Today was the day I was able to devote to fiction writers. There were still clashes, but there was never any doubt that I would attend this Tara June Winch session, even though it meant missing a panel featuring Charlotte Wood, Brian Castro, and Simon Winchester. Why were these scheduled opposite each other?! The Festival-goers complaint! Anyhow, fortunately, as you’ll see, I did get to hear Brian Castro too; and I have seen Charlotte Wood before and did see Simon Winchester in a different session.
Anyhow, as I said, I was not going to miss Tara June Winch, and I was not disappointed by my resolve. It was a special session. There was a lightness to it, a joy, a love, a generosity, but also a deep and passionate commitment to indigenous lives and culture.
Poet and current chair of FNAWN (First Nations Australians Writers Network) Holt commenced by jokingly welcoming us to the Boris Johnson Fundraising event at the Canberra Raiders Festival! But she then turned serious, acknowledging the passing of Kerry Reed Gilbert (see my Vale post) whom she called one of “our most imperative voices for treaty in Australia”. She called for a one-minute silence.
Holt then introduced Wiradjuri-born Tara June Winch, who now lives in France. She named Winch’s works to date: the award-winning novel Swallow the air (my review), short story collection After the carnage, script for the VR program Carriberie (which I’ve seen at the NFSA), and her latest novel, The yield. She then handed over to Winch.
Winch explained The yield’s genesis. Ten years in the writing, it was inspired by a short course she did in Wiradjuri language run by Uncle Stan Grant Sr (father of Stan Grant whom I’ve reviewed here). Discovering language was transformative. She’s always regretted that she didn’t include more language in Swallow the air.
She then discussed the tussles she had writing the book. She started with too broad a canvas, but her mentor, Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, encouraged her to focus on 500 acres of land, telling her she could tell her story through that lens. So, she found her 500 acres on the Murrumbidgee and created fictional place names – the Murrumby River, and the towns, Massacre Plains and Broken. These names, Broken and Massacre, which do exist elsewhere in Australia, convey the nation’s brutal colonial history, and thus encompass truth-telling. I appreciated hearing this, because I have started referring to fiction as part of the truth-telling process, and hoped I wasn’t being naive.
She said she wanted her places to be real, but she used fictional names so that she wouldn’t be imposing her story on the specific stories and experiences of people living in a place. I was glad to hear this too, because I think there’s real sense in using fictional place-names, as, for example, Melissa Lucashenko does in Too much lip, Tony Birch in The white girl, and also Karen Viggers in The orchardist’s daughter. It is these sorts of insights that can make attending festivals so meaningful.
Winch then described her three narrators, all of whom tell the story of the same 500 acres:
- Poppy, first person narrator, dictionary writer and August’s grandfather; he is dying but is also a time traveller, so, Winch said, there are elements of magical realism.
- August, third person voice; she tells a contemporary story of the 500 acres and the challenges faced, including from mining and river degradation.
- Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf, a Lutheran missionary, who’s writing a letter in 1915 about his experiences running the ironically (I assume!) named Prosperous Lutheran Mission from the 1880s. Winch created him to “round” out the story. He’s her villain, but she gives some balance, humanity, to him by sharing his own experience of loss of mother tongue.
At this point, Holt noted that at Hermannsburg, the Lutheran missionaries are remembered more positively than other denomination missionaries tend to be. There was some discussion about religion, and how indigenous people who’ve had positive experiences with Christianity can comfortably straddle the two belief systems.
Winch then did a reading, which was of course special. She read Chapters 1 and 3 – they are short, and in Poppy’s voice. The first paragraph starts:
I was born on Ngurambang — can you hear it? — Ngu-ram-bang. If you say it right it hits the back of your mouth and you should taste blood in your words. Every person around should learn the word for country in the old language, the first language — because that is the way to all time, to time travel! You can go all the way back.
Holt described the novel’s opening, and I think I’ve got this right, as “brushstroked around language”. She then quoted indigenous writer Ellen Van Neerven (whom you’ll find here too) who has said that a recurring theme in contemporary Aboriginal literature is that of returning, which, when I think about what I’ve read, rings pretty true. Holt then said something, and again I think I’ve got it right, about the “circumnavigation of Aboriginal placement” which I guess refers to the way indigenous people, rarely easily, find their way back to their start.
Winch talked about her intentions for the book. She wrote it as a gift for her father who had no language, and for her daughter whom she hopes with grow with language. She wants it to be life-changing for them. She also sees it as a handbook for claiming native title, and for recovering language. She describes her book as “faction”, which of course, with my open-mind to the fact-fiction nexus, I rather like. During the Q&A, she added that she was writing for people who still believe taking children away was a good thing.
She spent some time at Wagga Wagga Writers Writers House (love it!), where she, a coast girl, learnt about Riverina country. She “dragged” the book around with her for years, working on it in various locations.
She worked with indigenous intellectual rights lawyer Terri Janke to make sure all protocols were met, and that she had not included secret/sacred stories. Bruce Pascoe and Eric Rolls helped her with Knowledge about landscape through time. Wiradjuri people, her people on whose land the story is set, have given her good feedback.
Holt shared a favourite quote from the book (at the end of Chapter 2), in which Poppy tells August about memory and history, about the torture of memory versus forgetting. It ends with
He was telling her more – that a footprint in history has a thousand repercussions, that there are a thousand battles being fought every day because people couldn’t forget something that happened before they were born. ‘There are few worse things than memory, yet few things better,’ he’d said. ‘Be careful.’
They talked about the “heartache we carry”. Winch shared the challenge of creating a palatable story, a story with characters “you can root for”. She said she needed to take on the trauma of her research herself. She wanted to be truthful but not dogmatic, not hit readers over the head. She wants the truth to seep into the readers.
Winch conclude with a quote from the Persian poet, Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” This, she said, is her book.
The conversation was followed by an engaged Q&A which continued the warm, welcoming, respectful tone set by Holt and Winch. One person, who was only one-third through the book, questioned Greenleaf’s villainhood, but Winch said “read on”! However, she also said that she wanted to take the idea of a villain and turn it on its head. People aren’t black-and-white, she said.
Another question concerned the dictionary, and how good it would be if more indigenous words were everyday parts of Australian language. Winch noted that it’s a sign of respect to use local words when we travel overseas, so why not the same here? Fluency isn’t necessary to show such respect.
There was also a passionate comment from the floor about Adani and the disrespect being shown to indigenous people, particularly to Adrian Burragubba.
Perhaps the most significant question concerned the sense that there is a strong momentum building of indigenous voices. Holt and Winch respectfully, but clearly, responded that these voices have always been there, that the renaissance is not with indigenous people but with non-indigenous Australians. Indigenous writers are now getting an audience which means that Australians have changed! Perspectives, again, eh?
Holt, noting that this Session’s audience comes with an understanding of Indigenous literature, asked what has changed in your (the audience’s) psyche about Aboriginal Australia? There is, she agreed, an explosion of indigenous voices being celebrated, but the voices have always been there! Publishers, though, Winch noted, have played a role. Winch and Holt affirmed their wish for respectful mutual conversations in which we share each other’s skies.
The session ended with more discussion about language. Winch said that she wrote the book for what comes after, that is, to encourage readers to vote well, to get local indigenous languages into local schools. Language heals, and it continues culture. She wants us to have the conversations, to think nationally, act locally. She also commented on the acceptance of apathy in Australia versus France where protest is part of fabric of their nationality.
The last audience question/comment was given to Jeanine Leane (whom I’ve reviewed here), who reiterated the call for more first nations languages and literature in education. It is growing in the tertiary sector, but there is a “sad gap” in primary and secondary education. (Here’s an opportunity for me to donate some books to my son’s primary school.)
Her mantra was: Start reading books and think small picture.
Such a strong but gentle, provocative but gracious, session. (And, I’ve written a lot!)