Graham Huggan (PhD) is a Professor at the School of English, University of Leeds, UK. His research straddles three fields, postcolonial studies, tourism studies, and environmental humanities, all of which are brought together in his latest monograph, Colonialism, Culture, Whales (Bloomsbury 2018). His latest book is the co-authored study Modern British Nature Writing, 1789-2020 (Cambridge University Press 2022), while earlier work includes the monograph The Postcolonial Exotic (Routledge 2001) and, co-authored with Helen Tiffin, Postcolonial Ecocriticism (Routledge 2010). E-mail: g.d.m.huggan@leeds.ac.uk


Swan Dreamings: Refugees, Revenants, and the Stakes of World Literature in Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book

English / Onsite

Abstract: Alexis Wright’s speculative novel The Swan Book (2013) has aptly been described as “teem[ing] with songs, stories, images and fragments of culture [from] across the planet.” It is certainly an Aboriginal Australian text, just as Wright is an Aboriginal Australian author, but its frame of reference is planetary, and the stories it tells have their provenance in Europe, Asia, and many other parts of the world. Many of these stories revolve around swans, including those which, well known across South and Southeast Asia, belong to the Buddhist Jataka tradition. Several of these tales are cautionary in nature, offering reminders that while swans are reputed to be able to change shape and/or move between worlds, they may not be at home in any world. Such also seems to be the case with many of the novel’s human characters, all of whom – albeit in different ways – are refugees from global climate wars. These characters’ stories loop back on themselves, creating ghostly patterns that indicate the ambivalent presence of an unfinished past. The paper plays between the twinned figures of the refugee and the revenant to reflect on what Gayatri Spivak calls “the stakes of World Literature,” which she sees as inhabiting the gap between “experiencing beings” and their “presupposition of a world.” World Literature wants to fill the world, but is unable to do so; this gap, which Spivak identifies with dreams, turns World Literature into a series of cautionary tales. This is one context among others in which The Swan Book can be read, and it helps explain the melancholia that infuses it – a melancholia expressed in the various swan dreams and Dreamings that shadow the text.
Keywords: Aboriginal literature, world literature, refugees, revenants, climate wars, jatakas