Prime Minister’s Literary Awards 2013

While Kevin Rudd was in Darwin proclaiming the need for “a national imagination” to grasp the economic potential of northern Australia, his Arts Minister, Tony Burke, was in Brisbane to celebrate the nation’s top imagination-makers at the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, announced on the terrace of the State Library last night.

Burke no doubt won the gratitude of the winners, who each received a tax-free $80,000, but he also earned the hearts and minds of the audience – an assembly of publishing-industry players – when he affirmed the importance of literature as “a reminder of what is important to a nation”.

Burke announced the winners in six categories:

Fiction
Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser

Poetry
Jam Tree Gully by John Kinsella

Non-fiction
The Australian Moment by George Megalogenis

Prize for Australian history
Farewell, dear people by Ross McMullin

Young adult fiction
Fog a Dox by Bruce Pascoe

Children’s fiction
Red by Libby Gleeson

Future Awards, Burke said, should include the categories of playwriting and screenwriting. In his introductory remarks he said that he had spent “a lot of time reading and studying and thinking about” all of the shortlisted titles, especially the winning titles. But John Kinsella’s collection of poems, Jam Tree Gully, seemed to be a particular favourite. Burke, who takes time out of every day to read a poem aloud, quoted one of Kinsella’s poems called “Sacred Kingfisher and Trough Filled with Water Pumped from Deep Underground”, which frames the intelligence of a bird that reads a coffin-like trough as a container for “dead water / from deep in the earth”. The judges described the collection “as an extraordinarily attentive chronicle” to life in the wheat belt of Western Australia:

Referencing Thoreau’s wish, in Walden, to “live deliberately”, Kinsella’s poems offer keen observations of animal life (wild, feral and domesticated), landscape, weather, and the social life of Australian country towns and the small properties that encircle them.

In his acceptance speech, Kinsella – who has written more than 20 books of poems and is known for his environmental ethics – urged people to observe “the small changes in the environment, which are actually massive.”

“My work,” he said, “is not an instruction. It is a plea to look around.”

Kinsella was not the only writer to use the platform to send a message. Michelle de Kretser used her acceptance speech not simply to thank Kevin Rudd for bestowing the nation’s richest literary prize upon her, but also to attack him for his “callous and shameful” asylum-seeker policy.

De Kretser’s novel, Questions of Travel, which also won the Miles Franklin earlier this year, interweaves the narratives of two travellers: Laura, a discontented Australian tourist, and Ravi, a Sri Lankan refugee. The judges commented:

As they crisscross the world and each others’ paths, never quite escaping the ties of home, de Kretser’s novel assembles an array of encounters and experiences for each of her travellers to raise questions that are droll, piquant, satirical, sometimes devastating.

Deploying a quotation from Franz Kafka, de Kretser argued that literature should be “an axe to break the frozen sea within us.” With Tony Burke standing at her side, she concluded her speech with an anaphoric address to her benefactor: “Mr Rudd, I hope you read my book. I hope it makes you smile. I hope it makes you think. I hope it breaks your heart.”

After the ceremony several people remarked that they had thought de Kretser was building to a refusal of the prize or perhaps an avowal to donate the money to charity. “You have given me $80,000 and I have given you a book,” she had said, suggesting an imbalance of economy.

Nobody in their right mind would deny de Kretser the opportunity to express her views, and many will be grateful that she did. But bad press offers little incentive for politicians to keep literary prizes in the budget.

Prizes that are not bestowed in perpetuity (as is the Miles Franklin and other philanthropic prizes) can be cancelled in an afternoon, as we saw in 2012 when the Newman Government cancelled the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, in part to save costs but more likely in dark response to the 2011 shortlisting of David Hicks’s autobiography, Guantanamo: My Journey, which caused furious commentary in conservative circles.

May we hope that whomever is Prime Minister following the 7 September election will continue to uphold the importance of literature in building the nation’s imagination.

The Conversation

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New Queensland literary award

Campbell Newman might have hoped the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards were dead, buried and cremated: the allocated prize pool of $230,000 shared across 14 categories had been scratched from his budget and any mention of the awards, including past winners since 1999, was thoroughly wiped from his website. But miraculously – or rather due to the harnessed outrage and exhaustive efforts of volunteers from Queensland’s literary and arts community – a new suite of literary awards has arisen from the ashes without a skerrick of government funding, nor the Premier’s name in the title.

QLD-Literary-AwardsCampbell Newman might have hoped the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards were dead, buried and cremated: the allocated prize pool of $230,000 shared across 14 categories had been scratched from his budget and any mention of the awards, including past winners since 1999, was thoroughly wiped from his website.

But miraculously – or rather due to the harnessed outrage and exhaustive efforts of volunteers from Queensland’s literary and arts community – a new suite of literary awards has arisen from the ashes without a skerrick of government funding, nor the Premier’s name in the title. Short on lead time and with no funding in place, the group led by Matthew Condon, Krissy Kneen and Stuart Glover assembled in April to create a website and Facebook page which attracted more than 1000 fans in under a week.

The Copyright Agency Cultural Fund injected $20,000 into the kitty, and a fundraising campaign on www.pozible.com raised more than $30,000 for author prizes and associated costs. Avid Reader bookshop offered its premises to house and distribute the 600-plus book and manuscript submissions the campaign received.

The inaugural Queensland Literary Awards, announced last night in Brisbane, were described by Frank Moorhouse – winner of the QLA Fiction Book Award for his novel Cold Light – as “the noblest prize this year.”

“It has some cache because it’s a citizen’s prize,” he said, “not the Premier’s prize.”

Echoing sentiments expressed by Anna Funder in her Miles Franklin acceptance speech earlier this year, Moorhouse expounded: “Governments are not only there to legislate, but to affirm civilised values.”

But if citizens are going to have to fund it with two dollars here and five dollars there,” Moorhouse continued, “it is rather a shameful situation. It sends a very sad message to kids who want to get into the creative arts.

From a shortlist of 68 titles, the winners in each category of the Queensland Literary Awards received $1000, with Queensland novelist Simon Cleary, winner of the inaugural Courier-Mail’s People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year, snapping up $5,000 for his novel, Closer to Stone.

Premier Campbell Newman and Ros Bates, Minister for Science, IT, Innovation and the Arts, so far have not offered their congratulations.

The Conversation

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