Novel-in-stories, Tara June Winch’s Swallow the air

This is my third post inspired by Reading like an Australian writer, and it involves two First Nations writers, Ellen van Neerven on Tara June Winch’s award-winning debut novel Swallow the air. I chose van Neerven’s essay for my next post, because, coincidentally, I’d just read Winch’s story “Cloud busting” in Flock, an anthology, edited by van Neerven. Are you keeping up? “Cloud busting” is one of the stories in Swallow the air.

Form? What form?

Tara June Winch, Swallow the air

In my review of Swallow the air, I wrote:

The first thing to confront the reader is its form. It looks and even reads a little like a collection of short stories*, but it can be read as a novella. There is a narrative trajectory that takes us from the devastating death of narrator May Gibson’s mother, when May was around 9 years old, to when she’s around 15 years old and has made some sense of her self, her past, her people. May’s mother is Wiradjuri, her father English.

The asterisk pointed to a note at the end of my post, which stated that one story from the novel, the aforementioned “Cloud busting”, had been published separately in Best Australian stories 2006. And, in her essay, van Neerven says that she had used “Cloud busting” with students. Sounds like it could become one of Australia’s popular anthologised stories. This would be a good thing because, also in her essay, van Neerven comments on having had no introduction to “Indigenous-authored books” when she was at school (which, for 31-year-old van Neerven, was not that long ago.) Short stories are an excellent form for introducing school students to great stories and writing, and it would be a good thing to see more diverse stories added to current anthology favourites.

“Cloud busting” is a beautiful story, by the way, because it makes a point about deep loss but also conveys the warmth, trust and generosity that can exist between people.

Anyhow, back to form. Just as I wrote in my post on Swallow the air, van Neerven also comments on the book’s form, noting that “writing relational novels-in-stories” is a “very First Nations practice”. She cites Jeanine Leane’s Purple threads (my review) and Gayle Kennedy’s Me, Antman and Fleabag, as other examples. Marie Munkara’s Every secret thing (my review) fits in here somewhere too, I’d say. I hadn’t really thought about this as being particularly First Nations, as we all know novels from various writers that generate arguments about whether they are novels or short story collections. However, in my experience – and I am generalising a bit – First Nations people can be great story-tellers so it wouldn’t surprise me to find the form of “novel-in-stories” being more common among First Nations writers.

Further discussing this book, in which protagonist May goes on a journey back to Country to find her Wiradjuri origins, van Neerven makes another interesting observation, which is that May’s journey “plays into the reader’s romanticised expectations that a return to Country will bring the story a happy resolution”. But, of course, it’s not that simple. Country has often been too damaged by “past policies and institutionalisations”, as van Neerven puts it, for this to happen, but, she says, May does come to understand something important, which is that Country “lives within her” and her family “allowing her to feel strong in her identity without the shame of not living or growing up on Country”. Of course, it’s not up to me to pronounce on the validity of this way of seeing, but it makes good sense to me.

Anyhow, I’ll leave it, on these two interesting-to-me points, as I don’t want to steal the life from Castle’s book. These essays are all so different, as you’d expect, but this just makes them more worthwhile. You just never know what approach a writer is going to take when talking about another writer, but you do know that it will probably be insightful.

Ellen van Neerven
“Kinship in fiction and the genre blur of Swallow the air as novel in stories”
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 7-12
ISBN: 9781742236704

Tara June Winch
“Cloud busting”
in Ellen van Neerven (ed), Flock: First Nations stories then and now
St. Lucia: UQP, 2021
ISBN: 9780702264603 (Kindle)

Tara June Winch, The yield (#BookReview)

Book coverTara June Winch’s novel, The yield, follows her impressive – and David Unaipon award-winning – debut novel Swallow the air (my review). Ten years in the making, The yield could be described as her “passion project”. It makes a powerful plea for Indigenous agency and culture.

I wrote about The yield’s genesis last year, but will repeat it here. It was inspired by a short course Winch did in Wiradjuri language run by Uncle Stan Grant Sr (father of Stan Grant whom I’ve reviewed here a couple of times). Discovering language was, she said, transformative, but turning her passion into a book proved tricky. She started with too broad a canvas, until 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, created fictional places – the Murrumby River, and the towns, Massacre Plains and Broken – and her novel started to take shape.

“that unhandsome truth”

But my, what a shape it takes. It has three, roughly alternating, narrative strands, each quite different in style but each reflecting or enhancing the other two. They are:

  • Poppy Albert Gondiwindi, dictionary writer, first person narrator. He is dying but is also a time-traveller, so, Winch said, his story has elements of magical realism. It’s told through the words in his dictionary, starting at the end of the alphabet, “a nod to the backwards whitefella world I grew up in”. “The dictionary”, Poppy says, “is not just words – there are little stories in those pages too.” There sure are. Through them Poppy tells the story of his and his people’s lives; he passes on as much of their culture as he has learnt and can tell; and he shares his hopes and values:

respectyindyamarra 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.

  • August Gondiwindi, Poppy’s grand-daughter, third person voice. She tells a contemporary story of the 500 acres where the Gondiwindis live, and the challenges faced, including from mining and river degradation. Her story is about finding her place after living overseas for ten years. It’s a quest story, in a way, a little like that of Swallow the air’s protagonist. We meet her in Chapter 2 as she hears of the death of Poppy:

She knew that she had once known the beloved land where the sun slapped the barren earth with an open palm and knew too that she would return for the funeral … go back and try to find all the things she couldn’t find so many thousands of kilometres away.

(“Where the sun slapped the barren earth with an open palm”. Winch’s language throughout is gorgeous.)

  • Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf, Lutheran missionary, first person voice. Winch created him, she said, 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 home and mother tongue. His story is told through the letter he writes in 1915 to Dr George Cross of the British Society of Ethnography about his experiences running a mission from the 1880s. The first instalment ends with why he is writing it:

To tell how wrongs became accepted as rights. … I will tell that unhandsome truth, even if it will amount to last words. The circumstances and the times demand it.

His story is the most problematic for readers because he, with good intentions, established the ironically named mission, Prosperous House, near the non-ironically named town of Massacre Plains. Indeed, Poppy writes in his dictionary that the Reverend was “the only good white gudyi” he’d known, gudyi meaning medicine man, priest, conjuror. Greenleaf’s heart is in the right place – having seen the “the vile inhumanity practised by the white-skinned Christian on his dark-skinned brother in order to obtain land and residence, for ‘peaceful acquisition'” – but of course he is a man of his times and his paternalistic actions have their own consequences. August sees the paradox in his “trying to protect those ancestors at the same time as punishing them”, while her aunt Missy takes a harsher stance.

These three stories span over 100 years from the late nineteenth century to the present, with Poppy Albert’s dictionary providing the novel’s backbone, spiritually, culturally, and plot-wise. August’s story, on the other hand, provides its emotional heart, while Greenleaf’s provides important historical context.

The stories don’t, then, just meander along side by side for their own sakes. Each contributes to an overall plot which concerns a proposed mine, and efforts to stop it – a story that is broadly reminiscent of non-Indigenous Australian author Madelaine Dickie’s Red can origami (my review). In both stories the Indigenous people need to invoke Native Title if they are to have a chance of stopping the mine, and in both stories competing interests and loyalties, not to mention a helping of skulduggery, work to prevent the Indigenous owners from progressing their claim.

In Winch’s story, Poppy’s dictionary, which documents not only language but his people’s ongoing connection to the land, together with a collection of artefacts that had been donated to a museum by local rich landowners, and the information in Reverend Greenleaf’s letter, are critical to the Native Title claim. August and her family’s challenge is to realise the relevance of and/or discover and locate these “proofs”, while others try to foil them. It’s the oft-repeated story across Australia when traditional owners, protestors and landowners, with competing or criss-crossing interests, confront development, particularly mines.

Threading through all this is the novel’s heart, August’s journey to find herself and her place of belonging, as she navigates her people’s painful history of being “torn apart”, of massacres and dispossession, of racism, of incarceration, and of abuse from both within and without her culture. These are stories we’ve heard before. However, Winch keeps them fresh and urgent by engaging with contemporary thought (concerning, for example, Indigenous agricultural practice and the idea of slavery) and by creating characters who feel real and authentic, who are complicated like those in Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (my review), rather than simple mouthpieces for ideology.

For all the anger and sadness in the book, it is also a positive – perhaps even hopeful – one. Early on, Poppy’s wife and August’s grandmother, Elsie, tells her, “Please don’t be a victim”. This is, I’d say, Winch’s plea to her people, and is reinforced by Poppy’s dictionary words at the end in which he says the time for shame is over. It is time, in other words, to heal, to be proud, to embrace country with confidence.

The yield is a rewarding read. Its three very different voices challenge our minds to think carefully about what we are reading, while its plot and characters engage our hearts. I would be happy to see it win the Stella Prize next week.

Challenge logoLisa (ANZLitLovers) also loved the book and includes examples from Poppy’s dictionary.

Tara June Winch
The yield
Hamish Hamilton, 2019
ISBN: 9780143785750

Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 2, Session 1: Identity (Tara June Winch with Yvette Henry Holt)

Holt and WinchToday 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.

Book coverWinch 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.’

Holt also mentioned indigenous Australian poet Kirli Saunders who is fostering poetry in first languages at Red Room Poetry.

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!)

Tara June Winch, Swallow the air (Review for Indigenous Literature Week)

Tara June Winch

Tara June Winch (Courtesy: Friend of subject, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Tara June Winch’s Swallow the air is another book that has been languishing too long on my TBR pile, though not as long as Sara Dowse’s Schemetime. For Swallow the air, it was a case of third time lucky, because this was the third year I planned to read it for ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week. Like the proverbial boomerang, it kept coming back, saying “pick me!” Finally, I did.

Winner of the 2004 David Unaipon Award for unpublished indigenous writers, Swallow the air made quite a splash when it was published in 2006, winning or being shortlisted for many of Australia’s major literary awards. (See Tara June Winch’s Wikipedia entry). I believe Winch is working on another novel, but it hasn’t appeared yet.

Now, though, to the book. The first thing to confront the reader is its form. It looks and even reads a little like a collection of short stories*, but it can be read as a novella. There is a narrative trajectory that takes us from the devastating death of narrator May Gibson’s mother, when May was around 9 years old, to when she’s around 15 years old and has made some sense of her self, her past, her people. May’s mother is Wiradjuri, her father English. At the novel’s opening, she is living in coastal Wollongong, which is not her mother’s country, in a single-parent household with her mother and her brother, Billy, who has a different and indigenous father. Absent fathers are, I should say, disproportionately common in indigenous families.

In fact, one of the impressive things about this debut novel is how subtly, but clearly, Winch weaves through it many of the issues facing indigenous people and communities. Poverty, loss of connection to country, the stolen generations, mining and land rights, alcoholism, drug addiction, racism, rape, child abuse by the church, imprisonment and the tent embassy are among the concerns she touches on during May’s journey. Listing them here makes it sound like a political “ideas” novel but, while Swallow the air is “political” in the way that most indigenous writing can’t help but be, its centre is a searching heart, for May has been cast adrift by the suicide of her mother. Life, which was tenuous anyhow, becomes impossible to hold together as her brother and aunt, both loving, struggle with their own pain.

This is where I become a little uncomfortable as a non-indigenous person making a generalisation about indigenous literature, but I’m going to do it anyhow, because I think I’m on firm ground. I’m talking about story-telling and what I understand to be its intrinsic role in indigenous culture. It imparts – or can do – a different flavour to the writing. Marie Munkara’s David Unaipon Award winning Every secret thing (my review) has some similarities in form to Swallow the air, and covers some similar thematic territory, but is very different in tone. Munkara’s novel also presents as a bunch of stories, with a uniting narrative thread. Swallow the air is more subtle, but nonetheless it’s the idea of stories that underpins the narrative.

What particularly impressed me about Winch’s writing is the way she manages tone and structures her story. She understands the Shakespearean imperative to offer some light after dark. For example, there’s a lovely little chapter/story called “Wantok” about family closeness which occurs after a story about a difficult work experience. In another situation, with just one word at the end of a story (“Mission”) – “Seemed [my emphasis] all so perfect, so right” – she prepares us for the opposite in the next (“Country”).

This flow – with shifts in tone that are sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, and with a narrative that is mostly linear but with the occasional flashback – kept me reading and engaged until the end. As did the writing itself. It’s deliciously poetic. Sometimes it is tight and spare, as in:

I do not cry, my eyes are hardened, like honey-comb, like toffee. Brittle, crumbling sugar. He puts his hand out toward me; we shake hands, a pact that I won’t be here digging up his past when he gets back.

And I’m not.

And in this description of life in the city: “Suits and handbags begin to fill the emptiness of the morning”. Other times it is gorgeously lyrical (a review buzz word, I know, but sometimes there’s no other word):

The river sleeps, nascent of limpid green, tree bones of spirit people, arms stretched out and screaming. And at their fingertips claws of blue bonnets, sulphur-crested cockatoos and the erratic dips and weaves of wild galahs, grapefruit pink and ghost grey splash the sky.

But back now to the story. As May makes her journey, we meet many characters – her brother, aunt, women like Joyce who care for her but also know when to push her on, men with whom she hitchhikes, to name a few. None of these characters are developed to any degree, but we learn what we need to know about them by how they relate to May. Most are kind, generous, nurturing. May’s journey, in other words, is not challenged so much by human barriers, but by emotional, social, political and historical ones. It is a generous thing that when she starts to understand her place, it’s an inclusive understanding, one that encompasses all of us who occupy this land:

And it all makes sense to me now. Issy’s drawing in the sand, boundaries between the land and the water, us, we come from the sky and the earth and we go back to the sky and the earth. This land is belonging, all of it for all of us.

However, while May comes to a better understanding of the land and her relationship to it, there is no easy resolution to the ongoing struggle of living in a place in which there is still “a big missing hole” created by the loss of connection to culture. It will take a long time to refill that hole, if indeed it can be done, but books like this will help communicate just what it means, and how it feels, to be so disconnected.

awwchallenge2014Tara June Winch
Swallow the air
St Lucia: UQP, 2006
ISBN: 9780702235214

* One chapter/story, “Cloud busting” was published in Best Australian Stories 2005.