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Swallow the Air

This material was written by Carmen Vallis and modified for HSC English (ESL) by Eve Mayes, Condell Park High School.

Swallow the Air book cover

Key vocabulary to use in responses on Swallow the air
Context of Swallow the air
Telling stories to belong
Who belongs?
The language of belonging
Relating other texts

Key vocabulary to use in responses on Swallow the air

Look at the list of words related to belonging and Swallow the Air.

The "Red light" words are important to know to write well on Swallow the Air and belonging. "Amber light" words are reasonably important. "Green light" words are good to know to enhance your response.

Look up and learn any words that you are unfamiliar with.

RED LIGHT - You HAVE to know these words and what they mean

Words from the Syllabus rubric:
Words related to Swallow the Air:
Assimilation/ assimilate
Discontent/ discontentment
Trauma/ traumatised

AMBER LIGHT - You SHOULD know these words and what they mean


GREEN LIGHT - It's GOOD for you to know these words


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Context of Swallow the air

Tara June Winch

Like all texts, Swallow the air was written in a specific context that influences the ideas of belonging that are explored and the language used.

Swallow the air was published in 2006 by UQP), a small, independent company committed to publishing "scholarly and Black Australian writing". Why would Swallow the air be more likely to be published by UQP than other mainstream, commercial publishers?

Think about different types of media and entertainment: television programs, films, advertisements, computer games, songs and internet sites such as YouTube and MySpace.

The novel is mostly set in modern day Australia. We know that from popular cultural references like 'Nike' and the "Tip Top Bread Grocery Grab" and to practices such as the car wash and squatting. Because the main character and narrator May travels in her search to find herself, Swallow the air explores both modern Australian urban and rural contexts.

Modern Australian society is explored from an Aboriginal perspective in Swallow the air. May and her family's story is intricately linked with Australian history, before and after white settlement.

Tara June Winch was born in 1983 and is of Wiradjuri, Afghan and English heritage. Does knowing the author's personal context influence how you respond to her book?

Find references inSwallow the airto Australian society, before and after white settlement, and note them down in the table. One example has been completed for you.

Before white settlement Context (of the book and wider society) After white settlement Context (of the book and wider society)
"Mungi was his name, the first turtle ever. They said he was a tribesman who was speared in the neck while protecting himself under a hollowed-out tree… 'Anyway, using the empty tree trunk as his shell, he was allowed to live peacefully forever as a turtle.' Or so Mum would say." Mungi story is in the first chapter and shows the reader that Aboriginal culture is important to the narrator and story.

Aboriginal story preserves & respects animal - contrasts to dead stingray.
"The terraces colliding into each other. Rubble edging fences. Rubbish clogging gutters. Mothers screaming fathers or brothers or cousins. Uncles drinking under bread and butter…Drug smuggling thugs the mother." May describes 'the Block' in Redfern, Sydney. Her short sharp sentences show how shocked she is by what she sees around her. Aboriginal society is disintegrating here.





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The context of the relationship between white and black Australians, both past and present, is key to understanding the characters in Swallow the air.The novel begins with the suicide of May's mother. We find out later that her mother was "a beaten person", and that all her "brothers and sisters had been put into missions" as children. May's mother simply says: "It wasn't a good time for the women, losing their children".


A national Sorry Day (external website) has been held on the 26th May since 1998. What do you know about Sorry Day? Read Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology (external website) to the stolen generations.

In your opinion, how has the mistreatment of Aborigines contributed to the tragic deaths of May's mother and Johnny? Use quotes/examples from the text to support your ideas.

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Telling stories to belong

Tara June Winch

Telling and remembering stories is an important part of Swallow the Air, just as traditional Aboriginal culture has a strong oral tradition. For the most part, it is May who tells us her family's story - Swallow the air is written from the perspective of May in first person ("I").

In the chapter 'Cloudbusting', the narrative briefly shifts and her mother tells May a story about her own mother. The reader learns about May's grandmother and her friendship with a door-to-door salesman, which was like "letting in the sun, some hope."

May's sense of belonging to family and Aboriginal culture is clearly connected with the stories her mother tells her. She says: "I felt Aboriginal because mum had made me proud to be, told me I got magic and courage from Gundyarri, the spirit man… I felt like I belonged…"

As May loses her sense of belonging, her life becomes chaotic and troubled. The stories she tells are of Aboriginal characters who are dispossessed and displaced. Aunty turns to gambling and alcohol until May feels she has to leave this "place of grog and fists". Her brother Billy becomes drug addicted to the point where May says "I did not know my brother".

At "the Block", in inner-city Redfern, May reaches a turning point. She drifts into drugs and crime but is supported by elderly Joyce who tells May has "got people that you find, things you gotta learn". Joyce doesn't want May to belong to the Block mob and its bleak future. Through May we hear Joyce tell the Aboriginal history of Redfern. Read the Aboriginal Housing Coorporation (external website) website on the history of Redfern and compare it to Joyce's representation.

When May finds her way to Lake Cowral, we learn the story of another elder, Issy in the chapter "Just Dust". From Issy's story we learn that there is a greater, universal sense of belonging to the land in Aboriginal culture: "Everything is part of the heart, everything is water…"

Finally, May finds her way back to Paradise Parade, and her place in the world: "My mother knows that I am home, at the water I am always home." The book ends with the chance of reconciliation and a sense that it's up to all of us to stop excluding black Australians.


Below is a link to an interview with Tara June Winch in which she talks about her writing. Tara also reads an extract from the chapter 'Cloudbusting' from Swallow the air. You'll find questions or comments next to each video for discussion.

http://www.cli.nsw.edu.au/cli/WritersTalk/lo/6134/6134_00.htm (external website)

To sum up, Swallow the air explores the personal growth and spiritual awakening of May, as she finds her own sense of belonging. The narration or telling ofSwallow the airfollows a pattern common to quest narratives.

You may already have studied quests -The Lord of the Ringsis one famous example of a quest. The hero in a quest has to travel and overcome great difficulties and challenges in order to reach his/her goal. Usually the hero learns something about him/herself and returns back to where s/he set out.

How does Swallow the air fit as a quest narrative? Fill in the quest worksheet.

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Swallow the Air as a quest

Note down events & characters of each stage of May's quest with reference to the text. Some words have been added to get you thinking. You can come up with many more ideas!

Quest beginning - May's world - setting, characters, and beliefs

Billy and the beach

May is presented with a problem, a challenge


May leaves on a journey

'To Run'

May's determination is tested - she must fight many battles and so discovers many things about herself and others.


The Block


May confronts her greatest fear - the climax of the story
The Gibsons

May reaches the goal of her quest e.g. the knowledge that leads to an insight
'Country', 'The Jacaranda Tree'

May returns home with new insight which can benefit others

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For discussion/reflection:

What is your personal quest? What are your personal goals in life? What challenges and difficulties will you have to face?

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Who belongs?

A sense of belonging is important to everyone. We all need to feel connected to other people. It's part of our identity, who we are. If you brainstormed a few ideas about where you belong it might look something like the diagram below.




Think about May's sense of belonging and label the same diagram. Find quotes from the text to support each label.

Some of the characters in Swallow the Airare powerful reminders of what happens when people are made to feel they don't belong, that they come "from the wrong side of the creek" and that they even "feel like we didn't belong on that side of the creek either". In the chapter "Mission", readers are told through the character of 'Uncle' that Aboriginals are still alienated and dispossessed: "They still tryin to do it, kill off us fellas, that always been they plan, now they do it quiet…"


Make a list of the characters who are alienated from themselves and/or society. Write short quotes/examples that show the characters' alienation (not-belonging). What do these characters have in common, if anything?

The lives of May's mother and her Aunty have many parallels. May watches both women being subjected to extreme domestic violence. Whereas May's mother becomes "paranoid and frightened" and eventually takes her own life; Aunty turns to alcohol and gambling.

Likewise, there are clear parallels between the characters of Billy and Johnny. Both Billy and Johnny share dreaming places with May; both get involved in a self-destructive lifestyle. May even tells Johnny "that he reminds me of my brother" and he in turn says "he is my brother, always." While Johnny dies in a police chase, a sober Billy somehow makes it back to join May at Paradise Parade.

For discussion:

Why do you think the author chose to parallel these characters? Why does Johnny die but Billy does not? Why does May's mother die while Aunty survives?

Consider the older Aboriginal characters in Swallow the air: Joyce, Issy and 'Uncle' at the mission. As elders, they teach May how important her past and culture is to her identity and self-esteem. These characters contrast to characters such as Percy Gibson. Although May and Percy are cousins, there is no sense of connection or family belonging. He tells her straight: "There is a big missing hole between this place and the place you're looking for. It's gone. It was taken away."

Finally, chart the journey of May's character. What qualities does she have as a character? How does the author Winch show us readers these qualities? What do you think May will do next?

Character Profile Table:

Fill in the Character Profile Table as a way of summarising the characters' relationships to each other and to belonging.

Character Experience of belonging/alienation Parallels to other characters in the book

May's mother

May's aunty






Percy Gibson

May's father



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The language of belonging

The opening line of Swallow the Air immediately draws us into May's story with its conversational tone: "I remember the day I found out my mother was head sick." In the same paragraph strong emotive language positions us as readers to sympathise with May's mother and her story: "…Mum's sad emerald eyes bled through her black canvas and tortured willow hair."

In the next chapter the author further uses personal pronouns to position the reader (us) to identify with Aunty and her hilarious battle to win in the Tip Top Grocery Grab at Woolworths: "We saw her start to panic…You could see the dread…" Humour balances the awful reality that Aunty becomes a gambler and alcoholic.

Dialogue is used very effectively in Swallow the Air to show character and belonging. May and her family typically speak in broad Australian idiom and slang. Aunty in "Leaving Paradise", for example, affectionately tells May and her brother "'Garn, get out. Go meet ya mates'" on Billy's birthday. May is "stoked" to be asked to the movies and Billy playfully teases her: "ya reckon ya can handle that?" The informal, joking language they use with one another shows their belonging as a family.

How language is spoken is an important feature of Swallow the Air. Joyce from the Block speaks in a dialect that doesn't respect the traditional rules of grammar and shows her outsider status. For example, she says "government putting fear on us." Joyce peppers her conversation with Aboriginal words such as "moguls" that show her belonging to the Block, rather than mainstream white society. Her son Johnny also calls May "his wontok, his black girl ally."

The tension, the drama of the crises May lives through is often heightened with imaginative language. As May drifts into drugs and homelessness with other aimless teenagers, her sentences become fragmented: "One-step forward, two-steps back, no home again." Vivid imagery shows the tension of living on the streets with similes such as: "Some of us leapt out of windows like high jump horses." Winch also uses metaphor: "They shot paint into the officer's face, his eyes bleeding his blindness. Savages."

Often the grim details of May's and her friends' and family's harsh lives are contrasted to the beauty of Aboriginal Dreaming. While in the lock-up, May gets a message from Wyndradyne and the prose changes to poetic language: "The stars scattered free and became sea birds…carving lines and unzipping the wet universe."

Descriptions of the land are written in particularly rich, imaginative language. Winch uses personification to make May's experience come alive to the reader and emphasise the importance of her belonging to the land: "The river sleeps…tree bones of spirit people, arms stretched out and screaming." Without this belonging, May and her family and friends seem lost.

May's developing sense of Aboriginality and belonging to the earth and sea is particularly strong in the language of the last chapters. At times, May states simply: "They are part of this place…". The chapter 'The Jacaranda Tree' connects "the purple-belled loveliness" of the jacaranda to the memory of her mother. The jacaranda is personified with "its milky coffee skin", "a sacred bloody pest".

Finally, metaphor is used throughout Swallow the Air to unify and link ideas of belonging and alienation. In the beginning of the novel, May finds a dead stingray that had "swallowed its struggle" and "wondered if it had suffocated in the air." May describes the stingray as "an Angel fallen, lying on its back", just as later May imagines Aunty "as an angel, laying out her wings beneath the satellites of the sky." May cuts the stingray open so it is "spilling at the sides - it was free." Later when May decides she has to find out where she belongs, she says of Johnny's rejection of her idea: "And I leave, with our dreams spilling at our feet".

Throughout the book, breathing is also used as a metaphor: "We stopped swimming in the ocean, scared that we'd forget to breathe. Forget to come up for mouthfuls of air." Think about the title Swallow the Air - explore this metaphor in your preparation of these notes.

For discussion:
Read the chapters 'Postcard' and 'Territory' again. How does Winch use language to influence what we think about May's father? How would the language change if these chapters were written from May's mother's perspective? From her father's perspective?

Analyse in detail the use of language in Swallow the Air in at least two to three chapters. Fill in the table as a way of summarising your analysis. Make sure you:

Context of the technique (What is happening in the novel?) Technique Examples (quotations) Effect of the technique How the technique explores the concept of belonging
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Relating other texts to the idea of belonging

Read the introduction to the Area of Study, Belonging (external website) on this website.

You are asked to "explore the ways in which the concept of belonging is represented in and through texts."

You need to choose texts to relate to the idea of belonging (and not belonging) in and around Swallow the Air,from a wide range of sources. This could include texts drawn from the web, television, film, music, art, books, newspapers and magazines. These texts could be in the form of a poem, song, review, speech, feature article, advertisement, webpage, radio transcript, poster; to name just a few.
Once you've chosen suitable related material, be sure to analyse why and how these texts are composed to influence the way we think about belonging and "notions of identity, relationships, acceptance and understanding". Below are just a few ideas for related texts to get you started.

Judith Wright's poetry such as 'Bora Ring', 'Two Dreamtimes', 'The Dark Ones', 'At Cooloolah' or the works of Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) also explore indigenous cultural identity.

Films that are also about belonging and fitting in (or not fitting in) include Mean Girls; Beneath Clouds; Hey, Hey, It's Esther Blueburger;, and Yolngu Boy. If you do use a film as a related text, be sure to study and analyse its filmic techniques, rather than just recount the plot of the film and how its themes are similar to Swallow the Air.

Finally, read the past exam papers (external website) notes from the Marking Centre and Marking Guidelines. You'll notice that students who did well in their exams did the following:

Remember, both the way the Swallow the Air is written and how it is read depends upon your "personal, cultural, historical and social contexts". Likewise, in the texts you choose to relate to Swallow the Air, be sure to analyse how these contexts influence your reading of belonging and how these texts are composed.

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