The Swan Book and Racism in Book Reviews

A close up of a black swan's head, neck and shoulders. The bird is well lit so they feathers shine and look like scales. The bird's eye and beak are white. The background is a dark charcoal grey and the author's name and the title of the book are in red and orange overlaid on the picture.
Image description: A close up of a black swan’s head, neck and shoulders. The bird is well lit so they feathers shine and look like scales. The bird’s eye and beak are white. The background is a dark charcoal grey and the author’s name and the title of the book are in red and orange overlaid on the picture.

The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

From Goodreads: The Swan Book is set in the future, with Aboriginals still living under the Intervention in the north, in an environment fundamentally altered by climate change. It follows the life of a mute young woman called Oblivia, the victim of gang-rape by petrol-sniffing youths, from the displaced community where she lives in a hulk, in a swamp filled with rusting boats, and thousands of black swans, to her marriage to Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia, and her elevation to the position of First Lady, confined to a tower in a flooded and lawless southern city.

I recently read a book and shared my thoughts about it on Instagram. I think this is an important conversation so I have put the review here too and edited it a bit to fit better with the blog.

I don’t normally post about books I’m currently reading, but we need to talk about racism and white supremacy in book reviews. The subject has come up several times recently on Instagram, but it’s by no means a new discussion. There is a lot of gate keeping and upholding of white supremacy in the publishing industry (and its review arm) and in libraries. I’ve seen it for years now in the library space, which is part of why, as a librarian, I started reviewing books here and on my blog that do not go through traditional channels.

But the conversation hit home with the book I just finished reading. I knew if I looked at reviews I would see white supremacy on full display. It scores in the low threes on GoodReads with quite a few obliviously (and overtly) racist one-star reviews.

The Swan Book is intense- it’s a dystopian, post apocalyptic story. The book is poetic-Wright is a brilliant writer as evidenced by the language and weaving in of her #ownvoices storytelling. The book is dense- each sentence is filled with imagery and requires thought to parse them. It also clearly has a lens on it that is very Indigenous/Australian Aboriginal and therefore probably not what most of us (white folks and Americans) are used to reading. It might take more focus than we are used to giving our fiction. This is no beach read.

But many of the reviews I read called out all those things and decided that they indicated, not a brilliant book written with an indigenous way of seeing, understanding, or interpreting the world, but as a bad book that was a word salad and too hard to understand or worse, there was no meaning.

But none of that is true. This book is brilliant and it is entirely possible that it is not written for you. It might not be the right book for you right now. It might never be the right book if you prefer light hearted fiction or despise dystopias. But to call it a mess and write it off with one star ratings when your dislike is clearly tied to white expectations of your world view being reflected, that is white supremacy at work. It’s the expectation that everything will be written with the white world view and white ease/comfort in mind.

I tried reading this not long after my first daughter was born. My mind was mush between lack of sleep, anxiety over being a new parent, and the newness of it all. I put the book down. Coming back to it now with years of parenting under my belt and a stronger reading practice I was captivated and blown away. It is stunning. It took me longer to get into it, to get the feel for how Wright uses an Aboriginal worldview to tell the story of Oblivia, a girl raped in her youth, promised to a man who becomes a world leader and also a sort of sellout.

The book handles trauma and its effect on our perceptions of reality and life but again with a very distinctly not-white view of time, space, history, future, and connection to the land. It also looks deeply at the impacts of climate change, colonialism, tokenism, and assimilation. And because of a fluidity between past, present, and future these things interlock on the page and flow together. It makes for a powerful reading experience if you put in the effort.

I hope more people read this and get outside themselves. I know I read to expand my world view not to limit it.

Purchase the book here (not affiliate links):

Final note: If you do read this book, please post a review of it on GoodReads and Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and will drown out the ignorant, racist reviews on those platforms.