Two weeks ago I wrote a Monday Musings post on HarperCollins’ new prize for unpublished manuscripts, the Banjo Prize – and this week I saw the announcement of the winners of another new “prize”, the Wheeler Centre’s Next Chapter initiative. It’s a very different kettle of fish but is another program offering opportunities to writers who may be struggling to be heard …
The Next Chapter program was, in fact, announced back in May as “an unprecedented new way of supporting writers”. Like the Horne Prize, about which I’ve also written recently, it is supported by the Aesop Foundation. Before I get onto Next Chapter, I need to tell you about this interesting company called Aesop! Established in Melbourne in 1987 it is – would you believe – a company that sells skin, body and hair products that are “created with meticulous attention to detail, and with efficacy and sensory pleasure in mind.” Hmm … no wonder I, who uses minimal and very basic skin, body and hair products, have never heard of them. However, it seems that their philosophy extends beyond their products to “fostering literacy, storytelling, and diversity”, which they do through a Foundation which offers support through two granting programs. I almost feel I should check out their products.
Anyhow, back to the Wheeler Centre’s Next Chapter. The Centre recognised that there are aspiring writers all around Australia who find it hard to get their stories heard. It also realised that “the commercial market is not always the best place for a writer to develop their skills and hone their craft.” And so it created the Next Chapter program, which aims
to elevate the Australian stories that aren’t being published – and to nurture a new generation of writers, from all sorts of backgrounds, to tell them.
They plan to do this by selecting, each year, “ten outstanding writers” who will be given $15,000 each to develop their work. They will also be matched with a mentor who will work with them to bring their writing to life, and connect them with peers, publishers and readers.
The good thing is that although the Wheeler Centre is Melbourne-based/Victorian-focused, this program is being offered nationally – in order, says director Michael Williams, to “find the next chapter of Australia’s literary story.” The inaugural judging panel is beautifully diverse – you know how I feel about that – comprising Maxine Beneba Clarke (whose The hate race I’ve reviewed), Benjamin Law, Christos Tsiolkas (who has also appeared here several times), and Ellen van Neerven (who has appeared here several times). There is a video (with transcript) about the program at the Centre’s site, outlining the judging criteria – merit, impact, potential, suitability and significance.
Law, supporting the program, said that the two most important things he needed to build a sustainable writing career were “mentorship and money,” which is what the Next Chapter aims to provide. Tsiolkas said, on accepting the role of judge:
I am supporting The Next Chapter because we need to listen to and be astonished by more voices in Australian writing. Both to reflect the reality of contemporary Australia but also, and possibly more importantly, to provoke and invigorate cultural forms and expressions.
The danger of the word diversity is that it can be reduced to feel-good, kumbaya sloganeering. The radical dare of diversity is that it challenges us to be open not only to the difference of voice but the difference of opinion, politics, belief, aesthetic, commitment and priority. Real diversity should burst bubbles and we need that more than ever now.
Looking at the winners below, I’d say the judges have made a bang-on attempt to achieve this goal …
So, who are the inaugural winners? Being emerging writers they are not well-known, but many do have a good cv already, including being published in literary journals and/or performing at festivals (or elsewhere) and/or winning specialist awards:
- Evelyn Araluen, indigenous poet, researcher, and educator working with Indigenous literatures at the University of Sydney
- Jean Bachoura, Damascus-born, Melbourne-based writer and actor
- Ennis Cehic, writer of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and essays, who was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but now lives in Melbourne
- Nayuka Gorrie, New South Wales-based Gunai/Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta freelance and comedy television writer, who focuses on black, feminist and queer politics
- Lian Low, a Melbourne-based writer and spoken word artist, who has collaborated with circus artists, poets and dancers, in Malaysia and Australia
- Yamiko Marama, Melbourne-based writer, therapist and food truck owner who is interested in social justice and memoir
- Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen, Melbourne-based Vietnamese-Australian writer, editor and bookseller
- Ara Sarafian, Melbourne-based writer and editor who writes comedy-fiction, commentary and satire
- Adrian Stanley, South-Australian based indigenous artist
- Adam Thompson, Aboriginal (Pakana) writer from Launceston who writes contemporary, Aboriginal-themed short fiction.
There is, as you can see, a high proportion of winners from Melbourne – which is not hugely surprising for a new program emanating from Melbourne. Despite this geographic concentration, however, the winners’ backgrounds are diverse. You can read more about them at the Wheeler Centre’s site.
So, another interesting initiative – from a literary centre with support from a philanthropic foundation. So great to see, particularly given it focuses not only on emerging artists but also on encouraging and supporting “real” diversity. Now, it will be interesting to see where these writers/performers pop up next?