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.

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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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Powers we pretend to understand: funder’s all that I am

Review of All that I Am by Anna Funder

“When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.” The sentence shocks with its indulgence – the bather’s husband is in the kitchen crushing limes for mojitos – as it conjures the vulnerability of naked flesh against the army of jackboots that are about to descend upon Europe. It also happens to be the first sentence of Anna Funder’s debut novel, All That I Am, which has had a busy time of late garnering literary awards and accolades. In addition to winning the Indie Book of the Year award, the Australian Book Industry Book of the Year, and the $35,000 Barbara Jefferis Award, it has been shortlisted for the $80,000 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for fiction.

ImageGen.ashx“When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.” The sentence shocks with its indulgence – the bather’s husband is in the kitchen crushing limes for mojitos – as it conjures the vulnerability of naked flesh against the army of jackboots that are about to descend upon Europe.

It also happens to be the first sentence of Anna Funder’s debut novel, All That I Am, which has had a busy time of late garnering literary awards and accolades. In addition to winning the Indie Book of the Year award, the Australian Book Industry Book of the Year, and the $35,000 Barbara Jefferis Award, it has been shortlisted for the $80,000 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for fiction.

All of which has fuelled speculation that All That I Am is a front-runner for this year’s Miles Franklin Award, which will be announced on Wednesday night in Brisbane.

Funder’s novel follows her impressive non-fiction title, Stasiland: Stories Behind the Berlin War, which presented first-hand accounts of life in the former German Democratic Republic. Whereas in Stasiland, Funder focused on post-war Germany, in All That I Am she has turned her attention to the decade preceding the war when Europe resolved – as left-wing German playwright Ernst Toller put it – “to hurl herself into the abyss of suicide”.

The narrative centres on a coterie of German dissidents – cousins, Ruth Becker and Dora Fabian, and their respective lovers, Hans Wesemann and Ernst Toller – whose political agitating against Hitler and his Third Reich necessitated their hasty departure from Germany and their subsequent resettlement in London as refugees.

The persecution the exiles suffer unfortunately doesn’t stop at the Channel, and their story builds to a harrowing – and tragic – denouement.

Funder came to the story through her friendship with Ruth Blatt, the novel’s dedicatee whose extraordinary life inspired the character of Ruth Becker.

Ruth – the sole survivor of the group – spent five years in solitary confinement in a German prison before securing her passage to Australia (via Shanghai) in 1947. She lived the next fifty years of her life alone in a flat in Bondi Junction. Funder has said:

In conversation, Ruth would move from criticising Hitler to criticising our own government at the time, in a way that made it clear that when you are living through something, there are some people who can see things for what they are (whether that’s dire, or just moderately unpalatable), and will always speak out. It is this kind of courage that fascinated me, along with the moral compass that underlies it.

All That I Am is a novel that questions the ubiquity of the human conscience, yet it insists on its cultivation. We ignore our conscience – or allow its distortion – at our peril. History shows that the consequences can be mighty.

As WH Auden (who makes a cameo appearance in Funder’s novel) writes in his poem, “In Memory of Ernst Toller”: 

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our lives; it is they who direct us at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our own hand.

It’s true All That I Am is a dark novel, but as history and a warning there aren’t many more important.

The Conversation

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XX chromosomes returned to the Miles Franklin

439628-anna-funderJust because it’s the debate we had to have, didn’t mean it wasn’t going to hurt.

The fracas began in 2011 when the Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin, unveiled its all-male shortlist.

The gender imbalance might have gone unnoticed, if it hadn’t coincided with the latest VIDA research that revealed an alarming under-representation of female authors and critics in international literary pages.

Back in Australia, female authors were horrified to find VIDA’s inequities replicated in Australian publications. In sharp response, Sophie Cunningham and a handful of writers, publishers and commentators decided to do something about the lack of profile accorded female authors.

The result is a $50,000 literary prize for a book in any genre by a female Australian author: The Stella Prize. The eponymous award retrieves the given-name Miles Franklin believed she needed to suppress in order to be taken seriously as a writer.

Forwarding a year, Professor Gillian Whitlock announced, at the Mitchell Library in Sydney today, a very different Miles Franklin shortlist for 2012:

Speaking on behalf of the judging panel, Whitlock framed the shortlist in terms experience rather than gender: “The breadth of the shortlist includes well-known and loved Australian authors, as well as featuring two wonderful first-time novelists.”

She also highlighted the power of historical fiction (Funder and Moore) and an observable turn to trauma narratives and childhood (Birch, Mears and Parrett).

Debates on gender – along with the concurrent debate on the invisibility of Australian literature – are useful and will lead to greater understanding of our literary milieu. But it would be a travesty if these conversations were to throw doubt over the merits of the female authors shortlisted amid the uproar.

Frank Moorhouse is the heavy hitter on the list, but from what I hear the contest is still very much alive. The winner will be announced in a ceremony at the State Library of Queensland in Brisbane on 20 June.

The Conversation

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Foreword: The Best Australian Poetry 2008

The editor of this volume, David Brooks, has included work from many poets who have not appeared before and his distinctive “take” on contemporary poetry (he has been an editor of the venerable journal, Southerly, since 2000) has resulted in a deeply satisfying collection. Brooks’s most recent poetry has been a poetry of experience, passion and momentary distillations into meaning or action, and one senses something of this in his selection.

Guest Editor: David BrooksGuest editor: David Brooks
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

The sixth collection in our series is another reminder of the richness of contemporary poetry in Australia and the fact that this richness can only be adequately sampled by different editors who each bring their own perspectives to the scene. The editor of this volume, David Brooks, has included work from many poets who have not appeared before and his distinctive “take” on contemporary poetry (he has been an editor of the venerable journal, Southerly, since 2000) has resulted in a deeply satisfying collection.

This is not the place to launch into a full-scale description of Brooks’s writing, but it is worth noting that his high reputation as a writer of elegant short stories, his extensive academic/critical work, and a Miles Franklin shortlisted novel have, for a long while, obscured his status as a poet. His first book, The Cold Front, was published twenty-five years ago and the title of his second, Walking to Point Clear: Poems 1983-2002 reveals that, although his fiction and criticism might have been better known, he has never stopped being a poet.

Now, with the publication of his fourth book of poetry imminent, readers will be able to see the results of an extended commitment in better perspective. To summarise some of the results of this perspective, one can see that his early poetry was infused with the influence of contemporary US poets such as Galway Kinnell and Robert Bly. His third book, on the other hand, was filled with poems of energy and intensity, suggesting the presence of a figure more like Bruce Beaver. It would be fascinating to trace the consistencies that underlie such radically different sorts of poems but, for this anthology, it is worth focussing on a sense of poetry as intensely embedded in life itself. Brooks’s most recent poetry has been a poetry of experience, passion and momentary distillations into meaning or action, and one senses something of this in his selection.

One of the reasons for the high number of new poets may, of course, be the fact that Brooks has been able to include poems from sources not available to previous editors: as we flagged last year, this year we would begin to include on-line journals such as Jacket and Cordite in our catchment area. That was not an easy decision though many of our reservations (on-line journals often contain previously published work etc) may have been no more than the prejudices of essentially print-based editors.

Reading Brooks’s selection (and yielding momentarily to the cliché that the internet is especially good at doing the fleetingly present) one is reminded of poetry’s power to give us some kind of impression of life as it is in the process of being lived. There is a dangerous metaphor which hovers in the background here, but the word “capture” is far too simplistic to give any sense of the complex possibilities of what is happening when poetry sets out to engage the everyday.

It is amazing how many of these poems are filled with the sense of “Here I am” or “I am doing this” – in Jennifer Maiden’s case: “So, here / I am in bed with one silk sheet – / a Chinatown bargain – rippling its water / on my legs”. But the ways in which this kind of poetry engages with the world are almost endless in their variety: there is all the difference in the world between, say, Michael Aiken’s “Victoria Street, Darlinghurst” and Robert Kenny’s “An Australian Suburban Garden” – both, interestingly, appearing in on-line journals. In the former the poet, as recording eye, limits himself to what he can see and hear but the results are structured so that we see a picture of animals alive and dead framed by pictures of humans, all involved in motion. In Kenny’s poem, we are taken much closer to the way that the mind travels while the body stands (or, in this case, sits) still. And Kenny’s mind, being what it is, travels continuously to literary and artistic references. Although Kathryn Lomer’s complex double sestina, “The Fencer and His Mate” and Jan Owen’s “Boat Harbour Beach” are both portraits rather than slabs of reality, they are portraits of what can be seen from a specific vantage point: in the latter case, men seen while the poet is writing. The connection between writer and workmen is wryly stated: “all of us trying to move the earth”. The men, so acutely observed, are figures in a landscape and we sense that they are figures which just happen to impinge on the poet’s consciousness.

Tass Holmes’ “Mum’s Taxi”, Sarah Tiffen’s “Rain Event in the Whispering Country” record the experience of living, in the latter case with a good deal of rhapsody. In both these poems, as in Ross Clark’s “Full-Bucket Moon”, reality is not left entirely to its own devices when it comes to representing itself. Mythic structures hover in the background. The life of the family of “Mum’s Taxi” is lived “in a rain-shadow on the side of a recumbent woman-mountain” (I thought, the first time that I read this poem in its journal, that “Under the Mountain” might have been a better title) and both the Clark and the Tiffen almost dissolve in their own mythic structures.

Other poems are portraits. But even Brook Emery’s “In the Hollow of a Wave”, which is a complexly organised portrait of Bondi Beach, is attuned to the way in which life is lived: here the ever present waves represent the continuous unfolding of the phenomenal world. In John Kinsella”s “Imitation Spatiologue (Sublime)” the fury of being harassed by “the ski-boat fraternity” on their way to a lake spins out into complex analyses of the formation of the lake itself. On a lighter note, John Jenkins “Dad Says” is a kind of portrait of life lived in popular sayings. On one level it is a portrait of a language – a recording of a specific language – but it can just as well be described as a poem in which these tart clichés determine how we experience life. In Geoffrey Lehmann’s “Self-Portrait at 62” the author defines himself not by analysis but by letting us see what he does. Here the implied structures are not mythic but poetic and the poem concludes by redefining poetry:

Poetry is incidental. / I am my poem.