Michelle de Kretser wins the Miles Franklin

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty – Elizabeth Bishop, ‘Questions of Travel’

After a week of rampant sexism in the media, a good-news story about a woman comes as a welcome relief. At a ceremony at the National Library in Canberra on Wednesday, Simon Lewis announced that Michelle de Kretser has won this year’s $60,000 Miles Franklin Literary Award for her novel, Questions of Travel.

Since the Miles Franklin Award began in 1957, a woman has won only 14 times. With de Kretser’s win the count creeps up to 15. The awards were notable this year for being the first in the prize’s 56-year history to have an all-female shortlist.

According to Neville, chair of the judging panel, the 2013 Miles Franklin was also one of the largest with 72 entries, and he described the judging process as “exhaustive”. Of Questions of Travel, which takes its name from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, Neville said:

Michelle de Kretser’s wonderful novel centres on two characters, with two stories, each describing a different journey. The stories intertwine and pull against one another, and within this double narrative, de Kretser explores questions of home and away, travel and tourism, refugees and migrants, as well as “questions of travel” in the virtual world, charting the rapid changes in electronic communication that mark our lives today. She brings these large questions close-up and personal with her witty and poignant observations and her vivid language. Her novel is about keeping balance in a speeding, spinning world.

Michelle de Kretser was born in Sri Lanka and emigrated to Australia when she was 14. She was educated in Melbourne and Paris and has worked as an academic, an editor and a book reviewer. She has written three previous novels: The Rose Grower; The Hamilton Case; and The Lost Dog, which won Book of the Year at the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards and was longlisted for the 2008 Orange Prize for Fiction and the 2008 Man Booker Prize.

Neville was joined on the judging panel by Murray Waldren, journalist at The Australian newspaper; Anna Low, a Sydney bookseller; Craig Munro, book historian and former editor at UQP; and Emeritus Professor Susan Sheridan.

The shortlisted titles

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This year’s miles franklin is all woman

Well this is curious. Women outnumbered men on the Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist by 4:1, and now the judges – for the first time in the Award’s 57-year history – have turned out a shortlist that is 100% female. The all-female shortlist comes less than two weeks after the inaugural Stella Prize of $50,000 for a book by a female Australian author was awarded to Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds. The Stella, which retrieves the given-name Miles Franklin felt she needed to suppress in order to be taken seriously as a writer, was created in indignant response to the all-male shortlists the Franklin served up in 2009 and 2011.

milesWell this is curious. Women outnumbered men on the Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist by 4:1, and now the judges – for the first time in the Award’s 57-year history – have turned out a shortlist that is 100% female:

The all-female shortlist comes less than two weeks after the inaugural Stella Prize of $50,000 for a book by a female Australian author was awarded to Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds.

The Stella, which retrieves the given-name Miles Franklin felt she needed to suppress in order to be taken seriously as a writer, was created in indignant response to the all-male shortlists the Franklin served up in 2009 and 2011.

But any point of distinction the Stella Prize sought to make has not eventuated. In fact the 2013 Stella and Franklin shortlists look remarkably similar.

Not only are both lists composed entirely of women, but Tiffany and de Krester appear on both. And while first-time novelist Romy Ash fell off the Stella shortlist, she has held her ground in the Miles Franklin.

But in what appears to be a blatant – but not unwelcome – effort to muscle its way back to Australia’s top dog literary prize, this year the Miles Franklin has increased its cash prize by $10,000 to $60,000.

And Miles Franklin shortlisted authors needn’t feel pressured to follow Carrie Tiffany’s generous lead in returning $10,000 of her Stella Prize win to share equally among her shortlisted comrades.

In another new initiative, Miles Franklin shortlisted authors will be awarded $5,000 in prize money by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, a long term partner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It’s a win-win situation, for Australian women authors at least.

Speaking on behalf of The Trust Company, which manages the estate of the late Miles Franklin, Simon Lewis congratulated all the shortlisted authors:

The shortlist demonstrates how strong Australia’s pipeline of female literary talent really is, as witnessed with last year’s Miles Franklin winner, Anna Funder, as well as by the growing number of first time female authors included in the long and shortlists in recent years.

“We look forward to announcing yet another outstanding Australian female literary talent on the 19 June as the 2013 Miles Franklin Award winner,” Mr Lewis said.

Since the Miles Franklin Award began in 1957, a woman has won only 14 times. This year the count creeps up to 15.

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Carrie tiffany wins a stella prize of her own

The Stella Prize, which comes with a whopping $50,000 purse, is Australia’s newest literary prize celebrating Australian women authors. Australia’s other “gendered” prizes for literature include The Kibble Literary Award ($30,000) for a fiction or nonfiction book by an established Australian woman writer; and The Dobbie Literary Award ($5,000) for a first published work by an Australian woman writer. Australian women writers are also eligible to enter Britain’s The Women’s Prize for Fiction (AU$45,000), awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English. It is not impossible that a first book by an Australian woman author could sweep all of these prizes in a literary superfecta amassing a tidy $130,000.

stella-logo-largeThe Stella Prize, which comes with a whopping $50,000 purse, is Australia’s newest literary prize celebrating Australian women authors. Australia’s other “gendered” prizes for literature include The Kibble Literary Award ($30,000) for a fiction or nonfiction book by an established Australian woman writer; and The Dobbie Literary Award ($5,000) for a first published work by an Australian woman writer. Australian women writers are also eligible to enter Britain’s The Women’s Prize for Fiction (£30,000/AU$45,000), awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English.

It is not impossible that a first book by an Australian woman author could sweep all of these prizes in a literary superfecta amassing a tidy $130,000. Which is exactly what Carrie Tiffany – who last night was awarded the inaugural Stella Prize for her novel, Mateship with Birds – looks set to do.

Of course Tiffany can’t win the Dobbie because Mateship with Birds is her second novel. But that shouldn’t worry her greatly, as she already won it in 2007 for her debut novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living.

In addition to last night’s win, Mateship with Birds is currently longlisted for the Kibble and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. And it might even pick up The Barbara Jefferis Award – a $35,000 prize for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society” – which is yet to release a shortlist.

It does’t end there. Mateship with Birds is also longlisted for Australia’s most prestigious literary award, The Miles Franklin, which fueled the gender debate when it served up all-male shortlists in 2009 and 2011. Perhaps in response to these criticisms, this year’s longlist sees the largest number of female authors selected since the longlist was first introduced in 2005.

Of winning the Stella Prize, Tiffany said: “It is astonishing and lovely to be the first recipient of this new prize. The Stella Prize is an opportunity to fete and honour writing by Australian women.

When I sit down to write I am anchored by all of the books I have read. My sentences would not have been possible without the sentences of Christina Stead, Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley, Beverley Farmer, Kate Grenville, Gillian Mears, Helen Garner and the many other fine Australian writers that I have read and continue to read.

At the award night, Tiffany announced that she wanted to donate $10,000 of the Stella prize money back to be split equally among the other five shortlistees:

  • The Burial by Courtney Collins (Allen & Unwin)
  • Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin)
  • The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson (Five Islands Press)
  • Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy (Scribe Publications)
  • Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin)

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Mateship with birds: you have to push in

Review of Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany

Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living was always going to be a tough book to follow. Carry Tiffany’s début novel, published by Picador in 2005, was shortlisted for various prizes, including the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Orange Prize. It also won the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award in 2005 and the Dobbie Literary Award in 2007. Everyman’s Rules tells the story of a sewing instructor and a soil scientist who meet aboard the ‘Better Farming Train’ as it passes through the Victorian countryside, and who settle in the impoverished Mallee farmland. Similarly, Tiffany’s new novel, Mateship with Birds, opens in Cohuna, a small town in northern Victoria, in 1953. Harry is a middle-aged dairy farmer, divorced and looking for love.

066558-carrie-tiffanyEveryman’s Rules for Scientific Living was always going to be a tough book to follow. Carry Tiffany’s début novel, published by Picador in 2005, was shortlisted for various prizes, including the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Orange Prize. It also won the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award in 2005 and the Dobbie Literary Award in 2007. Everyman’s Rules tells the story of a sewing instructor and a soil scientist who meet aboard the ‘Better Farming Train’ as it passes through the Victorian countryside, and who settle in the impoverished Mallee farmland.

Similarly, Tiffany’s new novel, Mateship with Birds, opens in Cohuna, a small town in northern Victoria, in 1953. Harry is a middle-aged dairy farmer, divorced and looking for love. He has his eye on Betty Reynolds, the unmarried mother of Michael and Little Hazel, who rents a small house next door. Betty is forty-five; for eight years Harry has watched her body age: ‘When she turns to speak to him he notices her softening jaw and her mouth – the lipstick on her front teeth.’ The air around them is thick with reticence. If there is sexual tension between them, it is buried deep. There doesn’t seem to be much need for talk, the narrator observes, but sometimes they talk about bunions.

Given its title – borrowed from A.H. Chisholm’s 1922 book of bird notes – a reader could be forgiven for thinking Tiffany’s novel is about ornithology. To a small degree it is. Harry observes a family of kookaburras that roost on his farm, and records his notes in poetry. Harry’s first poem, ‘Observations of a Kookaburra Family at Cohuna’, is written for Betty’s fourteen-year-old son, Michael. It begins:

The day starts in their throats.
Dad first, then Mum,
Tiny and Club-Toe.
The form of them in the red gum
by the dairy.
As regular as clockwork
they make their request for air.

Clichés aside (‘regular as clockwork’), at times the poems deliver a pleasing turn of phrase. Harry doesn’t pretend to be a poet, so there is not much use in applying a critical eye to his work. But given that his six poems span almost forty pages (approximately twenty per cent of the novel), Tiffany might have been wiser to submit Harry’s ramblings to a severe pruning. By any standard, the poems are too long, reliant on generalities, and painfully repetitive. How many times, for instance, can a reader encounter the likes of this without being tempted to skip ahead: ‘They come at dusk, / one by one. / Mum, Dad, / Club-Toe / and Bub.’

But poetry is not all that Harry is inspired to write. One day, after a morning spent artificially inseminating heifers, Harry stumbles upon Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex, which – along with the courtship rituals of spiders – presents a series of case studies detailing the sexual histories of ordinary men and women.

In the evenings, armed with a cup of Milo, a sharpened pencil, and several sheets of Basildon Bond, Harry sits down to write his own intimate disclosures. He begins with his earliest memories of sexual arousal at age four or five, moves through various teen gratifications, and concludes with the pleasures and problems of his former conjugal bed. Harry addresses his letters to Michael in an effort to save the boy from the sexual ignorance Harry himself had experienced.

But Harry is not content to restrict his tutelage to theory. In one of the most bizarre scenes in the novel – and it must be said, there are many – Harry takes Michael behind the dairy to where the phalaris grass has gone to seed. Michael looks on as Harry clips the seed heads and prunes the clump. Harry clears his throat:

Strong and wiry, Michael, the female pubic bush. Coarse. Nothing like the soft hair of the head. I’ve always thought of it more as fur than hair. Similar colouring can be expected. Dark hair, dark bush; mousy hair, mousy bush and so on, and it’ll all go to grey in the end with senile decay. Not that you have to worry about that for a while, eh?

Harry takes Michael’s hand and places it on top of the phalaris. ‘Don’t be tempted to stay on the surface,’ he instructs, ‘you have to push in.’ Still holding Michael’s hand, Harry concludes: ‘The pubic bush. A bloody miracle. And it has no sense of gravity. Despite being stuck halfway up in the air most of the time, from what I can see it doesn’t droop.’

It is not clear what Michael – or the reader for that matter – is to make of these ‘lessons’, but needless to say when Betty learns of the sexual tutelage Harry has given her son, she is not happy. Worryingly, the novel’s easy resolution invites the reader to disregard Harry’s actions rather than see them as, at minimum, outrageously misguided and – it must be said – a little icky.

Conceivably an exploration of 1950s sexuality might have made a fascinating study, but ultimately Tiffany’s new novel offers little insight into the most fundamental of human desires. Her characters, uniformly doleful, remain opaque throughout, and the narrative fails to achieve lift off. Perhaps Tiffany would have done better to cast her material as a short story and save her second novel for one more fitting of the talent promised by her impressive first.

This article was originally published under the title ‘Dubious Lessons’ in Australian Book Review 338 (Feb 2012): 27.