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Alexis Wright

Alexiswright Finals AV 2 CROPPED

“We know that these unprecedented climatic events of the Anthropocene have created a climate emergency that will continue to grow with worsening impacts for all life across a hotter world if we don’t take the necessary steps to limit further global warming. Our time is running out. This is the science. What else is there to write about?” asks Alexis Wright – who rises to the task with burning, stormy urgency on all 700-odd pages of her new book Praiseworthy, named after an admirably assimilated town in what the author calls Australia’s “heartbroken storm country”. That country is a place where for 65,000 years, dreaming has defined its human presence, and where the practically-minded “cultural dreamer” Widespread – aka Planet, aka Cause Man Steel – comes up with his ingenious, fortune-making, world-saving, and most urgent plan. A toxic yellow haze has descended on the town of Praiseworthy for good, and so Widespread will single-handedly replace all cars, trucks and even Qantas’ aeroplanes with a million feral donkeys, to transport people and goods all over the world. Wright was inspired in part by the heroic caravan of donkeys who carried the ancient books and manuscripts of the embattled library of Timbuktu to safety when the city was occupied by the group Ansar Dine in 2012.

In long sentences as polyphonic as a Bach fugue, Wright lets the reader hear the complaints of the dead in the cemetery they now share with the donkeys, alongside the pale-skinned mayor’s racist tirades at dawn, broadcast through Praiseworthy, which declare an epidemic of paedophilia in Aboriginal men. We hear these unfounded imputations, spread by the government to destabilise these communities, replayed in the agitated mind of Widespread’s younger son Tommyhawk; and we listen to the soundless voice of Widespread’s beloved older son – named, with great hope and ambition, Aboriginal Sovereignty – who swam out in the ocean far beyond the horizon but whose presence is felt by everyone in Praiseworthy, where no-one can let him be dead.

Wright, a member of the Waanyi Nation from the Gulf of Carpentaria – which provided the title of her equally urgent and sweeping novel of 2006 – embarked on her all-consuming, decade-long project “for the survival of the planet” and for the love of “the delighting world,” as well as in solidarity with “the oldest and poorest people on Earth” and their stolen ancestral land. A sense of justice, and respect for “this mighty cathedral Zof country,” drive her opulent, satirical narratives: ancestors and the still living sit unceremoniously on white plastic chairs near the cemetery, arguing. Their creator doesn’t take sides.

Interview by Claudia SteinbergPhotography by Abigail Varney

CLAUDIA STEINBERG You were brought up with a wise grandmother and other community members to educate you in your shared history. How did this co-exist – or interfere – with your Anglo-Australian education? How did these two worlds meet?

ALEXIS WRIGHT The two worlds collided in a bad way – it’s the history of colonisation. My grandmother Dolly Ah Kup, an Aboriginal woman of Chinese descent, was a really wonderful woman who carried a lot of wisdom to us, and I was very fortunate that I had her in my world from birth. At the age of three, I would jump the front fence, run away from my mother and go to my grandma’s place. I knew the way because we would often walk down there to see her, though I think people kept an eye out for me so I didn’t get lost. My grandmother lived several blocks away from the centre [of town], and part of the way to her house was lined with vacant lots and abandoned properties. Her house had dirt floors, and she didn’t have electricity. I had a big, big family who came down from the Gulf of Carpentaria and Lawn Hill, which is traditional Waanyi country. Part of it is on the Queensland side and part of it is on the Northern Territory side. They came down because the land was stolen, so part of the family ended up in Cloncurry, where I grew up with my grandmother. She loved returning to the traditional Country where people used to move from place to place in the bush. She was always going to return to Lawn Hill, and she often talked about that when I was a small child. Our families would gather at her place, as she was really the head of the family. In me she had a granddaughter who doted on her. She often walked along the river and talked to people she knew who were camping along the bank, or she would go fishing, or she’d go to the rubbish dump looking for pots and big tin cans for her garden — she had a lovely garden where she grew mango trees, and she did it all on her own, growing plants from seed or cuttings. She lived in a corrugated iron house on what I think must have been an ancient riverbed because it had very good soil. She knew how to grow vegetables like Chinese cabbage as her father was Chinese, and he had developed a market garden on Waanyi country and supplied pastoralists and other people with vegetables and poultry. We had a bush turkey down the backyard. My grandmother also grew flowers, very old-fashioned flowers, from seed. There was no nursery to go to and buy things like that. She lived very simply.


CS Simply, but managing an independent life. How did her life appear to you as a small child?

AW  It was a haven. She nurtured so much – gardens, family, people, life – and I was attracted to that. My mother was strict, she was bringing up two girls. Our father passed away when I was about five, and she had to work, and this was in a town where there was a separation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. There were policy changes – protectionism, assimilation – that were nasty for small-town politics, and so my grandma was a haven. In her small town, she had time for everybody. She couldn’t read but she could embrace other people no matter who they were, including other kin, families who were also living on the edge of town and on the riverbank.


CS Were these people on the margin of town shunned by everyone else?

AW Yes. I remember times when the town council bulldozed their homes, and when rifle shots were fired into windows, and much more. My grandmother seemed completely oblivious to those kinds of racist acts. She didn’t have any aspirations to be like the townspeople – she would call into anybody’s place and expect someone to make her a cup of tea, no matter who they were.


CS You started fighting for Indigenous rights at an early age. What ignited that sense of injustice?

AW  I began working for Indigenous rights for organisations and communities across North Queensland and also in our family’s traditional Country in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the era of the repressive premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. That was in the 1960s and 1970s, when Aboriginal people were living under the Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Act, and could be removed to missions and reserves all over Queensland. Families could be separated at the whim of the Protector. My mother was more fearful of this than my grandmother, who grew up in traditional Country. Though it has its own history of what happened to Aboriginal people, the expectation in a place like Cloncurry was that Aboriginal people would assimilate, so my mother was more affected by that than my grandmother.


CS Your grandmother was also a repository of stories, which made you familiar with the oral traditions and cultural patrimony of Aboriginal culture.

AWShe was very close to the movement of the world and the environment, and her stories related to the meaning of this and the meaning of that – you should do this when you’re in this particular part of Country, you should do that when you are down by the river. She could see signs that told her why something had happened or didn’t happen. I was part of a generation that had more education – or any education – than a lot of elders, and they expected us to do a lot of work. I continued learning from the wisdom of the elders. They carried the whole universe; they knew every part of Country, and they could see all the connections between things. They gave us a lot of responsibility, and probably more power than we should have had. For instance, we had a monumental fight to stop a multi-national company from developing a huge mine on our traditional land. We’ve had to fight hard to have any say in what happens to it, particularly the destruction of significant sacred areas. There’s a whole history of monumental arguments over land rights that we have taken on, and it takes decades to understand their impact.

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Praiseworthy, Alexis Wright (And Other Stories, 2023)

CS Your country is still very dependent on extractive industries, and practically all its wealth comes from ground sacred to Native people. It is seemingly impossible to give up on these lucrative practices, even if it means extinction. Where do you meet when you talk about protecting sacred sites versus making money? How did you fight? Did you organise sit-ins, did you write to the government, demonstrate?

AW We did it all – sit-ins, citizen protests, delegations, fighting legal arguments, and meetings after meetings after meetings. The extraction of resources from traditional land creates harm both spiritually and physically. We now see massive storms in this country, flooding on the scale of creating an inland sea, and bushfires that seem impossible to put out. There has long been denial that global warming is happening here, and governments are still not doing as much as they ought to. There is a lot of worry here – people can see that these unprecedented climate events are the effect of global warming, and this is what scientists have been telling us for a very, very long time.


CS People knew in the 1970s, but now seawalls are being built around Manhattan for billions of dollars.

AW This is the tragedy that I was thinking about while writing the book. I was asking simple questions, looking at how climate catastrophe plays out in our communities where people are very poor, and at the millions of people in poor communities all over the world who have endured in spite of all the hardship and who are now facing a world getting warmer. That’s the kind of story that has come out in Praiseworthy. That became the story of Cause Man Steel, alias Widespread, alias Planet, who has a dream or a vision of building an economy for his people, to take them across the burning planet. When you think of it, our ancestors were able to get us here from thousands of years ago with a culture that, in many ways, is still intact though many have attempted to destroy it throughout colonial history. Our culture is still in the minds of Aboriginal people across Australia as a knowledge, a belief system, and a set of laws from ancient times. It is a living thing: it’s not stagnant. I received very strong guidance from older people, and there was an expectation for younger people to follow the tradition. 


CS What code do these laws prescribe?

AWIt’s a whole way of life, and it’s very much tied to Country. We are upholding the beliefs that say the creation spirits are still there, and you don’t disturb them for risk of consequences. Everything is interconnected, and there are stories for everything — it’s a whole cosmos of stories. Some of the creation stories are tied to different parts of Country, and people have responsibility to the law stories that belong to that part. Those stories are religious, they are spiritual, they are sacred. People will not share those stories openly, because they are powerful.

I continued learning from the wisdom of the elders. They carried the whole universe

CS So you want to keep them in the right hands. Where do you learn the stories?

AWYou learn them in your family group, in your clan, from people who are tied to your family group and who are responsible for a particular part of Country and its law stories. All stories are upheld through ceremony – they’re very sacred. There are some general stories people will share but most stories are kept within.


CS Even telling personal stories freely and often can feel as if you are using them up – diminishing and thinning them by spreading them.

AW It is called story-keeping and it is part of a belief system that says Country is sacred, that the land is sacred, and that it speaks to you. It could speak to you very softly, through the signs of the coming of the seasons, or it can speak very harshly through some of these big climatic events that happen now. Yet Aboriginal voices are not heard, as you’ve seen in the referendum that was held only last year, which rejected the notion that Aboriginal people would participate in government.


CS What argument did the decision-makers bring up to justify their rejection?

AW Well, they don’t have to justify anything. In retrospect [the referendum] was ill-conceived – anyone can see that this country isn’t ready to recognise Aboriginal rights, not even in the most simple, almost meaningless terms, and so a large majority – about 60% – voted against an Indigenous voice to Parliament. Yet that the referendum was defeated in every state as well as nationally is so much more than a political loss. All we can do is continue fighting for these issues, but it’s difficult to sit down and expect that we can negotiate treaties under these circumstances. We’ve got a long way to go and that’s a very sad thing because people in our communities are suffering and will continue to do so. There’s terrible poverty, people live in substandard housing, with bad water, low employment, and little education. Things are not good for our children. It’s difficult to sit down and negotiate with people living on the sovereign land of Aboriginal people who continue to do what they do with very little thought about the Aboriginal tradition and history in this country.

Alexiswright Finals AV 4ORIGINALSIZE

CS Doesn’t the increasingly dire and undeniable impact of climate change on everybody’s quality of life present an opportunity to shift toward a more respectful relationship to the land as practised by Aboriginal people? Environmentally speaking, the past is the future.

AW I think most people are caught up in the system that they’re living in. The story of Praiseworthy is about dirt-poor Aboriginal people under global warming. The main character of the book, Cause Man Steel, has a vision in which he sees a donkey in the dark night, out in the bush. He gets a glimpse of the moonlight shining on the donkey’s platinum fur. We have five million feral donkeys in Australia, and Cause Man Steel is a man of quite rational thought. His plan is to look after his culture and people by building an economy independent from the government. He knows that the world is going to get even hotter and there are going to be more land grabs, making more Aboriginal people refugees. Decisions will be made at a high level about who lives and who dies. Cause Man Steel’s plan is to build a transport conglomerate the likes of which you’ve never seen for when we run out of fossil fuel. He goes out in search of this particular feral donkey in this particular shade of platinum grey he saw in his dream. He has to travel thousands of miles in his old Ford Falcon sedan and finally, he sees a donkey just like the one in the memory of his dream. He takes it back in his beaten-up Ford Falcon to Praiseworthy, which still sits under its ochre-colored cloud of oppression made up of chemicals and the soot from the bushfires, and when Cause Man Steel gets back to the hazy light with his donkey – he can only take one at a time – he realises that it is not the platinum colour he was looking for. He makes the same mistake over and over and over again with each donkey he brings to Praiseworthy. I tried to create a great deal of humour throughout the writing of this book, which is a style of epic-making in the Aboriginal world, continuously building elaborations on what we might call the natural-born ancestor’s given mastery for re-writing any official narrative, combined with the everyday brain-fueled humour commonly found throughout the Aboriginal world.


CSHe makes a lot of sacrifices to realise his plan: he sleeps in his car when he is looking for donkeys. It’s very rough and he’s alone all the time.

AW It is the desire to survive, and it is the same plan his ancestors had, to ensure we survived as the oldest living culture in the world.


CS His ingenious plan of creating the donkey transport business is hampered by his idée fixe that he needs a platinum-coloured donkey. But when this doesn’t work out he modifies the plan and settles pragmatically for a not-quite-platinum specimen, and the business eventually takes off.

AWCause finally goes for a reasonable compromise, but the donkey argues with him: he doesn’t feel he’s up to being the leader of a global transport system and would rather spend the last few years of his life with his herd in the bush. Cause tells him to save the world, and he has the power of conviction. I wanted to look at that because that’s something I do in my work. We have arguments all the time with the government, trying to get it to recognise who we are and to take our culture into the future, and we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. We have great Aboriginal leaders who try to build alternative ways of  being independent, and in traditional Country in the Gulf of Carpentaria, some of our leaders do this really well. One of the principal and successful ideas in the Land Council’s charter is to excite the young so that they will stay on their traditional Country and build a future there. In many regions of the country, we have been able to establish our own, very effective Aboriginal land management regimes that use both traditional and modern scientific practices to bring Country back to life after years of destruction by inappropriate land use. In the place where our council originated and is situated, the Northern town of Burketown, they have succeeded in buying up the whole town – they own the one grocery store, they own the hotel – so if anyone wants to come and do business, they have to be open to our ideas. Murrandoo Yanner, a Gangalidda elder and wisdom man, one of our finest leaders from the Gulf and closely related to Waanyi, said to me, “I’m buying back my own piece of sovereignty.” What they are doing is not easy but they are trying to build a future for the young people.


CS And to keep them from being ideologically poisoned by aggressive disinformation, of the kind that the fascist Major Mayor Ice Pick disseminates through his early morning broadcasts. Tommyhawk, an avid listener, is among those who have been seduced by the accoutrements of the modern world, like an iPad and iPhone, while vehemently disowning his own culture. He becomes the polar opposite to his older, charismatic brother Aboriginal Sovereignty, who is described as a beautiful and much-loved young man whom the reader almost has a crush on.

AW Cause Man Steel has two sons, and he called the older one Aboriginal Sovereignty because he wanted that boy to remember who he was throughout his life, and that boy becomes accepted by his community as representing Aboriginal sovereignty — he is the hope for the future. He is a boxer, he is a wonderful dancer in ceremonies, and he is the apple of everyone’s eye. After things go wrong he tries to commit suicide. On the day his brother Tommyhawk was born, Cause Man Steel took one look at the boy and said, “This baby is a fascist.” He had a traditional name for him but he said “No, he can’t have that name. Call him what you like.” Tommyhawk is a child of the Aboriginal intervention policies of the type that were rolled out by the Howard government in 2007 as a way of trying to change the narrative that people believed about Aboriginal people. A long period of what was called Aboriginal Reconciliation saw a lot of white Australians wanting to be reconciled with Aboriginal people. When a different government got into power they decided to change that narrative from one in which Aboriginal people are good and that Aboriginal land rights are legitimate. The new conservative government wanted to wipe out all the accomplishments that Aboriginal people had achieved since the 1970s and reverse land claims that has been won in 20 or 30 years of legal battles, saying that Aboriginal people were incapable of governing and that the policy of self-management, which never really existed anyway, had failed. All along, there was greater suffering in Aboriginal communities through the continual whittling down of funding for services in health, education, housing, economic development and so on. They claimed that paedophilia was rampant in Aboriginal communities and that Aboriginal parents don’t love their children. This went on and on all over the Australian media. I thought, what is happening to the children hearing this, that their parents don’t love them, that their communities are rampant with paedophiles?


CS Tommyhawk is addicted to social media and ingests all that disinformation.

AW He decides he wants out, and his idea of being saved is for the Minister for Aboriginal people, the “mother” of all Aboriginal children, to be his true mother. He has this idea that she should adopt him so he can then live at Parliament House in Canberra, which he sees as the richest place in Australia – to sit in that place of power and be looked after. Tommyhawk is a schemer, and you can see that he’s a very bright young boy. He doesn’t care about what happens to other people, what happens to his brother. The current generation of Aboriginal youths are the children of the Intervention, which still persists, although it has been a total failure of government. Millions and millions of dollars have been wasted on it when they could instead be invested in Aboriginal self-government in the Northern Territory.

On the day his brother Tommyhawk was born, Cause Man
Steel took one look at the boy and said, “This baby is a fascist”

CS What happened exactly during Intervention?

AW It included all sorts of schemes, like prohibiting alcohol, but what it really accomplished was to take control away from Aboriginal communities, which also took away their respect and pride – respect for our elders, pride in the family bond. These communities are still suffering. A big report was recently released by the Australian Productivity Commission that calls for systematic change, but it won’t bring about structural change that would allow Aboriginal people their own decision-making. You get children living in circumstances where none of our people have control or authority and the kids are running amok, unguided, trying to create their own revolution. They are breaking into people’s homes, stealing and destroying, and then they end up in custody. Their ethical and moral foundations have been destroyed.


CS Let’s return to Tommyhawk standing on the shore, the “little fascist” hiding in a stranded, partially submerged whale skeleton, his eyes fixed on the horizon. He wants Aboriginal Sovereignty to swim out into the ocean never to return. It’s a hypnotic, mystical, intense scene, like a spell. At the end of the novel the drowned older brother comes back as a kind of disembodied presence after his long journey in the ocean, and Tommyhawk, who now spends a lot of time on the beach, recognises that his brother is around. There is almost a tenderness between the two souls.

AW There is a kind of healing between the two brothers, yes. Tommyhawk has been isolated far away from Praiseworthy, and for some time he beats a drum – an old petrol drum – and that sound, that pulse, is heard through Country. It reverberates all the way back to Praiseworthy, where his mother Dance – who is also called “moth-er,” since she is always surrounded by butterflies and moths – finds great solace in that drumbeat. My idea was to write in a different key, to write the story in an Aboriginal chord, and I was looking for what our people say about what connects all our different Aboriginal nations and language groups: that we all are of one heartbeat. I was trying to write the book to the rhythm of that heartbeat, to its tone. It’s a slow heartbeat made from Country that sounds to me like the yidaki – or “didgeridoo” – and the beat of clap sticks in the same rhythm. Women singing at the ceremony throughout the night, as you heard them sing a long time ago. The sound is also a droning you can hear from certain native pigeons, and you also hear the rhythm in some classical Indian ragas as well as in classical Chinese guqin. This is what I was thinking about when Tommyhawk is abandoned. The sound he is making, beating that drum slowly in that droning rhythm, is heard by his mother a long way away.

Alexiswright Finals AV 3 CROPPED

CS Tommyhawk’s mother is a complex figure, very independently minded but also hemmed in by people who don’t want to acknowledge that she has the title to the cemetery, which ties her most closely to the ancestral world and thus gives her power. But when her husband’s donkeys colonise the cemetery plot and mess it up with their shit, even the dead feel so offended that they want to be liberated from the cemetery and be taken elsewhere. Can you talk about the themes that converge in this contested, epic, place?

AWEverything in the Aboriginal world is epic, and we live in unprecedented times every day. We have had government policy after government policy, and every single policy is a failure. It’s madness. This epic world is becoming ever more difficult. I really believe that we need to talk about this on another scale, because we don’t seem to get through on social media or the news. Praiseworthy had to be a work of scale that meets the enormity of what’s happening. Stupid things happen around us all the time, and some of these things become folklore. The contested cemetery story is a Native title issue that happened when legislation was passed in 1992 recognising that Aboriginal people had always been here, as opposed to the colonial story that said Australia had been empty until 200 years ago. The law was constructed in such a way that you’ve got to prove unbroken attachment to the land, as if two centuries of colonial rule had never happened: you had to be able to prove that you’ve always been on your Native Title land, though so much was stolen from people who were either killed or forced to leave. That led to a lot of issues between Aboriginal people – it has divided us. With the cemetery in Praiseworthy, the local people feel that they can’t go in there, because it’s not safe, so they sit outside the fence and scream orders to Dance to put flowers on the graves or tidy them up. They construct little loudspeakers beside each grave, like the ones that used to be in old drive-in movie theatres, so that people can talk to their deceased relatives without having a confrontation with their ghosts or with the donkeys.


CS In the end, even turncoats like Ice and Tommyhawk show their human side. Their flaws, however deep, are part of their humanity. You have quoted Edward Said who claimed that “dignity has a special place in every culture” – it is owed even to the misguided. How does it prevail in Country?

AW We are related, as close family, to everything in our world, and the cultural responsibility for upholding the dignity of Country is found in its laws. This is where dignity is anchored. There is also a great deal of compassion and empathy in the Aboriginal worlds. Sometimes we may afford too much empathy and generosity where we had hoped to be treated fairly, and with dignity, to have our sovereign claims to Country respected, only to be shown that others are not empathetic, or do not act with dignity and respect.


CS Anglo-Australian writers have failed to move you the same way as, for example, Carlos Fuentes. Why?

AW I always remember Fuentes once saying that all times in his country – Mexico – were important and that no time in Mexico has ever been resolved. This is exactly the same in our world – all times are important from ancient history to where we sit now and where we go in the future. We are the all-times. This is where we all live. When I was exploring a way to write about our world from an Aboriginal perspective, I could not find what I was looking for in Australian literature. I knew what I had to say would require a very different, “all times” approach. I was frightened by the questions, challenges and risk-taking that lay ahead for me, and expanding from writing from a sovereign position – the sovereignty of my own mind. Very early in my journey as a writer, I knew that I might never be published, certainly not in Australia, and if not in Australia then most likely not overseas. I read writers from all over the world to figure out how to write this country and how to tell its truth from an Aboriginal perspective. I wanted to be free of the constraints of any so-called literary tradition, and not to just write, as Seamus Heaney once said, from a “common mind”. There were walls to break through when it came to literary expectations. I wanted to write Country as breathing and alive, important and vital. I was particularly interested in writers with an unbroken cultural inheritance to their traditional country, who were not strangers to the land where they lived. Writers who were not burdened with colonialism as it is here, where we endured a long history of the unsettled business of theft, of unceded land. I wanted to know how to write back. What is the real description of the house? The house was bigger than four walls and a yard. The house to Aboriginal people is Country. How do you write that? ◉