I didn’t plan to read the nonfiction book Dark Emu shortly before reading the novel The Yield by Tara June Winch.
But I couldn’t think of a better pairing. While Dark Emu deconstructs colonial myths about Australian Aboriginal civilizations, The Yield illustrates how these myths were used to justify tearing apart families and cultures.
In the novel, August Gondiwindi reluctantly returns home for the funeral of her grandfather Albert “Poppy” Gondiwindi, who had been creating a dictionary of his people’s language, a dictionary suddenly gone missing. As August revisits her past relationships and painful memories she also begins searching for this manuscript.
Meanwhile, a mining company is days away from forcing her family from their ancestral home in western New South Wales. Environmentalists are not about to go down without a fight, a fight that August initially believes is not her fight.
August had always thought important events happened in every other country expect for Australia. That the tremors of their small lives meant nothing. But at that moment … she felt as if she’d awoken from a stony sleep to find herself standing on the edge of something larger than she’d ever been able to see before.
What I loved about this novel is the central role language plays within it. In alternating chapters, the reader gets a firsthand look at a dictionary in the making, one word at a time, narrated by Poppy. This device could have pulled the reader out of the story; instead, the words and their descriptions send the reader on a hundred different brief journeys, while propelling the narrative forward. For example, the phrase giya-rra-ya-rra (afraid to speak) leads to a painful story about August’s grandfather and his wife when they tried to take a class of college students to the local swimming pool and the racism they met along the way. And garrandarang (book) sheds light on where the elusive manuscript had been taken.
The Yield tells the story of a people and a culture torn from the land and one another. But it’s also a story about remembering and resistance. Ultimately, August must look backwards before she can move forwards and, in doing so, realize her passion and purpose in life.
Along the way, you might pick up a few words from the Wiradjuri language. Winch notes that before Europeans arrived there were 250 distinct Australian languages, subdivided into 600 dialects.
Wiradjuri is one of these reclaimed and preserved languages, a language that is with us today (even if we don’t fully realize it). As Poppy writes about the word bila (river): Now you know where the word billabong comes from.
Tara June Winch
Author of the novels The Tourist Trail and Where Oceans Hide Their Dead. Co-founder of Ashland Creek Press and editor of Writing for Animals (also now a writing program).