• Acclaimed author, Tara June Winch. (Facebook/Tara June Winch)Source: Facebook/Tara June Winch
Wiradjuri descendant Tara June Winch opens up about winning Australia's most prestigious literary award in a tumultuous year, and the future for First Nations' languages.
Rachael Hocking

21 Jul 2020 - 4:24 PM  UPDATED 21 Jul 2020 - 4:24 PM

Tara June Winch said she was overwhelmed when she heard her novel The Yield had won Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin.

Not from joy, but because it didn’t feel culturally right to be pitted against another novel on the shortlist – The White Girl – by fellow black author Tony Birch.

“It was a bit overwhelming to be honest,” she told NITV News from her home in France.

“It’s not really cultural way to pit ourselves against each other. But I talked to Tony and have come to terms with it since then.

“And I think it also signals that this is the future. We're going to see our mob on award lists together, because we're publishing more and publishing at such a quality level.”

The success of The Yield - which also took home three gongs at the New South Wales Premier Literary Awards - has run parallel to a year of heartache for people across the globe, with the COVID-19 health pandemic and resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ms Winch said that reality has brought with it a responsibility and, at times, taken a heavy toll.

"It's exhausting psychologically, emotionally, physically," Ms Winch said.

"There's this quote that I've got by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, she said, 'let us not be bitter. That is an empty thing. A maggot in the mind,' but I think what happened this year is we were bitter.

"We grew up with this thing about deaths in custody and knowing about it, we grew up with Pauline Hanson being platformed above all our reasonable voices. We grew up with a hundred committees established on our behalf and disabled without our consent. And minds and lands and rivers running dry. We grew up with it all and that cautionary tale.

"And when is it going to change? We're angry. We're bitter this year."

Ms Winch’s win comes off the back of Bundjalung writer Melissa Lucashenko taking out the honour in 2019 for her powerful portrayal of family, love and black kinship amid a land grab in Too Much Lip.

It also makes her the fourth Aboriginal author to win the prize – following Kim Scott who has won twice, and Alexis Wright who won for Carpentaria in 2007.

2020 is also the first year two Indigenous authors were shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. 

These accolades have come amid a surge in interest for First Nation's stories more broadly, with book stores reportedly running out of stock for authors like Bruce Pascoe and Stan Grant.

"I just say it's about bloody time. I can only speak for my industry, but we didn't just come out of nowhere the last decade, we've got a really powerful back catalog for people to look into," Ms Winch said. 

"Our literature was born out of a response to the civil rights movement... The tools are there. We've written the tools, we've sung the tools, we've created the tools for white Australia and non-Indigenous Australia to hear our voices.

"If it's this year, if it's finally now, let it be the line in the sand. Let it continue."

“This book is about the work of the community”

Like Lucashenko and Birch, in The Yield Ms Winch has written about what she knows: her ancestral connection to Country, and the importance of her mother tongue: Wiradjuri. 

In her reclamation of the language (a Wiradjuri dictionary is embedded into the novel) Ms Winch writes about a woman named August and her return home for the burial of her grandfather, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi.

It’s a journey which charts Australia's violent colonial history from the past to present to future, as a mining company threatens Country and cultural and familial ties are tested.

Ms Winch said she drew strength and inspiration for The Yield from the work of Elders who have come before her, particularly Dr Uncle Stan Grant Senior.

“I think our books are always political and books are always a community effort,” she said.

“I think that's important to note - that some books you can't really be the individual author, even though it has your name on the cover.

“This book is about the work of the community. It's about the linguistic work of Dr. Uncle Stan Grant Sr and the linguist John Rudder, it's about the Elders that have worked to reclaim the Wiradjuri language."

Ms Winch said she wants to see the rewards for works like hers shared with the community, but beyond that she wants to see a re-think of the way Australians engage with First Nations languages.

She said the biggest change will come when Indigenous communities are meaningfully engaged in writing the curriculum.

"Imagine the psychological change for future generations to have a linguistic link to the past," she said.

"And then it's also creating a viable economy, because you've got our mob speaking language, training up new teacher trainers, and creating employment and continuing culture at the same time,

"It's just such a no brainer. It makes so much sense to me."

Wiradjuri writer Tara June Winch wins Miles Franklin book award
Ms Winch said she hoped her win would encourage the next generation of Indigenous voices to pursue a career in the industry.
Blak authors collect swag of literary awards for their works exploring nation's modern history
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.