This summer, we were joined by a group of interns, learning and working with us on our Autumn/Winter 2023 titles. One of the interns, Chantale Davies, read Praiseworthy by Alexis Wright (publishing on 2nd November 2023) and shared her thoughts.
Literature of the Anthropocene—that is, concerning the geological epoch in which human activities began to have a noticeable impact on the climate and our ecosystems—often takes as its theme not only climate disasters but also human responses towards them. What do we do with rising temperatures and the seeming abnormalities that come with them? What happens when the once-abnormal becomes not unheard of, and then familiar? Like the haze that haunts the eponymous town of Praiseworthy, which almost resembles the smoke of wildfires that tore through Australia in 2020, defamiliarisation can go both ways, and in Wright’s clever and biting novel, well-known problems can often be turned on their heads, pushing us and the characters of Praiseworthy, into increasingly unfamiliar territory.
Cause Man Steel’s solution to the Anthropocene’s climate disaster and the oppression of the Aboriginal community is feral donkeys. Central to Cause Man Steel’s vision of a carbon-neutral transport industry, Australia has an estimated five million of them. Another so-called problem turned upside-down, Steel’s donkeys are put forward as a possible (if slightly mad) solution in Wright’s fictional landscape. They are especially common in the northern part of Australia, where Praiseworthy is set. Brought to the continent to work as pack animals in the 19th century, many of them escaped or were released when no longer considered useful in the 20th century. The very first donkeys were imported in 1793, only five years after Britain began its colonisation of Australia. They became a more prevalent feature of colonial Australia’s industry by 1866, and even more so towards the end of the 19th century. Now, feral donkeys are officially considered an environmental threat; they can cause erosion, trample native plants, spread weeds, compete with native Australian animal species for survival and destroy infrastructure. One way of managing the feral donkeys is to capture them for commercial use, a method which Cause Man Steel’s enterprise imitates. Feral donkeys are not entirely nuisances, however, as they have recently been known to dig wells during droughts and in high temperatures, providing a water source for themselves and other animals. Some animal rights activists and researchers have challenged their classification as ‘pests’ under Australian law.
Weaving around this feral donkey narrative are clashes: the clash of the Praiseworthy community and the donkeys themselves, who have taken up residence in the traditional burial grounds and destroyed the pristine beach; the clash between the media-brainwashed obsessions of Tommyhawk, who dreams of growing up white and powerful, and the lived reality of the community; the clash between Aboriginal communities and white Australian laws; and the clash within the community itself, some questing after an Aboriginal Sovereignty thought to be dead, others keen to gain power through performative assimilation.
Some of these clashes evoke recent political clashes in Australia. The proposal of The Voice referendum, a legislation that would alter the Australian constitution and empower Indigenous communities, has proved controversial. The Voice proposes to give greater representation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. It would choose members based on the wishes of local communities and give independent advice to the Parliament and Government. Its opponents have been controversial and outspoken, including a former Prime Minister, John Howard, who is notable for having weakened Aboriginal land rights and suspending Australia’s racial discrimination act while in government. One year prior to the setting of Praiseworthy, 2007, saw “the Intervention”, in which Australia’s military was deployed to control the daily lives of seventy-three Indigenous communities in Northern Australia. Alexis Wright herself delivered a speech in a series of three lectures organised in Sydney by PEN International. In this 2008 essay, Wright suggests that collective and personal fear must be resisted, and we must trust literature to ‘tell the truth about the darkness inside’. Cause Man Steel parodies Howard’s comments that ‘colonisation was the luckiest thing’ to happen to Australia:
‘Mate! We are blessed that some of those old pioneer buggers of colonisation left us the gift of these five million feral donkeys. Well! At least it is something, after they took just about everything else, let’s show the buggers that we will rule this place again from their waste.’
Feral donkeys are a relic of Australia’s colonial past, once an invaluable tool, then discarded once made obsolete by the automobile, and they are just one example of the many ways, all gorgeous, scathing, defiant, and absurd, in which Wright inverts familiar problems to skewer the Australian colonial project.