First published in National Indigenous Times on July 17, 2019
Tara June Winch’s second novel The Yield unrolls on the plains of Wiradjuri country in NSW, where the ‘possibility of rain was a simple smell, a good taste’ and ‘the sun slapped the barren earth with an open palm’.
Ms Winch said that to a stranger’s eye, Wiradjuri country might at first seem nondescript.
But first impressions can be deceptive.
“It’s farming country, there are granite boulders, the Murray Darling and its tributaries … It’s beautiful country, that was really impacted by colonisation,” Ms Winch said.
Three narrators take us by the hand and guide us gently through the fall-out of this colonisation. They draw us into a story where guilt lies ‘thick and wet and as black and dirty as diesel’ and where there’s a constant, slow-burn of anguish.
The first narrator is Albert (Poppy) Goondiwindi. Modelled on Winch’s own father and grandfather, Poppy has just passed away, leaving a dictionary of words in the Wiradjuri language—words for bad spirits, the magic tree, wattle flowers, and a bird that always brings darkness, the yurung, or grey shrike thrush. Stories grow around these words, a history personal and political, full of wisdom for the younger generations, a testament to a lasting cultural connection to country.
Albert’s granddaughter August is another of the narrators. London-based, her days start with a tumbler of aspirin and a coffee, her nights involve scrubbing plates clean of gravy. The passing of her grandfather pulls her back home to the fictional town of Massacre Plains. August describes it at times as ‘the saddest place on earth’ and it’s through August’s eyes that we learn of another tragedy. Her family are about to be evacuated from their property to make way for a giant tin mine. The mine, which threatens to be a huge hole gouged out of country, mirrors a hole, an emptiness in the characters.
The third narrator, a complex and ambiguous villain, is the Reverend Ferdinand B Greenleaf, who ran the Prosperous Lutheran Mission for the local community from 1880. The Reverend documents a turbulent series of events at the mission and his actions prompt us to consider whether or not he was at heart a kind man, or whether he came from ‘a long pattern of bad’.
The Yield is sweeping in scope—while all action and history relates back to just 500 acres of land, Ms Winch deftly introduces the Freedom Ride, dog tags, massacres, mining, farming, sexual abuse, native title, the Stolen Generations, culture, and language. The Wiradjuri language, saved from extinction by people such as Stan Grant Snr and John Rudder, is at the very heart of The Yield.
Ms Winch hopes to see a revival of Indigenous languages across Australia.
“Instead of kids learning French, or Mandarin, imagine if you were teaching Indigenous languages starting at two, three, four years old? Through learning language, stories and songs, children’s perception of identity would be completely different.”
“Language gives an access point to empathy, understanding and respect. While it’s not the work of a novelist to push for this, there needs to be a good ground swell of people behind it. Language teaching also creates a viable economy—creates jobs for teachers and trainers as well.”
Ms Winch said she looks forward to more bilingual publications in Indigenous languages and that she’s excited by the potential in the next crop of First Nations authors. She has urged young up-and-coming writers to have confidence in their own voices and stories.
“Don’t be scared, because we need your stories, we need your perspectives. Enter heaps of competitions and keep pushing through rejections. Read our old stories and look at our history and the path that’s been paved before us.”
“Our stories are so important. We are the original storytellers. And people are starting to recognise this.”
While the The Yield is a story swollen with grief—so sad, in fact, that not even Ms Winch can re-read it without weeping—the novel’s bookended with notes of hope in the words wanga-dyung and giyal-dhuray.
Wanga-dyung means lost, but not lost always.
Giyal-dhuray means ashamed, to have shame. In the closing chapter of the book, Poppy writes: I’m done with this word. I’d leave it out completely but I can’t. It’s become part of the dictionary we think we should carry. We mustn’t anymore. See, pain travels through our family tree like a songline. We’ve been singing our pain into a solid thing. The old ones, the young ones too, are ready to heal. We don’t have to be giyal-dhuray anymore, we don’t have to pass that down anymore.
Upon publication of the novel, Ms Winch ensured elders were given copies of the book and that a percentage of the book’s royalties would be reinvested in community.
“We carry our whole community on our backs. We look after each other. This book is about saying, look how strong we are. Look how incredible and talented we are.”
The Yield is the work of a major talent. It hypnotises with its lyricism, with the juxtaposition of horror and hope, and the candid look at family, country and history. It’s a work to be savoured, to be enjoyed in the sun on a winter’s day, and then to be shared—as widely as possible!
The Yield is Ms Winch’s second novel, preceded by Swallow the Air (2006) and a book of short stories After the Carnage (2016).
Swallow the Air won the David Unaipon Award and a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. It has been on the education and HSC syllabus for Standard and Advanced English in Australia since 2009. Ms Winch is also the recipient of an International Rolex Mentor and Protégé Award enabling her to work under the guidance of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka.
You can buy a copy of The Yield here and can follow Tara on Instagram at @tara_june_winch.