yield, bend the feet, tread, as in walking, also long, tall – baayanha Yield itself is a funny word – yield in English is the reaping, the things that man can take from land, the things 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. It’s also the action made by Baiame, because sorrow, old age and pain bend and yield. The bodies of the ones that had passed were buried with every joint bent, even if the bones had to be broken. I think it was a bend in humiliation, just like we bend at our knees and bow our heads. Bend, yield – baayanha.
Though it took a little while to fall into the rhythm of the book, once I did and realised what it was doing, preserving a language and sharing a culture, while telling the story of one who returns, having been separated from it through travel (and a non-inclusive education), I thought it was brilliant.
The Wiradjuri Aboriginal people, of which the author is a descendant, are a people and a culture that have been dispossessed, yet in some respects and from an alternate perspective, can also be said to have thrived despite the setback of colonialization.
The Yield is an acknowledgement of what was, a perspective on what it is to straddle dual cultures and a powerful reclaiming of Indigenous language, storytelling and cultural identity, one that will endure.
Known as the people of the three rivers, Wiradjuri people have inhabited modern-day New South Wales, Australia for more than 60,000 years. At the time of European colonization, there were an estimated 3,000 Wiradjuri living in the region, representing the largest cultural footprint in the state.
A Triple Narrative, Of Voice, Time and Style
The story is told through three voices, in three narrative styles, across three time periods, that I have come to think of metaphorically as the past, present and future of Aboriginal culture.
The Future, reclaiming one’s culture
The first person narrative is the voice of Albert (Poppy), the grandfather of the fictional Gondiwindi family. He is no longer living when we read his granddaughter August’s account of her return from England to Australia, he is the reason she returns, for his funeral.
He has written down important words that populate and are interspersed throughout the entire novel, the mystery of them revealed as the narrative moves forward.
English changed their tongues, the formation of their minds, August thought – she’d drifted in and out of herself all that time. The language was the poem she had looked for, communicating what English failed to say. Her poppy used to say the words were paramount. That they were like icebergs floating, melting, that there were ocean depths to them that they couldn’t have talked about.
Nothing like your average dictionary, Poppy’s entries are an accessible rendering of words in his indigenous language, his descriptions or meanings are anecdotal stories of an oral tradition, ensuring we understand. More than mere words, they preserve a culture, they are evidence of a civilisation. They are the future, a key to the longevity and respect of his people’s lineage.
ashamed, have shame – giyal-dhuray I’m done with this word. I’d leave it out completely but I can’t. It’s become part of the dictionary we think we should carry. We mustn’t anymore. See, pain travels through our family tree like a songline. We’ve been singing our pain into a solid thing. The old ones, the young ones too, are ready to heal. We don’t have to be giyal-dhuray anymore, we don’t have to pass that down to anyone.
The Present, a return to one’s culture
The second person narrative is the present day account of August’s return, of her discovery that her grandmother Elsie is being forced to leave the family property because of a mining company claim and the way it has been presented to them, is as if they have no right to or compensation for the land or buildings.
Elsie isn’t prepared to fight, but August becomes aware of her grandfather’s project, of what is required to potentially save the land and reinstate their existence. It is a time of reckoning as she allows events of the past to rise, and rather than run from them, can make amends.
There is also the presence of outsiders, activists on the hill, ready to intervene if necessary. These people are something of an enigma to August and her family. In challenging one of them, she highlights that aspect of humanity – that there is always someone whose call is to agitate and prick the social conscious of the other, that it’s often not those to whom the injustice is being done. When Mandy warns August to be careful and to conceal herself, she tells her she’s nobody anyway.
“You are somebody. But these days we can’t do anything as somebody, we can only do something as nobody. The nobody of everybody.”
August thought for a moment. “I don’t get it.”
“When something is important enough that it’s personal to everyone,” Mandy added.
The Past, overriding one culture with another
A third epistolary narrative, is a series of letters written by a British/German Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf who lived in the area in the late 1800’s and wrote an account of his attempt to build a mission. His few letters are spread across the novel, recording his intentions, his observations and his responses to all that he witnessed.
It is here we read of the past treatment of people, the struggles, the behaviours, the results, the small successes, the failures and the reminder that anyone can become a future victim when the allegiances of a nation turn.
respect – yindyamarra I think I’ve come to realise that with some things, you cannot receive them unless you give them too. Unless you’ve even got the opportunity to give and receive. Only equals can share respect, otherwise it’s a game of masters and slaves – someone always has the upper hand when they are demanding respect. But yindyamarra is another thing too, it’s a way of life – a life of kindness, gentleness, and respect at once. That seems like a good thing to share, our yindyamarra.
The Many Ways to Preserve a Cultural Heritage
The entire novel is a monumental endeavour, encompassing as it does, this one language of the hundreds that existed and have either become extinct, or are under threat of becoming so.
The way the words and language create a bridge of understanding of a way of life and thinking is indeed a celebration. The thought of one man spending his latter years in pursuit of this, of sharing all that he knew, so he could pass it on, in the way of the coloniser – using the written word and not the oral stories of the past that risk dying out – is remarkable and uplifting.
It’s Never to Late to Be An Inspiration
One of the inspirations for the book was the work of Wiradjuri elder Mr Stan Grant Senior, whose contribution has since earned him an honory doctorate for his life’s work to reclaim the Wiradjuri language.
With an anthropologist, John Rudder, Mr. Grant has breathed new life into the language. They worked together on a revision of a long-neglected Wiradjuri dictionary, “A New Wiradjuri Dictionary,” almost 600 pages in length, as well as a collection of small grammar books. – extract, New York Times
I love that stories like this are being written, helping to preserve a much wronged culture and people, and that a new generation of writers are using literature to further develop empathy and understanding.
Highly Recommended, a future classic!
“I was told when you revive a lost language, you give it back to all mankind,” he said, sitting in his kitchen, not far from where the kingfishers darted across the Murrumbidgee.
“We were a nothing people for a long time. And it is a big movement now, learning Wiradjuri. I’ve done all that work. I’ve done all I can.” Stan Grant Sr
About the Author, Tara June Winch
Tara June Winch is a Wiradjuri author, born in Australia in 1983 and based in France. Her first novel, Swallow the Air was critically acclaimed. She was named a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist, and has won numerous literary awards for Swallow the Air. The novel has been on the HSC syllabus for Standard and Advanced English since 2009 and a 10th-anniversary edition was published in 2016.
In 2008, she won a prestigious mentoring scheme and was mentored by Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka who introduced her to a whole new world of reading; for the first time, she began making links between Greek tragedies, biblical myth and Indigenous dreaming stories.
There’s a wonderful video interview of the two of them in Nigeria available online.
Soyinka chose Winch to be his protégée because of her “sure hand [and] observant eye”.
The Yield, was first published in 2019, to commercial and critical success and took out four prizes including Book of the Year at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Voss Prize, and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. It was shortlisted for The Stella Prize.
The Guardian Interview: I had to be manic’: Tara June Winch on her unmissable new novel – and surviving Andrew Bolt by Sian Cain
Article New York Times: An Heir to a Tribe’s Culture Ensures Its Language Is Not Forgotten by Michelle Innis
ABC News: January 26 is a reminder that Australia still hasn’t reckoned with its original sin by Stan Grant, 27 Jan 2021
N.B. Thank you to Harper Via, an imprint of Harper Collins dedicated to publishing extraordinary international voices for an ARC (advance reader copy) provided via Netgalley.