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.
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.
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.