Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

The Unjusticiable and the Imaginable

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

The Unjusticiable and the Imaginable

Article excerpt

These notes on Alexis Wright's fiction are about issues within (and beyond) Indigenous intellectual and political life in contemporary Australia that her fiction seems to address in imaginative and narrative ways. They're predominantly contextual rather than interpretative. In the context of our MLA panel (9 January 2015) on Wright's '(other)worldly' fiction I offered these contextual considerations, working from the outside in, as intended to assist with reading The Swan Book (2013), particularly for a non-Australian readership; a reading from the inside out would include consideration of Indigenous storytelling modes and their adaptation of dystopian generics, and the thematics of climate theft and ecological racism (see Rose). The Swan Book and Carpentaria (2006) currently circulate as world novels where they have a powerful and distinctive presence as complex literary narratives within transnational Indigenous and, to a lesser degree, non-Indigenous literary circuits (see Osborne and Whitlock).1 At the same time these fictions emerge out of and address native (and national) historical and political matrices that include deeply contested, volatile ideas about state sovereignty, land rights, the history of settlement, and Indigenous policy. In this connection 'sovereignty' is the word I would like to draw attention to. A significant aspect of The Swan Book is the complex and self-reflexive ways in which it addresses the political and social debate about 'sovereignty,' although this aspect of Wright's fiction is not restricted to that novel.

A global south perspective is useful here because within influential, 'northern' paradigms of reading and method in literary studies that are constitutively defined by a certain version of the global, the planetary, the cosmopolitan, the transnational (or the post-national) the formations 'sovereignty' and critical regionalism are hard to read, or have been assumed to have been superseded. In those monologic frameworks the politics of national territory tend to be subject only to internal humanist critique, not discourse and criticism of fraught, real-world constitutionalism and foundational questions of sovereignty. While the term 'sovereignty' is obviously and variously abstract in reference, it also refers primarily to the state in its legal and factual alignment with the nation, with the international system of governance (the law of nations), and with the cartography as well as biopolitics of territory and borders. Dislodging literary sociability and the modes of interpretation from national territory-that is, geopolitical bounds and limits of space and history-seems like a liberating move, especially for any Indigenous body of work that by definition is always already constituted by the struggle against settler, invader and occupier nationalisms. Worlding or reterritorialising readings of the contemporary novel are often driven by a desire to circumvent defensive, incipiently racist or essentialising territorialism-spatially and historically. Reterritorialising the novel in this sense is to read it against and beyond the discursive bounds of a geo-unitary nation with its (often disremembered) foundations in violence and dispossession and its anxious, subjugating possessiveness about identity and myth. Critical decolonisation, or de-nationalisation, here, posits a kind of self-determination for the Indigenous text, its rulership of itself, the recognition of its unpatrolled citizenship, not of a postcolonial nation or even a ?first-world? world literature, but of a trans-Indigenous first-nation of letters.

But the perspectives of some Indigenous writers, like Alexis Wright, may caution us to rethink any tendency to interpretative ecstasy here: as Wright reminds us in an important speech, the Mabo lecture, in Alice Springs in the same year The Swan Book was published (June 2013)-and which I return to in detail-Aboriginal people have a particular relationship to the word ? …

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