Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch has won the Miles Franklin Literary Award — Australia’s most prestigious writing prize, and one of its richest at $60,000 — for her novel The Yield.
Winch is the fourth Indigenous Australian author to win the prize, following last year’s winner Melissa Lucashenko (for Too Much Lip), Kim Scott (who shared the prize in 2000 for Benang and won again in 2011 with That Deadman Dance) and Alexis Wright (for Carpentaria, 2007).
Speaking to the ABC from France, where she has lived since 2011, the author said, “It feels wrong to win the big ones, and these types of awards should be split down the longlist when we’re in such economically unstable times.”
The Yield shares many themes in common with Lucashenko’s Miles Franklin-winning novel, including language, colonisation, dispossession, the environment and intergenerational trauma.
Both stories are about young women returning home for the funeral of a patriarch, to find their ancestral lands under threat from mining companies. Both novels feature a missing sister, whose absence haunts the protagonist.
Winch said: “It’s shocking that it [The Yield] won the year after Melissa [Lucashenko] — I just didn’t think it would. You know, the track record has been, oh, wait a few years between Indigenous authors to give them a prize.”
A call for respect
2020 is the first year in the Miles Franklin Literary Award’s history that two Indigenous authors have been shortlisted, and Winch said in her acceptance speech that she felt Tony Birch’s shortlisted novel The White Girl deserved to share the accolade with her.
Accepting the award, Winch urged “all of us to demand change, for the sake of our past, our present and our possible future”.
She talked about the meaning of respect.
“Yindyamarra is our [Wiradjuri] word for respect; it means to be equal in respectful ways; to be flowing back and forth between two shores; it means kindness, gentleness, respect.”
“I don’t see respect like this in the Australian vernacular. I see empty words that don’t go past the teeth.
“Because now, this year, we as Australians let the mining companies blow up sacred sites. We as Australians let First Nations children as young as 10 fill the prisons in the Northern Territory.
“We as Australians have not brought to justice one officer of the law in the deaths in custody of 430-something Indigenous men and women who have died in custody.
“We as Australians do not learn the true history of the so-called fair and lucky country we inhabit.”
Part of a national conversation
The Miles Franklin caps off an incredible run of success for Winch, who also took home three awards at this year’s NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, including Book of the Year.
Reflecting on the importance of winning these prizes as a platform for change, she said: “In some ways it’s like speaking into an echo chamber. Readers are on the bandwagon already, in a sense.
“But then they talk to their family and friends, hopefully, about these issues, and it adds to a groundswell of awakening and learning, and conversation.”
A microcosm of Australia
The Yield follows a 30-something woman, August, as she returns home from overseas to her small town of Massacre Plains for the funeral of her grandfather, Albert.
Her family home is about to be demolished for a new tin mine and she’s trying to find a dictionary that “Poppy” Albert was writing before he died.
The book refracts Winch’s vision of past, present and future Australia through three characters, or voices, in alternating chapters: August, her grandfather Albert Gondiwindi (through excerpts from his Wiradjuri-language dictionary), and a 19th-century missionary, Reverend Greenleaf (through his letters to the British Society of Ethnography in 1915).
In the book, 500 acres of land around the fictional town of Massacre Plains, situated on the fictional Murrumby River, stands in for the whole of Australia as Winch digs down into layers of history.
A personal story
The setting of The Yield is informed by the author’s own experience of her ancestral lands: Wiradjuri country in north-west New South Wales.
Although she grew up near Wollongong, saltwater country, the family travelled to visit relatives, particularly a property near Lightning Ridge.
She describes, as a young woman, having a “desire to understand how I related to a place that I had never grown up in”.
During the writing of The Yield, across almost a decade, she travelled frequently back to Wiradjuri country and much of the novel was written at Booranga Writers’ Retreat near Wagga Wagga in New South Wales.
“Sometimes I’d drive for hours and hours around, and drive on to people’s farms … Of course they thought I was mad, I’d say ‘I’m a writer, can I talk to you about farming?’ Because there’s so much farming in this book and I had no idea about farming.”
She also undertook research from France, watching bird-watching videos on YouTube “just to listen to the bush”.
“Sometimes I’d call my Nana and get her to describe the air, stuff like that.”
Winch’s family also informed The Yield, as she told ABC RN’s Kate Evans in April: “Nana Elsie is my Nana. Poppy is a mix of my grandfather and the cheeky storytelling of my dad. He is also my own inner voice.”
The Gondiwindis are a strong matriarchal family, with grandmother Elsie presiding over the household, and her daughters — August’s aunts — coming together to organise Poppy Albert’s funeral.
The warmth, resilience and humour of these women set the tone for the family.
“At the same time, their bodies are made void. Either by being ‘maternal and sexless’ or as ‘exotic sexual objects’.”
Winch says: “Reading Indigenous women’s own stories is vital to hearing a representation from the sea of unheard and ignored voices.
“That Jedda [August’s sister] is missing in the novel, yet the community and country don’t continue searching for her, speaks to the murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls globally.”
The balm of language
The seed of The Yield was sown back in 2004, when Winch was researching her debut novel, Swallow the Air. In the course of that, she revisited Wiradjuri country and took part in a language workshop — where she was given a copy of the Wiradjuri dictionary compiled by Uncle Stan Grant and Dr John Rudder.
She describes it as a profound moment: “It affected me so much when I discovered it [that language]. It felt like such a balm, and a repaired cultural link.”
“And I found it wasn’t just me who was affected: it’s such a great rehabilitation tool, it’s such a healing tool for those of the Stolen Generation, reconnecting back with their families and their land, where they were taken from.
“There’s a real discomfort in the way mainstream Australia relates to its black history … it’s never reached a communion, and I think language is a really effective, easy way to do it.”
Winch would like all Australians to learn their local Indigenous language, from early school years.
“It would change our future generations; there needs to be understanding and a sense of belonging — reciprocal belonging.”
Writing in lockdown
Winch lives in the countryside near Nantes, and describes a lockdown experience familiar to many Australians: working from home and juggling domestic life, writing, and parenting a teen who, she says, has had just six at-school days in the last six months.
The author was intending to be in Australia in May for the Sydney Writers Festival, which was subsequently cancelled.
“Emotionally, it hurt to be away from my family when there were plans to see them … but you just get on with it,” says Winch.
A new novel
Winch is currently working on her next novel, set in the Swiss Alps.
“It’s a really white setting, but it’s about race.”
She says she is looking forward to a more productive period of writing, going forward.
“I’m not going to have that span of a decade of not producing a book, because I’ve got a teenager now who doesn’t want me around as much, so I’ve got some time. I’ve got a writing desk, which I didn’t have for a decade. All these things make a difference. Being financially stable.”
Winch knows about financial precarity; when her first novel was published, aged 22, she had been waiting tables and washing dishes.
“I’ve said before, the years I was my least creative were the years I was my least financially stable. However if there is ever a person that knows how to be poor, it is the writer, we can make money stretch.”