Monday musings on Australian literature: Ali Cobby Eckermann’s big prize

Last week’s news that Ali Cobby Eckermann had won a very special prize scuttled my plans for today’s Monday Musings post, which is fine because it can wait, whereas this one can’t. Last year, I wrote about Helen Garner winning the lucrative 2016 Windham-Campbell Prize for Non-Fiction. It was a new prize to me, and is American-based, so imagine my surprise when it popped up again this year through the announcement that indigenous Australian poet, Ali Cobby Eckermann, had won the 2017 Windham-Campbell Prize for Poetry. How wonderful for her, and, by association, for Australian literature, for Australian indigenous writers, and, with Garner and now Eckermann winning, for Australian women writers too.

Eight Wyndham-Campbell Prizes were awarded this year, two each for Fiction, Non-Fiction, Drama and Poetry. This is the first year the awards have included poetry. These prizes, which are open to English-language writers around the world, were “established in 2013 with a gift from the late Donald Windham in memory of his partner of forty years, Sandy M. Campbell”. They’re impressive for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the nominations are made confidentially and judged anonymously, so the recipients have no idea they are in the running until they receive a call from the prize manager. Secondly, the prize is worth USD165,000. That is, each winner receives that amount of money. Now that’s a prize!

Before I get to our winner, just one more thing on the prize. It is awarded at a ceremony during the Windham-Campbell Festival, which happens this year from September 13-15, 2017 at Yale University. The awards ceremony apparently traditionally begins with an invited speaker who gives a talk on “Why I Write.” This year’s speaker will be Karl Ove Knausgård. All the events are apparently free and open to the public. Really, this is philanthropy isn’t it! Now, to …

Ali Cobby Eckermann

The prize announcement page describes her as “Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal Australian”, and the page on her explains her work in these terms:

Through song and story, Ali Cobby Eckermann confronts the violent history of Australia’s Stolen Generations and gives language to unspoken lineages of trauma and loss.

It also says that she founded Australia’s first Aboriginal writers retreat. I didn’t know that.

Southerly 71-2 CoverEckermann has published poetry collections, two verse novels, and a prose memoir. She also edited a special issue of Southerly devoted to indigenous writing. Southerly, congratulating her on win, describes it as their best-selling issue.

On being told of her prize, Eckermann (born 1963) is reported as saying that it will change her life completely. She is currently living in a caravan and looking after her elderly adoptive mother. This money will help her bring her family – including her son and grandsons – together. She is, as you’ll have gathered, a product (I don’t want to say “victim”) of the Stolen Generations. Linda Morris, reporting the win in the Sydney Morning Herald, writes:

In her memoir Too Afraid to Cry, published in 2013, Eckermann related how she had been tricked away from her mother as a baby, repeating the trauma her mother had suffered when she was taken from her grandmother many years before. Eckermann, in turn, had to give her own child up for adoption.

It’s a tough story, and one that reflects, we now know, the lives of many indigenous people. It’s this story, and the wider dispossession of indigenous people, that Eckermann explores in her work. She told Morris that

”I like to think the prize recognises an honest truth around Stolen Generations, for writing around an emotional truth, not academic. I’ve learnt to embrace my emotional baggage and turn it into poetry.”

She sees herself as representing a ”generational voice, not a singular voice”.

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Ruby MoonlightIt might be useful here to list her work:

  • Little bit long time (2009, poetry collection)
  • Kami (2010, poetry collection)
  • His father’s eyes (2011, verse novel)
  • Love dreaming and other poems (2012, poetry collection)
  • Ruby Moonlight (2012, verse novel, my review, winner of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Book of the Year and Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry)
  • Too afraid to cry (2013, memoir, and winner of the Tangkanungku Pintyanthi Fellowship)
  • Inside my mother (2015, poetry collection, Lisa’s combined reviews post, shortlisted for the NSW and Premier’s Literary Awards, and described by Eckermann as an “emotional timeline” of the Stolen Generations.)

In addition to these she has appeared in many anthologies, including a few editions of Best Australian poems.

The judges praised her ”substantial and formally innovative body of work”. I’ve only read a little of her work – Ruby Moonlight, which I’ve reviewed as you’ll have seen above, some of Inside my mother which I’ve just bought, and an individual poem or two. While I have to admit that my knowledge of poetry is not particularly deep, I can see from even this small sample what they mean by her work being “formally innovative”. As for “substantial”, I’m assuming they don’t just mean quantity but the quality and depth of her work and ideas.

Anyhow, while I didn’t use those words in my review of Ruby Moonlight, I tried to convey a sense of its formal and intellectual cleverness alongside the emotional engagement it generates. I can see these qualities in Inside my mother too. It opens with a gorgeous shape poem, “Birdsong”, and has at least one other, “Severance”. It has longer narrative poems alongside more abstract poems, of various forms, that convey feelings and ideas. There’s a discordant poem, “I tell you true”, that has an almost cheery singsong rhythm while telling a bitter story about alcohol abuse, violence, suicide, loss. And so on …

Interestingly, in his introduction to The best Australian poems 2009, poet Robert Adamson writes:

I attended the APC Regional Poetry Festival at Castlemaine in April 2008. Ali Cobby Eckermann, a poet from Alice Springs was on the program and she read a poem I have included here, “Intervention Pay Back”. Ali recited this poem and the audience was clearly moved. I was certainly moved by both the subject matter and the language of the poem. Somewhere between a ballad and written spoken word, it makes a new shift into what a poem might say and be.

“A new shift into what a poem might say and be” is clearly what the Wyndham-Campbell judges also saw nine years later.

So, big congratulations to Ali Cobby Eckermann on a much-deserved award … and kudos to the person or persons who nominated her.

16 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Ali Cobby Eckermann’s big prize

  1. I am not familiar with this writer but what a wonderful thing she won. I will look out for her work. Our state library doesn’t have anything. I would like to read some of her poetry.

    • That’s absolutely terrible that they don’t have anything, Pam. I’d write and recommend they do. Most libraries accept recommendations. I’ve heard her and Sam Wagan Watson being described as our best indigenous poets, but beyond that I’d say she’s also one of our top poets without any gender/race/age/whatever qualification.

  2. Thank you for this fine and comprehensive account of Ali’s work. I always marvel at the speed of your responses to literary matters, and also at the quality of your posts.

  3. It’s great when someone so deserving wins a decent prize, especially an international one. I re-read your Ruby Moonlight review. Don’t Magabala put out some amazing books.

  4. It’s wonderful news!
    I was going to write about it, but for various reasons I’m a bit pressed for time, so I’m just going to reblog this to bring my readers over here to read about it here instead:)

  5. Congratulations to Eckermann! What a prize. It doesn’t appear that any of her poetry collections are available in the US. Maybe her winning the prize will help change that, I hope. It does appear I can get Ruby Moonlight through interlibrary loan. I will have to get my hands on it, just need to figure out when I will be able to have time to read it!

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