Long before Alexis Wright was a towering figure in Australian letters, she took notes during community meetings in remote outback towns. Put to task by Aboriginal elders, her job was to take down their every word in longhand.
The work was laborious, and it soothed her youthful fervor for the change that seemed all too slow to arrive.
It was good training, in a way, she said in a recent interview at a public library close to the University of Melbourne, where until 2022 she held the role of Boisbouvier Chair in Australian Literature. They were teaching you to listen, and they were teaching you patience.
Wright, 73, is arguably the most important Aboriginal Australian or simply Australian writer alive today. She is the author of epic, polyphonic novels that reveal the patience, perseverance and careful observation she learned during those long hours of note-taking, books that stretch over hundreds of pages, in which voice upon voice clamors to be heard in a dynamic swirl of the fantastic and the bleak.
Praiseworthy, her fourth and latest novel, was released by New Directions in the United States last week, along with a reissue of Carpentaria, her most famous work.
She stands above every other person in Australian literature, said Jane Gleeson-White, an Australian writer and critic. What shes doing is yet to be fully understood.
Set in Wrights ancestral homeland she is a member of the Waanyi nation of the Gulf of Carpentaria, on Australias northern coast Praiseworthy is her longest and most complex novel so far. By turns a love story, a heros quest and a clarion call for Aboriginal sovereignty, the narrative unspools under a sinister haze in Australias Northern Territory.
The novel recounts the story of Cause Man Steel, an Aboriginal visionary who dreams of harnessing 5 million feral donkeys to establish a transport conglomerate for a post-fossil-fuel world. It is a venture he hopes will both save the planet and make him the first Aboriginal billionaire.
Literary critics praised the novels sense of urgency and its sprawling network of literary inspirations. Some wrestled with its challenging shifts in perspective or its use of excess and repetition to hammer home the relentlessness of living without the right to self-determination. Others applauded the scale of its ambition.
As in all Wrights work, critic Declan Fry wrote in The Guardian, Praiseworthy depicts cruel, unjust, hypocritical and violent characters struggling against cruel, unjust, hypocritical and violent circumstances: a realists view of colonization, in short.
A longtime land-rights activist, Wright is an advocate for Aboriginal culture and sovereignty. The question of how her people, already marginalized by the effects of colonialism and buffeted by successive hostile governments, will weather climate change preoccupies her, she said.
I see people working very hard, every day, to try and make a difference, she said. And the difference is not coming.
About four months ago, Australia held a nationwide referendum on whether to establish a Voice a constitutionally enshrined body that would advise the Australian government on questions related to Aboriginal affairs.
The referendum was framed as a first step toward redressing major historical wrongs. But the campaign became mired in misinformation and, in some cases, racism, and 60% of Australians voted down the proposal.
Wright was neither surprised by the outcome of the vote nor impressed by the starting proposal, which she said had been narrow in scope. It asked for the very minimum, she said. Minimal ideas of recognizing Aboriginal people and a Voice that was really very, very well, Im sure that it would have done its best.
Wright began writing Praiseworthy thinking about what the future might look like for Aboriginal people. The government was cutting back all the time, and not really working toward Aboriginal self-determination in any strong or meaningful way, she said. And then came the Intervention. And that was just horrific.
In 2007, after reports of sexual abuse of Aboriginal children in the Australian news media, the Australian government imposed the Northern Territory Emergency Response, a raft of reformist policies that became known as the Intervention. The measures included banning or restricting alcohol sales or pornography, requisitioning land and welfare payments, and stripping back protections for customary law and cultural practice.
The legislation terrified and bewildered many of those affected, and it is widely agreed to have flouted human rights and failed in its aims. Framed as a five-year emergency plan, it still informs policy today, said Michael Griffiths, a professor of English at the University of Wollongong.
The Intervention and its aftereffects loom large in Praiseworthy. In one devastating episode, Tommyhawk, the 8-year-old son of the protagonist, is sucked into a world of news media reports which convince him that the adults around him are pedophiles who intend to prey upon him.
I just thought, Aboriginal children must be hearing this, hearing their community, their families, demonized, Wright said. What effect could that have on a child?
Reading Praiseworthy as an Aboriginal person, said Mykaela Saunders, a writer and academic who is from the Koori nation, came as a relief. Those stories havent really been told in the media or in literature, she said. Here, in this book, you cant look away. Shes saying: This is what this does to our people. This is what it does to our psyche, and to our children.
Wrights work takes inspiration from her peoples oral tradition, and from global writers such as James Joyce, Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes. Fuentes approach to temporality where all times are important, she said, and no time has ever been resolved is a particular touchstone.
Shes bringing 60,000 years of narrative song and story into the 21st century, with the 21st century fully present, and all times present in one place, said Gleeson-White, the critic.
Wrights work is sometimes described as magical realism. But she sees it instead as hyper real, where the narrative is interwoven with history, myth and a spiritual, extra-temporal reality, to make the real more real, as she puts it.
The Aboriginal world is a world that is made up from the time immemorial, she said. Its a world that comes from an ancient world, and the ancient is right here, in the here and now.
Although the Waanyi nation is connected to the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria, Wright was born about 220 miles south, in the searing hot country town of Cloncurry, Queensland, in 1950. Her father was white and died when she was 5. She was raised by her Aboriginal mother and grandmother.
From the age of 3, Wright would jump the front fence to find her grandmother, Dolly Ah Kup, an Aboriginal woman of Chinese descent, and listen to her stories of Carpentaria, the homeland she yearned for and had been forced to leave.
That place of date trees, waterlilies and turtles swimming in crystal waters dominated Wrights childhood imagination. She did not visit it until she was an adult, and she does not live there now, but her novels she is also the writer of works of nonfiction are set only in this region. In the Aboriginal tradition, she refers to it as Country, and it plays as powerful a role as any human character, inseparable as it is from its people and their lives.
Its very much part of my consciousness and my thinking, she said of Carpentaria. Maybe it is writing there because you cant be there. You live in that world in your mind.
Life in Cloncurry, approximately 500 miles from the nearest major city, had its difficulties, she said. It wasnt a town where Aboriginal people were treated terribly well it was very much a them and us sort of thing.
She left the town at 17 I knew there was nothing there for me and traveled across Australia and New Zealand, working as an activist, broadcaster, consultant, editor, educator and researcher. She spent many years in Alice Springs, in central Australia, where she met her husband, before moving to Melbourne, where she still lives, in 2005.
Carpentaria, her second novel, was rejected by most major publishers and eschewed by booksellers, who feared that such a long and literary Aboriginal novel would find little traction with the Australian public. Yet, it was a sleeper hit, winning the Miles Franklin Award, Australias highest literary prize, in 2007.
The Swan Book followed in 2013. It was among the earliest Australian climate change novels, released at a time when the countrys then-prime minister, Tony Abbott, called a link between wildfires and climate change complete hogwash.
A decade on, Australias readers are somewhat more open to writing about Aboriginal experiences or climate change though not necessarily outside urban centers, said Jeanine Leane, a writer, teacher and academic from the Wiradjuri people of New South Wales. In the country, in rural Australia, no ones ever heard of Alexis Wright, she said.
Australian readers may have been slow to embrace Wrights work. But she is winning fans and admirers elsewhere in the world, with Carpentaria now published in five languages.
The novels long path to finding its audience does not trouble Wright.
Some of these things take time, she said. And I try to write to have my books around for a long time.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times