Ecopoetic Encounters: Amnesia and Nostalgia in Alexis Wright's Environmental Fiction

Arnaud Barras


In Carpentaria (2006) and The Swan Book (2013), Alexis Wright establishes an allegorical mode where she reimagines Europeans' first encounters with Australia from an Aboriginal environmental perspective. In this narrative system, the discovery of Australia is not realised by exploring colonisers, but by vulnerable strangers who apprehend the continent both experientially and linguistically. In Carpentaria, the Stranger-figure of Elias Smith is left amnesic after surviving a shipwreck during a cyclone; his first encounter with Australia is extremely violent and results in a loss of personal (hi)story. In The Swan Book, the character of Bella Donna seeks refuge in the nostalgia of swan stories after the disappearance of her native lands due to climate change; her first encounter with Australia is characterised by slow violence and results in a profusion of stories. In this essay I argue that by drawing attention to the interweaving of language and experience and by dramatising the relationship between organism and environment, ‘ecopoetic encounters’ allows readers to rediscover major episodes of Australian environmental history. Indeed, through the experiential and poetic meetings of Stranger-figures with Australia, Wright does not depict the initial moment of discovery as a nation-building event; rather she re-narrates it as a counterdiscursive episode of environmental historical rediscovery. Journeys of migration, environment transformations, and the marginalisation of populations are translated in an Aboriginal allegorical mode that allows European readers, through self-reflexivity, to rediscover the Australian continent through the perceptions, actions and emotions of Stranger-figures.


Ecocriticism; environmental history; ecopoetics; environmental literary criticism; Australian Indigenous literature

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