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Monday musings on Australian literature: University of Canberra Book of the Year 2020

November 25, 2019

Jasper Jones, by Craig SilveyI wasn’t necessarily planning to announce the University of Canberra’s Book of the Year again this year, having written about it three times already – in 2012 when it was initiated, in 2014, when I checked to see how the program was going, and in 2018 to announce this year’s book. However, next year’s book is such a good choice that I felt it worth reminding you again of this initiative, which is now in its 8th year.

The program involves the University providing a selected book, free, to all commencing students across the five faculties. It is “required reading”. The book is “integrated into the curriculum and provides a common conversational topic on campus”. You can see the main goals in my 2018 post, and there is more about the program at the UC Book page. I had to laugh at one of the FAQs on this page. The question is:  “What does ‘required reading’ mean? Do I have to read the book?” And the answer:”Yes, all commencing undergraduate and postgraduate students in 2020 are required to read the Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms…” I would love to see more on the site about how this actually plays out.

It’s an inspired and inspiring initiative, though I’ve had some quibbles. I wrote last year that it was a shame that the books haven’t always been Australian, because it provides an excellent opportunity to introduce students to Australian literature. I also note that while the genres and subject matter have varied somewhat, there’s not been much diversity in terms of writers. No indigenous writer, no writer from a non-white/non-English language background, for example. Well, that has changed this year!

First though, here are the books to date:

2013: Jasper Jones, by Craig Silvey (my review)
2014: Room, by Emma Donoghue
2015: The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion (my review)
2016: The strays, by Emily Bitto (my review)
2017: The white earth, by Andrew McGahan
2018: Do Androids dream of electric sheep? by Philip K. Dick
2019: The natural way of things by Charlotte Wood (my review)

UC Book for 2020

In October, the University announced the shortlist, which comprises, this year, all recent Australian books. But, not only are they ALL recent Australian books, they are ALL by indigenous writers! What a wonderful message that sends.

Here’s the shortlist:

  • Tony Birch’s Ghost River (my review): “The highly anticipated new novel from the Miles Franklin-shortlisted author of Blood … The river is a place of history and secrets. For Ren and Sonny, two unlikely friends, it’s a place of freedom and adventure…
  • Claire G Coleman’s Terra nullius (my review): “The Natives of the Colony are restless. The Settlers are eager to have a nation of peace, and to bring the savages into line. Families are torn apart, re-education is enforced…”
  • Anita Heiss’ Barbed wire and cherry blossoms: “In 1944, over 1,000 Japanese soldiers break out of the No.12 Prisoner of War compound on the fringes of Cowra. In the carnage, hundreds are killed, many are recaptured, and some take their own lives rather than suffer the humiliation of ongoing defeat. But one soldier, Hiroshi, manages to escape. At nearby Erambie Station, an Aboriginal mission, Banjo Williams, father of five and proud man of his community, discovers Hiroshi, distraught and on the run…”
  • Melissa Lushenko’s Mullumbimby“When Jo Breen uses her divorce settlement to buy a neglected property in the Byron Bay hinterland, she is hoping for a tree change, and a blossoming connection to the land of her Aboriginal ancestors…”
  • Kim Scott’s Taboo: “From Kim Scott, two-times winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, comes a work charged with ambition and poetry, in equal parts brutal, mysterious and idealistic, about a young woman cast into a drama that has been playing for over two hundred years…”

While I’ve only read two of these books, I have read books by all of these authors, and am thrilled to see them represented here because each has something to offer to the program.

Book coverAnd the winner is: Anita Heiss’ Barbed wire and cherry blossoms.

The judges have chosen, probably, one of the less challenging reads from the list, but that’s sensible given the diverse readership they are choosing for in interest, skills and background – and it will serve the purpose of raising some necessary issues regarding indigenous history and lives. Sure, it’s about the past, but it can lead from there to discussions about How much has and hasn’t changed since then, and why …

Responding to the news of her win, Heiss told CityNews:

To have the UC community engaging in the story of the Cowra Breakout, and life of Wiradjuri people living under the Act of Protection during wartime, will add to a greater understanding of a significant moment in Australian history.

What do you think about the book choices, or the program itself?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2019 12:04 am

    I’m not going to complain when the organizers break up a run of mostly light weight Australian books with an all-time SF classic (Do Androids Dream ..). Couldn’t agree more with The Natural Way of Things which I think should be the first book on year 12 reading lists around the country.

    This year, yes congratulations for the all-Indigenous short-list, I would have gone with Taboo, but going by previous years they obviously try to cater for relative non-readers. Note that 40% of the shortlisted authors are not just West Australian but from the same language group, the Wirlomin/Noongar, whose population is probably just a few hundreds.

    • November 26, 2019 8:13 am

      Yes, Bill, I think that’s the thing, they need to cater for non-readers. I thought Wood’s was an interesting choice last year in that regard. I’d love to know more about how it goes on campus, and the feedback they get.

  2. Meg permalink
    November 26, 2019 6:27 am

    Hi Sue, a great program and a great choice. I have read all the books nominated for 2020, I know a librarian teacher at a secondary school who will be especially pleased. He has raved about Anita Heiss’s writing to me for a long time..

    • November 26, 2019 8:13 am

      That’s great to hear Meg. Does he use her in his teaching then?

      • Meg permalink
        November 26, 2019 1:38 pm

        Hi Sue, he doesn’t teach them about Anita tHeiss, but he encourages the students to read her, and other Australian authors..

        • November 26, 2019 3:14 pm

          That’s a good start. I guess what he teaches us driven by the curriculum.

  3. November 26, 2019 7:02 am

    I think the concept is absolutely super ! – inspired, even.
    Don’t like the title of the new winner: I’m so over book titles consisting of “[item a] and [item b]”, for there are far too many . “Mad Soup and Marmalade” was what the publishers wanted to call my book; and I had to fight like a demon to retain my own title. (So they got back at me by removing the sub-title.) Sorry to be so self-centred; but a survey will confirm the huge preponderance of these 2-item titles.
    That said, my husband was fascinated by the Cowra breakout but ignorant of the aboriginal aspect of it. He would’ve loved this book !

    • November 26, 2019 8:19 am

      Mad soup and marmalade? Love it M-R! I think you should write a book about writing and publishing a book!

      Anyhow, I know what you mean but this title is probably good for the market it’s gearing to. Titles are fascinating things. I used to spend time thinking about titles and what they mean, until I realised that they weren’t necessarily the author’s, or the author’s first choice, so I don’t usually figure them much in my reviewing.

  4. November 26, 2019 10:19 am

    What a brilliant scheme – wow!

  5. November 26, 2019 10:57 am

    I just finished the Cherry Pickers Daughter by Kerry Reed-Gilbert. It really fostered an interest in reading more Aboriginal stories. The ones you list here sound interesting. I might see what the library has. And I just shook my head at the question, “What does required reading mean?” Oh dear.

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