Tara June Winch is a Wiradjuri writer based in France. Her first novel, Swallow the Air, was critically acclaimed and saw Tara named a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist. Her second book, the collection After the Carnage, was longlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for fiction, shortlisted for the 2017 NSW Premier’s Christina Stead prize for Fiction and the Queensland Literary Award for a collection. Her third novel, The Yield, was released in 2019 and is simply stunning.
Tara's Indigenous dance documentary, Carriberrie, screened at the 71st Cannes Film Festival. Tara was previously mentored by Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka as part of the prestigious Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.
ASTRID: Tara June Winch is a Wiradjuri writer who divides her time between Australia and France. Her debut, Swallow the Air, was critically acclaimed, and she was named the Sydney Morning Herald's Best Young Australian Novelist. She then took part in the prestigious Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative, and her second work, After the Carnage, was shortlisted for both the New South Wales and Queensland Literary Awards. Her documentary, Carrieberrie, screened at the Cannes Film Festival, and she is now back in Australia after releasing her third novel, The Yield.
Tara, welcome to The Garret.
TARA: Thanks for having me.
I'm thrilled I have the time for this interview... Actually let me say that again, I'm thrilled that you have the time for this interview. I know how busy your schedule is, and you've been touring for what is it now, two months, for The Yield?
TARA: Yep two months.
ASTRID: Where have you been in those two months?
TARA: To Sydney, Melbourne, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Byron Bay, at the Daintree, Cape Tribulation, Cairns, Darwin, Kakadu, Litchfield, Batchelor, Canberra a couple of times too, and back to Sydney. Oh Wollongong, difficult Wollongong can't forget. And now we're back here in Melbourne.
ASTRID: That's an impressive itinerary. Where do you go after Melbourne, or is this the last stop?
TARA: Yeah. Tomorrow. Tomorrow night after my speech we fly straight to Paris.
ASTRID: My goodness. Well, thank you for fitting The Garret into your schedule.
I wanted to ask you, of course, about France. In The Yield and in all of your works you write intimately about home and family. And of course, now one of your homes is on the other side of the world. How does that physical distance from Australia and where you grew up impact your writing, if it does at all?
TARA: I think I've always... When I started writing I'd already been overseas, I'd already been away from home and I'd already been, you know, as a 17 year old I hitchhiked around Australia for a year. So much of my identity is based upon the idea of having that distance. So, I don't think I have the perspective to see it any other way, because my perspective as a fully formed adult has always been at a distance, has always been in reflection. And the idea of coming home is so clear to me, the process, the shame and the guilt that comes with it, and the dark memories that you haven't been able to live through and normalise by staying in one place, by staying in a home town, they're clear, they're available to me. And yeah I think that's why those themes come up again and again.
ASTRID: What you just described, including the idea of the guilt and the shame of homecoming, is some of what August in The Yield experiences. It's always... I'm hesitant to ask how much of a novelist is in a work, but you almost led me there.
ASTRID: Do you find parts of yourself in August?
TARA: Oh absolutely. That's why it was probably the most difficult, or definitely the most difficult, strand to write, because it was about looking at that rawness, that sort of not weak but fragile person that's inside us, that fragile female that we hide and and pull up our bootstraps and carry on with our lives and try to ignore day to day. So, when I have to look at that character of myself, and write about that character of myself, it's really difficult. That's really dark kind of material. dDark matter.
ASTRID: It's a good way to describe it. August is... as you say, her strand. That's one of the I guess four strands in my reading of The Yield. August's story is the more - in terms of structure, not in terms of content - but in terms of structure the more kind of traditional novel. She is a first person protagonist and her story moves the entire story forward, she is the driver of the action.
But there's also of course the dictionary at the end, which I want to talk to you about.
And then there is Albert, her grandfather's narrative. And instead of that being a traditional chapter structure, each of his chapters dictionary entries, but not a traditional dictionary entry where you have standard definitions, but an experience of his own life where he's explaining this word, which was a beautiful way to read his story. It was the first time that I've experienced a character, coming to know a little bit of a character like that.
And then the fourth strand I guess is the serialised letters from the old missionary, Reverend Greenleaf.
So which of those four strands came first? And how did you weave them together?
TARA: This is going way back when... Because the whole seed of the book started when I was researching Swallow the Air, so 2004, 2005...
ASTRID: 15 years.
TARA: Yeah. So I was going out to Ngurangbang, which is the Wiradjuri word for country, and I was researching for Swallow the Air for my character May, who's the protagonist in Swallow the Air. And she was going back to country and trying to figure out who she was and I was doing the same. I was meeting relatives I'd never met before, and visiting the old missions my relatives had lived on, and understanding a landscape I had no connection with because I grew up on the coast, like a street away from the beach. So writing about this rural atmosphere was... it all had to be learned.
And when I stumbled upon a language class back then, it must have been about an hour long language class, and discovered this Wiradjuri language that had been reclaimed at the time, a really thin A4 yellow dictionary had been published the year before by Uncle Stan Grant Senior and the linguist John Rudder. And of course consulting with elders, they gathered this language together, a language that was on the brink of extinction. And when I discovered it it was such a moving experience that I needed my character May to discover that language and have that, be moved by it the same way I was.
The problem is that when Swallow the Air came out I felt regretful that I didn't explore it more because it wasn't as evident, it didn't come up in in readers minds the same way as what The Yield obviously does. So, immediately after Swallow the Air came out I set that goal, to explore language further. And that's August, and that character. So August came first, August was the one that was going to explore language further, August was the one that was going to be irrevocably shaken and moved by it. Yeah, August came first. And there were all these little snippets and images and sentences that I just gathered from that point. And I knew it would be on farming land. I knew there'd be piecemeal work. I knew that there would be that there would be a missionary. I knew there would be a linguist in some sense. I didn't know it would deal with linguistics in the way it did, that came really in the last couple of years.
ASTRID: In the acknowledgements you mentioned some of your sources and also locations and parts of history that you've drawn from. Let's start with the language. At the end of course there is a dictionary, and the dictionary is about 25 pages long in the trade paperback that I've got here. And unlike a direct dictionary it is. It starts with the back starts from the end of the alphabet as opposed to the beginning. Can you tell me why?
TARA: So actually I wouldn't say there is four narrative strands. I'd say there's three, and then the dictionary at the back, which is a really particular set of words, was the continuation of Albert's work, of the grandfather's work, from the beginning. And I preface it by saying a 'work in progress' because a language is a living thing and it's always being altered and updated and changing with new information. And so I wanted that to be really clear. And it's a nod to the fact that in Church time, which I reference as time here on Earth, that he wasn't finished. And that was important to show. The reason it starts backwards is because English was a bit tricky. It is so hard to give an elevator pitch for this book, because it's complicated, no?
ASTRID: It's very complicated.
TARA: Hopefully it doesn't overwhelm the reader. That was my hope.
ASTRID: As a as a reader reading it it's a natural progression from page to page. I wouldn't be to give an elevated pitch for it either.
Tell me about finding Albert's voice, who of course... that comes through as he is reclaiming language. And at the end of the novel we find out that it's not a book as such that he's been writing, he's been recording it and and helping, you know, refinding the pronunciation of these words as well as the meaning of the words.
TARA: I think for Albert the whole process is as much for his family as it is for himself. He's trying to be a quote unquote learned man, in a sense, he has this love of words and of the local library and what the library has brought to his family in terms of understanding and healing. And I think it is the process of healing for him.
I think everyone's strand is their own process of healing, coming to terms with the past, because Albert's not just telling the story of his own story, he's telling the story of all time, his people throughout all time on those 500 acres of land. And then ultimately it's about healing the land as well. They're all telling their regret on that land. Does make sense?
ASTRID: It does make sense. As we read Albert's story he's obviously sharing language, remembering language, and by doing so not only is he doing so for his family and for those that come after him, that reclaiming the past, he's also explaining things to us that we've learnt from August about what's happened in the in the family's life. And we get little hints and in some places explicit facts about what's happened to the family, weaving this dictionary and the reclaiming of language in with the family and their trauma and the experiences that have happened for those alive at this point. And it really struck me that some of the things that we find out through Albert, August never knows.
ASTRID: And until obviously she listens. And I guess I know I wanted to ask you about as a novelist, as a writer in charge of the story and how you reveal bits and pieces to your reader, how do you maintain that fine balance of showing not telling?
TARA: I don't know. I honestly... it's more like... it's all written by instinct. And then having to reread... I think the thing about this book, it took a really long time. And it needed to take that time because there needed to be a lot of space between me having written the words and then rereading it to make sure that I'm coming at it as a reader would.
There's this sense of information withheld and truth withheld that runs through the book. And hopefully it's not too frustrating, but there is... truth was withheld from all of us in our history as Australians. So, I wanted to play with these themes that are massive, you know, and play with the metaphor of these themes. Like here's a tin mine that digs out the entire earth, and it's related to our hearts, our souls, our spirits as Australians, and as indigenous as First Nations Australians as well. It's... yeah. And there's... I don't know. It's hard to analyse something that was all all heart and soul and spirit, like completely ripped at me, completely pulled apart... Like crying at the desk like for months writing this. It wasn't easy at all.
ASTRID: So what was your driver?
TARA: Just to finish it? You know, there is ... When you have a tragedy in your life there seems to be this line, this scale of sympathy, and there's also a scale next to it of grief.
ASTRID: And they don't line up/
TARA: They don't line up at all. And so at some point in the last decade of course people stopped caring and stopped believing that I was writing something. So it was just about staying true to my own driver that got me through writing thus far. I had to finish it.
ASTRID: So when you say people stop believing I mean no one can put a time on how long it takes to write any work, including a creative work, but did that... I don't know did you feel that expectation? You know, I read a list of your accomplishments which are wonderful Tara. But did that put pressure on you and people just give up? I don't know.
TARA: Completely, there was so much expectation put on me. I mean that's fine, like it was an honour, you know, to win these prizes and to be mentored by a Nobel Laureate at 24 when I'd never even studied literature. Like it's crazy - you couldn't put it in a film, it wouldn't make any sense. But it also put a lot of pressure on me, especially I was a single mum, a young mum without any kind of sense of rootedness. It was just... yes, so much pressure. And perhaps a lot of that expectation pressure was myself putting it on myself. But man, it was it was external as well. And then when it wasn't to time, yeah? When I wasn't doing the thing that I should have done on time? Yeah, people just dismiss you as the next best thing. And so they should, in a sense of course. I think I kind of needed that, because I needed to... It needed to be all of my own will and I would take all the time I needed to to get this out.
ASTRID: So when you were sitting there sometimes crying at your desk, how do you do it? That is almost a silly question, but I genuinely mean that. Like, how do you make yourself sit down and then how do you make yourself stay there?
TARA: Well, I had these quotes above my desk as well, that I looked at every day. Like Tagore, 'I have spent many days stringing and unstringing my instrument while the song I came to sing remains unsung'. That was just above my desk. You read that and you go, 'Oh God I need to I need to share this song. This is the song and I mustn't procrastinate anymore'.
And it wasn't even procrastination to be honest it was, it was doubt. Doubt is a all. Doubt will break your computer, it will, you know, cut off your fingers.
ASTRID: When you say doubt do you mean doubt in yourself or doubt in the story or the way you're telling the story?
TARA: Yourself. Absolutely 100 per cent. And then that makes you doubt your story. But doubt in yourself comes first, that's the essence of it. And then if you allow enough time to sit with doubt, that's when you start to question this character or this story strand, and that's where time disappears, time takes takes your life, you know. So there was that period right at the end where I had to just run, run run at the horizon because I knew that doubt, my great great friend, would arrive soon and make a home in my house.
ASTRID: So when you submit it, when you've done the work and done the emotional labor at your desk, and you've got your draft and you send it off, what's it like when an editor comes back and starts doing their job which is to pick it apart?
TARA: I think I was really blessed to have editors with the.. they could see what I was trying to say. But that moment before when you send it, and then to get feedback, is absolutely terrifying, because if they don't understand what you've done when you've done something that not many people have done before, I don't know...
ASTRID: I don't think anyone's written a book like this before. or
TARA: ... a bit different. Yeah, when you just like sung you tune to whatever it is... [laughter]
ASTRID: You've done it your own way.
TARA: Then it is terrifying. But luckily there were people around that got it. So... No it wasn't that... being picked apart was fine, that was about correcting, you know, spelling mistakes and helping you cut unnecessary fat and kill a few darlings... And a great editor - which I did have, I had two fantastic editors - will cut the fat and keep, you know, that perfect... Oh, I'm a vegetarian and I'm making an analogy of meat [laughter], but you'll have wagu beef or something, I don't know. And I did have great editors that could just... yeah, they got the opal out of the rock. How's that, that's better.
ASTRID: That's a good one. So, let's talk to you about language. What does... you're a creative person. I'm fascinated by creatives who are multilingual, because different languages allow us to express different ideas. You're a native English speaker, you're learning language and you live in France. Does that change anything or open up anything for you?
TARA: Yeah. When you're in a creative process it's really tricky, because when you choose one language to write in and then the world around you is another language, so much of your day is about making sure you're isolated. And I had to keep explaining to my husband, especially that I'm trying to write in English, and he was like, 'you know English', and I was like, 'No, I'm trying to write in my best ever English'. And so any French was just like a virus in my mind. I tried to really block the world out, and for this last run, which was about two, three years. And hence I put on 40 kilos because I really did isolate myself in that room and didn't move from the desk, because I knew doubt would arrive.
But then incorporating this language that I tried to present on the page in a way that was a gift for my father, because he didn't grow up with language, so I wanted him to be presented with... because my Dad isn't interested in picking up a dictionary let alone a book. He won't read this until it's an audiobook. But in a way that he could listen to it, listen to the words and root for characters and go with the quest of the story.
So, it was complicated for a few years, and especially in the house - my daughter was learning Latin and Japanese and Spanish. So yeah, it was like an interesting time of our lives [laughter]. But that's great, I love a bit of chaos and I love language. It's fascinating. Maybe one day I'll study it properly, but I'm just coming at it as a novelist and as someone that's just curious, but I love going to different countries and learning some of the language. It's that connective tissue between two people, you know, when you can say in India, you know, like people respect you and you get to share something really intimate and secret with the other person as a visitor to their country.
And that was the the thing, and that's the thing I've been banging on about, is that we are visitors to people's country here in Australia wherever we go or in someone else's country. It is just such a basic and respectful and connecting thing to do, to learn a few of the words of the country your on today.
ASTRID: You make that point very clearly and very well in The Yield. And I had a question flowing from that. So, you just mentioned you know your daughter is learning various languages. When I was a kid I was made to learn Latin and Indonesian, and I know the reason why my school offered both. They offered Latin because, you know, reverence for the Western canon, and Indonesian because Australia was supposed to join the Asian Century and understand our region. And I am forever grateful for both of those opportunities. But it made me think, you know, would we as a country, would our school system ever put local language on the curriculum so we can do just what you've said?
TARA: Oh absolutely. They need to. It will happen because there's enough people that really are passionate about it. And honestly, I'm going on about it as if it's a new idea, but it's not. There's language centres and linguists all over the country that have been pushing for this for decades, for a long time, and it needs to happen. Can you imagine your psyche as an Australian, your sense of identity if you learned language at pre-school, primary school? Because there's a big gap in the education system there. You know, there's a curiosity now within tertiary studies, not just a curiosity but an interest, and there's an availability of language. But pre-school and primary school is that real gap where there's nothing there, and it needs to change because that's how we can heal ourselves. We have an identity crisis in Australia, and that's a way, it's simple respectful way an honourable way to understand all our past and all our identities, because that's the language of our motherland. This is our motherland. They are our ancestors, all our ancestors, because we're here as guests.
ASTRID: In the oldest continuous civilization on the planet.
ASTRID: I am looking forward to a greater reverence in our school system and elsewhere in Australia for language. I do want to talk to you about a few other things, Tara, I'd like to go back to August's storyline. The Yield is very much about family and identity healing the past and a reclamation of the past, I guess, but August also has many other parts of her identity that you explore. You know, she comes home. You write about childhood abuse. You also write about an eating disorder, anorexia, and both of those are sometimes the central narrative to a lot of fiction, because there are huge topics in and of themselves. And I was really interested in how you as a writer so deftly handled both huge topics in what's already a very complicated work.
TARA: Yeah, I hopefully I gave them enough air time and respect, because they are topics that deserve airtime and respect and a voice on the page. They come into the narrative as a continuation of an intergenerational trauma, where the abuse comes in, and I needed to show that in a way that was delicate. I was always trying to be delicate on the page, especially dealing with horror.
The issue of August eating the earth and having these insatiable cravings to be filled is really... it's tapping into that metaphor of pain and trauma of the past, of the past seeping through constantly. There is this word in Wiradjuri, ngarran, and it means to be weak and hungry and depressed at once. And that's really what August is experiencing, that weakness, hunger - hunger not being able to be satiated by anything, by love, by sex, by alcohol, by leaving the place, or by food. And depression. Yeah.
Melissa Lucashenko actually suggested that her, you know, August, has these episodes of being able to see through the world with X-ray vision. And Melissa Lukashenko suggested that she was going through psychosis. And I think it's true.
I think she is experiencing a psychosis of the past and the future and all time at once, where she's almost like this voice between the two other narrative strands that is stuck between those two worlds, because the reverend is talking about this linear sense of time, he refers to dates and people who set dates and institutions that require dates and churches that refer to dates, and he's traveling on this line of cold hard facts. And Poppy Albert is talking about deep time, in terms of time existing in the Dreaming which is the past and the present and future all existing in the now. And then August and that generation, not that she sits between the two generations, but she's inherited these very different feelings and she's inherited like the hell of both these worlds in a sense. And so her psychosis is piercing through those two times. Does that make sense?
ASTRID: It does. It does. It's a beautiful description of of August's narrative in The Yield.
TARA: Okay. She has a purpose on the page and we're talking about her being depressed and having ngarran, but she is like a bird that's fallen out of a tree. And if you go and try and help it she might die. You just need to let her get her strength back in her wings to join her mother back in the branches. Hopefully she reads that way.
ASTRID: She does.
ASTRID: And what was the purpose of the Reverend's thread?
TARA: Well, I knew that I was telling this story about 500 acres of land and I had Poppy telling the story of all time and August, his granddaughter, telling the contemporary action and and the issues that those 500 acres and the Wiradjuri people are facing on that land as well, now, today. And I needed to tell the history of colonization, of missionaries and stations and settlers and violence and war in those 500 acres as well. And so I needed to have a perspective though that could be reflective, a villain that I could turn on its head that could be like multi dimensional and complicated like we are. And so I had Reverend Greenleaf, who's a Lutheran missionary, writing a letter in 1915 reflecting on his time opening the mission in 1880, and the process of passing his godliness or godly ways onto the local people. And so I needed to have him be a Lutheran missionary and I needed to make that timing work in 1915, because of course he's then an enemy of the state being German, and he's then persecuted for his own mother tongue. So through that lens he's able to in some ways reflect on his denial of a people's mother tongue and his forcing people t o not be able to straddle those two belief systems, straddle those two worlds - God and culture and country and their mother tongue.
,ASTRID: You do that well. And it's also an indication of how the system you know colonialism, the government, the missions, turned on everybody here.
TARA: But also I wanted to present those godly fabrics and the Bible in a way that was somewhat palatable, because there are Aboriginal communities around Australia that had a relationship with missionaries that was protective and that was a place of refuge. And there are Aboriginal people that are Christian and that to straddle those two different worlds.
It was... And that's why Poppy actually refers to the Bible, because when he was in the boys home... he quotes it. When he was taken away, forced into a boys home away from his mother, away from his people and away from his mother tongue, that's all he had, some of those stories there. And he finds some kind of refuge and comfort there. So I did want to highlight... I wanted to highlight that sometimes there is safety and also horror and rejection and trauma in the same loving arm, n the same loving embrace. And that's what I wanted to show, really, in many different ways throughout all this trend.
ASTRID: I think you did. There's also a section where Poppy Albert is referring to Reverend Greenleaf and says he wasn't a good man but he was trying his best. I'm paraphrasing, but he generally thought he was doing the right thing.
TARA: He thought, yeah. And also if you look at languages that are being reclaimed and preserved today, a lot of language centres and a lot of Elders are relying on records by missionaries, because they were closest to these languages. They were the ones that were trying to suppress it, and sometimes they would record these languages at the same time for their own for their own journal, for their own you know record of time passing. So, a lot of these reclamation projects that are happening today are using the records of missionaries, of station owners, of local police sergeants. It's very heart breaking, strange work for any language reclamation today. Really, imagine sifting through the criminal and the crime and having to use that work in some way.
ASTRID: I'd like to ask you now that you're coming to the end of a two month tour and The Yield is out in the world, what's next for you creatively?
TARA: I'm writing this book called Hotel Vague, because actually it's easy. You don't need to translate into French, it Hôtel Vague, and now I'm just going to write titles that don't need to be translated into French.
ASTRID: What is The Yield in French?
TARA: The Yield doesn't actually translate. It's like... it doesn't translate.
ASTRID: Will the work be translated into French?
TARA: Yes, it's coming out with a great publisher in France who's translated Alexis Wright here in Australia and Peter Carey.
ASTRID: And what would they call it? TARA: I have no idea, but it definitely won't be the... They might call it something like... I just don't know. It'll be something different, that's fine.
But Hotel Vague is set in the Swiss Alps and it's a thriller, it's more like a psychological thriller. And it's exploring the idea of eternal return, Nietzsche's eternal return. And it's also... it's a bit strange, but it's playing a lot with the idea of a novel, the layout. So it's told in this these loops of eternal return, so you could finish the book and then start again at the beginning. Hopefully it'll be published in a spiral!
ASTRID: That would be amazing.
TARA: Yeah, but it won't.
ASTRID: You never know. There are lots of authors who are trying to do different things, you know, break away from the size 12, 27 line typography. I know Elizabeth Bryer, the translator, and Jay Kristoff in YA, everybody... Let me rephrase that, there are some authors who are trying to work with publishers to break away from the traditional format. I think that you could do it to Tara.
TARA: Okay let's see. If you see a spiral book on the bookshelf in two years from now...
ASTRID: I can't wait. Thank you so much for your time.
TARA: Thanks for having me.