The Yield, Tara June Winch

Journal: 076

Since moving back to running up north I have settled into an easy routine – load Thurs/Fri, unload Sun/Mon, back in Perth Tues/Wed, for a round trip of about 3,000 km. Running over east I would do one round trip Perth-Melbourne, 8,000 km, every 3 weeks. So now, over 3 weeks, I’m running a little further and getting a bit less time off – though it doesn’t feel like it – and earning about the same money (but as I’m not always running as a road train, I am using a fair bit less fuel).

Over the course of a weekend I listen to about 20 hours of audiobooks, say three books a week. This trip just past (actually the trip before last by the time this goes up) I listened to The Yield, Max Barry’s wild Jennifer Government (thank you Emma), and Nelson Mandela’s Conversations with Myself.

I originally wrote this post as a review, but as it’s mostly just me bitching about stuff, I’ll keep it between us and won’t put it up on the Australian Women Writers Challenge site.

Tara June Winch (1983- ) was born in and grew up around Wollongong, a steel manufacturing and port city 50 kms south of Sydney. She now lives between Sydney and France. So not a bush person then.

Winch’s father is a Wiradjuri man. Wiradjuri country is roughly contiguous with the Riverina region of NSW, which is to say the country we are looking at in Such is Life, the open grassland and semi desert country of the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan Rivers, north of the Murray, and the southern reaches of the Bogan and Macquarie Rivers (such as they are).

“The Wiradjuri language is effectively extinct, but attempts are underway to revive it, with a reconstructed grammar, based on earlier ethnographic materials and wordlists and the memories of Wiradjuri families” (Wiki). Winch acknowledges the actual people working on this grammar, but in her novel ascribes it to the fictional Albert Goondiwindi. (I don’t have a problem with that).

The Yield (2019), which won the 2020 Miles Franklin, is an exploration of Wiradjuri heritage and language through the eyes of a young woman protagonist, August, returned from London for the funeral of her grandfather, Albert Goondiwindi. August, now thirtyish, had been brought up by her grandparents, following the arrest and imprisonment of her parents on drugs charges, on the family property, a 500 acre wheat sheep farm on the banks of the (fictional) Murrimby River outside the town, and shire centre, Massacre Plains (also fictional).

The problem I had with the novel, which others clearly did not, is that it is based on learned rather than lived experience and the history is, as the author says, a composite of the average experiences of this sort of community. Still, it is well written, indeed innovative in the way Albert Goondiwindi’s Wiradjuri dictionary is woven into the text.

There are three stories, with different voices: a foundation story, set in the 1880s – ie. at exactly the same time as Tom Collin’s stories in SIL – told by the Lutheran missionary who gathered the Goondiwindi community onto one property; Albert Goondiwindi’s story of his childhood in the 1940s; and August’s story of her return to be with her grandmother and to attempt to save the family property from (tin) miners who are about to commence mining their land. There is also a further story running in the background, the disappearance of August’s sister, Jedda, as a child, which we hear of first from August then from Albert.

The one definite location we are given is that Massacre Plains is on the Broken Highway, which runs from Dubbo to Broken Hill (more or less horizontally across the centre of the map), shading from cotton farming, to scrub, to open desert capable of supporting only feral goats and pigs, and with, beyond Nyngan, and the cotton country on the Bogan, just two towns – the mining community of Cobar, and the run down rural community of Wilcannia on what is left of the Darling River.

My guess is that Winch was thinking of Nyngan for Massacre Plains, though there would be little chance of making a living off 500 acres there, and the nearest wheat farm would be further east or south. Maybe Nyngan has a modern, three storey shire office, it’s two or three years since I was last through there, but it’s a long way to the Darling, where Albert takes the local kids camping.

The names too, are puzzling. The family name Goondiwindi is from southern Queensland, and Jedda comes from the story of an Aboriginal girl in the Northern Territory (and Australia’s first colour movie).

I could go on but you get sick of my pedantry. And luckily for you, books that I listen to rather than read, I can only make notes in my head, and most of them I forget. Anyway, it’s only fiction you say. But that’s the point, it’s not. We are meant to read The Yield as representative of Aboriginal experience. I’m sure that it is, but compared with, for example, Marie Munkara’s visceral lived experience of colonial racism, Winch’s telling feels second hand.

A better comparison might be with Benang, Kim Scott’s exploration of his Wirlomin/Noongar heritage and his family’s experience of the actual, not invented (or “composite”), Cocanarup Massacre. Even leaving aside the magnificence of Scott’s language compared with Winch’s, the way he incorporates his search for identity into the text is clearly superior to Winch’s regurgitation/reconstruction of stuff she has read.

I’ll admit that as the story went on, August’s and Jedda’s stories in particular, I became more engaged. But did I like it, Melanie? No, not a lot. The problem (for my point of view) of course is that the Wiradjuri’s story needs to be told, and if not by Winch then who? But firstly, I think it could have been told better, and without the inconsistencies; and secondly, from memory, there were actual massacres, the Bathurst/Wiradjuri Wars for instance, which might better have illustrated her telling.

.

Tara June Winch, The Yield, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2019. Harper Audio, read by Tony Briggs. 9 hours.


The map is of the rivers of New South Wales (I forget where I got it now). For scale, it is about 1,000 kms from left to right. Sydney is under the ‘River’ of Nepean River. The Great Dividing Range runs parallel to the coast and about 100 kms in, forming the eastern boundary of Wiradjuri country. The western/northern boundary would seem to be some distance east and south of the Darling.

34 thoughts on “The Yield, Tara June Winch

  1. I know from past commentary from you that you prefer authors who know the area/culture/people they feature in the books, as opposed to the ‘learned experience’ so I’m not surprised that was an issue for you with this book.

    I understand the value of that intimate knowledge – helps you avoid making basic mistakes of fact that can undermine credibility – but don’t you think there is also the benefit of being distant from a community? That the distance can give you a fresh perspective that people living in the area don’t have because they are too close to the subject?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I can see how a history or anthropology PhD might want to turn their research into a novel, and I can see that they might (should) have a new perspective. Though if they were not of the people they were writing about, I’d be very concerned about their voices overpowering the voices of the people concerned.

      That of course is not my concern with Winch. Prior to The Yield we didn’t have any perspective of the Wiradjuri and voices which were close would have been, and still would be, welcome. Winch by using ‘average’ experiences and ‘average’ geography missed an opportunity to bring the Wiradjuri closer.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s a thorny question – are the only people who can write about a particular group, culture, location the people who live there or are part of that culture. American Dirt ran into a real shitstorm over that

        Liked by 1 person

      • The question is not Who can write? I’m not a censor. But who should I read? Sadly, on the subject of the Wiradjuri, I think Winch would be the first we turned to, and my review is an expression of my disappointment that she hasn’t done it as well as she might have, nor as well as I was given reason to hope.

        Like

  2. Haha, Bill, I won’t comment on the pedantry because we can’t agree. As I recollect Winch specifically uses fictional towns to NOT have anyone pick holes in whether it’s exactly this place or not. You may be interested to know, however, that I think Stan Grant (Jr, not his father Sr whom Winch acknowledges as a major source of the language work she uses) might agree with you re Winch’s book. (I should go check but it’s early hours of the am and I’d disturb Mr Gums!)

    I like Karen (BookerTalk’s) question. I think there are many ways to skin a cat and looking at stories from multiple angles and perspectives can only help. Winch lives in France – or at least moved there initially I believe – to escape the treatment she got as a young “fair-skinned” indigenous author who was one of those attacked by Bolt. If you read her more autobiographical Swallow the air – which brought her the success that Bolt criticised – you will understand her a little more. (Which is not an argument about The yield, but about her lived experience and how that, in a way, also fed into The yield.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I liked Karen’s question too! I’m a truck driver because in situations where I have to work with other people I get worked up in ways that they don’t understand (and, obviously, which I am poor at explaining).

      I agree that given my criticism of The Yield I owe it to Winch, and to you guys, to read Swallow the Air. I actually found the personal aspects of The Yield – August’s story and Jedda’s story – interesting, and, as I said, the dictionary aspect innovative.

      But. I have been driving across this country since I was a child – my father, given that he was restricted to weekends and school holidays, drove nearly as much as I do – so I know it as well as any outsider can. When I was reading I had in my mind a location for Massacre Plains a lot further west than Nyngan, real desert country, and the language in my first draft was pretty scornful. Luckily (for me) I re-wrote it with Massacre in the region of Ivanhoe and then a day or so later, finally considered the significance of Wiradjuri country including the Macquarrie R (MP had to be in the Darling and not the Murrumbidgee basin).

      My preference would be to read a work about the Wiradjuri of lesser quality maybe but by someone more closely acquainted with the area and people. Not least by someone with lived experience of just how badly Indigenous people are treated in western NSW, which August – because Winch hasn’t lived it – glosses over in her school days.

      Like

  3. I like Karen’s question. I spent most of my magazine career working on specialist titles where I had no experience or specialist knowledge of the subject at hand: that meant I could edit and commission copy with no preconceived notions, it allowed me to pick up errors (because I would ask questions that others might not ask because they were supposed to know the topic and it would reveal a weakness in their knowledge) and came at things from a different angle. If writers can only ever write about their lived experience it puts us all at a disadvantage, because who’s going to write about things in communities that lack writing skills? It would also put a bunch of genres in the bin (historical, crime, horror etc). I think there needs to be some level of compromise between lived experience, research and creativity.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Woo hoo, kimbofo, much of what I have argued over and over again. I like your description of a “compromise between lived experience, research and creativity”. That puts it very neatly.

      I was going to make the point in my reply about communities who don’t have writers. I felt Bill had touched slightly on that but it’s an important point albeit not the most important one which is about not rejecting the imagination and creativity.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Kim, I like you guys, like your writing about writing, like your politics. We all agree about most things. And I hate harping on the stuff we disagree about. I really hate being boring, which I can see sometimes I am.

      My general rule is I like stuff to be written by the nearest possible person. So, Walter Scott “sixty years later” after talking to old campaigners (Waverley), or women talking about women, or Eleanor Dark imagining first contact 150 years later (The Timeless Land) to be replaced 50 or 60 years later by Kim Scott (That Deadman Dance).

      Winch was the right person to write The Yield, the “nearest” person – and I’m amused at how she kept her parents out, as Miles Franklin for instance did not – but IMO what she should have researched is Wiradjuri people, not books about general Aboriginal experience.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Our book group read this book this year and we all enjoyed it. Some of us did have a hard time getting into it but then it fell into place for most of us. Not knowing a great deal of Indigenous information re: locations and geographical areas of Australia I would not pick up much of what is true or not. However I enjoyed the writing very much and it did keep me interested right up to the end.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pam, I would have felt exactly as you did if this had been a Native American book. I would have been informed and entertained. My problem is that I know this country – the Riverina, and the rocky, scrubby, desert country to the north – too well to be tolerant of a ‘general’ description. And I think we are too far into the second generation of Indigenous Lit for a writer to attempt to get away with generalized descriptions of oppression.

      Like

    • I understand *getting mildly impatient*. How are we going to get through the next 10 or 15 years?

      I read made-up books for entertainment, though I generally hope the landscape and background people at least are realistic. What about SF? What about Regency romances? you might say. I suppose I’ll have to come up with an answer, consistency’s a bitch!

      Like

      • *chuckle*
        That’s all right, I’m not consistent either.
        I grew out of costume drama historical fiction a long time ago, and I can’t be bothered with the swathe of romanticised WW2 novels that litter the bookshops today. These bandwagon books have nothing of any significance to say and they’re now so clichéd that they’re not even entertaining either.
        But *generally* I am sympathetic to historical fiction being used to tell the ‘other side of the story’ that’s been suppressed by history and I don’t mind the idea of using imagination to fill the silences when we don’t and never can know about women, underclasses, the colonised, the illiterate or the losers in a war who never got to write their own stories. It must be done respectfully, and for the right reasons, and with imaginative empathy. If it’s done well, it’s enriching for the reader IMO…

        Like

      • There’s a few things I haven’t grown out of – Melanie was scathing the other day about ‘undergrads’ who venerate Kerouac’s On the Road (I’ll own up to both undergrad and Kerouac) – and costume drama is another. I don’t think we’re meant to learn any history from Heyer or all the Austen derivatives, though The Scarlet Pimpernel’s right wing bias still makes me cranky.

        But yes, that’s just taste in entertainment. C20th wars as a basis for contemporary fiction do wind me up. My two favourite war books were both written by soldiers on the ‘other side’ – All Quiet on the Western Front and The Sorrow of War, and now I think about it, The Good Soldier Schweik.

        I don’t think stories need be untold, just not always by ‘us’.

        Like

  5. Thank you to everyone for this robust discussion – I very much enjoyed all of these comments. Without delving into the issues raised (others have been far more succinct), I’ll simply say that what I really enjoyed about The Yield was the structure and the way that the dictionary and language was woven in to that structure. If I was to judge the book on that alone, I would have to say it was exceptionally well done.

    As always Bill, I love the truck-driving-lens that you apply – always an interesting (lived) perspective on the Australian landscape 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you Kate! I think that from a Lit. point of view The Yield was well done, too. I really must pick up a paper copy one day to look at that aspect more closely. Truck driving is actually an excellent job for a book reviewer, plenty of time for reading, … and for reviewing if only I would use a dictaphone app. And of course all that experience of Australian geography. If only city-based authors knew what I said about their inadequate attempts to describe the country they fly over on their way to Europe.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Really interesting discussion in the comments! I can see why the inconsistencies would irritate you since you know the geography so well, though I tend to agree that we need both “lived experience” and more distant perspectives because neither one has a full view of the community.

    On an unrelated note, coming from a country where the mainland is about 1000 km top to bottom, I find the idea of driving 3000 km in a week, every week, completely impossible to imagine! I always enjoy these posts that give me a sense of Australian geography – I think I’m very unlikely to ever visit Australia, as I’m trying not to take flights if I can help it at all, but I like learning about it via these posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And yet Lou, I was jealous of English truck drivers, in previous decades anyway, who would get trips to Moscow or Afghanistan. But at least I get to pull multiple trailers.
      My son says he shouldn’t fly any more, and I sympathise, it’s a bloody wasteful way of travelling, but he’s working in central Australia, how is he going to get anywhere.
      I’m not quite as unbalanced about lived experience as I make out, but I do need to make my way from gut feeling to properly spelled out philosophy.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Heh, I didn’t realize I was “scathing” about On the Road! I think my issue with that book is so many undergrad young men read it and romanticize this idea of traveling around with no responsibilities, which is not afforded to nor advised for young women. Leave it all behind means leaving something behind for someone else to care for. Even in the story of Chris McCandless, who sold all his possessions and donated his inheritance to live a free life hitchhiking across the entire U.S. and up into Canada so he could just live there meant he left behind not only a confused, terrified family who could not locate their son, but he also left his corpse to be retrieved and the expense of the safety of folks who had reports about some idiot who thought he could survive in the woods in Alaska.

    But back to your post! I have no clue what I’ve written about this topic before other than to say when I read a book by a writer who lives in the setting that they are writing — Bonnie Jo Campbell in Michigan, and more specifically Kalamazoo and its large river — I feel almost at home because I know this landscape so well. Without it, you could be in Indiana or Illinois Wisconsin. Granted, they may sound similar in make up and geography, but all four have noticeable differences that matter. As for who gets to write those stories, I used to say only the people the story is about should write those stories, but then I was challenged by a classmate when I was in my MFA program. She lived in Lesotho for a year with the Peace Corps and later wrote a book set in Lesotho. She’s a white woman, an outsider, but she did live there and experience the people. Am I still iffy about her writing stories from the people’s eyes instead of characters more like herself? Yes. The toss up is would I ever read a book about Lesotho published in the U.S. if someone from the Peace Corps did not? No, it’s unlikely. So, I lean toward agreeing with you, Bill, but maybe have a bit more leeway in terms of exceptions that you do?

    My biggest beef is when a writer who does not represent the people from their book gets published when there are loads of people from that actual place or culture who are being passed over because they don’t have the right “look.”

    I’m glad you liked the book but were also able to address your concerns with it. I think readers can happily do both.

    Like

    • I did a lot of hitchhiking while I was a student, both high school and uni. I just like the flow of constantly moving. The literature though, is not so much that as my preference for grunge/punk/beat which I’ve never analysed (I don’t do drugs, so it’s not that). I don’t mind you presenting your opinions so forcefully as to be “scathing”, even when I’m on the receiving end, I’m not thin skinned.

      I think you and I mostly agree about preferring to read writers from the culture being written about. Sometimes outsiders are a way into a particular subject, but we westerners tend to speak over the top of people we should be listening to.

      Like

      • I’m just giggling because I hadn’t thought of my comment as scathing at all, just frustrated that On the Road is so revered when it’s not necessarily well written or completely engaging. It’s more than it’s a book of inspiration. Traveling as a young person is amazing, but reading about it feels more like being the person who missed out on the cool road trip and please stop showing me you’re 1,000 vacation photos you took. When you were hitchhiking, didn’t it feel sort of…I don’t know, personal, or reflective? Or were you eager to get home and tell everyone everything that happened?

        Like

      • Hitchhiking was personal and something I rarely spoke about. For shorter trips it was routine, just public transport 60s style. But especially while I was at uni I would hitch all weekend, hundreds of kilometres a day, just for the pleasure of moving on.

        Like

  8. I love The Yield for it’s dictionary in particular. As you say it was innovative device – an educational tool and a way to reveal the family back story. But like you, my one bug-bear was the ‘general’ descriptions of place. I have lived most of my life on Wiradjuri land – Cowra, Wagga, Bathurst & Mudgee and I spent ages puzzling over where she was and which massacre she could be referring too. For some reason I pictured them around the Ardlethan area thanks to the reference to a tin mine.

    Like

    • I’ve driven past Ardlethan a million times running Melbourne Brisbane or western Victoria to Sydney, but I think I’ve only been in it once or twice. I did wonder about the tin mine, there aren’t a lot of mines in Wiradjuri country – Cadia is probably the biggest, but I guess the mine that consumes the Goondiwindi property is just another ‘composite’. I just don’t see the point of ‘generalized’ locations, especially when the Country of Indigenous nations is so specific.

      Like

  9. It’s great that your new gig results in your using less fuel. I was listening to a news program this morning about how activists are working to broaden the conversation about energy use now, to not only focus on the countries that are consuming the energy but also focus on the countries that are extracting and selling it (for instance, apparently Norway uses relatively little but sells an inordinate amount compared to what they consume in their borders).

    As a writer I invest a lot of hours in imagined characters and situations and I would hope they feel real to readers, but I can also appreciate the distinction you’re making between the idea that you want to choose to read experiences that arise from an author’s experience but you aren’t insisting that those storytellers are the only ones with stories to tell. It’s a messy convo for another reason, too, because the exceptions you’ve noted in your own approach (regency romance, sci-fi) are often grouped as genre fiction which means subtly introducing the whole ‘commercial’ v ‘literary’ debate too. Yikes. *runs for the bush*

    Like

    • Using less fuel is great because it then costs less to do a trip, but I’m only using less because I’m carrying/towing less weight. The fact remains both my truck and my ute (pickup) are diesels. My next, and last car, will be electric but I think I’ll give up trucking when this truck dies. I won’t buy another diesel and I don’t think electric or hydrogen-power will come soon enough for me to be able to afford one.

      Australia exports huge amounts of carbon, it’s the world’s largest natural gas exporter for instance, and one of the largest coal exporters, but it refuses to count that carbon in its own emissions and probably grossly undercounts the gasses released during mining.

      I think I had better read your writing before I criticise it! I think though it would be fair to infer from what I’ve written that I would be happier if you were imagining based on your own experience – of being a woman, of being a Canadian, of having lived or travelled in particular places. If on the other hand you’re going the whole Lionel Shriver …

      But then, you might be writing ‘commercially’ and if so I wish you luck, I hope the money comes pouring in. (I do think though that SF has commercial/space opera these days, and literary paths within it.)

      Like

      • My previous car was a hybrid gas/electric but living in Toronto has allowed us to get by quite nicely without owning a car (and rarely renting). From the research I’ve been doing in the past year, technology is moving more quickly than I’d understood, in terms of what is/will be available to consumers in so many sectors. It’s surprisingly encouraging. If I haven’t recommended it before, the podcast Outrage and Optimism is a great source of info, with a balance in tone that suits me.

        There’s nothing commercial about my style at this point, but maybe someday; it would be good for my bank account if I could swing it. 😀

        Writers can write from a place of emotional truth, IMO, that allows them to inhabit experiences they haven’t had directly, in a way that makes them feel real for readers. Combined with archival research (I share your frustration with geographic details that aren’t correct, for instance), I think that can lead to storytelling that’s as powerful as some autobiographical writing (just because one has had the experience doesn’t mean they can recreate that in a way that resonates for readers, but obvs. some can and do, and that’s great).

        With Shriver, for instance, even though she obviously hasn’t had some of the experiences that the characters in her book have, I think they feel authentic because she’s experienced some of those emotions in other situations and that breathes life into the stories she writes. (I’m not trying to convince you or anyone else to read Lionel Shriver though; she’s an acquired taste, the books are incredibly detailed, sometimes exhausting, and relentlessly “domestic” (which not everyone enjoys).

        Like

      • Shriver interests me because she came over here and caused a stir and, of course because I disagree vehemently with her philosophy of writing whatever she imagines.
        In “Kevin” I don’t think she gets even the main female character right, the mid west is just too foreign to her (Shriver).

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s