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“But German in particular was tricky”: An Interview with Tara June Winch

On the 18th of May 2023, Tara June Winch read from her novel The Yield at the Wolkensteinsaal in Konstanz. We were lucky enough to chat with her about her book, which incorporates a dictionary of Wiradjuri words, the next day.

Last night, you read from The Yield and spoke a bit about what brought you to write this book: it’s a cultural handbook, an archive. It’s for healing; it’s a love-letter; it’s for your child. And you had an ambition to tell a colonial story. I’d like to invite you to speak more about any or all of these facets – why did you write this book?

Yes, it was all that. The ambition was to write about the colonization of Australia and the terrible inheritance it created. The push was to show the depth and power of language and culture as it attaches to wellbeing. The difficulty was how to talk about language in a novel and use language as a narrative device. It’s the why, and it was also the obstacle for me as a writer, for those ten years trying to write it.

Removing the mother tongue is how colonizers used a form of power

Language is embedded into the landscape. The quote by Ngugi wa Thiong’o says it so perfectly: The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation and the language was the means of the spiritual subjugation. Removing the mother tongue is how colonizers used a form of power; it’s a weapon. I wanted to show that it really has ravaged Indigenous cultures where colonization touched the West coast and the East coast [of Australia].

You spoke last night about growing up off-country and you wrote this book partially off-country. Maybe you could speak about what that means to you.

I went to a Wakka Wakka writers house, Wiradjuri country, throughout that ten-year period maybe six times. So six times I wrote on country. My dad lives on country. I went to his house sometimes and wrote there. It was written everywhere.

 I think there’s an advantage to writing at a distance; in writing from overseas, also when I was working on it in Nigeria with Wole [Soyinka]. All memory that’s potent remains potent at a distance; it doesn’t get diluted in the everyday and the familiar. I think that’s an advantage of writing about your country from self-imposed exile. Memory is intact.

It meant that some of the research in terms of language was a bit difficult sometimes. But in terms of the texture and the stuff that glues the whole book together – that’s easier to write at a distance.

Could you talk more about the research that you did?

I did a lot of research and tried to make it look like I didn’t. I also did research to check if the stories my grandfather was telling were correct. Research in terms of language was with Dr. Uncle Stan Grant Snr and Dr John Rudder, and other language custodians. There’s an app created out of Condobolin where my grandmother lived. And then going back to Australia and driving out and researching on the ground.

There were Gribble’s letters – missionary letters. And I worked with an academic, Naomi Parry, who is an expert in children’s homes during that period in New South Wales in particular. There was a lot of archival work, and then trying to blend it to not come across as academic.

Do you want to know something crazy? This happened after the book was published: My cousin, Eric Winch, works for an organization called Link-Up, which helps Aboriginal stolen generations link up to family members. He’s in genealogy in his work, and he put together our family tree. We’re Wiradjuri, Ngunnawal and Gandangara. If you follow the Gandangara family tree, it goes back to King Billy of Appen, my great-great grandfather. He was the first Aboriginal man to publish a dictionary of his own words. And I discovered this after the book, and cried for days. It’s incredible.

It’s a pamphlet, which you can find on the internet. I’d like to go to the state library and steal it (laughs). It’s called “My Recollections”. There’s a picture of him, and he looks like my father. He talks about his mother, and the role kangaroos played in his life, and about the land and the different native words. And at the back, he has a word list – it’s exactly the same as at the end of my book. I found out about it about a week after The Yield came out.

So my great-great grandfather was King Billy of Appen, the guy who wrote this dictionary. We both did this in our family.

Maybe you could speak some more about your archives. Bruce Pascoe, for instance, talking about Dark Emu, described how complicated it was to use colonial archives, but also that it was these archives that he thought would be most compelling to white Australia. What were your experiences of your archive?

The funny thing about language revitalization in Australia, is that a lot of times, in order to revitalize their language, communities will have to use archives like this, pastoral archives, documents from local police constables, from missionaries – who themselves sometimes forbade the language but recorded it at the same time. It’s complex to try to revitalize the language, but have to use the resources of the very people who destroyed it.

To revitalize their language, communities have to use white archives

That’s the point of having the missionary voice, and his having good intentions. I didn’t want him to be a villain. Those archives, those missionary letters, are very important. They’re from a white source. Most readers are going to be non-Indigenous, and I knew that was an important perspective to have. I didn’t feel conflicted by it; I just found it really fascinating.

While we’re on Greenleaf: Obviously in a German context, people are likely to be interested in the fact that you’ve included this German character. If I understand correctly, Revered Gribble was the historical figure whose letters you drew on for this perspective, but he was British. So it seems that making him German was a very deliberate choice. Maybe you could talk about this more?

I liked the idea because there are a lot of Aboriginal communities that still straddle Christianity and their own culture and spirituality, and many are Lutheran. I really liked the idea of a Lutheran missionary; I just thought it sounded beautiful. That’s a poetic inclination that I had. But I wanted him to be persecuted for his own language and the incidentals of his birthplace in order for him to be able to reflect on what he did. If he was British, it wouldn’t have been possible to do. He had to be German and it had to be set during this time period [in the early 20th century]. There’s also a book of photographs of Germans interred in Australia during the First World War, and that was really helpful in terms of knowing where he would be writing this letter from.

I was interested in a character who was more of a foot solider for God, rather than a horrible white supremacist. Not everyone that’s played a role in the destruction of culture had ill intention. It’s an artistic choice. There’s more interest to me as a writer in those complex characters. Maybe this was possible because it felt a bit removed from British colonialism.

Let’s go back to the work you did with Uncle Stan Grant Snr and John Rudder. You spoke last night about stumbling into a language class on country – was it with them?

It was with him – Uncle Stan Grant Snr. It was a community centre language class. I went looking for Warrangesda. I knew they did language classes at this community centre and the day that I went there, there was such a class going on. It was serendipitous. It wasn’t for this book; it was in 2004/2005 that I was there. And I had about 15 words in my first book, Swallow the Air, because of that. Straight after that, I knew that I wanted to write about linguistics in some sense. I was looking for this place where my relatives lived. Warrangesda Mission is more or less Prosperous in the book. They have a boys’ dormitory and a girls’ dormitory. Some of the building is still standing. I think there’s a project to restore and protect it, but there are unmarked graves. It’s a dark place.

It was a real dream-like experience. I bought the A4 yellow booklet that they published in 2003. It was a thin booklet at the time, but he’s continued to expand the dictionary through more research with elders, and archiving, and now it’s a lot thicker

There wasn’t really an interest in Aboriginal languages at this time – but it’s changed, especially since 2019 because that was the International UNESCO year of Indigenous languages, which gave a big push especially in Australia to have Indigenous language taught in classrooms, and to adopt proper place names.

Tell us about the translation of your work. How big a role did you play in the translation of this book?

I wasn’t necessarily that involved in all the translations. But German in particular was tricky because it’s very politicized. There were terms that were very sensitive. It has a deep history, the German language, in terms of being a weapon in itself – the way Nazis used language. So it was really hard work for the translator, Juliane Lochner.

German in particular was tricky, because it’s very politicized

Some things didn’t travel well. That happens in all languages, but I know in particular the word ‘native’ in German can be said in an offensive way. There was a desire to be careful about the translation; of German being weaponized in the past.

It was more difficult, and it was a very long process. I was in conversation with my translator, though I’m not very helpful with these things. She was very sensitive; she’s a great translator. I trusted her, because she was dealing with her native language.

Some of the translations of the book I was barely aware of their happening, so it’s interesting to think about the care that different publishers and translators go into.

What do you think about the term native in Australian English?

Its’s a term that has its historical place, much like Aboriginal. Aborigine has an historical place in Australian vernacular, but you wouldn’t use it today, and the same with Indigenous. Sometimes Indigenous can be an offensive term to some people, because it removes the personhood and makes the person seem like part of the landscape, which is something that has an offensive history in Australia because Aboriginal people were seen as flora and fauna, and weren’t in the constitution and didn’t have the right to vote until the 60s. It’s recent history.

Tell us about your new book.

It’s about an Aboriginal soldier who goes deaf from artillery fire, and defects from World War II, staying in Europe, with his dog, for the rest of his life. It explores non-verbal language between man and beast, between him and his dog. It’s about gestural language, which has an interesting history in Europe; and Aboriginal sign language in Australia as well.

There’s a bronze cast of an Aboriginal man in a museum in Lyon, and they don’t know where it came from, and that was sort of inspiration for Timmy: Who is this man and why is he here?

It’s a story about a defecting soldier and his dog. I love the idea of a soldier defecting for the love of his stray dog. My grandfather was in World War I. I think I’m going through my history, wanting to honour that person, that ancestor, this ancestor. I’m talking to the past first before I can talk to the present.

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