Short Story Cycles

Overcoming the ‘Crisis of Nonrelation’ through Formal Innovation: Aboriginal Short Story Cycles (book chapter)

Excerpt from the introduction:

Given the economic deprivation and social exclusion that many Indigenous Australians face, it comes as little surprise that issues such as poverty, domestic violence, alcoholism and drug abuse also feature prominently in Aboriginal literature, across all genres. More recent examples include, for instance, poetry by Romaine Moreton, the poetic memoir Too Afraid to Cry by Ali Cobby Eckermann (2012), short stories by Alf Taylor, and novels such as Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (2006) or Tony Birch’s Blood (2011) and Ghost River (2015). Many of these works question the equation of poverty and Aboriginality by presenting, for example, self-confident Aboriginal characters that uphold cultural traditions despite, or in the face of their socio-economic disadvantage.

One genre that I wish to argue is particularly well-suited to counter this populist discourse of Indigenous poverty and dysfunction is the short story cycle – a genre which has become prominent in Aboriginal writing in the last decade, including works by Tony Birch (Shadowboxing, 2006), Jeanine Leane (Purple Threads, 2011), Marie Munkara (Every Secret Thing, 2009) and Ellen van Neerven (Heat and Light, 2014). Using the figure of thought of relationality as an analytical tool, I wish to illustrate how the short story cycle through its very form fosters a critical engagement with prevalent discourses that simply equate Aboriginality, or being Aboriginal, with poverty and precarity. This article focuses primarily on Tara June Winch’s award-winning debut fiction Swallow the Air (2006), a short story cycle composed of twenty short stories. Swallow the Air traces how the narrator-protagonist, May Gibson, attempts to overcome what I call her ‘crisis of nonrelation’ – a term which I take from Leela Gandhi’s study Affective Communities (148) and which I use to refer to an existential lack of relationality, a loss of feeling interconnected to other human beings and to the land. Winch’s cycle foregrounds the importance of relationality on a formal as well as on the content level, as I will demonstrate in my analysis. Moreover, this inscription and mediation of relationality extends to the reader as well in that the narrative encourages an intersubjective and participatory reading that pays heed to notions of plurality and multiplicity, while raising awareness of our own reading positions, as Davis (18) has also argued with regard to Asian American and Asian Canadian short story cycles. Ultimately, Aboriginal short story cycles such as Swallow the Air present an ambiguous view on the issue of poverty, oscillating between an emphasis on cultural specificity and inclusiveness, the potential of traditions to instigate a process of healing and the shortcomings of such a mono-dimensional approach. As a loosely connected series of short stories, these texts provide us with a kaleidoscope of individual accounts of living a precarious life, reflecting the multi-dimensional nature of Aboriginal poverty. Through their form, they warn us against homogenising and teleological readings that lump together diverse forms and experiences of poverty and that try to account for them on the basis of just one parameter, such as culture.

From: Klein, D. (2021). “Chapter 3 Overcoming the ‘Crisis of Nonrelation’ through Formal Innovation”. In Representing Poverty and Precarity in a Postcolonial World. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. doi: Link:

Short story cycles discussed in this text:

Swallow the Air – Tara June Wench (index entry on


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