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.
So, 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 were, for 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.