Feature Articles / Tara June Winch on reclaiming language and writing fiction

My writing career was born on the back of identity crisis — not only as a fair-skinned Aboriginal woman, but as an English- speaking Australian in the world, as a citizen of a privileged, colonised country. I am a product of our black and white history and that unsettled me. In 2004 and 2005, I […]

My writing career was born on the back of identity crisis — not only as a fair-skinned Aboriginal woman, but as an English- speaking Australian in the world, as a citizen of a privileged, colonised country. I am a product of our black and white history and that unsettled me.

Newsbite issue 243 cover – illustration by Elin Matilda Andersson

In 2004 and 2005, I was taking driving expeditions into western New South Wales, around the flat farming land, and up and down the Murray-Darling tributaries. I was on a research trip navigated by shreds of family history and intuition only, with the aim of finishing and fleshing out my first novel Swallow the Air. I spent months visiting missions where our old people had lived, meeting distant relatives that had stayed on in towns like Condobolin, and learning about rural and remote life for all.

On one of the trips I found myself in Wagga Wagga outskirts or perhaps it was Narrandera shire, when I sat in on a community class in the language of my father’s people — the Wiradjuri. I purchased an A4 booklet afterwards. It was much slighter in length than it is now, but the cover is still yellow and the title remains The New Wiradjuri Dictionary, authored by Stan Grant Snr and linguist John Rudder. I think it came with a CD-rom. I remember how, in the absences of connection to an intact cultural link, learning the language felt like solace, a great consolation prize in the game we, our Wiradjuri family, had lost.

In the end I wove the story of western New South Wales into Swallow the Air and added a few of the precious Wiradjuri words too. The slim novel came out in 2006 and buoyed by its reception, I got to work on another bigger story, set again in the same rural plains. I think I was returning to the same setting because I felt as if I didn’t convey what discovering the language had meant to my naive character, May, and wanted another strong, searching female character, this time named August, to delve deeper.

I knew the book I was writing would be about Wiradjuri country, Ngurambang, and I knew there was a linguist, along with wheat and workers on the land. However, I knew only those few details, and some scraps of dialogue and imagery for many years. For a decade I discovered the world’s post-colonial and Indigenous writers who were required to use that vehicle of expression to transmit their experience, whether in French, English, Portuguese or some other dominant lingua franca.

When I discovered Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan writer, who mid-career abandoned English to write in his native Kikuyu, and read his words — ‘The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation.’ — there was suddenly a magnet pulling my story along clearly.

Necessity forced English upon Aboriginal people, but English still could not carry the full cultural weight of our intact native languages. It couldn’t even carry a broken one. To tell the story of the people that inhabited 500-acres of land as a metaphor for all Australia I had to break timelines into manageable eras, but I soon realised I couldn’t limit myself to a timeline; to tell the whole story, I had to tell the full story, to tell all the things.

The concept of the Dreaming emphasises the eternal nature of time and of all times existing now. This was the greatest challenge of writing The Yield — how can you show time in different layers on the same, unmoved but changing, piece of land?

I had to show time as conceptual by having no bondage to the years within Poppy’s narrative strand, exact references to dates in the Reverend’s strand — as if everything had fixity — and then show the dance of interpretation for August’s contemporary strand. I had to incorporate elements of magical realism and prop them against cold, hard facts. I was trying to build a novel bound in history but in a timeless realm.

I was also trying to tell the story of words, the power and privilege of a language. Coming at a language that already had so much work done to it, was my advantage. I then had to fill in the blanks of the meanings, through family stories, research into the history of institutionalisation of children in New South Wales and afield, the history of land management and environment harm of the region, and going through the exhaustive process of building a claim to native title over a land my ancestors were born and died on, though no longer inhabited. What the process ended up becoming was a heartbreaking nosedive into the horror of genocidal truths.

The knowledge of our disappearing languages has been documented since the century following first contact. We are at a crucial point in history where we must preserve stories from our elders, our language custodians, our old people before they are lost, because when the door closes on these stories and languages, it truly does slam shut on our history and culture, and the very essence of all our identities as Australians.

We also need, simultaneously, for our state and federal governments to make our languages part of core curriculum going forward. There are case-studies to draw from and bodies, linguists and language centres to consult with, to build these curriculums that must be ‘learning both ways’ — which embrace first language maintenance, second language learning, and language revival in revitalisation, renewal and reclamation.

The heart of the matter in The Yield and the story of the Wiradjuri people, and others, is that there was a systematic suppression and attempted extinction of our first languages, of our mother tongue and this is part of intergenerational trauma that must be undone through language work, connecting with culture and country, through claiming our own space and untying our tongues. The Yield was my act of decolonising my mind, and my characters literally get to decolonise their minds within their family and on their homeland.

I hope readers will pick up The Yield open to the possibilities outside the book — within their own schools and communities, and particularly their own minds, too.

Tara June Winch is a Wiradjuri author, based in Australia and France. She is the author of Swallow the Air and After the Carnage and her latest, The Yield, is out now.

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