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Monday musings on Australian literature: Emerging or debut writer awards

April 21, 2014

Almost as important for emerging writers as the unpublished manuscript awards, about which I wrote recently, are the awards devoted to new, mostly defined as debut, writers. That is, these awards are for writers lucky enough to have been published – and who knows, some may have won an unpublished manuscript award to get published – but are just starting their careers, and may not be quite as polished as the Tim Wintons and Kate Grenvilles of the world. New writer awards must surely help get them and their books noticed.

These awards too can vary in their intentions and therefore their eligibility rules. Here are the main ones I found:

  • Dobbie Award: Established in 1994. Awarded to a first published fiction or non-fiction work by a female writer that can be described as ‘life writing’. Offers $5,000. Recent winners include works which went on to be shortlisted for the other awards such as Favel Parret’s Past the shallows, and Deborah Forster’s The book of Emmett. Tara June Winch, who’d won the David Unaipon unpublished manuscript award went on to win this award with the published version, Swallow the air.
  • FAW Anne Elder Award for first book of poetry: Awarded to a first book of poetry of at least 20 pages, not previously published locally or overseas, and containing contributions from between 1 and 4 poets. Offers $1,000. (National and state Fellowship of Australian Writers groups support a large number of awards in a wide variety of forms and genres, and with all sorts of eligibility conditions. I’ve listed this one as an example.)
  • New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing: Established in 2005.  Awarded to a book of fiction by an author who has not previously published a booklength work of fiction. Offers $5,000. Tara June Winch also won this with Swallow the air, as did Andrew Coome’s Document Z (my review) and Michael Sala’s The last thread (my review).
  • Readings New Australian Writing Award: Established in 2014 by the Readings independent bookshop in Melbourne. Awarded to a the first or second published work of fiction by an Australian author. Offers $4,000.

There aren’t so many of these which is probably not surprising. I’d be interested to hear, though, of any others that you know are currently being offered/awarded.

Preparing to visit friends, Jane Austen style

April 19, 2014

One of the things we learn through Jane Austen’s letters – and indeed through her novels – is how much visiting and travelling people did in the early eighteenth century. They travelled to stay with or help out friends and family; they travelled for health purposes (such as to take the Waters at Bath); they travelled to see sights; and they travelled for business. Since we are currently on a brief trip to North America to visit friends and family, it seems appropriate to share some words from my favourite wise writer, Jane Austen.

In late 1800, Jane Austen was preparing to stay with her dear friend Martha Lloyd*. Here is a letter she wrote to Martha regarding that visit:

You distress me cruelly by your request for Books; I cannot think of any to bring with me, nor have I any idea of wanting them. I come to you to be talked to, not to read or hear reading. I can do THAT at home; & indeed am now laying in a stock of intelligence to pour out on you as MY share of Conversation.  - I am reading Henry’s History of England, which I will repeat to you in any manner you may prefer, either in a loose, disultary, unconnected strain, or dividing my recital as the Historian divides it himself, into seven parts, The Civil & Military – Religion - Constitution – Learning & Learned Men – Arts & Sciences – Commerce Coins & Shipping – & Manners; – so that for every evening of the week there will be a different subject; The friday’s lot, Commerce, Coin & Shipping, You will find the least entertaining; but the next Eveng:’s portion will make amends. – With such a provision on my part, if you will do your’s by repeating the French Grammar, & Mrs** Stent will now & then ejaculate some wonder about the Cocks & Hens, what can we want? (Letter 26, 12 November, 1800, to Martha Lloyd)

This tells us quite a lot about Jane and her friend, about their relationship and how they liked to spend their time together. It gives us insight into Austen’s cheeky humour and her comfort in teasing her friend. It also tells us about her times, the books people read and how they read them. And, it shows us that deciding what books to take with you on your holiday is not a new problem – even though on this occasion Austen plans to eschew books in favour of conversation with her friend!

Now, what books shall I find time to read while away … you’ll have to watch this blog to find out.

* Martha Lloyd is a significant person in Jane Austen’s life (and therefore biography). She was a long-standing friend whom Jane saw as a second sister. She later came to live with Jane, her mother and sister when they moved to Chawton and, many years after Jane’s death, she married Jane’s brother, Frank, after his wife had died. Her recipes form the basis of The Jane Austen Cookbook, compiled by Maggie Black and Deirdre Le Faye. Martha Lloyd’s chicken curry is a regular presence at my Jane Austen group’s Regency potluck get togethers.

NOTE: The asterisks in the letter are not footnote-related but are some sort of artefact in the University of Virginia e-text edition of the letters I used .

Kirsten Krauth, just_a_girl (Review)

April 16, 2014
Kirst Krauth, Just a girl

Courtesy: UWA Publishing

If you’ve already heard about Kirsten Krauth’s debut novel just_a_girl, you’ll know something about its confronting nature - and it is confronting, though perhaps not quite in the way I expected. It was both more and less, if that makes sense.

However, if you’re not Australian, you may not have heard about this novel. Essentially a coming-of-age story, just_a_girl is told in three voices. Two are first person – Layla, a 14 to 15 year-old-girl, and Margot, her mother – and the other is, interestingly, told third person, Tadashi, a lonely Japanese man. The main voice, though, is Layla. She opens and closes the novel, which is set around 2008 in Sydney and the Blue Mountains.

Layla typifies the modern knowing teenage daughter that parents worry they may have. She’s sexually precocious and is acutely aware of her effect on men. She’s what many would call “a tease”. She tells us, though, that she’s a virgin (technically, anyhow, because she’s done pretty much everything else). She wants, she says, to wait until she’s 16:

Fifteen just seems too skanky. You tell your kids you lost your virginity at 15. They’ll just want to do it even younger.

This tells us something more about Layla – her street-wise wisdom. It’s believable because Layla has had to grow up fast. Her parents separated when she was in primary school because her father finally admitted his homosexuality. Her mother, prone to depression, turned to an evangelical church. Layla has learnt to navigate these waters with smart talking, and by using all the weapons at her disposal including personal attributes and modern technology. With studied insouciance, she tells us about her relationships, with her mother, her friend, her father, and various boys and men. She is not innocent, but she is also abused in several ways, by old and young, through the novel.

Meanwhile, her mother Margot struggles with depression, a sense of rejection and failure, and consequent inability to properly relate to her daughter. She has turned to God, but unfortunately the church she has chosen, with its hypocritical leader, is unlikely to be her salvation. You see how easily relationships can go awry during these turbulent years if family members are not strong and confident in themselves. But, Krauth keeps it real. This is not melodramatic. There are no over-the-top mother-daughter scenes, just lack of real communication leading to distance and lack of mutual support where both need it. By the end of the novel both have learnt something and are starting to see each other as people, rather than simply as roles. In other words, it’s not only Layla who needs to grow in this contemporary coming-of-age novel.

Into this mix is added a third voice, Tadashi. He often travels on the same train as Layla, and on one occasion rescues her from a risky situation. Like Margot, he’s lonely, used to relying on a mother who has now gone. In scenes reminiscent of the bitter-sweet movie Lars and the Real Girl he orders and takes possession of a sex (or love) doll which he sees as “a person” who will alleviate his loneliness. In some ways it’s an odd inclusion in the story but, besides his probably not essential role as rescuer, he adds another angle to the exploration of loneliness and relationships, and the use and misuse of sex to address gaps in people’s lives.

In her “Sources and permissions” note, Krauth tells us about her sources for “love dolls” and other ideas or events in the novel. She also explains that some of Layla’s comments have been inspired by teenagers who have appeared on SBS’s Insight program. She has listened well, because from my experience of similar programs I felt very comfortable (if one can call it that!) with Layla’s voice. She’s so fresh, so funny, so knowing, that you can’t help liking her and worrying about her vulnerability, while also being horrified.  Here’s a short example:

Mum says I have to be careful now that I’m in year 9. Because men will start looking at me in a new way. Fuckadoodle, they’ve been looking at me like that for years. Especially when I eat Chupa Chups on the train.

I was going to share the Chupa Chups (“I have a favourite game on the train trip home from school”) episode with you, but I reckon you should read it yourselves. It would be funny if it weren’t so disturbing. It’s a fine piece of writing about a sexualised young girl who “knows” too much. Talk about playing with fire!

Margot’s voice is quite different – the long run-on sentences versus Layla’s short ones convey her anxiety and uncertainty well. Here she is, for example:

When is this soul-searching going to end, I mean, I knew coming off the meds would be hard as I’ve tried it a few times before but it’s like I’ve sunk into a bog, and it’s been a horrendous week because of that film Layla hired, Brokeback Mountain, you know she loves Heath Ledger and was completely devastated when he died last year and everyone thought … [and on she goes for several more lines]

I feared at times that Krauth was trying to pack too much in – single mother, gay father, hypocritical evangelical church, breast cancer scare, viral you-tube, sex doll, workplace sexual harassment, and so on – but no, she made it work. They are treated as things that happen. She doesn’t trivialise, but neither does she labour. Instead, she keeps her focus on the main game, which is how we, and particularly young people and their parents, must navigate the modern digital world with its potential for serious ill, and how in such a world might we still forge meaningful relationships. A thoroughly modern book for a thoroughly modern audience. It will be interesting to see what Krauth does next.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also liked the book.

awwchallenge2014Kirsten Krauth
just_a_girl
Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2013
265pp.
ISBN: 9781742584959

(Review copy supplied by UWA Publishing)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Juvenilia Press

April 14, 2014

Literature enthusiasts are often not happy to just read their favourite authors’ novels. They (we) want to read everything written by our favourites. This can include letters, diaries and juvenilia. I have written before about Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, including a review of her story Love and freindship (sic). Her early works provide a wonderful insight into the development of her craft – both her style and her ideas.

Yesterday, I attended the excellent Mansfield Park Symposium at the Jane Austen Festival of Australia, about which I plan to post later. During the tea-break I browsed the little sales area and came across a collection of Jane Austen juvenilia works published by the Juvenilia Press. Naturally I bought a couple of their publications. What, you are probably wondering by now, does this have to do with Australian Literature? Read on …

Juvenilia Press was founded in 1994 at the University of Alberta, but moved in 2001 to the University of New South Wales. It is a non-profit international initiative managed by the School of the Arts and Media in the University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. It is, as I understand it, a teaching press. Students are involved in “editing, annotating, designing and illustrating, under the supervision of established scholars from Britain, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, the United States, and Australia”. It is, in other words, also a scholarly undertaking. The publications are peer-reviewed, are reviewed in scholarly journals, and have been recognised by the Times Literary Supplement.

The Press defines juvenilia as early writings by children and adolescents up to around 20 years of age. It has published works by Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood, Charlotte Brontë, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Philip Larkin,  Margaret Laurence and …

Mary Grant Bruce, Early Tales

Courtesy: Juvenilia Press

Here’s the exciting part … Australian authors. Those published to date, are:

  • Mary Grant Bruce’s The early tales
  • Eleanor Dark’s Juvenilia
  • Dorothy Hewett’s The gipsy dancer and early poems
  • Ethel Turner’s Tales from the Parthenon

These gorgeous little books are priced around $12-15. As well as containing the author’s text, they include “light-hearted illustration, scholarly annotation, and an introduction that relates this work to the author’s mature writing”. The writers of these pieces are credited on the title page, as is the overall editor. For example, Jane Austen’s men, which contains four short pieces by her about men, such as “The adventure of Mr Harley”, was “edited by Sylvia Hunt and the students of ENGL3116 (English Romantic Literature) of Laurentian University at Georgian College”. The names of those who produced the introduction, annotations and illustrations are identified below that. Looks to me like a wonderful example of pedagogy in practice, with serious scholarship providing the backbone.

I have ordered the four Australian books I’ve listed here, and plan to write them up over the coming months as I manage to read them. If you would like to order any of the books, you need to print the form and mail it to the Press. Sounds like they need to get some IT or Accounting students involved to organise on-line ordering and payment!

It is in Jane Austen’s juvenilia piece, Catharine, or the bower, that we find her oft-quoted statement:

but for my own part, if a book is well-written, I always find it too short.

Juvenilia pieces are usually short, for pretty obvious reasons, but in their case, that’s usually part of their charm.

Performers and the audience

April 13, 2014

Have you ever been to a show – a concert, a play, a ballet, for example – and wondered about the performers? How do they relate to each other? What do they do in their spare time? Well, quite coincidentally, two shows I went to last week looked at this question from different angles.

First, Musica Viva. We in Canberra were the last concert in the tour by young London-based trio, the Sitkotvesky Trio which comprises Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Wu Qian (piano), and Leonard Eischenbroich (cello). They are all in their twenties and have been good friends since they met as young children – preteen – at the Yehudi Menuhin School. We decided to attend the after concert Q&A. While some of the questions related to their artistic practice and influences, some addressed those questions that clearly I’m not the only one to ponder, such as whether they remember their first meetings with each other, and how their current extra-curricular interests might influence their playing.

In the program, Chinese pianist Wu Qian talked about her fascination with English literature and how she read all the Jane Austen novels after arriving in England. She was 13 years old, I believe, when she started at the school. Most interesting though was Russian violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky’s answer at the Q&A. He arrived at the school when he was around 8 years old and, being so young, apparently lost all facility with his language. He returned to Russia for the first time when he was 17 years old and was embarrassed by his lack of skill in his own language. He couldn’t even read billboards he said. And so he set about rectifying that. It’s so wonderful, he said, to be able to read Tolstoy and Pushkin in the original language. As a reader, I totally understood that. German cellist Leonard Eischenbroich, on the other had, spoke of the importance of recognising the moment when you are independent of teachers and influences – not in the sense that you stop learning from others but in terms of being confident in the sort of musician you are and able to assess external input on your own terms.

And then, the next night we attended the Sydney Dance Company’s show, Interplay. It comprised three dances, “2 in D Minor” (by Rafael Bonachela), “Raw Models” (by Jacopo Godani), and “L’Chaim” (Gideon Obarzanek). They were three wonderful and very different performances, but the one I want to talk about here is the last, “L’Chaim”, which, you might know, means “To life” in Hebrew/Yiddish. It is a dance that directly addresses both the audience’s curiosity about the artists as well as what an audience member might seek from attending a performance. It’s a clever, entertaining and provocative piece.

“L’Chaim” is a work that combines dance (choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek) and text (written by David Woods). It commences with the dancers on stage in – hmm – play clothes, dancing or, perhaps, rehearsing a dance. They dance, stop and talk, and dance again. But, while this is going on, they are being asked questions from the audience. Often the questions are directed to individual dancers – “the German-looking one”, “the youngest”, “you with the spiky hair” – and so a microphone is passed around from dancer to dancer who attempts to answer questions while continuing to dance. And the questions are those we might like to ask: “Who is the youngest?”, “Are you grumpy”, “Does it take a lot of strength to do that?”, “Say your cat died yesterday and you had to bury it – would you be sad when you were dancing? What would it look like?”, and “Do you know what we want?”. The dancer’s answer to the latter was “to be entertained”. She went on to suggest that the audience doesn’t want to be made to feel sad”. The interrogation ends only when the questioner admits to being sad and is invited onto the stage.

The writer of the text, David Wood, writes in the program that we audience members fear being asked “What did you think”? (I know that feeling!). He says that “it isn’t easy to put into words the event that we have just been a part of”. And so, he says:

In “L’Chaim” we have attempted to dive into this murky zone … some of the questions are shallow and some downright disrespectful but our voice needs to wade through this initial trivia to get to the heart of its dilemma – to articulate something beyond the literal.

After the intensity of “2 in D Minor” and the confronting power of “Raw Models”, “L’Chaim” brought us back to reality, to thinking about what it is that we seek in dance, or, indeed, in any performance we attend. It didn’t provide an answer, of course, because there isn’t a simple one, but it gave us freedom to explore our reactions on multiple levels – the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. It’s an unusual piece, and may not be everyone’s cup-of-tea, but I laughed when I recognised myself in the superficial questions and I appreciated its acknowledgement of my uncertainty about articulating the meaning of what I’ve experienced.

What do you ponder when attending live performances?

The Shows:

  • Musica Viva, The Sitkovetsky Trio, performed Lewellyn Hall, ANU School of Music, April 14, 2014
  • Sydney Dance Company, Interplay, performed Canberra Theatre Centre, April 10-12, 2014

Angela Meyer (ed), The great unknown (Review)

April 11, 2014
Angela Meyer, The great unknown

Courtesy: Spineless Wonders

The great unknown is a mind-bending collection of short stories which explores, as editor Angela Meyer says, “the unknown, the mysterious, or even just the slightly off.” I was, in fact, expecting more horror, thriller even, which are genres that don’t really interest me, but this collection is not that. There are some truly scary scenes – so if that’s your bag then you’ll appreciate this collection – but many are more subtly mysterious, giving the collection a broader appeal.

There are nineteen stories, most of which are the result of Meyer’s direct invitation to some favourite authors. Six, though, come from the shortlist for the Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award, 2013, of which Meyer was the judge. The invited authors were given the same brief as that for the competition, which was to write a story inspired by the “fifth dimension”, that is, the world found in shows like The Twilight Zone and The X-Files where inexplicable things happen. The result is a collection of stories that vary greatly in setting, voice, subject matter – and even tone. Some are funny, some sad, most are disconcerting and some, of course, are scary.

The collection starts in a suitably creepy way with Krissy Kneen’s “Sleepwalk” in which the protagonist, Brendan, wakes up in the middle of the night to find his partner, Emily – the sleepwalker of the title – missing from their bed. This doesn’t sound particularly unusual, except that upon investigation Brendan discovers Emily intently taking photos – and not with a modern digital camera, but one requiring “real” film. When developing the photos, they see a blurry grey figure. Who is it? What does it mean? To find out you’ll have to read the story – but I can say that it provides a perfect opener to a collection of stories in which the relationship between a couple is a common springboard. After all, where better to explore the inexplicable but in that closest of human relationships, the one in which love and hate, trust and fear, so often collide.

Several of the stories confront contemporary dilemmas. One of my favourites, and winner of the Carmel Bird Award, is Alexander Cothren’s “A Cure”, a truly disturbing Twlight-Zone-like story about a treatment, the appropriately named MindFi, for compassion fatigue. Another TZ-like story I enjoyed is Guy Salvidge’s “A Void”, which is also futuristic and drops us into a world of “Seekers” and experimental drugs. I’m not sure why I enjoyed these TZ-like stories because it was a Twilight Zone episode that set off the most distressing period of my childhood. I’m sure it was that show that turned me off horror for life – quite the opposite reaction to Angela Meyer’s it seems!

Another clever story, and one with an unexpected narrative point of view, is Mark O’Flynn’s “Bluey and Myrtle” about a caged bird and his old mistress. Both have lost their loves and are lonely, but it’s the self-aware bird who takes things into his own hands. Growing older is also the theme of Susan Yardley’s “Significance” in which a woman’s sense of invisibility and irrelevance manifests itself physically. As a woman of a certain age, I can relate to that (though fortunately not within my own family). This story reminded me of Anne Tyler’s novel Ladder of years, except that Tyler explores her theme without resorting to the “fifth dimension”.

Before I stop picking out favourite stories, of which there are several more, I’ll just mention PM Newton’s “The Local” which perfectly captures life in a remote country town and the dangers that lie within. There are of course stories that I didn’t like as much. For me, the writing in Chris Flynn’s “Sealer’s Cove” was too self-conscious and the time-travel story didn’t grab. And Ali Alizadeh’s satire on the Oprah Winfrey-Lance Armstrong interview in “Truth and reconciliation” was a good idea and funny to a point but a little too heavy-handed for my tastes. Satire is like that, I suppose.

An important part of editing a collection is ordering the contents. Meyer has done a neat job of placing the stories in an order that seems natural and thereby enhances our reading. For example, two outback stories featuring missing people, PM Newton’s “The Local” and Rhys Tate’s “The Koala Motel”, one set in a pub and the other a motel, are placed together. And Paddy O’Reilly’s “Reality TV” is followed by the TV-set show, Alizadeh’s “Truth and reconciliation”. It, in turn, is followed by Guy Salvidge’s “A Void” in which drugs feature. Three stories in a row – by Marion Halligan, Susan Yardley and AS Patrìc – feature missing or disappearing women. Put this way, it sounds a little mechanistic but in fact it provides a subtle underlying coherence to what is a highly varied collection.

Meyer concludes the collection with Ryan O’Neill’s “Sticks and Stones” in which a reader, who smugly comments that “characters in ghost stories behaved as if they’d never read ghost stories”, becomes haunted, hounded even, by words. They move, follow and curse him … words, indeed, are dangerous. Be afraid, be very afraid – but don’t let that put you off reading this book! It’s well worth the odd heart palpitation.

awwchallenge2014Angela Meyer (ed)
The great unknown
Strawberry Hills: Spineless Wonders, 2013
177pp.
ISBN: 9780987447937

(Review copy supplied by Spineless Wonders, via Angela Meyer)

Monday musings on Australian literature : University of Canberra Book of the Year, 2014

April 7, 2014

Last year I wrote about the University of Canberra’s Book of the Year initiative in which they required each new student to read and be prepared to discuss the chosen book for the year. The book was provided gratis to all beginning students, and teaching staff was expected to incorporate the book somewhere in their programs. Last year’s book was the Western Australian writer Craig Silvey’s novel, Jasper Jones.

I finally got around to checking out whether they decided to continue the initiative this year, and I’m pleased to report that they have. Just to refresh your memory, here is how they describe their aims:

The objective of the UC Book Project is to introduce commencing undergraduate students to intellectual life before their studies officially begin, encouraging early engagement with UC on-line resources, informal learning and sharing among all new students, closer connections between staff and students and greater inclusion of the University’s associations, adjuncts and UC Schools.

This year’s book is Emma Donoghue’s award-winning book, Room. It’s an interesting choice. I haven’t read it but from what I’ve heard of it, it’s a book likely to engage people in discussion. However, I do wonder why an Australian book wasn’t chosen. That might sound a little nationalistic I suppose, but I’d like to think that an Australian university saw the promotion of our own literature as one of its roles. It’s not as though there’s nothing suitable for the purpose – surely.

Room was chosen by the panel from a shortlist of five titles, none of which are Australian. The site doesn’t say how the shortlist was chosen. Here it is:

  • Chinaman, by Shehan Karunatilaka (Commonwealth Book Prize Overall winner, 2012, from Sri Lanka)
  • The dubious salvation of Jack V, by Jacques Strauss (Commonwealth Book Prize African Regional winner, 2012)
  • The memory of love, by Aminatta Forna (Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Overall winner, 2011, from Sierra Leone)
  • Room, by Emma Donoghue (Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Canadian Regional winner, 2011)
  • The town that drowned, by Riel Nason (Commonwealth Book Prize Canadian Regional winner, 2012)

Do you detect a theme here? I guess it’s a fair strategy to look at this set of awards for a shortlist. But what about winners from the Pacific region, which includes Australia? The 2011 winner for our region was Kim Scott’s That deadman dance, which is a wonderful book but is probably too literary for the more generalist audience the University of Canberra needs to engage. The 2012 Pacific Regional prize was Cory Taylor’s* Me and Mr Booker. It’s a coming-of-age novel, as was Jasper Jones and some of the books in the 2014 shortlist. It might have been a good candidate for the shortlist.

And now, recognising that I haven’t read Donoghue or Taylor, I’m going to raise a question. Last year’s selected novel was written by a male and this year’s by a female, but in both the narrator is male. Could there be a belief that male students are more likely to read a novel told from a male point of view? Women do appear in the novels, and in Room the mother is a major character, but still … In fact, four of the five shortlisted novels have male narrators or protagonists. Riel Nason’s The town that drowned is the exception. I have, in recent years, read suggestions that (perceived or real?) male student preferences might take priority when choosing reading matter for study on the assumption that female students will read more widely. (Whether this might be because female students want to do so or because they are more likely to comply is an interesting question.)

But this is all conjecture of the sort that we readers like to engage in when we see lists of books. The important thing is that the project – which can’t be cheap – has continued into a second year. An executive summary of a report of the first year is available on-line. I’d love to read the full report.

*Cory Taylor’s My beautiful enemy has been longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin award.

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