Australia’s leading indigenous novelist lives in France. Last year The Yield by Tara June Winch, her second acclaimed novel, won the Miles Franklin Award, Book of the Year in the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, total prize money $190,000. The judges of the Stella Prize (for women’s writing and “cultural change”) also thought it was rather good and the Sydney Morning Herald came through with a front cover quote, “Astonishingly elegant and powerful”. Though The Yield is published in Australia, Britain, the USA and France it has not yet been translated into any Aboriginal language, although it is built around such a “resurrected” language.
This essay appears in April’s Quadrant.
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Tara June Winch is a central New South Wales Wiradjuri author who was born in Wollongong and has never lived in Wiradjuri “country”. She deals fluently with the reborn Wiradjuri language: she did a one-day course some years ago. Winch deftly and affectionately explores relationships in the fictional Gondiwindi family. On her personal website her own family tree has been ringbarked and pruned to hide her unblack forebears—even including her mother and all her family line.
In Quadrant, Patrick McCauley, who has previously written about living and teaching in Wadeye, was critical of modern “Indigenous poetry”: “it was all (and I mean absolutely all) about Black Armband politics—the victimhood of Aboriginal people, massacres, Stolen Generation, genocide and, of course, Australian racism”. Ditto prize-winning Indigenous Lit. Indigenous writers are subject to the approval of their indigenous peers to be heard and accepted. The result is a literary tribe of black (sometimes) Midwich cuckoos. Open The Yield and enter an Australia “where people were born guilty but couldn’t admit it”. Having excised her white family, the guilt-free indigenous author guides us through Nguramambang, her country: “If you say it right it hits the back of your mouth and you should taste blood in your words.” I tried; it doesn’t.
The novel sets out three sermonising streams of prose. A young woman, August, who is living in England, returns home to Massacre Plains (sic) for the burial of her grandfather—cue “Black Armband politics—the victimhood of Aboriginal people, massacres, Stolen Generation, genocide and, of course, Australian racism”. Though the male characterisations are unconvincing, the young women, perhaps flattering self-reflections of the author, are fluent in a familiar vernacular of gender and race privilege. They could be on sabbatical from books by Anita Heiss or Larissa Behrendt or borrowed from Twitter. The habit of calling both relations and family friends uncle and aunt, familiar from my working-class childhood, still lives on in Aboriginal life and Winch’s older women are the usual types of big-hearted aunties encountered in indigenous writing and on SBS.
The dead man, Albert “Poppy” Gondiwindi, had been compiling a dictionary of Aboriginal words, based on the real work of Stan Grant Snr and John Rudder. Albert’s dictionary is compiled with the supernatural aid of the spirits who talk to him and teach the old language (seriously). The text is punctuated with pages of definitions from his dictionary and the story, as the ancestors tell it to him, of the Gondiwindi (Wiradjuri?) people. Through the language he becomes a time traveller. Though he is presumably of mixed racial descent his white ancestors have gone walkabout.
The final narrative stream is a 1915 letter written by a missionary, Ferdinand Greenleaf, based on J.B. Gribble, reflecting on his own experiences and the treatment of Aborigines. Greenleaf, whose German family arrived in the Australian colonies in 1841, was interned during the First World War as an enemy alien and, we are told, died in detention. When threatened with internment at the same time Larissa Behrendt’s German wharfie great-grandfather simply lied about his citizenship. Greenleaf’s self-consciously pseudo-nineteenth-century writing style is dull and rather plodding.
The Wiradjuri dictionary compiled by Grant and Rudder should be a celebration, but in the novel it becomes a sour tool of contemporary revenge literature. Confusingly Winch gives the name Gondiwindi to the family whose story is being told and at the same time applies it to the whole Wiradjuri people. Although (I think) Grant and Rudder are the authors of the twenty-six-page word list at the back of the book it is called “The Dictionary of Albert Gondiwindi”—confusing to know whether it was carefully compiled or is Albert’s spirits and his author who have put it together. The alphabetical order of entries has been reversed “as a nod to the backwards whitefella world I grew up in”. In the text an English word or expression is then followed by its supposed equivalent, though surely this should be the other way around as he brings us into his vocabulary. Albert is a crude make-a-point fiction character who browses an English dictionary from Africa to continent to nations to colonialism to empire to apartheid. At school we used to search for the rude words, now the kids get those from the ABC.
Albert explains the English meaning of yield (channelling his woke creator) as “the things a man can take from the land, the thing he’s waited for and gets to claim”. Whereas, “in my language it’s the things you give to, the movement, the space between things”. This is doubly confusing because the supposed definition from his language does not make much sense and a usual definition of yield would be something given, not taken.
Albert’s time travelling and spirit stories soften the harshness of pre-contact Aboriginal life and completely avoid the very bad bits, while the sacred is abused into fantasy. This is not the world William D. Rubinstein recently discussed in Quadrant: “When Europeans first settled in Australia in 1788, they encountered an Aboriginal society of almost incredible barbarism and violence.” Traditional life is two-star Michelin as Albert’s ancestors teach him to cook eel and Murrumby (Murray?) cod on hot coals:
You take the back of the knife and scrape the scales towards the head, wash it and then leave the head on. From under the tail to the top of the stomach, cut along and then remove the insides, wash it again. The skin will just come away when its [sic] cooked. If you eat the fish, it’s important to know how to treat it after it’s died for you.
In explaining the word hunt, the violence and gore are dismissed and Albert offers a pastel-shaded and sting-free account of “hunting” with a bee: “gently they’d catch one and with a hair from the hunter’s head, slid through the animal fat [from a kangaroo] and then he would entwine the hair around the end of the bee”. The confused bee then flies home and leads the great hunter, who follows it directly to “the sugarbag hidden in the tree”. John Greenway’s masterpiece Down Among the Wild Men (1972) is an observation of Aboriginal life in the Australian desert in the late 1960s and early 1970s:
When a man kills a kangaroo he throws the dead animal on its back and immediately disembowels it, a memorable business for eyes and nose. After the visceral opening is cleared, the hunter pins the opening closed with a sharpened twig (another Found Artefact), ties the four legs together with the animal’s entrails the way a cowboy ties up a thrown calf, and heaves the sixty-five pounds of meat on top of his head for the walk back to camp.
More culinary notes from Albert suggest that after a week of this sort of spirit diet I would be hungry and my backyard would resemble the Simpson Desert:
The ancestors showed me how they cooked in the gulambula [earth oven]: first they dug a pit about a metre long and half a metre deep, making sure to get the clay out of the earth as they went. Then they filled the pit with firewood and then with the clay they collected, they rolled it into lumps and placed them on top of the firewood, as the wood burned the clay would dry and become very hot. After a couple of hours, the clay lumps were then taken out with sticks used like a pair of tongs and placed to the side, then the pit was swept out and lined with green leaves, some laid down the green grasses or green wood, not too dried. Quickly, a possum wrapped in paperbark was laid, covered by more green vegetation and finally the clay lumps were returned on top. All this was covered with the earth to make a nice tight seal. When it was ready they dug up the gulambula and then we ate the steamed dinner. Then we talked about little things that are big things.
Albert’s informative ancestors have a name—Google. The essential matter in that paragraph is paraphrased from “Aboriginal Cooking Techniques” by Warwick Wright, published online by the Australian National Botanic Gardens Education Services in 2000, and some of his words have been plagiarised.
John Greenway described a reality which when he saw it had not changed since it was recorded thirty-five years earlier in an anthropological film:
In camp an oven is dug for each animal, just deep enough for it to be covered by the embers of a fire lit the moment a hunter returns with his quarry. Branches are first thrown into the pit, shaken into a roaring fire, and the animal is thrown on to singe off its fur. It is then removed, the fire is stoked, and the animal has its legs broken and the sinews removed. Aborigines with a kangaroo in the earth oven, broiling under a heavy mound of hot ashes, are as impatient as Charles Lamb’s Dootsy Bobo when he invented roasting pig by burning down his house. Aboriginal kuka consequently is cooked only within the most tenuous definition of the word. Like a Frenchman’s biftek Americaine, the meat appears raw to any decent human being. Only the outer half inch of a kangaroo could be said to be truly roasted; the rest drips blood. One of the good shots I missed when my camera wind ran out (as it always does when something good is going), was Tjipikudu holding up a cooked wallaby to his mouth and drinking the pouring blood like a Spaniard with a bagful of wine.
The audience for The Yield is female. Most Aborigines won’t be reading it and the 344-page text would be impossible to translate using the present limited vocabulary of Albert Gondiwindi’s dictionary. It is ironic that more French women than Aboriginal women will read it, and for the very good reason which Patrick McCauley noticed in Wadeye: “People under forty, however, cannot speak English, are functionally illiterate, and have little idea of number.” Albert—I can’t call him Poppy—encountered erudite lady phantoms who “taught me how to count up to a thousand by counting the stars”. Could we ask Tara Winch to demonstrate this skill at a future Wadeye Literary Festival?
Within her storytelling Winch offers the sort of history telling which literary award judges support with other people’s money. Winch, by the way, is scornful of Australians who don’t know our own history as she does, and the present conservative Prime Minister supported her views with a flattering endorsement and his own $80,000 (tax-free) book prize. Before the white invasion the Gondiwindi (Wiradjuri) were fishermen and farmers who harrowed and ploughed their fields. A hundred-year war broke out with the whites because “the Gondiwindi were sick of the settlers taking over their land, digging up their tubers, ruining their grazing work they’d done forever. The Gondiwindi were farmers see, farmers and fishermen and they cultivated the land long before.” Curiously, “even the Ghan cameleers and train track fettlers were there and fighting alongside the Gondiwindi”. Smallpox came “with the shepherds and in the wool of their sheep”.
Those male spirits who appeared to Albert “taught me men’s business; they taught me where to find food, the names and uses of all the plants and animals”. John Greenway provided a rich but incomplete list of thirteen words the hunter-gatherer Pitandjara used for describing “that insignificant wriggly creature, the witjuti grub”. Greenway’s sources for his “grub-words” were people he was living with, Albert’s ghosts teaching their spirit-words have a much more limited vocabulary.
The knowledge revealed in The Yield is unending. Aborigines “made bread and cake long before the wise Egyptians did”. They also made porridge; excess flour was stored in their sturdy houses, and Albert’s dictionary has a word for “baker”. With skills in milling dating back over 18,000 years their accomplishments, said scientists and anthropologists, “rewrote the history of world agriculture”. The same scholars also asserted they domesticated animals. If this sounds familiar, Winch thanks Bruce Pascoe “for writing Dark Emu and steering me in the right direction”. That right Pascoe direction also included plagiarising her mentor:
Winch: “They said the Gondiwindi also built large dams and then carried fish and yabbies in gulmans over large distances to stock the new waterholes.”
Pascoe: “Wiradjuri people in New South Wales also built large dams, and then carried fish and yabbies in coolamons over large distances to stock the new waterholes.”
In 2005 I saw a sandy track, “leading hopefully forward” out of the bad politicised history writing and present-day hatreds: “Affection and co-operation are needed, not victims, guilt and retribution—sometimes even for horrors that never happened.” In 2016 Jacinta Nampijinpa Price was treading that same sandy track, though few seemed inclined to follow her:
Help my people understand the necessity and value in constructive criticism and self-reflection. Please don’t encourage us to remain stagnant, instead encourage us to ask questions and challenge long held beliefs so that we may determine the way forward, with that which enriches our lives.
Her Australian voice, also “astonishingly elegant and powerful”, should be heeded, and not the language of privilege and discord which is being used to dispossess us of our culture.