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Tony Birch wins the 2017 Patrick White Award

November 16, 2017

The Patrick White Award is one of Australia’s very special literary awards, and one that I posted in detail about last year when Carmel Bird was the winner. It’s special for a number of reasons. It is named for Patrick White who is, to date, Australia’s only Nobel Laureate in Literature. But, as I wrote last year, it’s particularly significant because it was established by White himself, using the proceeds of his Nobel prize money. Known for being irascible, White was also a principled and generous person. Having won two Miles Franklin Awards, among others, he stopped entering his work for awards in 1967 to provide more opportunity for other less-supported writers. His award goes to writers who have made significant contributions to Australian literature but who haven’t received the recognition they deserve.

This year’s award, as I heard on ABC Radio National when I was heading out for my patchwork group’s fortnightly cuppa, was announced at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre last night. It is special for another reason:  the award has been made to Tony Birch, making it the first time the award has been made to an indigenous Australian writer. In one sense I feel uncomfortable about labelling, because Birch has won the award on the merit of his output, but on the other hand such wins can raise awareness and provide encouragement for all those “others” who feel (and, you’d have to say, are) locked out of the mainstream.

Tony Birch, Ghost riverSo, Tony Birch. He’s a Melbourne-based writer, who has written two novels, many short stories, and poetry. His first novel, Blood, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award, and his second, Ghost River (my review) won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s award for Indigenous writing. I have also reviewed one of his short stories, “Spirit in the night” (my review), which was published in the excellent Australian Review of Fiction series.

Australian literary editor Jason Steger, writing about Birch’s win, quotes Birch on White:

“I admired the fact that as a writer in his older age he protested against the Vietnam War, that he was a great supporter of Whitlam after the Dismissal and that he had been involved with Jack Mundey’s protests and the Green Bans.”

Steger continues that this attracts Birch:

because he is “very involved” with the campaign against the Adani Carmichael coal mine in Queensland. And as a research fellow at Victoria University, his work “is essentially about the relationship between climate change and what we now call protection of country”.

The most interesting (and most memorable) parts of Ghost River werefor me, the environmental story about saving the river and Birch’s depiction of the lives of and treatment of homeless men. Michael Cathcart, in his interview with Birch on ABC’s Books and Arts Daily Program, commented that while Birch’s work features indigenous characters, his themes seem broader. Birch responded pretty much as Steger also quotes him:

I suppose my writing is broadly about class, but more essentially about valuing people who might otherwise be regarded as marginalised.

Patrick White would, I’m sure, have been proud.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. Meg permalink
    November 16, 2017 2:03 pm

    Hi Sue, I too am glad Tony Birch won the Patrick White Award. He is a down to earth writer. I do like his books,because of the Melbourne content, descriptions and his characters are always perceivable.

    • November 16, 2017 2:22 pm

      Thanks Meg. “Down-to-earth” is a good description. Let’s hope it gets more of his work read.

  2. November 16, 2017 3:45 pm

    You and Lisa are on the same page.

  3. November 16, 2017 4:11 pm

    I remember reading your review of ‘Ghost River’, Sue. I want to start with this short story, maybe. 🙂

  4. November 16, 2017 4:14 pm

    It really is such wonderful news.

  5. November 16, 2017 4:30 pm

    Deepika, he’s published two short story collections, I think, one is the recent ‘Common People’. I’m very happy about Birch getting the result because not only is he a great writer, but also he tackles important political and social issues in his writing without being didactic, and sadly so many Australian writers shy away from that – or claim that’s not what they’re doing, when actually, they are…

    • November 16, 2017 4:38 pm

      Thanks Annette. I think you’re right about his not being didactic. He’s pretty story focused isn’t he – and let’s that carry the message?

  6. Jim KABLE permalink
    November 16, 2017 4:49 pm

    Patrick WHITE (“pro tanto quid retribuemus” indeed – to recognise Australian writers – who – while working over a long period of time – had not received proper or adequate recognition)! Bravo Tony BIRCH!

    And as always WG – you capture the heart and the historical nature of Patrick WHITE and of his personal endowment via his Nobel Laureate Prize of the Patrick WHITE Award.

    I recall John MORRISON (1904-1998) as a worthy recipient many years ago – and my all-time favourite Australia writer – Judah WATEN (1911-1985) was awarded it posthumously – in 1985. Other recipients I admire/admired, too – Bruce DAWE, Roland ROBINSON, Thea ASTLEY, Amy WITTING, David MARTIN, Dimitris TSALOUMAS, Vivian SMITH (one of my poetry lecturers at Sydney) Thomas SHAPCOTT, Janette Turner HOSPITAL, Morris LURIE, John ROMERIL, Beverley FARMER, Brian CASTRO…

    • November 16, 2017 11:07 pm

      Thanks Jim – a great list of people, isn’t it. And yet most of them would not fall off the tongue of many Australians would they.

  7. November 16, 2017 5:05 pm

    I’m delighted by this result. Tony Birch is a great writer, a generous supporter of other writers, and an all round top human being.

    • November 16, 2017 11:10 pm

      Thanks Angela. That’s lovely to know. I love that you’ve added something that we out in reader-land don’t know.

  8. November 17, 2017 4:23 am

    Interesting background story to this award – thanks for sharing it. And it sounds like they’ve chosen a worthy winner!

  9. November 18, 2017 5:00 am

    Only the first time the award has been given to a indigenous Australian writer? How long has the award been around? Hopefully it is the start of a trend.

    • November 18, 2017 9:47 am

      Oh, only around 45 years Stefanie! When I look at the list of winners I think they are, those I know as there are a few I don’t, worthy winners but that doesn’t mean there weren’t other equally worthy winners around, so yes, I agree with you.

  10. buriedinprint permalink
    November 29, 2017 2:38 am

    Like Naomi, I really enjoyed the story behind this award. Like White, Munro and Atwood here in Canada have also bowed out of submission processes at various times, to give emerging and less established authors more opportunities, and I admire that generosity of spirit. I recently picked up a copy of a Patrick White novel which I’m looking forward to (I’ve only read one or two): The Eye of the Storm. Tony Birch is on my TBR now too: thanks again!

    • November 29, 2017 3:15 am

      Yes, I love that generosity of spirit too, Buried. I haven’t read The eye of the storm, myself Buried, but I think it is a good read. It’s one of his more directly autobiographical novels.

    • November 29, 2017 5:01 am

      Just an aside Gummie: is Patrick White read much these days?

      • November 29, 2017 8:35 am

        No, probably mainly academically I’d say, Guy. But he’s not forgotten and good bookshops always have something of his for the keen reader.

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