gives himself that name because of his obsession with the color of gray, the power of gray, grayness. He wants to save his world. He comes from a dirt-poor Aboriginal community. He knows that you’re not going to get very much help from the government, even though they say that they govern for all people, including Aboriginal people. But the way they do that is usually with policies that are usually destructive and they seem bent on the idea of empowered assimilation, and giving up your culture, eroding your culture and a lot of people don’t accept that. So Cause Man Steel is looking at the world. What he is looking at is that global warming is real. You can see the government is also not saying it’s real. He knows that his people and his experience is that you’re not going to get much help from the government. As the world gets hotter and their communities get hotter and warmer or been submerged by rising seas, there’s going to be millions of more people in the world who might become landless and so forth, what’s going to happen in time to come where more people are as needy or more needy than his people? Where would his people stand? They’re already on the bottom, the bottom scale of things and not getting much support to be able to plan a future, have a future, or be in control of their future. So his vision, he had a dream. He saw this donkey in a dream on a very dark night and he hadn’t got a glimpse of this donkey, and he realized that there was an opportunity. He had to find this donkey. This donkey was a particular color of gray. His idea of how to build a future for his people where they are economically independent, just everybody says that, which people have got to be economically independent and get his people over the other side of the burning planet to be able to tell the tale, to survive, to be able to tell how they survive. Just like ancestors have been thousands of years, their ancestral creation beings had formed our world and everything in it. Those stories, the lore stories that exist now and stories that are intrinsic to Aboriginal culture, and have been kept alive and respected over all this period of time, what I’m trying to say is that Cause Man Steel has this idea that he’s not going to get any help from government, so that’s the normal thing. He’s thinking of a way of bringing his people into the future. The way he sees it is that we’ve got five million barrel donkeys in Northern Australia, maybe they can be utilized and cost nothing except your own brain power, and your ability to go out and capture some of these donkeys. He sets out in his broken down by Falcon with very little resources. He tries to set up a pyramid scheme with his community so that they would contribute some money to this vision but nobody’s really interested. I think he [inaudible] and he’s mad that they don’t want to be involved. In fact, he goes on these long journeys across thousands of kilometers and he’s away for ages searching for this donkey, the particular donkey he saw in this dream. They’re all gray. He captures donkeys and he brings them back one at a time. It takes ages and there’s this huge population of donkeys that are built up in Praiseworthy, which is a model town, a model tidy town, and the Aboriginal mob who are in charge of dealing with government, and play the game, obsessed with keeping this town looking like a model of assimilation or on the road to assimilation, so these donkeys are destroying the town and they’re all over the place. They’re roaming everywhere. There are many many different bylaws about keeping feral donkeys and the discussions that are happening about what is feral, what’s not feral, and what’s acceptable as a feral. As he brings back one donkey at a time after these very, very long journeys and he’s pretty sure that he’s caught the right donkey to be the guard head or the leader, the mass head of this enormous donkey transport or conglomeration that he wants to build, when he run out of fossil fuel, he’s got an industry there, all set to go. He gets the donkeys back to Praiseworthy in a different light, the light of that haze which is a haze of oppression. It’s an angry haze. It’s an ancestral haze. It’s angry. He finds that it’s not the right donkey. It’s not the right shade of platinum gray that he was looking for. It’s a huge disappointment to him because he has to set it off again and again, and again and again, so it goes on.

DN: Well, when you think of donkeys, of course, one thing you think of is Jesus. Another you think of I think is Sancho Panza’s donkey in Don Quixote. In a way, I feel like both come to play with Cause Man Steel in the sense that he is looking, as you just said, for a figurehead donkey, almost a messianic donkey from his dream and he’s also, much like Don Quixote, is motivated by dreams and by imagination, yet from the outside, he looks delusional or he looks even mad. Outside of this book, in a 2018 speech that you gave, you also mentioned how the library of Timbuktu was saved by donkeys. I went to look for more information about the saving of Timbuktu’s library by donkeys and I found this article called ‘Badass Librarians’ Foil al Qaeda, Save Ancient Manuscripts that describes how Timbuktu in the 15th and 16th centuries was not only this great hub of trade but also this great academic center, a university town full of libraries at its peak and that more recently, the National Library of Timbuktu was trying to re-gather what it could of all that had been scattered in these smaller towns and in these nomadic encampments of all of these ancient manuscripts, and they were so successful that by the time Al Qaeda took over the city in 2012, the library had amassed nearly 400,000 manuscripts and because many of them, many of these ancient manuscripts, they celebrate things that fundamentalist invaders would have found objectionable, they celebrate music for instance and even books about sex in which the reader was asked to invoke the name of Allah as a way to heighten sexual prowess, in innumerable ways, these books show a different side of Islam than the one that Al Qaeda wanted to impose. These manuscripts were particular targets. The librarian staged a three-phase cloak-and-dagger operation whose first crucial step was emptying the library of its manuscripts by donkey into people’s basements scattered throughout the city. I have a question for you about libraries, which is why I told this little vignette about Timbuktu. But before I ask the question about libraries, I know that with The Swan Book, you explored innumerable cultural, literary, cosmological, and other aspects of swans, everything from mythology to Seamus Heaney’s poems. I wondered if you did the same thing with donkeys. Did you look at all the ways donkeys had been represented or learn things about donkey nature? If so, maybe there’s something that comes to mind that you’d want to share with us about donkeys. 

AW: I did. I like donkeys. I like most things in the natural world. It’s beetles in the book, golden beetle, and Christmas beetle. There are many stories about butterflies in the book as well. I find correct joy in the natural world. I think I’ve got that not only from your lifetime working with many senior people in our world but also originally from my grandmother as a very small child. I only wanted to be with my grandmother. I started away from home at probably about the age of three, going to her place, which has been several blocks away. I think people in the town where I come from, where I grew up, they just watched this small child going down to a grandma’s place. With donkeys, yes, I did a lot of research about donkeys and seeing donkeys, being with donkeys. I don’t know if there’s a story to tell except that I once turned down a trip overseas to a very special place because there was a donkey festival here.

DN: No way.

AW: I’d be with the donkeys.

DN: Did you go to the donkey festival?

AW: I did indeed and it was wonderful. It was just an amazing thing. But I’m not too sure if I can tell you anything else but I think they’re beautiful creatures. That’s all. We happen to have five million of them in northern Australia and some of my research showed that what people tend to do to try to eradicate so many donkeys in the pastoral properties is to shoot them or to sterilize them. I thought, “Well, we might need to use those donkeys at some time.” The character Cause Man Steel, Widespread, or Planet, he says in the book that he does a lot of research. He’s seen poor people across the world use millions of donkeys. He doesn’t see himself as any better than the poorest person on Earth. We’re using donkeys as transport and to help in their world. He thinks, “Well, this may be our future.” He looks like he’s mad and he’s delusional. He’s obsessed to do what he wants to do and he’s obsessed with his beliefs, and this thing can work but maybe it’s not such a bad idea when a dirt-poor person like Cause Man Steel is not going to be, even if we run out of fossil fuel and we come up with some great ideas about electric cars, and everything else, which is quite expensive at the moment, he may not have any access. A lot of Aboriginal people may not have access to new ideas that might come up in the future that can be quite expensive because most of our people are really, really poor.

DN: Well, on the surface, the Timbuktu story doesn’t seem connected to Cause Man Steel’s donkey project. But I want to propose a possible connection between the two because both in the book itself and in many of your essays, and talks, you refer to the land itself as a library. In Praiseworthy, for instance, you say, “We studied everything you needed to know about surviving from the biggest library in the world – country.” I imagine we could see Cause Man Steel in a way as a badass librarian saving the library too with donkeys. In this spirit of land as a library, I wanted to ask you about the notion of story in an Australian Aboriginal context, especially because I think this might be less legible to North Americans than to Australians. When talking about The Swan Book in one interview and discussing how swans were moving within Australia to places that they’d never been before because of climate change, you relate something someone told to you when they spotted swans in the Gulf for the first time. They said to you, “I saw a swan out there and I didn’t know if I should kill it or not. It’s got no story up in our country. So what do you do? What happens to a bird – or to anyone – who has no story for that country?” In Praiseworthy, the ghosts ask, “How can we keep the place alive without song, without donkeys themselves knowing the 1001 songs?” In both cases, swan and donkey, the question arises from them being displaced and dislocated from where they come from. You often talk about how Aboriginal people are the oldest people on the planet, 60,000 years old. But in all of my listening and reading in preparing for today, one key aspect also seems to be an extraordinary continuity that they haven’t been displaced in the same way as many North American Indigenous people have. I was listening to a science podcast for instance, studying the Aboriginal stories that found many accounts within them of rising sea levels after the last Ice Age, stories within the songs from 17,000 years ago when Australia lost about 23% of its land mass due to sea rise. In another conversation I was listening to, they talked about accounts of island formation from 7,000 years ago within the stories. One Aboriginal astronomer in a podcast was talking about the potential to use some of these songs to help aid us in knowing where to point telescopes when we’re looking for supernovas. My question for you about these stories, which are also songs, is about storylines, something I only have a really rudimentary understanding of in getting ready for today and probably or possibly incorrect. I’m going to say what I think they are in the hopes you could confirm, correct, or expand upon them in relation to whether a donkey or a swan, or a person has a story or a song for the place where they live. In my basic understanding, storylines are navigational pathways across Australia that retrace the path the ancestor spirits themselves took. But they also seem to be bi-directional in the sense that the song contains knowledge of where to go and how to proceed but the land itself is embedded with cues or prompts to help you recall the song that’s associated with it, so it feels dynamic, almost conversational and unfolding in real-time as one moves. The songs literally seem to contain a library of information about plant and animal life, astronomy, genealogies, social laws, and more. How did I do?

AW: You did really well. [laughter] You did really well. Yeah. In talking about the book, in a way, you could say that’s what Cause Man Steel is trying to do, is trying to get his people, the people who carried that knowledge of the country and that vast library with wisdom from the ages. That’s what Aboriginal sovereignty is all about. He’s trying to keep that strong and to try to find a way to a path into the future where that knowledge, those people who carry that can survive and take that into the future, just like our ancestors had found a way to survive those catastrophic times in the past. They found a way to survive and bring us to this day. We often get told that we should have hope. I think they had more than hope, the hope that things are going to be okay, things would be all right. They had a desire to survive and to find a way to survive. Yes, it may mean changes and things but also, they’re carrying a deep knowledge into the future as things evolve. I was thinking about all those things as well when I was doing The Swan Book, about swans being displaced in another part of the country where they have no story but we can make a story. People do make stories, so you carry the wisdom and you carry the stories that are created. People have told me that at times, about feral cats for instance, or donkeys and other donkeys, he’s got Jesus’ cross on the back. He’s alright. People have developed stories, big stories about things that have happened in the country. It’s an evolving thing as well. It’s a library. It hasn’t got one stack of books forever and ever. It’s been built on. It’s an evolving thing. There are other stories as well. Also in the book, I think I thought about how to write it. I thought I should write it. I needed to write it on an off-key to what general fiction you might see. It’s always been an issue to me about how to write what I needed to write right from the start. I thought it had to be written on an Aboriginal chord, in an Aboriginal tone, rhythm, and beat where I come from in the Gulf of Carpentaria, where our family have come from. People say up there, “We’re of one heartbeat,” so I think about, “What is that heartbeat? What does it sound like, the heartbeat of a country? What is that heartbeat? What is it?” Sometimes you feel the pulse of the country when you’re on it and in different places, you feel it. What I tried to bring into that rhythm, into the book, is by the sound of Yidaki, didgeridoo music, that drone, that constant sound or the constant sound of clapsticks in ceremony, traditional ways of hearing and listening, and of women singing in ceremony. One instance is rock, which is Uluru. It was handed back to the traditional owners in the 1980s, 1985. I think in 1986, Aboriginal people came from all over Australia to be there for that big hand-back ceremony, to be handed back to the traditional owners. A lot of us were camping there. But the custodians, some of the ladies, they did a ceremony that went through the night, went for hours, and we were camping. There were a lot of people there but I had my young daughter with me at the time, so I took our swag and her, and we went out away from the main camp and camped by ourselves, lit a fire, and we went to sleep, just listening to the women singing in that slow rhythm. This is what I was trying to capture in the book, to tell that story, the story of scale. I talked about I wanted to write a book that captures the spirit of our times, a book of scale but trying to meet the scale of what’s happening. There’s so much happening. There’s so much happening in our world, just as Indigenous people but there’s so much happening in the whole wide world and through climate change. We’re seeing that more and more, and at the time, there was so much denial even though the science was there. Science has been there for a long time and it’s kept some people on building, and it keeps on telling us it’s practically every day but there’s still so much denial. That’s the things I was trying to capture in the book and finding a way to do it by giving it away on how countries try to talk to us and the only way I can understand that is through the sounds, and the sounds that are made by those very spiritual, sacred ways of hearing and listening in the country through the instruments of ceremony.

DN: You’ve written and spoken in other places about how you view Aboriginal culture as cosmopolitan and you make a distinction between cosmopolitanism and assimilation. To be cosmopolitan is to be open and open to influence but it’s not about losing one’s own vantage point. I know when you were writing Carpentaria, your second novel and really your first novel that truly departs from the norms of the novel form, that you wanted to write a truly Aboriginal novel, not just in theme or content but in form. Much of what you’ve already just said around sound is probably part of what’s making the form. But given that the Aboriginal tradition was not a written one, you didn’t have Aboriginal novels around you to look at as guides. You looked to world literature, to people like Gabriel García Márquez to Italo Calvino, Borges, Patrick Chamoiseau, not so that you would write like them necessarily but to look at how they wrote about their own people. In Praiseworthy, I wonder if this is similar. Cause Man Steel is centering the donkey, which is an animal that is not native to Australia but he’s centering it as a centerpiece of his plan for Aboriginal sovereignty. I wondered if these are examples of cosmopolitanism, of being open to the world, of being open to the influence of the world without losing one’s rootedness in one’s own vision.

AW: I think I learned about that ability to look outside our world through working with senior people over a number of years and right from the start, I would say my grandmother was a very cosmopolitan person. We do have Chinese ancestry as well. She was very open to almost anybody and anything. When I was with her as a small child and thinking back about the type of person she was, she was very generous in her capacity to understand other people and understand situations, and the people that I work with who were more senior to me as a young woman and the older people who wanted me to write down their minutes of meetings because I was quite a hothead when I was young. I wanted solutions straight away, “Why can’t the government fix this up now?” In a sense, one of the atrocities that happened in our world and they had more experience of these things than me. What they were trying to do was teach me patience and like you said, how to listen and to think because it was going to take enormous patience to be in our world to survive it. Other young people like myself too, as we were fighting all sorts of big issues, like mining on our traditional country for instance, or Aboriginal rights, what are our rights and international forums, and things like that. They wanted our young leaders to be involved in those forums of indigenous rights. They wanted us as researchers to look outside our own backyard and outside this country to find what other people were doing as solutions. We grew up with that, of needing to see what else is happening in the world, how it affects us, and how we can find solutions. That’s a very cosmopolitan thing I think.

DN: I do too.

AW: We are quite open to what other people are doing and the richness of other people’s cultures. The other thing I listened to a lot too when I was doing the book is Indian raga music. I went to India some years ago and I love Indian music. I got introduced to that in India in Indian classical music. The same thing in China, I got introduced to traditional classical music there too. I listened to a lot of guzheng music and I like it.

DN: We have two questions for you from others that are both engaging with how your books are incredibly distinct. The first is from the writer and translator Samuel Rutter who also wrote the New York Times review of Praiseworthy where he said, “Wright’s symphonic command of language sustains the novel’s architecture over its more than 600 pages. Butterflies identified by their scientific names share the page with ancestral serpents, and Wright is just as comfortable with emojis and online parlance from the 2010s as she is with the vibrant Australian vernacular spoken by her characters. Dvorak and Xi Jinping get mentions, while the work of Jorge Luis Borges and László Krasznahorkai is suffused through the novel.” Here’s a question from Samuel for you.

Samuel Rutter: There are some who still labor under the longest-spelled notion that the novel is a Western art form brought to its zenith in European nation-states during the pomp of their colonial projects. I’m thinking of Saul Bellow asking about the Tolstoy of the Zulus, the Proust of the Papuans. But in your novels, I’m struck by a worldview that is at once hyper-local and breezily universal where the novel’s form can be stretched to accommodate anything it requires or desires. There’s also the question of time. Novels march forward sentence by sentence and with some rare experimental exceptions, they do so in a mostly linear fashion. This isn’t quite the case in your novels where there is a complex and maybe even unresolved laboring of time at work that includes physical, mythological, and digital realities amongst many others. I suppose my question is this. In 2024, are there any limits to what the novel can do?

AW: Thank you, Samuel. That’s quite a wonderful question. No. For me, there’s no limit to what the novel can do. I’m experimenting all the time. I’ve been writing for quite a while now and what I’ve been trying to do is develop far more than when I first started and not knowing really how to do what I wanted to do. It’s probably generally how I think and have worked on it so much that it becomes far more natural for me to write the way I’m writing. But I really think we need to be in a far more literature-literate world. We need to be developing works of scale, to meet the scale of where we’re at. We need to think deeply about what we do, what literature is for in the future, and how we get there. We have to think outside of our own backyard and take our backyard into the world, and the world into ours. I’ve always thought I wanted to write from what’s been called the old times, how do you write the old times in a work? I think it’s just become far more natural for me to do that now than when I first started because I didn’t think the novel in the way it was what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be constrained. I didn’t want to be in anyone’s box and boxed in. I would box in enough in our world and that’s what we fight against all the time, is trying to break out of that box and develop our own way of thinking, and writing and of being what’s in our soul really.

DN: You mentioned time and so did Samuel, and I wanted to ask you a question about time in relation to Samuel’s question because there are innumerable mentions of infinity in Praiseworthy, lines like, “The script of the country was about the infinite timelessness of the ancestral will to survive into eternity,” or “He wanted to gift the people infinity but then somebody killed Aboriginal sovereignty and killed infinity itself.” You have a Kafka epigraph that goes, “There is an infinite amount of hope—but not for us,” and across [inaudible], “There is infinity but not for us.” Samuel, in his review of your book for the New York Times says, “The book’s 10 parts circle back in time unrelentingly, revisiting events and past language as different versions of the truth come to light and tragedy accumulates. The layering of time and the riot of language are Wright’s great themes and raw materials, and in Praiseworthy, they twist and shimmer, doomed forever to their violent pas de deux.” Mykaela Saunders wrote this wonderful essay called Everywhen in Everything : Reading Carpentaria like an Aboriginal Writer, where she discusses your use of time using the term everywhen to describe how time in an Aboriginal novel isn’t linear. I was interested in infinity but also in what Samuel describes as a layering of time or Mykaela describes as an everywhen because when I was listening to things about songlines, they also suggested that they function by layering too. That at the core or base of a song is something fundamental but also easier to remember, then you layer upon this knowledge with more that you might be able to sing in the same song events from 10,000 years ago but also have contemporary things layered into them at the same time. Talk to us a little more about time, infinity, or everywhen. How is this notion, which both appears explicitly in the content of the book, what are you evoking and how is that changing the way the novel comes into being?

AW: There are a few things. One is I go back to an essay I wrote about writing Carpentaria and it felt like a multi-stranded view of the world. There are all sorts of strands, of interweaving together going back to something that I learned many years ago in my reading, Carlos Fuentes, a Mexican writer who said, “All times in Mexico were important and no time has ever been resolved.” That struck me as very much was happening in the Aboriginal world. All times are important. No time has ever been resolved. In that, all these strands have been interwoven together. The other thing is that building and rebuilding, you can see that operating very much every day in the Aboriginal world. People tell me that Praiseworthy is very funny. But when you look at what’s happening in our world, when we’re dealing with all these big issues and life’s really hard for a lot of people, it’s the storytelling and how people tell stories. I think it’s very much related to those ancient stories, the stories of law and ceremony in our world. People see the absurd every day. There’s so much that’s happened to our world that is stupid, particularly, heck, governments deal with us and waste colossal amounts of money, making mistakes time and time again. We see the absurdity every day and people will build stories out of some little thing that happened. They’ll build us a big story, just by talking about it. People talk and talk, and talk. I think it’s creating that consensus as well. They do it sometimes in a very funny way. I had long conversations with Tracker about this and all things that have happened in our world. We’ve done it ourselves, build this colossal story out of some minor incident and it just keeps building. It becomes folklore of the stupid things that happen in our world. That’s a big library in itself. Someone should compile it one day. [laughter]

DN: The library of stupid things. [laughter] Well, we also have a question for you from the writer Preti Taneja, who’s a professor of world literature and creative writing at Newcastle University. She’s also the co-chair of English PEN’s translation advisory group and she’s a contributing editor at the UK publisher And Other Stories who are publishing Praiseworthy in the UK and also the author most recently of the book Aftermath. Here’s a question for you from Preti.

Preti Taneja: Hello, Alexis. My name is Preti Taneja. I’m a writer based in the UK and a big fan. To me, Praiseworthy reads as an epic chorus and the register you achieve through the omniscient perspective has a divinity to it, a sense of annihilation in it, an apocalyptic heartbreak. It is sublime. Do you live in this register, I wonder? What does it ask of you, offer you, and take from you, not only as a writer but as you move through the world? Thank you.

AW: Thank you, Preti. It’s a very good question. Do I live in that world? I do live in the world of writing. When I’m writing a book like Praiseworthy, I lived in that world for a very long time. I carried that book with me during the time I was working on Tracker. Also, when I was in The University of Melbourne in the Boisbouvier Chair in Australian Literature, I’d carry the book and think about it. I think about what I’m doing in my writing all the time and even I dream about ideas in the book, I keep a lot of notes. I wake up in the middle of the night and I write. That’s the time some clarity comes sometimes in the working of the book. I write nights very quickly before they disappear and keep using those notes. I have 10 notebooks on Praiseworthy, of notes scribbled in the middle of the night and at different times of the day, and worked on them and kept for the development of the book. I also had probably a thousand and one dreams about losing my way, not losing my way in the book but losing my way generally. There are all types of ways of getting lost. But I realized that was all about losing the way in the book and I’m always concerned about keeping it together, making sure that it will work structurally in tone and style, and that everything will gel together in the end. That’s a matter of working, and reworking and reworking until someday, sometime, you’ll eventually get my public publisher Ivor Indyk, one of the most fantastic publishers in the world, I think. Ivor was waiting for this novel for a long time and he kept on my back about finishing it. He didn’t know what the work really was about. I don’t talk about my work while I’m writing it and that goes on for years. He was very pleased when I eventually gave it to him after waiting patiently for a long time. But it was a matter of keeping it together and trying to make sure it all worked before I was paid to give it to him. 

DN: I’d love to spend the rest of our conversation on the other members of Cause Man Steel’s family who each represent other vital elements of the book. One thing that’s interesting to me, thinking about Praiseworthy as being polyvocal and in a way collective, is that this family couldn’t be more disconnected. Cause Man Steel is hated for his donkey scheme by his own people who are quickly more distressed by the donkeys everywhere, pooping and eating everything than they are about the haze, including his wife Dance whose life is dedicated to butterflies and moths. They live in an entirely different existence from each other even though they share a home. They don’t seem to have rapport. They are more bonded through exasperation and disdain at this point than anything. Their dreams seem discreet and separate from each other. Their son that Cause Man Steel named Aboriginal Sovereignty over the protests of his wife who wanted to name him Paul, Aboriginal Sovereignty is gone missing. He has either killed himself or was murdered. Their youngest son, Tommyhawk, who they call the little fascist, has basically disowned them and wants to be adopted by the White government, and may or may not have killed his brother. I wanted to set this all up, this broken-apart family as a preface for our next question from Mykaela Saunders. She’s the editor of This All Come Back Now: An Anthology of First Nations Speculative Fiction, which was the first-ever collection of Aboriginal speculative fiction in which you are in. Her own story collection is just out weeks ago to glowing reviews titled Always Will Be, a set of stories set in the future where Aboriginal sovereignty is reasserted. Mykaela and I have been corresponding for years now actually about her writing and research and about my podcast. I have a couple of emu feathers from her on my desk. She’s the person I’m indebted to for long ago telling me about your writing. It’s definitely because of Mykaela that we are here today talking. Here’s a question from her for you. 

Mykaela Saunders: Jingi Walla, Alexis. [inaudible] with a bang. I hope you’re well. I’m so happy for you that your novels are being published with New Directions in the US and now you’re talking with David today. You’re my favorite writer in the whole world, living or dead, and David is the best for what he does. I’ve learned so much as a writer from both of you in different ways. I’m so excited to listen to the yarn you have together. Thank you for letting me be part of it. Alexis, what I most want to hear you talk about is how you write Aboriginal jarjums or children from Ivy in Plains of Promise to Kevin in Carpentaria, Oblivia Ethylene in The Swan Book, and Tommyhawk, the fascist in Praiseworthy. You’ve always written these incredibly complex and often unlikable kids. The outsiders and losers of their communities and families, kids that are hard to love but the kinds of kids who need love most of all. What is it about getting into the psyches of these young people that lets you tell the bigger story of their families, their communities, countries, and cultures, and the way the Australian overculture affects them too? I’m especially thinking about our relentlessly racist media and politicians, and how all their loud talk of Aboriginal deficiency and degeneracy must affect our kids, the way you so devastatingly showed through Tommyhawk and Aboriginal Sovereignty in Praiseworthy. [inaudible], Alexis and David. [inaudible]. 

AW: Thank you, Mykaela. It’s really lovely to hear you talking and talking about the children. Let’s say you’re concerned of mine, what happens to our children and our future in all this effort of colonization, ongoing colonization, destruction of Aboriginal sovereignty, attempts to destroy it, attempt to destroy it much in our world and our future, the inability of a lot of our people to be able to plan a future because we don’t have any rights to govern our future. That was a thing that Tracker talked about a lot. That was the thing that was left out of the Land Rights Act in the Northern Territory. It was our ability to design and control our future through ideas of Aboriginal self-government for instance, and we fought for that in the Northern Territory over many years and that was totally, totally ignored. The children in the book are concerned about what happens to our families in that bigger picture of what’s happening in terms of policy and denial, and the inability for us to control or design our future. All people in the world need a sense of being able to work towards their own future and for a future that they feel is necessary and appropriate for themselves and their culture. That’s an enormous problem and a problem for us. With say this one book for instance, that was set in the future and I was concerned about what the last person standing, the Aboriginal person standing might look like in a hundred years’ time and that was the idea of the young woman they call Ethylene, a very troubled young woman. We have a lot of troubled young people and it’s very difficult, and we also have really a lot of work going on amongst our own people to develop some really fine young people that we have today, and who are fighting for and have so much belief in our sovereignty. You couldn’t be prouder of the young people, a lot of young people in our world. But what happened during the intervention in 2007 when then Prime Minister John Howard brought down the emergency intervention in the Northern Territory, it was a policy that he wanted to implement to break down ideas of Aboriginal rights and support from the general population of Aboriginal rights that was developed, things that had happened for a number of years previously through policy of self-determination or self-government brought in by the governments, which weren’t really self-determination at all nor true self-management either and through other things like Aboriginal reconciliation, a lot of sympathy was built through reconciliation by non-Aboriginal people to be more attuned to ideas of who Aboriginal people are and that meant also Aboriginal land rights, recognition of Aboriginal land rights. Aboriginal land rights have been fought against for so long in this country and even the non-territory where they had land rights. Land rights legislation since 1976, every land rights claim was bitterly fought in court by federal and territory governments, and everybody else who perceived that they had an interest in the land that was under claim by Aboriginal people and some of these land rights claims, well, millions and millions of dollars were spent on them because of all the opposition to those claims and some of those claims went for good 20 or more years of dispute at enormous expense. But most of those claims were won by the Aboriginal traditional owners in any case in the end. But more conservative governments in the country have never been very happy with Aboriginal people having rights or the continuing of the call for rights. It would erode any gains that might have been made, any small gains by Aboriginal people to the point people were really, really left suffering even more. They brought in this idea of the invention, which was designed to really take away those gains that people have made over a long period of time and to [inaudible] Aboriginal rights to land, and able to say what happens on their traditional land, to make road for more resource development and other things to happen on Aboriginal land, and people wouldn’t have a right to say anything. It’s long-winded but the things that happen here are enormous. When you talk about unprecedented climate change events, we endure unprecedented events every day. You get an erosion of families over a period of time. When the intervention was brought in, it was ruled through politicians, through the media about Aboriginal people not loving their children, not like White people love their children, etc. That the Aboriginal communities were infested with pedophilia and pedophiles. I thought, “You know what, everybody could hear this on radio, on television, in newspapers. Everybody had a say.” It felt like it opened a whole can of worms where people felt they couldn’t say anything. It wasn’t politically correct. Now, they had a voice and they could say whatever they like about Aboriginal people. This was all going on. You got children listening to this and Aboriginal children listening to their parents not loving them. Their communities are being unsafe, so I thought there may well be children like young Tommyhawk, who his father had called a fascist from the day he was born, a child born of the intervention, which is still in existence in one way or another and a complete failure as well. 

DN: Yeah, I mean the inexorable pull of whiteness and assimilation in this book, you can feel it. The haze that White people can’t see has nevertheless entered the lungs of the mayor of Praiseworthy and made him blindingly white, and people call him Ice Pick and Aboriginal elders talk to each other via these free mobile phones that were given to them by the mining companies that want to dig up the sacred sites. As you mentioned Tommyhawk who completely buys the narrative of the White government, he wants to disown his parents because he suspects there’ll be pedophiles. I looked into it a little bit. I know that most Americans probably don’t know much about the intervention or about the real accusations that happened in the world that were used to justify the intervention. But you’ve written about it, about how once the Northern Territory intervention happened, all framed in a language to benefit the Aboriginal people who are not meaningfully consulted, that it leaves behind this network not only of bureaucracy but of much larger police force, way more jails, a lot more surveillance and in the end, they don’t find an organized pedophile ring from what I found. All they found was a ring of White miners who were trafficking Aboriginal girls. But a lot of this makes me think of a talk you gave called What Happens When You Tell Somebody Else’s Story? It feels like the Tommyhawk section is dealing with this question of what happens when you tell somebody else’s story where you look at not only the racism and prejudice of these interventions, and discourses in the talk but you also worry about the long-term effects on Aboriginal people in their ability to tell their own stories when they keep encountering wave after wave of these others stories, internalizing them maybe in the way the mayor is internalizing them in terms of the haze going into him. You say at one point in the essay, “We have lost the plot line in the story about who we are,” and you characterize the Australian media as the storytelling bard of Aboriginal stories for the nation. That they tell the story instead of listening to Aboriginal people speak. You say, “If you were to examine the power play of government domination in Aboriginal affairs that has occurred over a long period of time, then you would also see accompanying and perhaps equal extent of deterioration in the practice of Aboriginal story-making or storytelling. Our stories have become confused and cluttered with what is truth and what is believed, of what can be told or what can be heard, and by whom.” That made me wonder about the epigraph at the beginning of Praiseworthy, which is from the Waanyi dictionary, a phrase translated as butterflies are flying everywhere. I’m curious about your use of the Waanyi words here and in your work more broadly. If I understand correctly, this language is incredibly endangered. In one place, I read that there were perhaps 16 fluent speakers left. Talk to us a little bit about your relationship to the language and how, and when you decide to use it, and about this dictionary.

AW: One other thing I’d like to talk about, just listening to you recap some of the things I’ve written before is that what’s really sad part about all this is that it affects our dreams. I was just reading something about this the other day. Because of all these things, it deprives us of so many things or what should be happening in our world. It also deprives us of the dreams that we should be having as people, as individuals. I wish I could have other dreams than the dreams that I have. I wonder what those dreams might have been. I think someone like the character Tommyhawk also can be representative of all those things that you were just explaining, of what happens when somebody else tells you a story. You get a child, it sits through all this traffic of things that are concerning in our world. It’s just coming all the time, what stays, what gets seeped into who you are, what you are, where you are. You have this child-like Tommyhawk who wants to be adopted. He’s a smart young boy and he’s impressionable, and he figures out, “Well, what can I make of all this?” He listens to it so much so it gets absorbed into him, all these things that have been talked about on the radio and about families not loving their children. He’s unloved, he’s unwanted, and he’s endangered and he wants to believe this, then he figures out a way. He has a plan too about how he’s going to make things better for himself. His plan is to be adopted by the mother of all Aboriginal children, the Minister for Aboriginal peoples, and the people in the government in the big white Parliament House in Canberra. He figures that he can go and live there, and she can adopt him because she is his White mother. He dreams about her. He dreams she’s swiveling on her office chair in the sky and like a saint really, like an angel glowing and he texts her all the time. He’s got the phone number for her office and he texts and he tries to call and nobody answers, and no texts are answered. But he wants her to come and pick him up from Praiseworthy a thousand miles away and take him into Parliament house to live so he can become a rich White kid, and have everything he wants instead of living in poor circumstances in his own community, which is struggling to maintain who it is, what it is, and struggling too with the issues of, “You must assimilate,” and “You’ll only get any support if you play the right game.” It’s difficult. This is what’s happening. This is what happens when somebody else is telling you a story or could happen. It’s an imaginary idea, it’s fictional but there are lots of things happening in the real world of what’s at play here. Tommyhawk is just one representation of this kid with this idea that he can go and live in Parliament House, and become rich and loved, and receive all the love in the world. He’ll receive a designer dog as a pet. He doesn’t even know what a designer dog is. [laughter] He’s never seen one. He wants one anyway as well as everything else that kids of the Western world want. That’s what’s happening here. 

DN: Do you want to say anything about the Waanyi language?

AW: Yes, it is an endangered language. There’s a new dictionary being developed, a more comprehensive dictionary. This has been one of the good things that we’ve had a lot of good people being able to do over the years, is develop really comprehensive dictionaries and they take a lot of money to produce. I’ve heard that some money has been made available or somehow or other, a more comprehensive dictionary has been produced. We’ve got a number of endangered languages in our region and they’re connected language groups. It’s a very important and vital thing that’s happening, to try to help keep the language alive and there’s a lot of good work going on in the Gulf of Carpentaria where our homeland is. They struggle and there’s no doubt about that. But there is work going on amongst our people to try to enrich our language, revitalize it and the other language groups, and a lot of work is done with children and by some really, really good people up there. 

DN: I thought it was interesting that even the Aboriginal people in this book who have turned White, they still have animals they are connected to. So the Mayor Ice Pick receives messages from a golden beetle and Tommyhawk is connected to killer whales. It seems to suggest maybe a way back for each of them somehow to me. I wanted to end today with talking about the ways the non-human speaks to us, whether or not we decide to listen to them. In your essay Deep Weather, you talk about a devastating cyclone that struck the North Queensland coast in 2011 and you talk about the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 that killed or displaced 140 million mammals, two and a half billion reptiles, 180 million birds. You talk about how many people, when confronted with extreme weather, frame it as the work of mother nature, of a greater force more powerful than human and you wonder if this impulse, to frame it this way, was reaching for something more ancient, like the female Rainbow Serpent, the creator of life for several parts of the country who is sometimes referred to as the Great Earth Mother who can cause natural disasters. You say in Deep Weather, quote, “Why are we not hearing about the ancient stories of how to respect the weather? These are stories about ‘stasis, constancy, balance, and consistency. Doesn’t it make you wonder why Indigenous people have kept their spiritual beliefs and laws strong for millennia, and even in the world of great, modern Australia, still strive to keep these law stories alive and strong? Are we not curious to know something about the deeply rooted beliefs of this country and why they were kept in place over many thousands of years? Why are we not hearing about any of these stories and trying to understand what they might mean?” I think about this not just in your essays but in Praiseworthy itself where you suggest that the extreme weather events aren’t the enemy. They don’t need to be nuked or Dvoracked but that they are the ancestral spirits themselves speaking. For instance, “A hard bit of magic grown from a corpus of ancient stories that had been scattered into mystery by broken spirits creating hell fires. All those endlessly wandering fragments of ancient words were coming together, and forming the lines of stories entombed in smoke clouds circumnavigating the planet.” Talk to us about what it means to confront these intolerable weather events as ancestral spirits and how I suspect that the extreme nature of what they are saying is related to how we’ve ignored stories of stasis, and constancy of balance and consistency.

AW: Well, I think we need to look back at what’s happened to the world in ancient times and learn some of the lessons from there. We don’t seem to understand that. We seem to just live in the moment and we don’t think at all. We’re not thinking about who we are and what we are as people. In more than a superficial type of way, we come from long histories but it means something. Wisdom is created. Right now, wisdom is being created from a long line and you build on that. What I’d like to end on really is Cairns in North Queensland. They have the Tropical Arts Festival up there every year, Indigenous Arts Festival, and part of their talk about the festival this year is that what they said is the country is always speaking and the question is, “Can it be heard?” They said it can be heard in a whisper of the changing wind indicating the arrival of a new season to rage in violence of rising tides, reclaiming coastlines, country speaks always. That’s where we come from.

DN: Thank you for spending this time with me today, Alexis.

AW: Thank you, David. It’s been good talking to you. I’m really pleased that I had this opportunity. Thank you very much for everything you do.

DN: Yeah, thank you too.

AW: Yeah, it’s a wonderful thing. 

DN: We’ve been talking today to Alexis Wright about her latest book Praiseworthy. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers.  I’m David Naimon, your host.

Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. For the bonus audio archive, Alexis contributes a reading by one of her favorite poems by Bei Dao. This joins readings by everyone from Viet Thanh Nguyen on Maxine Hong Kingston, to Dionne Brand reading Christina Sharpe and Canisia Lubrin. The bonus audio is only one possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener-supporter receives supplementary resources with each conversation of the things I discovered while preparing, things referenced during our talk, and places to explore once you’re done listening. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards, including the Tin House Early Reader Subscription, getting 12 books over the course of a year, months before they are available to the general public, to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank past Between the Covers guest, poet, musician, composer, performer, and much more, Alicia Jo Rabins, for making the intro and outro for the show. You can find out more about her work, her writing, her music, her film at aliciajo.com.