I got a big grief pouring out of me
Some days it’s not so easy

—WAAX, ‘Big Grief

In the poem ‘Mona Lisa’, published in Study of the Object (1961), the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert wrote:

Through seven mountain frontiers
barbed wire of rivers
and executed forests
and hanged bridges
I kept coming –
through waterfalls of stairways
whirlings of sea wings
and baroque heaven
all bubbly with angels
– to you
Jerusalem in a frame

One of his most haunting poems, ‘Mona Lisa’, imagines a visit to Paris. A survivor of the torrential wars and everyday business of annihilation being carried on behind the Iron Curtain comes face to face with Leonardo’s most famous painting, the pièce de résistance of the Louvre and representative of European cultural achievement. The narrator (‘obviously […] a survivor with obsessive memories’, Czesław Miłosz wrote) registers the meeting as a kind of insult; the experience of oblivion, of visceral trauma and fear, make meeting the Mona Lisa, inert, endlessly waiting, feel like a cruel joke:

so I’m here
you see I’m here
I hadn’t a hope
but I’m here

In The Yield, Tara June Winch uses three different voices to describe the Wiradjuri people’s journey through ‘executed forests/and hanged bridges’: Elder and compiler of a Wiradjuri language dictionary, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi, his granddaughter August (‘about to exit the infinite stretch of her twenties [with] nothing to show’), and the nineteenth-century missionary Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf.

When we meet August she is returning to Country for her grandfather’s funeral, and caught in a jag of compulsive recall. Having lived in England for the past decade, the prodigal daughter – who didn’t so much leave in disgrace so much as experienced a form of internal disgrace for having left at all – endures ‘a sort of torture of memory […] comforting like a leech’. She is a survivor of the ‘thousand battles being fought every day because people couldn’t forget something that happened before they were born’, as well as those that came after: anorexia, the sexual abuses of August and her older sister Jedda when they were children, absent parents (they were imprisoned while she was young for cultivating marijuana), and memories of Jedda’s disappearance from the family in mysterious circumstances when they were girls:

After nine she could see all the bones of things, the photo-negatives, all the roots of the plants, inside of the sky and all the black holes and burning stars. After nine she could see the little pulleys and gears inside people’s brains, see their skeletons and veins and blood and hearts and the whole of the town’s air coursing in their lungs. It was too late to tell anyone. How she was scared to leave, even more scared to stay. Because of the things she saw, those things that changed her tongue. Those things that were dead and done.

Prosperous Mission is situated on the Murrumby River, a fictionalised Murray-Darling (itself a colonial rendering of the dungula flowing through Wiradjuri Country down to the Ngarrindjeri in so-called South Australia). August has been connected to the Mission – its grandparents and grandchildren, aunties and nieces and cousins – since childhood. She comes from a strong matriarchal family, her grandmother Elsie presiding over the household with gracious élan. The five hundred acres of the fictional setting of the Mission, Massacre Plains, are a repository of familial recollection and a stand-in for our continent, its histories, its families, its languages. They constitute what is most alive and vital to August’s sense of herself. Like the Mission, she is the rose that broke through concrete; when we meet her, that rose is at risk of being clipped clean by Rinepalm Mining (the contemporary coloniser, much the same as the old).

Rounding out the three stories is the Wiradjuri language dictionary of August’s grandfather, along with Prosperous Mission’s origin tale, related by Revered Ferdinand Greenleaf (a Lutheran and German immigrant, and a virtuoso piece of Edwardian-English ventriloquism). Greenleaf’s story, as detailed in a 1915 letter to the British Society of Ethnography, is an ambivalent one; it recalls Rafeif Ismail’s vital observation that ‘there is no single refugee story, queer story, migrant story’. Greenleaf himself attempts a number of migrations – trying to bring the Wiradjuri to God, himself to terms with the realities of the frontier, and the uneasy allegiances of World War II into precarious alignment with his faith and identity.

August’s narrative recalls its antecedents: Odysseus’ ten-year long journey home after the Trojan war; Dante’s baleful wandering in Purgatorio; Kendrick Lamar’s return to Compton in need of ‘some soul searching’ in his 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly. Winch repeatedly signals how August’s deep-sea discomfort has accumulated, sedimented. To return means acknowledging the events of the intervening years, and their weight.

And that is the point: like the bottom of the river, everything is caught below the slow-motion surface (and its slow-motion time – see how much longer everything takes to wash ashore, to rise somewhere the heart can reach). Ten years ago, escape to England provided safety; now, back in Australia, August finds herself both too hungry and unable to begin eating:

All feeling crept over her body, everywhere, like waking up comatose nerves of the skin, the undead stirring.

Her character is anchored by dimensions of shame and that careening sense of anxiety which can make hopelessness look oddly comforting:

At the answering of the phone and the breaking of the news, she felt something dark and three-dimensional fall out of her body, something as solid as a self. She’d become less suddenly.

But she has already been less; in returning she is gaining back those parts of herself, together with their pain:

as far, far away as she went from her country, from her home, she still couldn’t remove the scent and taste of dirt and diesel and flesh and muddied water from that grey hemisphere of her mind. How the worst thing that could ever happen had already happened.

The Yield is about what has already happened as much as what is to come. It suggests that absence is not purely loss; it can also act as a spur to action. For August, it means honouring the life of her sister Jedda and grandfather Poppy. And there, again, is a trace of Miłosz: August acts, ‘not out of sorrow, but in wonder.’ She is fulfilling her role in custodianship, stewarding the scattered particles of her family and making time where time was lost. 

Her grandfather, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi, ‘born in the middle of peace and war, right between the thought before the acts and the shadows that came after’, plays the role of guide and mentor on her journey. His is a structuring, architectural voice. I say structuring advisedly: not in the hierarchical sense, but in the sense of informing. He is, in addition, a time traveller, spryly navigating everything from a playfully reimagined version of Arrernte and Kalkadoon man Charlie Perkins’ 1965 Freedom Ride through to his other familial recollections.

Albert is a keeper of Ancestral memory and the living strengths of Wiradjuri language and culture. He speaks to us through his dictionary, surveying those landscapes we come to recognise, over time, as constituting a life, a family, a country. There is gentle comedy here; the interweaving of memory and cultural overlay leads Albert to reflect, ‘I think I take the words where I want them to go. My ancestors’ stories and the Bible too’. Winch’s globe-trotting – the novelist is currently based in Paris – undoubtedly informs something of the character: both share an awareness of how speaking and internalising another language yields a strong connection to its culture.

And, for August, language means more than bare words. It stands for the Mission: for those who, living in its embrace, were kept from voicing culture. She herself cannot voice the sense that haunted her as a kid, ‘the feeling of being unshielded’. The disconnection is a formative violation, a scabbed-over wound she is unable to avoid touching. Returning to Prosperous Mission, it begins to peel away, revealing the remains of an injury she shares with Jedda, their hearts ‘born as fragile as clay’; only hers has been moulded by the heat of guilt:

Had she not gone to England for Jedda? she wondered, looking about their bedroom in her mind. Hadn’t she flown to Buckingham Palace for her? Hadn’t she done nothing all those years? Hadn’t she just washed dishes, like when they were kids doing the chores at home? Hadn’t she not eaten properly forever? Hadn’t she wasted herself to stay a girl forever, little girls forever? The cement block of her memory, that smooth slab in her mind cracked, the grey wall crumbled then, and all she saw was Jedda dancing. The music to Jedda’s dance. Chanting girls’ voices: Heads, shoulders, knees and toes, they sang that, Balang gaanha bungang burra-mi, bungang burra-mi, bungang burra-mi

To borrow from Albert’s definition of dharrar, August is no one’s rib. She rejects the bone from which Eve was born, the monotheistic patriarchy of the Bible and its accumulating resonances. These include the echoes taken on by language as it adopts and assimilates colonial speech and concepts. Her childhood has known their danger.

In many ways, the Babel of characters and incident in 2016’s short-story collection After the Carnage telegraphed The Yield’s concern with language four years ago. In that collection’s ‘Baby Island’, Winch used a conversation between a Chinese-Australian saleswoman and a barman in Guangzhou to illustrate that language is both inherently valuable and a matter of practical utility. In a manoeuvre reminiscent of Aldous Huxley, she smuggles a bit of didacticism in through the dialogue:

‘The people are protesting to try to keep the Cantonese language,’ the barman was talking to me as he wiped his section of the bar with a dishcloth.

‘Are they? Why?’

‘I guess to hold on to the past, you understand?’

‘I understand, but isn’t it easier to speak Mandarin in China?’

‘Yes, but students don’t like it. They want to respect their heritage.’

‘Do you prefer Cantonese?’

The barman, needless to say, never provides an answer: practicality requires them to serve other patrons. Language is history, landscape, culture; and sometimes it’s just waiting tables.

Albert’s dictionary, too, serves. It offers an inheritance. It is about respect – yindyamarra – and deep-time acknowledgment, legitimising the recollection that is Albert’s gift to his family (the reclamation of self through language) and wider community. He recognises that to be ‘here […] with living heels’ is radical in light of the pain of growing up without language, whether on the Mission or because of its inheritance. His writing – a way of making himself legible – allows for communities of memory to gather and reclaim language, a meeting place.

This idea – the reclamation of place – is one of the novel’s organising principles. One of the climactic scenes is a museum visit, during which August and her Aunt Missy discover Wiradjuri culture interned behind glass, imprisoned by the ethnographising impulse. Their presence punctures the lulled stupor of the museum like a ribald joke. As they tentatively wander through our continent’s history of categorisation and card-labelling, they encounter the stolen artefacts of those killed while defending land by colonial troops, paramilitary police, settler militia and other raiders during the Frontier Wars. If Albert stands for ways of thinking and recollecting that allow for the ‘wild and contained fire, a contradiction of nature’, the museum is a fraught site: of liberal condescension and masquerade, and the hypocritical tableau of milling security guards who intervene to prevent the two Wiradjuri women from photographing Country.

The Yield engages with contemporary dialogues, too, over what it means for something to be taken, over loss. It is worth remembering that some Aboriginal people whose remains were taken for anthropological examination died in jails – or asylums. Some were simply dug straight from the ground, exhumed for the purpose of distribution to cultural and medical institutions across the US and Europe (if they were lucky enough to avoid the fate of finding themselves fashioned into bowls for display in settler homes).

A conversation between August and her Aunt Nicki develops the argument over the nature of loss. Aunt Nicki is a council member and a woman with a middle-class career in a town where ‘some had jobs though few had careers’; a town where, among ‘roughly two thousand locals’, ‘most sons and daughters, seduced by a living wage, signed up as army cadets’. Aunt Nicki expects August to be excited to return overseas. In response to the possibility of claiming Native Title, she remarks:

‘There’s no language here. Our people’s language is extinct, no-one speaks it any more so they can tick that box on their government forms that says “loss of cultural connection.” You see?’

‘Poppy taught us some.’

‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes song? Yeah, he taught me that too. But I mean language that is connected to this place, this landscape.’

‘Nana told me last night Poppy was writing a dictionary.’

Aunt Nicki shook her head before she answered.

The question they are debating, of course, is whether the world recognised by structures of ‘Queen and Church’ represents the reality of the present or hides it. It is an argument about two different types of historical interpretation – both of which directly affect the present. Aunt Nicki points out that ‘They grew up on the Mish, remember, and language wasn’t allowed.’ For Aunt Nicki, saying ‘language wasn’t allowed’ equates to something larger: that language is dead. That the story of deprivation told by the statisticians has sealed its fate. August has faith in a more fully realised history; in the sense of how much of reality is excised from Aunt Nicki’s justifications. ‘August wanted to stop her, correct her, tell her how she’d heard Poppy even when she was young, heard the way his tongue changed, heard words no-one else seemed to know. But she didn’t say anything’. It is a telling exploration of class and political differences in bla(c)k communities.

If The Yield is a testament to Wiradjuri language, it also qualifies as a six-pointer for Winch’s style. Her characterisation always corrals the wider cultural context, such as her invocation of the soufflé of nineties pop culture of August and Jedda’s childhood: ‘Below the bunks their cassette tapes were strewn […] Spice Girls, Hanson, TLC […] their secret recorded messages to Princess Diana of England’. Words angle and catch in the ear and imagination: museums composed of ‘curated light’; the vampiric glass camera eye of colonial photographers snapping Wiradjuri men confined at the leg and neck by colonial chains (‘the unseen lens’); a swarm of police cars descending on the Mission (‘misery lights flashing’). Even England is reanimated with brio by Winch:

Where the sky fit into the reflection of a stone well, full with rainwater. Where low morning clouds played sleight of hand, and day never quite arrived before night.

The Yield is a work of deep-flare insight: Winch, like August, recognises ‘the bones of things, the photo-negatives […] all the black holes and burning stars’. Like the viewer of the Mona Lisa in Herbert’s poem, arriving ‘on a shore of crimson rope’, this novel asks what it means to come to the beating heart of a life that is composed of so many parts out of your control. The Yield is about the elementary miracle of rediscovering oneself; of finding, in the neon-lit recesses of lived and historical pain, a home. It is about the history of this continent as told through the history of Wiradjuri culture. And it is about the fact of this culture existing as a living, breathing work in progress.

Everyone was still, watching – seeing suddenly not the freedom of the bird, but its belonging.

Ironically (or, tellingly), we do not learn that the dictionary of Albert Gondiwindi is ‘a work in progress’ until we finish The Yield itself (or think we have finished – Winch suggests nothing ever truly is). The dictionary is not the whole story of the Gondiwindis and of Wiradjuri language, any more than the history of Wiradjuri signals the outer limits of its potential. As Ambelin Kwaymullina says of history, you can ‘breathe it/in your next breath/Feel it/in your next heartbeat/Think it/in your next thought’. It is not the inert Mona Lisa you find encased behind glass and cordoned off in protection and worship, but the act of being here, now, and knowing that you have survived:

so I’m here
it’s me here
pressed into the floor
with living heels

Works Cited

Zbigniew Herbert, The Collected Poems: 1956-1998, Ecco Press, 2008.

Rafeif Ismail, ‘Almitra Amongst Ghosts’, in Meet Me at the Intersection, Fremantle Press, 2018.

Ambelin Kwaymullina, ‘Message from the Ngurra Palya’, in After Australia, Affirm Press, 2020.

Czesław Miłosz, Beginning With My Streets (Madeline G. Levine trans.), Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.

Czesław Miłosz, ‘Encounter’, in Bells in Winter (Czesław Miłosz and Lillian Vallee trans.), Ecco Press, 1999.

Tara June Winch, After the Carnage, University of Queensland Press, 2016.