The Yield by Tara June Winch

The Yield, Tara June Winch’s inspired second novel, begins and ends with an injunction: ‘Every person around should learn the word for country in the old language’ Albert Gondiwindi says. In Wiradjuri, a language once thought extinct, that word is Ngurambang. ‘Can you hear it now?’ Albert asks, ‘Say it – Ngu-ram-bang!’

Albert Gondiwini was raised in an Aboriginal Boys Home, cut off from his people and his culture. He learnt to like the Bible, but he was also a visionary, in league with the ancestors. With them he did things humans could not do. They taught him the old ways: ancient farming practices, dances, stories, language. He flew, and travelled in time. In his old age, he began compiling an eccentric English–Wiradjuri dictionary, in which he tells of yura – wheat; bunhaan – ashes; ngiyawaygunhanha – always be; and Biyaami – the spirit who ‘came upon the earth and decided to make it a beautiful place to live.’ It was once forbidden to speak Wiradjuri and the fact that any of these words exist at all is the central miracle of the novel. It is Albert’s death at the start of the book that sets the story in motion. His granddaughter, August, returns home from England for his burial to find her grandmother in the process of being evicted. There’s tin under the ground and the impoverished town has rolled out the red carpet for a giant mining corporation. It’s hard not to see this scenario as the emblematic Australian story. The mine is just the latest in a long list of expropriations that includes Land, Culture, and Children.

One of the novel’s many powerful scenes finds August and her Aunt Missy rushing through the Historic Museum of Australia, searching for the cultural objects that might prove their Native Title Claim in time to stop the bulldozers. August likes the museum, but her auntie is sickened by the tokenism. ‘They should work out how many of us they murdered and have a museum of tanks of blood’ she says, ‘There’d be signs that said Bloodshed – 1788 to Yesterday – Stay Tuned!’ For all its sorrow, this is a big hearted, hopeful book. More hopeful, maybe, than we deserve.

Miles Allinson works as a bookseller at Readings St Kilda.