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Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian writers and the Miles Franklin Award

July 20, 2020

This is not going to be a treatise on the Miles Franklin Award and diversity. We all know literary awards have not been as diverse as they could have been (and that they still have a way to go). We know, too, that this is not only due to judging, but also reflects the fact that the publishing industry has not been as diverse as it could be. It is probably also true that, in the past at least, we readers have not demanded more diversity in our reading. However, this story is too complex for this post, and, anyhow, has been explored many times. Today, I simply want to celebrate those Indigenous Australian writers who have been listed for and/or won Australia’s (arguably) most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin, in the spirit of bringing attention to their work as a body of literature.

Notwithstanding the above, I do need to make the point that it wasn’t until 2000 that we started seeing Indigenous Australian writers appear in the short and longlists for the award*.

  • 2000 Kim Scott’s Benang (won) (Lisa’s and Bill’s reviews)
  • 2007 Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (won) (my review)
  • 2011 Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (won) (my review)
  • 2012 Tony Birch Blood (shortlisted) (Lisa’s review)
  • 2014 Melissa Lucashenko Mullumbimby (longlisted) (Lisa’s review)
  • 2014 Alexis Wright The Swan Book (shortlisted) (Lisa’s and Bill’s reviews)
  • 2016 Tony Birch Ghost River (longlisted) (my review)
  • 2018 Kim Scott’s Taboo (shortlisted) (Lisa’s and Bill’s reviews)
  • 2019 Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip (won) (my review)
  • 2020 Tony Birch’s The white girl (shortlisted) (my review)
  • 2020 Tara June Winch’s The yield (won) (my review)

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You could probably call this a round-up of the usual suspects, in terms of contemporary Indigenous Australian novelists, with Kim Scott and Tony Birch appearing three times, Melissa Lucashenko and Alexis Wright twice each, and of course relative newbie, Tara June Winch, once. It’s notable that every book here deals with Indigenous issues. This is important for truth-telling, but it will be a measure of our maturity as a nation when Indigenous Australian writers can feel free of the need to carry these truths on their backs.

Anyhow, I wonder what Miles Franklin would say? When she said “without an indigenous literature, people can remain alien in their own soil”, I don’t believe she was thinking of the real Indigenous people of this soil. However, I imagine that, were she living now, she would love the richness that the growth of Indigenous Australian literature has brought to Australian life and culture.

It seems apposite, then, to leave this (very) little tribute with the words of this year’s winner, Tara June Winch, as quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, “It doesn’t have to be POC writers against white voices – we have to work together to bring voices to the fore.” Absolutely. Let’s hope more and more diverse writers get to tell their stories to us. I – and I know many of my litblogging friends – love to read them. Meanwhile, if you haven’t read it yet, I recommend that you do read The yield, a complex but strong book which its author calls “a once-in-a-lifetime love letter to Australia.”

Have you read any of the listed books, and if so, would you like to share your favourite/s?

* I may have missed a writer or two, as I didn’t find complete lists of short and longlisted authors from the beginning of the award, but I think my point still stands.

32 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2020 11:26 pm

    Thanks for those links, I have reviewed some of the others too, adversely in a couple of cases. But Wright and Scott are Australia’s two best writers IMO at the moment. If Wright had a larger body of work she’d be in line for the Nobel that Murnane should have got. On the other hand, Too Much Lip was one of a number of ordinary MF winners in recent years, so I’ll be pleased if The Yield is worthier. I’d better read it.

    • July 21, 2020 8:24 am

      You had! I can’t guess what you’ll think, but if I had to I’d say you’ll like it! I knew you, and Lisa, had reviewed others, but just popped yours in for the ones I hadn’t!

  2. July 21, 2020 12:53 am

    I have taken note of two names there – Kim Scott and Tony Birch and will download both of them to my kindle when I finish current books. Thanks for the review.

  3. July 21, 2020 4:26 am

    I read That Deadman Dance a long time ago so I was pleased to find Taboo on your list for a few years ago. I think I might have tried to get it back then but no luck. Here it is now :-). I also put both of the books by Alexis Wright on my wish list, Thank you!!!

  4. July 21, 2020 6:07 am

    It’d be terrific if, e.g., Philip McLaren won an MF award one day, eh ? – we know it can be done. 😀

    • July 21, 2020 8:27 am

      Who’s Philip McLaren when he’s at home, M-R? No, wait, let me guess, he’s a crime writer!? 😁

      • July 21, 2020 8:50 am

        An indigenous crime writer ..

        • July 21, 2020 3:01 pm

          No doubt Sue will be in shock when she reads this because “I don’t read crime” but I have read and reviewed not one but two of Philip McLaren’s novels, see here https://anzlitlovers.com/category/writers-aust-nz-in-capitals/mclaren-philip/
          Sweet Water Stolen Land (which *is* a crime novel) won the David Unaipon in 1992, but — to quote my own review — There’ll Be New Dreams (2001) is not, as I’ve seen it labelled, a ‘police procedural’, because the interest is in justice as a human right, not a who-or-whydunnit.
          I admired both of these novels, which are a bit of a rarity because there weren’t all that many Indigenous novels around back then since most IndigLit was memoirs at that time, but I don’t think either of these two novels were ‘in the race’ for the MF. There was a *very* strong shortlist in 2001 which was won by Frank Moorhouse for his stunning Dark Palace, and the same is true for the 1992 list, won by Cloudstreet.
          McLaren is a Kamilaroi man from the Warrumbungle Mountain region in northwestern New South Wales. He won the 2010 Prix Litteraire des Recits de l’ailleurs (a French prize for foreign literature, but I don’t know which book it won it for).

        • July 21, 2020 5:00 pm

          GOODONYERMATE ! Thanks, Lisa ! 😀

        • July 22, 2020 9:03 am

          Well well well, I am surprised Lisa. But thanks so much for sharing all this. Fascinating.

        • July 22, 2020 2:37 pm

          *chuckle* I thought you would be!

        • July 22, 2020 8:59 am

          Well, you learn something new every day! Thanks M-R.

        • July 22, 2020 7:05 pm

          Gosh ! I told you something you didn’t know .. a-ma-zing. I feel proud. 😀

        • July 22, 2020 10:08 pm

          I like that you do M-R, but I wouldn’t put too much store by it, because, I hate to tell you, there’s a lot I don’t know.

  5. July 21, 2020 6:23 am

    I would love to read these authors but its nigh on impossible to get reasonably priced editions of the books in the UK. I tried the library but they don’t have any of them. Having fought to gain recognition in their home country, these authors now have another barrier to overcome: international awareness….

    • July 21, 2020 8:29 am

      We know that, Karen, and it’s a big shame isn’t it? Your library should at least try for some major Aussie award-winners I think!

    • July 21, 2020 5:29 pm

      That Deadman Dance was published in the UK by Bloomsbury many years ago now and promptly went out of print, but it’s available in Kindle. His latest, Taboo, was published in the UK by Small Beer Press last year. Alexis Wright’s work is also published in paperback by Constable and readily available. The Yield will be published in Jan 2021 I believe. Most of Tony Birch’s work is available as Kindle editions. Hope this is useful!

  6. Meg permalink
    July 21, 2020 9:56 am

    Hi Sue, I have read them, and liked most of them. It is wonderful that Indigenous writers are now more readily recognised, and given the recognition they deserve in awards. And, as you say, The Yield, is a must read.

    • July 22, 2020 9:00 am

      They are a good bunch of books aren’t they Meg. A similar underlying concern with dispossession, but so varied in approach.

  7. July 21, 2020 11:33 am

    Thanks so much for assembling that list, It turns out I’ve read five of the 11 books and am part way through a sixth. Unlike Bill, I just loved Too Much Lip.

    • July 22, 2020 9:02 am

      Me too, Jonathan. I thought Too much lip was inspired. Sometimes you just can’t understand someone else’s taste can you! Sorry Bill!

  8. July 21, 2020 5:20 pm

    I have read all of Scott’s work and I would Benang on a list of the most powerful (and memorable) novels I have ever read. I’ve also read The White Girl, but didn’t think it was literary enough for the MF. That’s not to take away from the importance of the story but I think it was written for a more generalist audience. You could almost say the same for Too Much Lip. I am currently reading The Yield and LOVING it. I need to put Alexis Wright’s work on my TBR

    • July 22, 2020 9:05 am

      Yes, I’m with you, kimbofo, about The white girl. A good read but a bit conventional. I must read Benang.

      • July 22, 2020 10:02 am

        WG (and Johnathon!) can have a dig at me because I think Too Much Lip didn’t deserve an MF. But Benang and The Swan Book are, outside maybe of Murnane, quite easily the two best literary books written in Australia in the last quarter century, and maybe ever.
        Hurry up, the pair of you, ie. Kim and WG, and read them.

        • July 22, 2020 5:34 pm

          I love your confidence Bill! I find it really hard to make such “best” pronouncements. I have The swan book on my TBR. I must put my Indigenous Australian TBR books in a special pile so I can go to them easily.

  9. July 21, 2020 9:58 pm

    If nothing else, this is a great starter list for an introduction into indigenous writers. I have read some, but not enough!

  10. July 22, 2020 5:38 pm

    I have read most of this list, as well as Alexis Wright’s Tracker, which you have somehow left off your list – it won the Stella Prize in 2018. A couple of years ago I excitedly took my Kim Scott books to the Perth Writers Festival for signing (Taboo had been published shortly before). Kim had just spoken brilliantly on a panel, but I was stunned to find myself the only one there for him – for someone who has won the Miles twice I think he is shockingly undervalued (though admittedly I found Benang hard work). I saw/heard Melissa Lucashenko speak the day after I finished her book, and immediately liked the book more – her personality somehow put a different slant on it for me. She could be a stand-up comedian if the books don’t make enough money! Loved The Yield too and was very glad it won, though had also much enjoyed The White Girl, and am keen to read more of his.

    • July 22, 2020 6:06 pm

      Thanks very much Sue. I left Tracker off the list because this list was about books which were long or shortlisted for or won the Miles Franklin Award. Tracker, being non-fiction, of course was not in the running, and wasn’t listed for it.

      I have heard Kim Scott speak – in 2017. He had a packed audience (the theatre took 300 people) and we all hung on every word. I have heard Melissa Lucashenko speak too, a couple of times. She is powerful. A very different personality to Kim Scott! And, I heard Tara June Winch last year – she was great, and it, unlike the other occasions I’ve mentioned, was in a small venue with maybe 40 people. It was about The yield and was really interesting because of the long genesis of this book.

      Anyhow, thanks very much for commenting.

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