Laughter punctuates Alexis Wright's conversation like the call of a bittersweet bird. It's born of hardship and ambition, and the daily arguments she had with herself over the four years it took to write her second and latest novel, Carpentaria. What she was searching for was an authentic literary voice that could traverse a continent and tell its inside stories to the outside world. It's a struggle that has already found her an audience in France, where pioneering publishing house Actes Sud translated her first novel, Plains of Promise, and a collection of her short stories, The Pact of the Rainbow Snake. But being heard in her homeland proved tougher. "I often realized that nobody could accompany me in my travels, as I often took an alternative path—the perilous one," the author writes in her Actes Sud-commissioned essay, Croire en l'incroyable (Believe the Unbelievable). "It was not necessarily the shortest one, but I felt that it was the closest to the country's reality."
The country Wright sings about in prose is an ancient landscape crisscrossed by salty tides and cyclones, mining and mythology. A Waanyi woman born in the southern uplands of the Gulf country, near Cloncurry, Queensland, Wright has spent much of her life away from its fecund waterways, working in Aboriginal research and advocacy in Alice Springs and Melbourne, where she now lives. But in spirit she's still there—"It's clear," she says, "clear water, full of water lilies and turtles and fish." To read the magisterial Carpentaria (Giramondo; 519 pages) is to enter Wright's world. What's evoked is not just a physical place, where "you could swear you heard the daydreams of lazy lizards sunning themselves on the branches," but a spiritual realm painted on an operatic scale, where the ancestral rainbow serpent forges the land, a river of fairy people, the yinbirras, rushes tsunami-like through the bush, and a cyclone hits the coast as an act of payback. Wright is Proustian in her love of detail but postmodern in her playfulness: " 'Where hid reality?' Elias asked in the Pricklebush, yet who could say what existed in one ordinary coastal town plonked at the top of the nation?"
Wright's gift to Australian literature is Desperance. A fictional port town bypassed by history and even the tides, which have left it high and dry, Desperance embodies the roots of its name: despair and hope (espérance in French). Wright says Desperance could stand for any Australian town, or Australia itself. And it's her uncanny ear for the particularities of local language and eye for striking symbolism that could carry Carpentaria into the classics sections of bookshelves in years to come. There it would sit comfortably alongside Xavier Herbert's fictional study of Australia's Top End, Capricornia. But where Herbert looked at race relations with colonial distance in 1938, Wright mucks in with postcolonial glee. "Well, I went to town," she says with a laugh. "I went to town."
Her Desperanians carry their complicated histories theatrically largeand none more so than the Phantoms of westside Pricklebush. There's matriarch Angel Day, who drags a statue of the Virgin Mary from the town dump, igniting a clan war in the process; her fish embalmer husband Norm, who dreams of the Gulf's mythical grouper hole; their rebel son Will, who violently opposes the local mine; and his mentor, Mozzie Fishman, who leads convoys of similarly disenchanted souls (and later Angel Day) to Dreaming sites across the state. Around them swirl stories large and small, glorious and grotesque, of epic quests and seeping social wounds, but cauterizing it all is the writer's earthy humor. "I've had a lifetime of stories and humor," says Wright, who was raised on her grandmother's tales of the bush, "and it's one of our strongest points, I think, as a people. It's one of the things that keep us going."
Carpentaria nearly went nowhere. With its unwieldy size and unconventional voice, it was rejected by most mainstream publishers, and Wright was almost resigned to seeing it languish "archived in the Carpentaria Land Council office forever." Another laugh. "It was a brave publisher who took it up." Others might say clever. Established in 1995 as a bridge between commercial houses and academia, Giramondo's output has been small but sagacious. Peter Castro's novel The Garden Book and John Hughes' memoir The Idea of Home are but two literary hybrids that have monopolized Australia's recent prize lists. Says publisher and editor Ivor Indyk: "We're always looking for the exotic and the interesting and the complex under the surface of Australian culture."
Wright is a case in point. Look into the face of this Aboriginal advocate and mother of two, and an even more fascinating story unfolds. Wright's great-grandfather was a Chinese market gardener who was introduced to her great-grandmother by the pastoralist Frank Hann. "The story goes that she and another little girl were found up a tree," says Wright, who has long speculated on how she came to be there and on the family's Chinese ancestry: "How do the spirits connect when people come from other countries?" It's a question she'll explore in her next novel, Rara Avis (In the Swan's Nest). Meanwhile, Wright wants to take her writing back to its roots. "I thought it could be a grand idea," she says, "if one day Carpentaria could be read in one sitting in the Gulf, or in the schools, just like James Joyce's Ulysses is read aloud every year on Bloomsday." Australia, get ready for Desperance Day.