A few years ago I camped with my beloved in Jalmurark Campground, in Mangarayi and Yungman Country in the top end of the Northern Territory, near the property about which We of the Never Never was written by white woman Jeannie Gunn, who lived there for about a year. It was there that I was woken by the monstrous screams of feral donkeys, a noise that is used by sound designers all around the world whenever they need a terrifying, unearthly sound. And it was there I discovered for the first time that Australia has a feral donkey problem.
Donkeys, as well as butterflies, beetles, Dreaming spirits and a haze perched upon Country as a vengeful spirit, all loom large in Alexis Wright’s new novel, Praiseworthy, creating a spiritual and metaphorical landscape in which the drama occurs. This is Australia – but it’s not the Australia you know.
There are few books in Australian literature more epic than Praiseworthy and few books as dense with poetry. It possesses a sense of the timelessness that William Stanner, in his 1953 essay “The Dreaming”, called the “everywhen”. Throughout the history of Indigenous Australian writing there has existed a recurring but poorly understood genre unique to our stories. Some call it magical realism but it has little in common with the broader genre of that name. Instead it should perhaps be named Aboriginal realism, a form of literature that considers the world as the oldest living continuous culture sees it and does not shy away from the immaterial world of ghosts and ancestral spirits that cannot be seen by the uninitiated but that affect the world around them.
Praiseworthy is a powerful example of this genre, bringing together the storytelling of the everywhen and its people, and the broader fantastical literature of the world. There is no writer quite like Wright for this kind of cultural writing: from Carpentaria through The Swan Book to Praiseworthy, her work brings the ancient world into the modern era, creating a literature for our times that is anchored in the ancient past, through eyes that can see and a mind that can touch both worlds.
Characters in Praiseworthy – both the book and the fictional town after which it is named – have multiple names. “A praiseworthy man could have a lot of names. So! What?” This signifies a humanity that is as fluid as the air above the town is solid. Identities, like the town, are fogged by the monstrous ancestor haze.
The characters include the many-named Widespread Planet on a delirious, quixotic search for just the right dream donkey; his wife, Dance, the mother, lost in her dreamings of lepidoptera; Aboriginal Sovereignty; their son who wants to die; and his brother Tommyhawk, who has internalised the racism fed to Aboriginal people during the Intervention until he has become what his father identifies as a fascist.
Planet’s rival, Ice Pick, the albino mayor of the town, wants everyone in the town to assimilate – to become white. Most of the rest of the cast of hundreds have no names or nicknames or more than one name each, and join Ice and Planet in becoming mythical.
The work swirls in the air like the poetic Dreamtime ancestor haze in the sky above – like the clouds of butterflies and moths that at intervals rise into the ancestral sky and fall to the ancient earth. Ancient people hold the stories and care for Country, while their grandchildren are lost, listless and without hope.
The 2022 Closing the Gap report, like every report since 2008, is a litany of failures. One statistic stands out starkly for me: youth suicide in Aboriginal communities is on the rise. In Praiseworthy, this fact is felt viscerally: the pain, causes and effects of Aboriginal youth suicide are not ignored. Aboriginal people – and I hope other readers of this novel – turn to face it as people with no other choice.
Praiseworthy is a community still under the iron fist of the Intervention. The novel forces us to face the uncomfortable fact that, rather than making Aboriginal youth safer, the Intervention might have been the direct cause of the recorded increase in youth suicide. Self-harm is a symptom of depression and despair, which was increased by the Intervention, almost as if that was its intent.
Although the story is set in this century, events are part of the Dreaming, as the Dreaming does not exist in a single place in time but rather belongs to all times – past, present and future – at once. We are left as disjointed and destabilised in time as the characters and the story; we become aware at last that time is an illusion, that all time exists in an eternal now.
The Anthropocene and the deep time past have always existed together but as they collide in Praiseworthy we are made aware of this. We are reminded of the durability of Aboriginal people and our culture, of our adaptability, of the fact that we have been here forever and will be here forever.
And perhaps that’s the overall message of Praiseworthy: to heal the future we need to acknowledge the past and to look into the deep time of the everywhen. The Anthropocene – the era in which mostly white humanity is destroying the world’s ability to sustain human life – is part of the everywhen too.
Giramondo, 736pp, $39.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 8, 2023 as "Praiseworthy".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription