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Stella Prize 2018 Winner – and how the Stella is tracking (pun alert!)

April 13, 2018

I don’t always write announcement posts here – even when I write short and or longlist posts, because the news is usually so immediately known. What can I add? However, I’ve decided to post on last night’s Stella Prize announcement for a couple of reasons, one being the significance of the winner and the other being a statement released by Aviva Tuffield, the Prize’s Executive Director.

First, the winner. If you haven’t already heard, it’s Alexis Wright’s Tracker. This is the second time a non-fiction work has won since the award started in 2013. The first non-fiction winner was Clare Wright’s wonderful The forgotten rebels of Eureka (my review). For a full report of the announcement, check Stella’s page which contains Wright’s acceptance speech, the judge’s comments and an introduction to the book itself. I’ll just share a few highlights.

Alexis Wright, TrackerIn her speech, Wright commented on the diversity in this year’s shortlist:

The great celebration today is that we have many exciting, diverse voices in the world of Australian letters. We encompass the world right here in our literature. And even in this shortlist that has been judged as being some of the very best of women’s literature published in the past year, we demonstrate our remarkable diversity, internationalism, and maturity as people of many backgrounds, and here including Indonesia, Iran and Sri Lanka, as well as two Aboriginal writers. A literary dialogue that allows us to have greater knowledge and understanding of each other, and acceptance of difference, and respect for each other in our diversity, is what will make Australian literature truly marvelous, relevant, and far stronger than it has ever been.

Well said … I have so far read the book set in Indonesia (Riwoe’s The fish girl), and one of the two Aboriginal writers (Coleman’s Terra nullius). I plan to read more, because it’s an exciting list.

One of the things that interests me about this book, besides its being indigenous literature, is that Wright – not surprisingly once you know her work – plays with form, in this case what I’d call the biography-memoir (or vice versa) or what is formally being called “a collective memoir”. Wright said this in her speech, after explaining the significance of her subject, Tracker Tilmouth:

I thought very deeply about how to develop this book about him by using our own storytelling principle of consensus. I was not always sure that my approach would work as I continued on a long journey of six years from conception to finish, and gathering a mountain of material, but I was sure collaborative storytelling was the right way, and that it did work in the end is what matters. I am grateful for the storytelling skills of our culture and carried them into the book, which allowed, as Tracker himself wanted, everyone to speak for themselves, to tell their own part in the story.

I love this description, not only because it articulates what she was trying to do, but because she alludes specifically to “the storytelling skills of our culture” which is something I have mentioned in posts in the past, but a little hesitantly for fear of sounding like I was “exoticising” indigenous people. The thing is that when I read indigenous Australian stories, or hear indigenous Australians tell stories, I am frequently conscious of a very specific, and lively, storytelling culture.

In her statement announcing the winner (out of 170 submissions), judges’ chair, Fiona Stager said:

The winning book is unique in the history of Australian letters and it artfully fulfils all the Stella Prize’s criteria: it is excellent, engaging and original. We invite all readers to immerse themselves in a history, a landscape, a time and a story that is heartbreaking, poignant and humorous. […]

… the judges wish to acknowledge the craft of the author and pay tribute to the richness of the memories shared by the many people she interviewed. This book will enrich and change the understanding of readers. A man like Tracker Tilmouth could change our world. It takes a writer like Alexis Wright to change the world of Australian letters.

Stella Prize’s page on the book provides more information, including the judges report, an interview with Wright and a book extract.

In her speech, Stager also paid tribute to Aviva Tuffield. It was largely Tuffield’s statement about the Prize, released the day before the announcement, that committed me to this post. In it, Tuffield articulates what the Prize has achieved since its inception in 2012.  She reiterates why the Prize was established in the first place: “hard data had proved that women writers were underrepresented in three key areas:

  • as winners of the major literary prizes;
  • as authors of the books that received the most review and media coverage; and
  • as authors of the books on the school curriculum.”

She said those founding the prize appreciated that “much of this inequality arose from unconscious bias”, as evidenced by data showing that “‘blind’ orchestra auditions and CV assessments yield such different results to what happens when faces and names are attached.” However, whether conscious or unconscious, the impact is the same, and it’s serious because it “sends clear messages about whose voices, whose stories and whose experiences are most important.” Hence, the prize …

And, six years on, she says, the effects are clear (for the details, please check her statement at the link above):

  • women are now winning more prizes generally, and being increasingly shortlisted, across all major prizes.
  • more women writers are being added to school curricula. Victoria’s English curriculum now has gender parity in terms of authors listed, as opposed to being just over 30% of the list in 2014.
  • the ‘kinds’ of books that are now being considered of the ‘highest literary merit’ has shifted, with “novels focusing on contemporary family life or relationships – using those as microcosms for society at large – and often with female and even child protagonists” now being recognised.
  • general awareness of the breadth and quality of Australian women writers has increased. She says that “When Stella started many people told me that they didn’t realise there were so many good women writers in Australia – and especially writers of nonfiction (as Stella is for fiction and nonfiction books)”. She argues that Stella’s longlists and shortlists have raised awareness of the breadth of women’s writing, and that this awareness has spread beyond these lists to other writers who have said their work is being taken more seriously.
  • the ripple effect created when people see more women writers being recognised. “The landscape”, she writes, “changes: role models are provided, unconscious bias is dismantled, stereotype threats are banished.”

Now, some of this is more anecdotal than “proven” and not all of it is only due to the Stella, but the Stella Prize is, I’d say, making a significant contribution. And it will continue to do so because Stella’s job is not done. More is needed, she says, “in terms of diversity and extending Stella’s benefits to all women writers” and more also, as the #metoo movement has proved, “to shift the power structures of our patriarchal society” to ensure that women are heard. Finally, as we’ve seen before – and as is evidenced in other spheres like the gender pay gap – “things can slip back very quickly.”

So, I say thanks to Aviva Tuffield and the Stella Team. I am proud to count myself as a Stella Spark.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 13, 2018 11:01 am

    “The thing is that when I read indigenous Australian stories, or hear indigenous Australians tell stories, I am frequently conscious of a very specific, and lively, storytelling culture.” Exactly! (I still wish Terra Nullius had won).

    • April 13, 2018 11:34 am

      Phew, glad you agree, Bill. I really will have to find time to read Tracker now. I find the whole concept intriguing – but I do hate LONG books. It’s a real priority thing – do I read one worthy LONG book or two WORTHY shorter books. I wouldn’t have been sorry to see Terra nullius win, but it’s also good to see Stella being true to its all forms and genres philosophy too (as long as the book has the merit as I suspect this has.)

  2. Jim KABLE permalink
    April 13, 2018 11:57 am

    WG – you and Jonathan Shaw both excite me with the kinds of reviews you write – and I would estimate a good 50% of my book purchases are as a result of both your critiques. In the case of Tracker – already partly underway – but your review here is an intelligent guide as I travel further into her collective story.

    I think I have mentioned before – but in the sense of the representation of women writers – prize-winners, published, etc – I edited a text/anthology for OUP published in 1990: Made in Australia. Some time later when consciousness was being raised on the representation of female writers I checked – and in the anthology it was just about exactly 50% each side of the binary divide – but more remarkably (or not, in some senses) about 15% of the writers in the anthology were Indigenous (Iris Clayton, Bronson Foley, A Juppurla, Sally Morgan, Ernie Dingo, Archie Weller, Beryl Philp-Carmichael, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Ruby Langford, Mary Duroux, Julie Watson Nungarrayi) with others discussing Indigenous presence or celebrating Indigenous Australia (Phillip Adams, jas h. duke, jeltje, Rex Ingamells, Jodie Brough, Roberta Sykes, Paul McGeough, Peter Kocan).

    And Terra Nullius – a somewhat cracking read I thought – the pace of my reading matching the gallop of the writer’s tale.

    >

    • April 13, 2018 1:56 pm

      Thanks Jim. And I’m so glad you also like Terra nullius! I really can’t understand my reading group’s negative reaction. I can understand some not liking it but ALL of them? That floored me. It’s not perfect but it was a darned good read I thought.

  3. April 13, 2018 1:15 pm

    It is really a good thing that these awards are recognizing a diverse set of authors. It is also interesting that both fiction and non fiction books are eligible to win.

    • April 13, 2018 1:57 pm

      Thanks Brian. Yes, it’s special in that way. It’s open to all works by women authors, though not surprisingly literary fiction is the most likely to win.

  4. April 14, 2018 12:30 am

    Yay for Wright, Yay for Tracker, Yay for the Stella and Yay for Sue Terry at Whispering Gums! I have actually read the sample which I downloaded yesterday after the news broke. It seems like a really wonderful book – delightful. I can hardly wait (but I’ll have to what with several books currently being read and a small stack waiting). Thank you for some good background and a great review.

  5. April 14, 2018 4:37 am

    I don’t know this prize very well but if continues to recognise diversity in the way it did this year then I salute it

    • April 14, 2018 10:37 am

      It probably will Karen. Like most prizes people need to submit, but it’s getting known and so hopefully more and more Aussie women writers from all fields and backgrounds will increasingly do so. The judging panel needs to be diverse too, and they are achieving that to a greater degree I think …. though I haven’t done the research … than other panels.

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