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.