from the editor's desk

Review of ‘Praiseworthy’ by Alexis Wright

Wright, Alexis. Praiseworthy. Giramondo Publishing, 2023. RRP: $39.95, 736pp, ISBN: 9781922725325.

Julia Garas

Praiseworthy is the new novel from the internationally acclaimed, award-winning Australian author Alexis Wright. A member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria, Wright is the only author to win both the Miles Franklin Award (in 2007 for Carpentaria) and the Stella Prize (in 2018 for Tracker). As well as her two novels, Carpentaria and The Swan Book, Wright has published three works of nonfiction: Take Power: like this old man here (1998), an oral history of the Central Land Council; Grog War (2021), a study of alcohol abuse in the Northern Territory; and Tracker (2017), the Stella Prize-winning collective memoir of Aboriginal leader, Tracker Tilmouth.

Wright is no stranger to epic novels, but Praiseworthy—spanning over 700 pages—is her longest text so far. Set in the north of Australia in the small town of Praiseworthy, this town becomes dominated by an ‘ochre-coloured haze’ (7) that represents a coalescence of climate catastrophe and a congregation of ancestral spirits. One of the main characters, Planet, believes the answer to this haze problem is donkeys. He argues that they could be used as a resource to benefit the climate disaster while also generating a profit for himself. The people of the town view Planet and his plan as irrational and become increasingly irritated by the wild donkeys he is accumulating in Praiseworthy. However, the residents have limited options to combat the haze because they are not receiving the support they need from the government. Instead, the government dismisses the significance of the haze by framing it solely as cultural and ancestral, and not as a result of climate catastrophe. Planet’s donkey plan becomes one of just two options:

You choose which way to go, where to put your fate in unprecedented global warming. Go for it. You can either decide to assimilate and follow the aimless who are in charge of the world, or try following an unprecedented miracle man’s blue-sky vision of saving his people’s cultural future with a pack of donkeys. (47)

The choice between two paths frames the novel, as its characters are repeatedly presented with either assimilation or survival. This is a survival that extends to both the physical and cultural.

Praiseworthy centres on the concept of assimilation and its pervasive presence in so many aspects of contemporary Australia, from official government policies to the expectation of how people should walk and talk. Through characters such as Planet, Wright humorously pokes fun at the layers of bureaucracy that govern Western society, particularly when he fails to fill out a local government office form regarding his accumulation of donkeys:

His non-compliance to filling in a simple convoluted form for goodness sake, became a clear indication to the powers that be, that he was never going to abide by any rules of the domicileof belonging to the place if you please, so you can see the problem (58).

Planet’s refusal to fill out this form is about so much more than just the form itself. It is a refusal to limit his belonging to paperwork. It is a refusal to be assimilated.

Planet’s two sons, Aboriginal Sovereignty and Tommyhawk, carry particular significance in the novel. Their sibling dynamic is embroiled in Tommyhawk’s desire for Aboriginal Sovereignty to die so that he can live out his dreams of being a powerful and wealthy white man. Instead, Tommyhawk takes refuge in a chronically online existence where he can alter his reality and communicate with people beyond Praiseworthy in what he believes to be ‘the real world of social media […] his own Anthropocene-free future’ (69). Tommyhawk seems to embody the emerging generation of digital children who are enamoured by the possibilities of the internet and value its ability to connect them to a much larger world. This point of connection, though, disconnects Tommyhawk from the people and places around him. His online existence feeds his desire to assimilate, which creates differences between his existence and other characters who are actively fighting assimilation.

Meanwhile, Aboriginal Sovereignty, with his striking and direct name, ensures that we as readers acknowledge that the personal is interchangeable with the large-scale social. And Aboriginal Sovereignty is dealing with his own distressing circumstances as he contemplates suicide:

The old mungkuji countrymen said that this Aboriginal Sovereignty had the ancestors dancing in him. Country mangayi right inside him, dancing through him. Him true jamba. It was true that Aboriginal Sovereignty had never stopped dancing, and spent all his time practising his country spirit dance like he was the law personified, the real business. But now, he does not dance so much anymore. (65–66)

Aboriginal Sovereignty’s individual struggles directly reflect the wider oppression and disadvantages experienced by Indigenous Australians across our country. But of these struggles, Wright concludes by acknowledging the irrefutable truth that ‘Aboriginal Sovereignty never dies, for you cannot destroy what was infinitely existing in the law of country that always is, and always will be governing itself’ (723).

Amidst the recent surge in Anthropocene fiction and climate fiction, Praiseworthy resides in a unique place, confronting the convergence of the scientific and cultural phenomena of climate change and the ongoing struggle for Aboriginal rights and sovereignty. As is true of all of Wright’s novels, it is a complex narrative with many intricate storylines extending across multiple characters. This novel should be read and engaged with as it confronts the significant and ongoing issues of Australian colonialism from an Indigenous point of view. It will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about assimilation.

Julia Garas is a PhD candidate at Curtin University researching contemporary Australian literature and television. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from the University of Western Australia.

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