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Grass Yellow Butterfly, Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, Kuranda, Queensland. David Clode/Unsplash

Enraged, tragic and hopeful: Alexis Wright’s new novel Praiseworthy explores Aboriginal sovereignty in the shadow of the anthropocene

Praiseworthy is Alexis Wright’s most formidable act of imaginative synthesis yet. It is simultaneously a hero’s journey for an age of global warming, a devastating story of young love caught between two laws, and an extended elegy and ode to Aboriginal law and sovereignty.

It is Wright’s most enraged, tragic and hopeful novel to date, with a magnificently upbeat denouement.

Review: Praiseworthy – Alexis Wright (Giramondo)

In 2019, writing of her storytelling heritage, Wright observed:

Even the idea of story is a cultural understanding that story involves all times and realities, the ancient and the new, the story within story within story – all interconnected, all unresolved.

In Praiseworthy, Wright has conjured just such a multi-storied, open-ended, protean narrative, one that conveys forward movement through linear time (in the form of a quest), an uncanny sense of slipping through multiple timelines, and the ever-presence of eternity.

Wright first broke with conventional linear time in Carpentaria (2006) to convey this unity of all times and stories in Aboriginal cosmology. In The Swan Book (2013), set 100 years into the future, the fractured narrative spirals through time and space like the grass seeds of Wright’s ancestral savannah. Praiseworthy seems to be both set in an infinite daily present and unmoored from time completely. Reading it is a heady, almost vertiginous experience.

The novel also contains Wright’s most explicit portrayal of the theft of an entire continent of Aboriginal country by white invaders more than two centuries ago, the ensuing clash of Aboriginal and white Australian laws, and the ongoing traumatic fallout. Land theft and its repercussions are invoked on the opening page, where the novel’s central character, Cause Man Steel – “a culture dreamer obsessing about the era” – is introduced alongside the rest of his storm-country people:

They knew just as much as he did about surviving on a daily basis, and about how to make sacrifices of themselves in all the cataclysmic times generated by the mangy dogs who had stolen their traditional land.

But as ever with Wright, before we meet Cause we meet Wright’s ancestral Waanyi country, in its cover image inspired by yellow butterflies and its epigraph in the Waanyi language:

Kulubibi. Baba yalu kurrkamala, jaja,
(butterflies are flying everywhere)

Butterflies and their ritual dancing of country are key motifs, associated with the “moth-er”, the story of Aboriginal sovereignty and rebirth.

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Vision and ambition

Praiseworthy is Wright’s fourth novel and her first since 2013, when her groundbreaking climate-change dystopia The Swan Book was published. In the ensuing ten years, the world has changed dramatically – increasingly catastrophic weather events, displacement of peoples and animals, rising inequality, a planetary virus – and yet somehow The Swan Book prefigured them all. Such is the force of Wright’s literary vision and ambition.

In the interim, she wrote Tracker, her Stella Prize-winning collective biography of visionary Aboriginal leader and economist Bruce “Tracker” Tilmouth. Accepting the award in 2018, Wright spoke of the great courage and ambition required to write in these increasingly complex times of multiple crises – and the necessity of doing so.

In Praiseworthy, she has surpassed herself. To The Swan Book’s interweaving of myriad calamities – material, imaginative and spiritual – Praiseworthy adds extensive ruminations on economics and Aboriginal sovereignty. Tracker’s belief in the primacy of Indigenous economic independence infuses the future-saving dreams of Cause Man Steel, who knows that “Aboriginal survival since time immemorial had always been about economics” and that Aboriginal people are “the world’s best economists”.

Cause’s thinking is so huge he’s called “Widespread” and “Planet” by the locals of Praiseworthy, a hot dry town on the Gulf of Carpentaria. His big dream is to make a future for his family and people, independent from the white government. He plans to do this by building a multinational enterprise designed for and profiting from the global climate emergency.

He lives with his wife Dance Steel on their contested Native Title land – the town’s graveyard – with their two elusive sons: Tommyhawk, aged eight, and 17-year-old Aboriginal Sovereignty (Ab.Sov for short), so named because these are “the only words [Cause] loved to say”. Each family member has found a way to hide from the daily horrors of their lives.

Cause escapes into his planet-saving venture. He practises “wife avoidance” and “accomplished absenteeism”. He hides in “the gap” of inequality between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia, because he knows that ensuring the future of the ancestral story is “principally about keeping the main plan hidden amongst a plethora of nothing plans”.

Dance dreams of China and vanishes into imaginary flights with butterflies, moths and other soft-winged insects. The Swan Book was preoccupied with swans; here the winged animals are smaller and more ephemeral. Delicate creatures of the night sky mass and dance their ancient rituals of country before falling to earth; they lead children mesmerised by the strains of Madame Butterfly into the ocean.

The two sons learn “to hide in plain sight by sinking inside themselves”. Glued to his free government digital devices, star student Tommyhawk only communicates through the World Wide Web, which twists his brain into a nightmare of government policy, media whitewashing, and longing to escape to a white heaven called Canberra.

Skinny Aboriginal Sovereignty, who “has the ancestors dancing in him” like he’s the law personified, falls in love with a 15-year-old girl and disappears. Their consummated love is illicit in white Australian law and he pays the price.

An ochre haze

Cause’s plan to bestow his people with “the gift of infinity” is defiled when “infinity itself” (Aboriginal Sovereignty) is destroyed. This desecration unleashes an ancestral storm of hate, grief, broken stories, butterfly wings and spirits, which form a huge ochre haze that hovers permanently over Praiseworthy. This sacrilege and its climatic counterpart – the “Anthropocene haze” – set the story in motion.

The haze mysteriously infiltrates the local mayor, turning his black self white and making him obsessed with whiteness. Now called Ice Pick and bolstered by a posse of admiring ice queens, he becomes the town’s “go-to spin doctor” of whiteness, a master of poisonous English words and parroted thinking about assimilation.

While the people of Praiseworthy struggle beneath the oppressive haze in sweltering government housing, with wrecked roads and unreliable fresh food and water, Ice Pick diverts the municipal funds into self-aggrandisement, self-care and forward plans – and hate campaigns against Cause.

Alexis Wright. Photo: Vincent Long

Evoking Odysseus and the knights of the Holy Grail, Cause is on a quest to find the glistening platinum feral donkey he once saw in a dream. This illusory donkey is destined to be the figurehead of the global transport business that will restore his family fortune: “their vast traditional lands”.

His craft is a clapped out Ford Falcon; his wine-dark sea is the scorching hinterlands of Australia; his enemy is the land-stealing “omnicidal” white culture and government. And like the Greek heroes who set sail for Troy, he abandons his wife and children, leaving them to the Fates. Cause is the absent husband and father consumed by a dream. He has seen a way through the haze: a door similar “to the one his ancestors had built over eons through their economies”. This door, this idea, seems to him as beautiful as poetry.

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Visionary thinking

This conflation of legendary tales, economics, poetry, ancestral land, humour and visionary thinking about global warming is indicative of Wright’s synthesising mode. The metaphoric and imaginative leaps she makes, and the fictional truths they enable her to convey, are breathtaking. Praiseworthy is a novel that creates a literary timespace even more capacious than that of The Swan Book.

In the ailing north, far from Canberra, white people barely figure. But their asphyxiating words and thoughts hang over the town like the haze. Available 24/7 on digital devices, they distort Tommyhawk’s imagination and invade Ice Pick’s mind. When they do make fleeting appearances, white characters are subjected to Wright’s exacting irony and withering critique. They fly in to share their so-called expertise “on what it meant to be a violent Aboriginal man” or do “white supremacy work experience in an Aboriginal community”.

Chief among them is superhero cop Maximum Security Service, who is sent to Praiseworthy to make the “Aboriginal Sovereignty business” go away before the next election. He is “the ultra-modern cop analyst of one of the world’s greatest slave-master nations”. He specialises in policing blood lines: “his total world was a sphere of passionate investigation into racial purity”.

As this suggests, Praiseworthy is an excoriating satire of white Australia’s ongoing violent invasions of Aboriginal lives – particularly those of Aboriginal men, who are portrayed as forever guilty of crimes they have not committed – and the state’s ongoing presumption that it possesses superior knowledge about what’s best for Aboriginal people.

The novel’s rage is volcanic. As Wright demonstrates in its tsunami of destruction and need, a major white obsession is the purported failure of Aboriginal families to properly care for their children. Praiseworthy’s parents

knew you had to run faster than hell with fear written across your face when you were Aboriginal parents, just to prove you loved your children more than white people saying you did not love your children enough, like they loved their children.

The 2007 Northern Territory National Emergency Response (the “Intervention”) – which was the federal government’s invasive reply to the Little Children are Sacred report on child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory – is here understood as a revamped version of the mission system. Aboriginal children are still stolen – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. Lost children and crushed love lie at Praiseworthy’s heart.

As does the abyss that gapes between ancient Aboriginal law and modern white Australian law. The two systems stem from vastly different cosmologies: one is grounded in eternal laws of living and governing country, the other in land as inert property that can be owned and traded for money (or stolen if not previously accounted for in its system). One is life affirming; the other is life denying.

This disconnect – and the inestimable value of Aboriginal law for the planet’s future – is painted in broad brush strokes. We are not to remain blind to this. For example, the media is shown as fanning public sentiment

to demand the wiping out of the entire cultural world of Aboriginal people from the face of the planet, where all that would be left of millennia of ancient wisdom – so urgently relevant today in the Earth ruined by the colonial exploiters and thieves of Aboriginal lands – would be the law of white Australia. There would be no room for Aboriginal law in one law for all Australians …

Sanctity and sacredness

At 736 pages, Praiseworthy is Wright’s longest novel to date, twice the length of The Swan Book. By the end, I was overwhelmed, spinning from its sheer scale and the many broken plot lines and inconclusions; I felt my mind – grown accustomed to anticipating particular narrative arcs – disappointed again and again.

The magnitude of this narrative disruption felt extreme and deliberate. It forced me to consider how white Australia’s ongoing stories about caring for and “protecting” this continent’s First People have continued to disappoint, decade after decade. Offering empty rhetoric and hopeless policies rooted in white experience, misunderstanding, morality and law, they fail to address the originary crime: the wholesale theft of a continent.

For the first time in my experience of reading Wright in any form and at any length, I felt my attention waver during one of Cause’s long journeys. As a former editor, I might have been tempted to suggest cuts around this section. But I have learnt to trust Wright’s vision. Sometimes the excess and repetition are the point.

How else to evoke the desecration of country and its ancient storylines by ongoing acts of white violence? How else to convey our misplaced sense of superiority and authority over the original inhabitants of this continent and their vast stores of knowledge and rich cultures sustained over 60,000 years?

“Sixty thousand” is one of the novel’s many refrains: lest we forget we are denying justice, equity and respect to the longest surviving First Nations on the planet. Praiseworthy suggests that language and stories need to be redefined for these climate-emergency times – and that what is needed is the “spirit language” of Aboriginal sovereignty, of country: “The story was always about sanctity, the sacredness of country.”

The novel is Wright’s most explicit fictional testament to the time immemorial sovereignty of Aboriginal country, the power of its immutable law and governance, and the almighty eternal presence of its ancestors and spirits, and it attests to the grave danger of disregarding them. There is no ambiguity in this:

What couldn’t a great ancestor of country do? So, it was exactly like what the old law people had always said would happen if you look after country, country will look after you.

Or in this:

[Aboriginal Sovereignty] had become tied into the chosen shame of a continent stolen from his people by a pack of racists, who had turned the argument against the people whose land they had stolen, and whose intergenerational lives have never recovered from so great a loss.

Passages like these, as well as the novel’s comprehensiveness, cyclical repetitions and insistence, give it an air of urgency. These are perilous days – and Praiseworthy contains an urgent cry for the recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty over this continent and for Aboriginal economic independence, first and foremost. It’s like a lightning bolt thrown into a supercharged moment, with the wording for the referendum on the Voice to Parliament due to be put to federal parliament.

The novel’s creation has coincided with a global pandemic, lockdowns, continued police violence against Aboriginal men, murders, deaths in custody amid Black Lives Matter marches, and an outpouring of rage against male violence and paedophilia. It illuminates this terrain.

Praiseworthy is a paradox: an epic dirge for the ongoing loss of Aboriginal law and sovereignty – and an ode to the abiding fact that this continent always was and always will be self-governing Aboriginal country. It is creating a new story for these unprecedented times, one capacious enough to contain the feral donkeys that have thrown the old stories into turmoil:

Widespread’s feral donkeys became complicated plot lines of everything that had ever gone wrong in Praiseworthy from the beginning of colonial oppression, and the symbol of great fallenness, like an ugly fallen angel …

Reading this novel reminded me of Samuel Beckett’s assessment of James Joyce: “His writing is not about something. It is the thing itself.” Praiseworthy is the thing itself.

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