In a passionate, pre-recorded acceptance speech Winch said it was the duty of all Australians “to demand change for the sake of our past, present and possible future”.
The Yield tells the story of August Gondiwindi returning to her home on Massacre Plains in Wiradjuri country for her grandfather “Poppy” Albert’s funeral as the land around them is about to be taken over by a mining company. Facing his last months, Poppy has been compiling a Wiradjuri dictionary that both rescues his people’s language and tells their story. As August comes to terms with being back on country with her extended family, her appreciation of her past, present and future undergoes an at-times dramatic change.
Poppy is the heart of The Yield and Winch says his name should be on the Miles Franklin: “I feel like I should call him and tell him. This is the only character I have ever written that I can imagine bumping into out on the fields working.”
The judges said The Yield shows “how Indigenous history carries forward pain and sorrow yet also allows compassion, resilience, dignity, humour and humanity to flourish”. The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald review said it was “astonishingly elegant and powerful”. The other shortlisted writers were: Peggy Frew (Islands), John Hughes (No One), Philip Salom (The Returns) and Carrie Tiffany (Exploded View).
Winch said she hoped the success of The Yield, which has already won three prizes in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, including book of the year, “would open readers’ imagination and understanding that the country we live in is a collective of 250 countries and hundreds of language branches”.
She had the notion of making language the core of The Yield many years ago and worked on the idea when she was mentored by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka in 2008.
“There are lines in it from 2006. I carried my notebooks around with me when I lived in New York and now in France. I’ve been living my life teaching English, cleaning in Paris, raising a child on my own. Now I’m married. I tried to live alongside that gnawing idea and it wasn’t until the last couple of years that it was really seeing the horizon.”
Discovering the Wiradjuri language of her father at a course run by Stan Grant snr while she was working on her first novel, Swallow the Air, had been a balm to her. “I wanted the reader to discover that and how beautiful it is to roll another language, an Indigenous language, on your tongue.”
She hoped for more bilingual publications in the mainstream. “The publishing industry can go a step further. It means they’re going to have to build relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait editors and translators – and writers, of course. There is so much possibility and it’s exciting.”
While she acknowledged there was now greater global awareness of black voices – “It’s about bloody time” – she hadn’t forgotten finding Swallow the Air relegated to the Australiana section in bookshops. Nevertheless, she remains positive about the future and the new voices that were going to emerge.
The situation is not binary, she said. “It doesn’t have to be POC writers against white voices – we have to work together to bring voices to the fore.”
Perhaps that’s why she describes The Yield as a love letter: “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime love letter to Australia.”
Jason Steger is Books Editor at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald