Turning Towards Suffering
Maggie Nolan on Tara June Winch’s The Yield and Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip
At the end of the twentieth century, Australian literature was dominated by Australian settler narratives attempting to articulate what it means to be Australian. Indigenous Australian writers were beginning to contribute to those stories, most notably through life stories – as part of a global memoir boom – and the focus was on authenticity. Two decades into the twenty-first century, First Nations writers are now at the forefront of Australia’s literary scene, two of the most significant being Melissa Lucashenko and Tara-June Winch, both of whom have recently published prize-winning novels.
Although very different in tone, structure and style, there are several striking similarities between Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip (2018) and Tara June-Winch’s The Yield, published the following year (2019). Both are set in fictional locations that resemble real places; Too Much Lip’s Patterson is on the north coast of NSW, and Massacre Plains in The Yield is somewhere near Wilcannia on the Murrumbidgee River. Both also focus on an Indigenous female protagonist in her late twenties, with August Goondiwindi and Kerri Salter each returning, somewhat ambivalently, to their extended families and Country after many years away because of the death (The Yield) or impending death (Too Much Lip) of a grandfather. Through access to the grandfather’s stories, and the stories of the extended family that have gathered for the subsequent funerals, both are also intergenerational narratives. In both, poverty and substance abuse are pervasive, and for both protagonists, the experience of hunger is a visceral childhood memory. In each novel, a central character has an eating disorder linked to wider unmet needs. In both, the central protagonist has participated in a crime but has not been caught, with a co-conspirator taking the fall; thus, both novels explore questions of guilt and shame. Finally, in both, there is a missing sister, both of whom we discover are victims of incestuous sexual abuse (in The Yield, Jedda is dead; in Too Much Lip, Donna, who had reinvented herself and passed as white, returns to the fold).
In both novels, the protagonists find themselves caught up and then embracing the need to defend their homes and Country from corporate greed. In Too Much Lip, the corrupt local mayor and real estate agent, Jim Buckley, is selling the land adjacent to Granny Ava’s Island so a Chinese corporation can build a prison on it; in The Yield, Rinepalm mining company wants to mine for tin near Massacre Plains, which means that the Goondiwindi’s will lose their family home. In both novels, the recovery of artefacts provides a material basis for recognition. In this way, both explore the ongoing nature and impacts of settler colonialism, including frontier violence and the missionary endeavour on Indigenous people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (both grandfathers had been brought up on and scarred by missions), and a contemporary punitive carceral system. In both, close family members have spent time in jail, and both offer less than flattering portrayals of some Indigenous characters, and as such, portray lateral violence as an effect of, but not reducible to, intergenerational trauma.
Another similarity is that in successive years (2019 and 2020), Too Much Lip and The Yield won Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, which is presented to a novel of the highest literary merit that “presents Australian life in any of its phases”, an award that doesn’t just shape literary taste, but also national values. This suggests that both are addressing crucial issues for contemporary Australia – the unresolved status of Indigenous Australians, the relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, how to reckon with the past, and how to deal with its contemporary effects.
Lucashenko and Winch confront these issues head on in Too Much Lip and The Yield. Both novels foreground the heterogeneity and complexity of Indigenous people’s lives. Indigenous characters in these novels are not romanticised, sentimentalised or idealised. Rather, both novels articulate the experience of Indigenous suffering in complex ways. A deep sense of loss and grief pervades both works. Racism is present, but more as a taken-for-granted background against which the stories unfold than a central concern. Instead, August Goondiwindi and Kerry Salter are grieving profound personal and cultural losses, historical and contemporary. They speak to a yearning for compassion and understanding, also evident in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This suffering is articulated through repeated references to the female protagonists’ guilt and shame. Both have run away from traumatic events and family lives. In seeking to forget the past, they are burdened by guilt for abandoning their families, and loss of their connection to family, culture and Country. In returning to their families, August and Kerry come to understand and accept their families and, in so doing, recognise them as a source of solace as well as pain. The reader learns with the protagonists that the past is not something to be returned to as a site of authenticity – an impossibility in any case – but a resource for responding to the demands of the present.
As part of these demands, both novels portray conscious processes of cultural assertion and reclamation, and language is a crucial means for doing so. In The Yield, this is foregrounded through Albert Goondiwindi’s (Poppy’s) dictionary, inspired by Stan Grant Snr and John Rudder’s New Wiradjuri Dictionary, but in Too Much Lip, Yugambeh and Bandjulung words are used throughout the text. Both texts also portray complex relationships between humans and the non-human world, which are not only resources for cultural connection but are also of profound ethical importance – animals, objects, ancestors, kinship networks, language and story all matter. The more-than-human are not just motifs; they offer guidance, service and perspective. Animals, particularly the crow and shark (The Dr) in Too Much Lip and the brolga in The Yield, are sources of knowledge, wisdom and sustenance. These novels ultimately suggest that Country and community - both of which need to be fought for - can be a potent source of healing for Indigenous Australia.
These novels also portray whiteness in interesting ways. In both, white characters are relatively minor, and, with few exceptions, they are depicted as entitled, self-pitying, and utterly clueless about their history and its effects. White characters, moreover, have no sense of care for country – land is a resource, and white Australians are portrayed as greedy in their desire to profit from it. Related to this is a clear-eyed view of white institutions – government and the law – as ambivalent sites for both further injustice but also, perhaps, of restitution.
I loved both of these novels. Although more redemptive and restorative than revolutionary, these are courageous books because they confront squarely the reality that the past cannot be undone, only lived with, and in order to live with it, we need stories that articulate experiences that reveal and respond to the complex demands of the present, from which none of us – Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike – can run away.