Books

Tara June Winch
The Yield

The past is fraught territory, particularly when it comes to those territorial pasts marked by trauma. How can such histories be explored without proving overwhelming? It is a question raised at the beginning of Tara June Winch’s new novel, The Yield, in which August Gondiwindi flies back from London to Australia for her grandfather’s funeral. That homecoming – to “the saddest place on earth” – compels her to confront a painful familial and colonial history from which she had taken flight. On the plane, her dead grandfather, Poppy Albert Gondiwindi, visits her in a dream with a warning: “There exists a sort of torture of memory if you let it come, if you invite the past to huddle beside you, comforting like a leech.”

Winch’s novel here calls to mind Toni Morrison’s classic magical realist novel Beloved, in which a former slave becomes masochistically obsessed with the ghosts of her past. August is similarly, if not literally, haunted by history – by her dead father, her incarcerated mother and her missing sister, Jedda (the name referencing the title character in Charles Chauvel’s 1955 film). Underlying these familial tragedies is an attempted genocide through not only frontier wars and massacres but also policies such as child removal and cultural assimilation. Is it any wonder that August – perhaps like the Wiradjuri author Winch herself, who lives in France – wanted some distance from that past? However, Winch’s novel shows how Indigenous history holds not just pain but also rich sustenance. As the dream ghost of Poppy Gondiwindi also advises, “There are few worse things than memory, yet few things better.”

The Yield doesn’t hold back from the horrors of colonial history. The story is told through the interweaving perspectives of three narrators: August, her grandfather and the 19th-century missionary Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf. The reverend’s narrative is presented in the form of a long letter bearing witness to various “deeds of infamy”. He writes about the “Natives chained like so many dogs to each other around the neck” and the “wool team with its inevitable Native girl or woman attached”. Greenleaf is a fictional character, but an author’s note reveals that his letter is inspired by the real-life Reverend J. B. Gribble’s A Plea for the Aborigines of New South Wales. The fictionalised setting of the novel, based on Wiradjuri country, likewise bears witness to colonial history, most obviously through the inclusion of place names such as Massacre Plains and Poisoned Waterhole Creek.

Ultimately, though, the novel’s interest in the past is positive and regenerative. This comes across most clearly in Poppy Gondiwindi’s narrative, strikingly presented in the form of dictionary entries in the Wiradjuri language. Drawing on A New Wiradjuri Dictionary by Dr Stan Grant snr, AM, and Dr John Rudder, Winch has recast the entries into an exciting experiment in storytelling, but they are also much more than this. They offer a profound insight into how the rejuvenation of Indigenous languages – of the kind currently taking place in First Nations communities around Australia – has the potential to revitalise not just those cultures but also how this country is understood.

This is not the only novel to dramatise the importance of language renewal to Indigenous communities – Kim Scott’s recent novel Taboo does likewise. However, The Yield uniquely and powerfully shows how revolutionary a shift from an imported language to an Indigenous language might be.

Racist conceptions of Australia’s First Nations societies as primitive hunter-gatherers are immediately overturned – in line with the work of Indigenous historians and writers such as Bruce Pascoe – upon the introduction of words such as gungambirra, meaning “harrow, plough”, or bimbal or ganya, meaning “house, dwelling place”. A nadhadirrambanhi, or war, was fought by Indigenous peoples to protect their farmlands and homes from the colonial invaders. Wiradjuri names for saltbush (bulaguy or miranggul), the sap of the bloodwood tree (dhalbu), or emu feet (nguruwinydyinang-garang) also provide paradigm-shifting insights into what a grounded, intimate and detailed understanding of this country looks like. Rather than thinking of Australia in relation to Europe – as the so-called Antipodes, as having four seasons, as being drought-prone – Winch’s novel shows us how Australia might be understood on its own terms, as First Nations people understand it, as Ngurambang.

Such a shift has obvious importance to proper land and species care – something of utmost importance given the climate crisis we are now confronting. In fact, it is the climate crisis that comes to the fore in The Yield, in which we read of dying rivers and cleared forests, and August finds herself fighting to save her people’s traditional homeland from a mining development. In this subplot and its (albeit brief) flirtation with political satire, the novel resembles Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, that magisterial exploration of Waanyi country and brilliant critique of neo-colonialism, which condemns a mining venture in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Winch’s focus, however, remains on the power of Indigenous languages, which offer weighty evidence of Indigenous occupation – of the kind necessary for native title and for understanding an endangered environment. Thus, nguwanda, the past, becomes crucial to August’s and, indeed, Australia’s future.

I would concede The Yield’s narrative momentum is not always strong, and minor characters are sometimes too thinly drawn and come across as an indistinct cluster of names. However, these are petty criticisms in light of such aesthetically and ethically ambitious and inspiring writing. As Winch notes, Australia is the only Commonwealth country not to have a treaty with its Indigenous populations. Might the overdue recognition of Indigenous sovereignty deliver not only justice for historical wrongdoing but also an environmental future for this country? Reap the wisdom this book yields.

Maria Takolander

Hamish Hamilton, 352pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 6, 2019 as "Tara June Winch, The Yield". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Maria Takolander