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Posted on 10 Sep 2020 in Fiction |

TARA JUNE WINCH The Yield. Reviewed by Suzanne Marks

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Tara June Winch’s multi-award-winning novel is told in three voices, one of which takes the form of a dictionary.

Yield, bend the feet, tread, as in walking, also long, tallbaayanha. Yield itself is a funny word – yield in English is the reaping, the things that man can take from the land, the thing he’s waited for and gets to claim. A wheat yield. In my language it’s the things you give to, the movement, the space between things.

Winch explores just how much is caught up in the difference between those two definitions.

Albert ‘Poppy’ Goondiwindi is dying of pancreatic cancer and records his life by compiling a dictionary of the language of his people, which includes this definition of the book’s title. (The Complete Dictionary of Albert Goondiwindi: a work in progress is included as an appendix at the very end of the novel.)

These contrasting definitions of yield point the way in which the story will unfold and lie at the heart of Winch’s novel, which has won no less than four 2020 literary awards: the Miles Franklin Literary Award and three New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards – the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, the People’s Choice Award and the Book of the Year Award. It more than lives up to these accolades.

There are a number of similarities between last year’s Miles Franklin winner, Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip, and The Yield. Both deal with intergenerational Aboriginal trauma, both feature a dying grandfather, a granddaughter returning home, and a struggle over land rights against a mining company. But their mode of storytelling differs. Lucashenko addresses the shameful history of white colonisation through the troubled, quirky Salter family. While Winch explores similar themes, her lens is broader.

Her story’s richness lies in how she weaves the perspectives of her three key protagonists. Following his parents’ deaths from an ‘Old World disease’, Albert ‘Poppy’ Goondiwindi was taken from his family and community and raised on a Lutheran Mission named Prosperous House situated on the banks of the Murrumby river on Massacre Plains (the name speaks for itself). There a sign instructs him to ‘Think White. Act White. Be White.’ When the novel opens, his granddaughter, August, has returned home after 10 years in England – with nothing to show for it’ – to be with her dying Poppy, only to be confronted with everything she tried to leave behind.

The third voice is that of the Lutheran Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf, who has come to Massacre Plains to establish an Aboriginal mission and is chronicling his experiences in letters to Dr George Cross of the British Society of Ethnography in 1915. Ferdinand is one of the white humanitarians historian Henry Reynolds writes of in The Whispering in our Hearts. From primary sources, Reynolds charts the despair and anger of those who stood up against the mistreatment of Aboriginal people and ‘the (so called) noble institutions of Great Britain’, and bore the guilt and despair of still operating within its toxic imperial system.

In The Yield, the Reverend Greenleaf writes:

That vile inhumanity practised by the white-skinned Christian on his dark-skinned brother in order to obtain land and residence, for ‘peaceful acquisition’ – that includes capture, chains, long marches, whipping, death on the roadside, or, if surviving all of these – the far more terrible fate – being sold like brutes of the field as unpaid labour to the highest bidder.

Contrasted with Ferdinand’s experience of British colonial desecration of people and country, we are taken into Poppy Albert’s reality – one born of the spirit of the land, of time remembered, embedded in nature before white settlement. It is through the trees, the animals, the waters of the Murrumby river, that the reality of language and culture lives on.

Water – galing, guugu, ngadyang The Reverend wrote it in his journal as culleen – he is listening that fella, listening as close as he could. All my life been near the water, and we come from the water too, us people. First we were born from quartz crystal – that’s hard water, we are kin of the platypus, that’s the animal of the water, and then, my wife Elsie and I made Missy and Jolene and Nicki, born on the banks of water, the Big Water – Murrumby.

Memory is a recurring theme in this novel. August’s return to her birth home, Massacre, is fraught with sorrow and pain. She is haunted by memories of the unsolved disappearance of her sister Jedda in childhood. As she drives towards her hometown she slows:

momentarily at the only rest area… We had looked there for Jedda – a shoe, a scrap of dress, a scruff of hair. Nothing was found… then she wondered what difference it would make anyway, the discovery of Jedda, her in bones, bones no longer pecked by crows. There wouldn’t be any comfort for everything they’d lost.

I am moved by Winch’s literary skill in interweaving memory with her character’s present consciousness, drawing us into August’s inner dialogue as she slowly drives through the town. Familiar landmarks have disappeared or been transformed by the passage of time:

August passed Aunt Mary’s house, where she had brought up her son, and where her door remained open for the priest always. She drove at a crawl, looked into the open wounds of the cousins and second cousins and wayward schoolmates’ homes that she recognised. She saw no-one.

Through the beautifully drawn idiosyncrasies and circumstances of her characters, Winch provides important insights into the impact of the wider issues of dispossession, the fight for land rights, intergenerational trauma, imperial Christianity and discrimination born of racism and greed. But it is the love, compassion and intense understanding Winch demonstrates in her key characters that draws us to share their lived experience. Each in their own way strives to live out their highest ideals of justice and human decency, to celebrate their victories and endure the pain and disappointment when things of value are disrespected and lost, and that is what I take with me as I close this book.

Tara June Winch The Yield Penguin 2019 PB 352pp $32.99

Suzanne Marks is a member of the Board of the Jessie Street National Women’s Library and the Sydney University Chancellor’s Committee. Her professional life has been in equity, human rights, teaching and conflict resolution.

You can buy The Yield from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.