• Dr Tony Birch honoured Indigenous women with his latest award (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Several major prizes at the NSW Premier Literary Awards went to Aboriginal authors Tara June Winch and Dr Tony Birch for their novels which explore themes challenging mainstream notions of Australia's national identity.
Rachael Hocking

1 May 2020 - 2:10 PM  UPDATED 1 Sep 2020 - 1:29 PM

Two novels by Aboriginal writers were recognised with major prizes at the New South Wales Premier Literary Awards recently, putting a spotlight on the role authors play in holding Australia's historical narrative to account. 

Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch took out three gongs for her work The Yield, including Book of the Year. The novel, which charts the importance of traditional language and kinship in the face of Australia's violent colonial history, was described as groundbreaking by the Awards' judges.

While Dr Tony Birch collected the biennial Indigenous Writers' Prize for his work, The White Girl, a novel that explores intergenerational trauma and resilience through the stories of three generations of Aboriginal women. 

Speaking to NITV News, Dr Birch said the Black women in his community provided his book with the authenticity of experience and that, historically, it had been them at the forefront of opposing the violence inflicted against Indigenous communities. 

"I want [the reader] to know how strong Indigenous women have always been in this country, particularly since invasion," said Dr Birch. 

"I regard the destruction of our families as pivotal to attempts to destroy us. And it’s been women in particular who have resisted and fought against that."

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Arts 'pivotal' to interrogating Australian history 

Dr Birch also reflected on the larger role the arts play in interrogating histories, such as the false concept of 'discovery', as Australia this week chose to again celebrate the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook's arrival to Kamay [Botany Bay].

He said Australia wasn't ready to have nuanced conversations about what Cook's arrival has meant for this country and its First Peoples. 

"I think if you’re going to tell a story about colonial conquest and its ramifications for Indigenous people around the globe, and do it in a way that simply doesn’t demonise Cook, that is a very complex discussion – but I don’t think we live in a country that has the maturity to have that sort of discussion," said Dr Birch. 

Instead, Dr Birch said a longer period of education is needed to reach a point of understanding - and that the arts was integral to that discussion. 

"I actually think our people working all across the arts are probably doing the most important work in interrogating that colonial view of history... and I would say more – they have a greater impact than, say, traditional forms of engagement, like say writing a history book," he said.

"But people need to be very open to change, and if people aren’t open to change, it is very difficult to enact."

On top of taking our the major prize, Tara June Winch also accepted the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and the People's Choice award.

Speaking in a video acceptance speech from her home in France, Ms Winch thanked the Elders in her community for their efforts in revitalising the Wiradjuri language, which she said was central to her novel, describing it as "a sacred thing". 

The Yield includes a Wiradjuri dictionary written by a character in the book named, Albert Gondiwindi.

"...How the mother tongue can be taken and used in the spiritual subjugation of a people. How central language is to our continual connection to Country, family and culture — to healing and pride" she said. 

Both Dr Birch and Ms Winch acknowledged the other nominees, as well as all Indigenous writers across the country. 

Dr Birch told NITV News it was important to remember that good writing is not just found at major literary events. 

"There are people who you meet who might not have formal education, might be Stolen Generations, and you work with them to write a story maybe about family or country – and what they come up with is equally profound as anything you could produce," he said.

"We should never underestimate the power of emotional intelligence – and the intellect of Aboriginal people – you don’t need to have gone to university or be published to have something really important to write about." 

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