Monday musings on Australian literature: Multicultural NSW Award

Synchronicity strikes again, this time concerning the idea of multiculturalism. In the last week or so, it has popped up several times – in Lisa’s post on the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist, in the conversation I attended last Thursday featuring historian Michelle Arrow on her book The Seventies, and then in the Festival Muse conversation this weekend featuring Asian-Australian writer Alice Pung. I’ve taken all this as a hint that I should talk a bit about multicultural writing in Australia and have decided that a good way to do it – this round anyhow – would be through the Multicultural NSW Award. It’s one of the many categories in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

Before focusing on the award, though, I’ll reiterate my comment in my Alice Pung conversation post (linked above) that during the conversation she mentioned several writers, all of whom are writers of migrant experience – Christos Tsiolkas, Benjamin Law and Anh Do. It gave me the sense that there’s quite a sense of fellow-feeling, or, at least, respect, amongst these writers. I like that: we all need peers with whom to share our challenges and experiences don’t we?

So, the Multicultural NSW Award

As far as I can tell, this award has changed name several times. It seems to have been established in 1980 as the Ethnic Affairs Commission Award. At some time its name changed to the Community Relations Commission Award, and then again, around 2014 I think, to the Multicultural NSW Award. From the start though, its goal and content has been the same.

It’s an interesting award because it is not form specific. Works submitted can be:

  • fiction;
  • non-fiction;
  • drama (in various forms, including plays, musicals, theatrical monologues);
  • poetry, single or in collection; or
  • screenplays/scripts for film, television, radio

The main limitation is content: submitted works must deal with or further our understanding of migrant experience, cultural diversity or multiculturalism in Australia. The prize is decent – currently $20,000.

Maxine Beneba Clarke, The hate raceRecent past winners are:

  • 2018: Roanna Gonsalves’ The permanent resident: short story collection
  • 2017: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The hate race: memoir (my review)
  • 2016: Osamah Sami’s Good Muslim boy: memoir
  • 2015: Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond’s Black and proud: The story of an AFL photo: social history/sociology
  • 2014 Joint winner: Andrew Bovell’s The secret river: playscript adapted from Kate Grenville’s novel The secret river
  • 2014 Joint winner: Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of travel: novel (my review)
  • 2013: Tim Soutphommasane’s Don’t go back to where you came from: social and political history
  • 2012: Tim Bonyhady’s Good living street: The fortunes of my Viennese family: biography of a family
  • 2011: Ouyang Yu’s The English class: novel (Lisa’s – ANZLitlovers – review)
  • 2010: Abbas El-Zein’s Leave to remain: A memoir: memoir

To see all the winners back to 1980, check out Wikipedia.

There are a few points worth making here, the first being that, as per the award criteria, the focus is the content, not the author so, while most of the winning authors come from diverse backgrounds, not all do. Andrew Bovell (and the author he adapted for his winning play, Kate Grenville) are both white Australians. The second point is that the award is true to its word about diversity of form, with the winners ranging from novels to social history, from plays to short stories. The winners also include at least one book for young people, Ursula Dubosarsky’s The first book of Samuel, back in 1995. The shortlists add to this diversity, by including, for example, poetry and television scripts. Another point is that the winning works cross time, from way past to the present. Finally, although a few of the winners over the history of the prize discuss or are by indigenous Australians, it’s good to see that in 2016, a biennial Indigenous Writer’s Prize worth $30,000 was added to NSW’s suite of awards.

I don’t want to write a long post tonight as there’s a lot going on in my life at present, so I’ll just conclude with some words from a 2014 guest post on the Wheeler Centre blog. The post is about the need for “true diversity in our media”. The writer Fatima Measham says that lack of diversity in our media

is a problem because it leaves us with a patently false construction of our society.


greater diversity of perspectives and commentators leads to clarity, a sharper sense of the aspects of conflict and power that grip democratic life.

I can’t think of a better argument for why we need to read diverse literature and, therefore, for the role that awards like the Multicultural NSW Award can play in bringing diverse voices to the fore.

17 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Multicultural NSW Award

  1. It seems my final comment on your Alice PUNG essay leads seamlessly into this reflection! Serendipity – eat your heart out!

  2. Love the quote from Fatima Measham, Sue. She’s so articulate on the case for diversity in writing. She spoke beautifully on a Feminist Writers Festival panel (available as a podcast) about the importance of context and how it affects what gets noticed.

    Thanks for this post.

    • Oh thanks Angela. I’ll try to find that podcast. Sounds well worth listening to as it’s something I think that many people really don’t get ie the things that affect visibility, opportunity etc.

  3. LOL I’m glad you posted this, it was a reminder to me to update my Diversity page, where I have Australian authors & books of diverse heritage from 37 countries listed!
    I like this page because as well as making the breadth of diversity explicit, it also shows what a great contribution our multicultural community has been making to Australian literature, right back to Rose Cappiello in the postwar period. (Remember I discovered her when we reviewed that series for SUP, my, how long ago that seems now, about a decade, eh?)

    • Haha, yes, Lisa, I thnk it was late 2009? Amazing isn’t it? I sometimes think back to that start.

      The trouble with diversity of course is the labelling isn’t it! I totally agree with the need to label to enable awareness, but I’m uncomfortable everyone I do it. It was great that Alice Pung happily identified herself as Asian Australian.

      • Yes, I find that page difficult to do, because of the potential to get it wrong. I’m sure that there could be more than there are, but I only use information that’s out on the web somewhere.
        OTOH it’s worth doing because it does show that publishers have been open to writers of different heritage more than most people might assume.

  4. I agree with your last paragraph re importance of reading diverse literature. I always laugh when you mention you won’t do a long post. Your posts are always long, informative and I learn so much from them. I don’t know how you and Lisa write and read so much. Hope your life gets a little less busy and you get some down time soon. All the best.🤠🐧

    • Thanks Pam. That’s nice to hear! I’m very conscious of length! That post was under 800 words but some get to 1400 which feels a big ask given all the posts out there for us to read!!!

      And thanks re busy-ness. Fingers crossed we are on the up again.

  5. Funny, though. I’m from a migrant family and am one myself but have rarely been classified as such. From using my once married name, I guess. But that’s a Cornish one … and so it goes. The fiction is that we are all ‘pure’ one thing or another. That’s a late 19C/early 20C concept, that led to the Holocaust and a lot of wars since. In the vast majority of human cases, ‘pure’ ethnicity simply doesn’t exist, especially in a country like Australia. That’s something we should be talking about, I think.

    • Yes, good point Sara. I guess the classification depends a bit on the focus of the majority of the writing as well as the author’s origin?

      You make a good point about ‘purity’… And its role in conflicts. It’s a complicated thing and so tied up with power isn’t it. People’s desire for power needs to be part of that discussion. Those of us whose lives and beings aren’t threatened, love to talk about our mixed origins, because nothing really depends on it, whereas others will often, understandably and sadly, do their best to hide it. That came out strongly in Growing up Aboriginal in Australia.

      • Good point, WG. But when I was growing up many Jews tried to pass, some quite successfully. Names were changed, noses were straightened. Just as many blacks did their best to straighten their hair, products were sold to them for just that purpose, and those with lighter skins were given greater status among them, if they didn’t pass in the first place. Asian women have had their eyelids shaped to conform to their idea of Caucasian beauty. As you say, it’s about power and colonialism and racism at its most intimate. So it’s important, I think, that this idea of racial purity – even ethnic such – be dismantled. It’s on that foundation that racism continues.

        • Fair point Sara. In Growing up Aboriginal… some young people tried to pass too. You can understand why, but it’s sad and often destructive on the long run.

  6. I love it that Australia is so multicultural – though I’m not so sure about awards for multicultural and Indigenous art, I think they both stand very firmly on their own two feet within Oz Art. My own upbringing in rural, white picket fence Victoria was totally mono cultural. I met the first person I knew was Jewish at a scout jamboree when I was 14, English migrants when I lived for a year in the city at 16, Greek and Italian migrants (and pizza!) when I started uni, and the first person indentifying as Aboriginal (another trucky, and only one of 2 I’ve ever met) when I was 25.

    • Thanks Bill. My experience was different as I went to live in Mt Isa when I was 11. Pretty multicultural there… Scandinavians, Poms, Dutch, Indigenous peole in my school and social groups, and among my good friends.

      At 14yo, we moved to Sydney and, particularly through my Dad’s work mixed with many European Jews – Romanian and Hungarian – and others, such as Greek. But my school group was more homogeneous than in Mount Isa. Very Middle class white. I loved meeting all these other people though… Relished their culture, particularly food, music.

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