Tara June Winch’s Yield

Tara June Winch, The Yield (Hamish Hamilton 2019)

The Yield won the 2020 Miles Franklin Award, making Tara June Winch the fourth First Nations writer to win it, all of them this century. The Miles Franklin is awarded each year to a novel ‘which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases’. It’s not that ‘phases’ of Australian life that include First Nations people have been comprehensively ignored by other winners, but it’s heartening that Kim Scott (twice), Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko and now Tara June Winch have received this recognition. To echo Tara June Winch in an interview with Stephanie Convery in the Guardian (at this link), ‘It’s just about bloody time, you know?’

Ellen van Neerven, in a review in the Australian Book Review, describes The Yield as a ‘returning novel’. Like Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip it begins with a woman returning to her childhood home on the occasion of a death and re-engaging with her family’s internal politics and its history of dealing with colonisation. In this case a thirty-year-old Wiradjuri woman, August Gondiwindi, comes home after years London to the fictional New South Wales town of Massacre Plains on learning of the death of her grandfather, Poppy Albert. The painful business of picking up the threads of family life in a time of grief, facing the unfinished business that led her to leave in the first place, is made even more gruelling by the discovery that her family home is about to be destroyed by a mining company.

What makes this book stand out is that the way this story is interlaced with two other stories, each told in the first person. Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf writes a long letter to the British Society of Ethnography on 2nd August 1915, and ‘Poppy’ Albert Gondiwindi writes an annotated partial dictionary of the Wiradjuri language. The former, an Author’s Note informs us, is derived from the writings of an actual missionary who founded and ran a mission; the latter draws on the work of Dr Stan Grant Snr and linguist John Rudder, particularly The New Wiradjuri Dictionary.

As the novel progresses, with a chapter for each of these narratives, the three timelines play off against each other. The well-meaning missionary’s account of colonial violence against Wiradjuri people, and his resistance to it, is seen from a different perspective when the present day characters muse about whether he was actually a good man, or whether he was, for all his good intentions, part of the oppressive system. Though Albert tells us in the brief opening chapter what he is trying to do in compiling his dictionary, we only understand his intentions properly when we’re well into August’s timeline, and her hunt for the document becomes a key part of her story.

Contrary to what you might expect, Albert Gondawindi’s dictionary chapters are where the book really takes hold. It’s much more than a list of words and meanings. Through it, Albert (and Tara June) sets out to communicate his cultural perspective on many things, to tell parts of his personal story, and parts of the history of his place. In among the definitions, he tells the terrible story behind the disappearance of August’s much-loved sister, and he tells dark secrets of his own life. He shines through as a brilliant character, and his prose is clear and strong – with none of the awkwardness of Greenleaf’s second-language English (Greenleaf/Grünblatt hailed from what was then Prussia), or the occasional strained lyricism of August’s narrator. He has the novel’s first and last words. Here’s the opening:

I was born on Ngurambang – can you hear it? – Ngu-ram-bang. If you say it right it hits the back of your mouth and you should taste blood in your words. Every person around should learn the word for country in the old language, the first language – because that is the way to all time, to time travel!

‘Can you hear it?’ The novel ends, pretty much, ‘Say it!’

The book tells harrowing tales of colonial paternalism, genocidal violence, lateral violence, ruthless capitalism, cultural theft, betrayal: and running through it, every third chapter, is an extraordinary proclamation of survival – a language survives, and with it a world – and a challenge: ‘Can you hear it? Say it.’

The Yield is the fifteenth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writer’s Challenge.

Full disclosure: Opening the book to a map with the word Nurambang written across it in big letters struck a strong chord in me, as the short film I wrote with my son Alex Ryan, which he directed, came to be called Ngurrumbang. You can watch it on Vimeo here.

10 responses to “Tara June Winch’s Yield

  1. What a superb film! Please tell us the story of how this came to be…


    • Thanks Lisa. It’s my son’s film, really, though I can claim to have played some part in it – a wonderful experience to be working with him, on a project where he was in the lead role. It should happen to every parent. The story: he asked me if I could keep an eye out for poems that might be the basis for short films; I pointed him at Andy Kissane’s ‘The Station Owner’s Daughter, Narrandera’, and he asked me to write a film script. So, as a good parent, or perhaps one eager to make up for my failings, I came up with a draft. After Alex and I had reworked it a number of times, he submitted the draft to a competition, and after a nerve-wracking month or so, it won. Part of the prize was a number of hours with a script doctor, in which the script was pulled apart ruthlessly. Alex did the main work of revision at that stage, so the final work is really his: I was more of a conduit getting the poem into something like a film script, though I’m glad to say that the moment where the young man says the word Ngurrumbang and the camera does a sweep of the countryside is mine. Alex also did all the work of directing it, which involved working with Aboriginal advisers.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ha! I bet if I asked him, he’d say your contribution was greater than you say.
        Anyway, it’s a terrific film… has it been shown at any film festivals?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Maybe! He was very appreciative. It was screened at the Sydney FF, and at a Melbourne festival that’s not the MIFF, and in a reasonably prestigious one in Spain whose name escapes me. But short films tend to vanish from the world


  2. I’m sorry Jonathan, that I’m so far behind in reading blog reviews, that I’ve only just seen this. I enjoyed your review. I hadn’t heard that term “returning novel” but I like it.

    Love your and your son’s film. It’s very nicely done, as well as being a good story. Good ending too. I’m pleased to see that it is held at the NFSA. Excellent!


    • Hi Sue. I have gathered in very faint outline that you’ve had many serious things to attend to, so it’s not an issue that time has passed without your reading my blog! ‘Returning novel’ may have been coined by Ellen van Neerven – I hadn’t heard it before reading her review of The Yield, but I think it names something real.
      I’m glad you enjoy Nurrumbang. I still find the ending devastating …


  3. Pingback: Monday musings on Australian literature: “Returning novels” | Whispering Gums

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