As a child, Tara June Winch was hardly ever a reader. That would come later, when she dropped out of school at 17 and took to backpacking across the world to make sense of who she really was. In those early days, the world filtered in through lived experiences — how her siblings were dark-skinned, for instance, while she was fair — or, wondering why the sound of the sea next to their housing commission apartment in Wollongong, south of Sydney, always calmed her down. “I was a daydreamer, but I was always very aware of everything going on around me. I would think, ‘What’s it like to be that person?’ I did that especially with my siblings and my parents. That’s how I came by my first book — looking at how my brothers and sisters experienced the world and how the world interacted with them because of their skin tone. I wanted to understand their emotions in the context of the larger world,” says one of Australia’s leading Aboriginal writers, who was in India recently to attend a host of literary festivals across the country.
Her new book, The Yield, will be published early next year. In it, she tries to retrace a language that is nearly extinct — the language of her community, the Wiradjuri tribe that was harshly affected by colonialism. “There was a move to grab the land for farming, and also, to enslave the Wiradjuri people as workers. In the process, our culture was lost. Many of the Wiradjuris are fair-skinned like myself because we suffered the outcome of the Stolen Generations (Between 1905 and 1970, under Parliamentary Acts, Australian federal and state government agencies and church missions took away children of Aboriginals to place them with non-indigenous families). So, through a fictional memoir of an old man who is facing death and has seen the loss of his culture, I try to resurrect the language and its import,” she says. Running through the novel, that spans about 200 years of tribal history and several narrative strands, is also a dictionary in the Wiradjuri language.
Winch, 34, now based in the Loire district in France, is of Wiradjuri, Afghan and English descent, her unique identity shaping her outlook to life and writing. She was born over a decade after the Stolen Generations but lived in the shade of it as indigenous communities grappled to come to terms with what had been done to them. “There were five of us (siblings). I had a happy childhood, but the fact that there was more to us was not lost upon me. I began keeping a journal trying to make sense of my experiences,” she says.
Winch’s first book, Swallow the Air (2006), about a teenaged girl of Aboriginal and European parentage, May Gibson’s search for identity after the death of her mother was like a punch in the gut in the way it laid bare the lacerations to indigenous lives in Australia. The book would win her critical acclaim and a slew of awards, including the International Rolex Mentor and Protégé Award in 2009, offering her an opportunity to be guided by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. Under the mentorship of the Nigerian heavyweight, Winch would learn to seek solace from the culture that had made and unmade her and to mine the past for a road map of the future. She would also learn how to conquer fear: her next book, a collection of short stories, After the Carnage (2016), came a decade later, when she had nearly all but given up. “It happens with musicians, they say the second album is always the hardest. It took me so long because I couldn’t find the courage to put it out there. Wole drilled it into me that I needed to keep at it, to keep writing. So, I pushed myself till I lost all fear,” she says.
When she left home at 17, first to travel through Australia and then onwards to India and England, Winch says she found comfort in the multi-culturedness of the world. She moved to France about six years ago, a single mother with a young daughter, in search of experiences that would allow her to expand her literary boundaries. Like she discovered Rabindranath Tagore during her first trip to India and was fascinated by his philosophy, she would discover Albert Camus in France. They would teach her to appreciate nuance and embrace diversity and fuel in her the ambition to write more. “If you saw the map, you’d see that love, pain and a sense of family run through all cultures. How do you connect with it? Through an appreciation of different cultures. Anyone who is from Australia, Britain, France or India will know we have so many layers to ourselves, so many different languages and ways of living. That’s why I write — because I have looked at life from different perspectives and I need to continuously do so to remind myself that what we really need is compassion,” she says.