March 8 this year is a packed one. Of course, it is always International Women’s Day, but the second Monday in March is also Canberra Day here in the ACT, Labour Day in Victoria, and Commonwealth Day in, yes, the Commonwealth. It is not a public holiday in most places, but I decided it could inspire this week’s Monday Musings!
Some of you will have come across the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize before. It was established by the Commonwealth Foundation in 1987, as a successor to their Commonwealth Poetry Prize. This Foundation was itself established in 1966 by CHOGM (the Commonwealth Heads of Government). As its Wikipedia page, says
the Commonwealth Secretariat was established  to support the political endeavours of the Commonwealth, the “Foundation was brought into being in the hope that it would give further substance to the old truism that the Commonwealth is as much an association of peoples as of governments”.
In other words, it focuses on the social, cultural, professional and other more locally-focused aspects of the Commonwealth. This includes, the Wikipedia pages also says, “to help to create national professional societies as part of a general process of “deanglicization”. This sounds a bit quaint now, but maybe that’s because much of this “deanglicisation” has been achieved. Has it? Anyhow, another of its formal goals was “to aid the broadening of experience through the printed word”. Hence, I assume, the various literary prizes.
The first was the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, which was succeeded in 1987 by today’s focus, the Commonwealth Writers Prize. This prize had two components – Best Book (1987–2011) and Best First Book (1989–2011). They were awarded for four regions: Africa, Caribbean and Canada, South Asia and Europe, and South East Asia and Pacific. There were winners in each category, Best Book and Best First Book, for each region, and from these, overall Best Book and Best First Book winners were chosen. In 2011, this award was discontinued. A new cultural programme was launched, with a new prize, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, which is still going.
Anyhow, as most of us love lists, I thought I’d share the Australian winners of the Best Book and Best First Book awards over the duration of the award. Australia was in the Southeast Asia and South Pacific region, which comprised Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Fiji Islands, Kiribati, Malaysia, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.
So, the lists … bolded titles were overall winners for the year. Also, please note that I’m not being ethnocentric, just true to the Aussie Lit focus of Monday Musings! You can see all the prizes on the website.
- 2011: Kim Scott’s The deadman dance (my review)
- 2009: Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap (my review)
- 2008: Steven Carroll’s The time we have taken
- 2006: Kate Grenville’s The secret river
- 2005: Andrew McGahan’s The white earth
- 2004: Michelle de Kretser’s The Hamilton case
- 2003: Sonya Hartnett’s Of a boy
- 2002: Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s book of fish
- 2001: Peter Carey’s True history of the Kelly Gang
- 2000: Lily Brett’s Too many men
- 1999: Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus
- 1998: Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs
- 1997: Sue Woolfe’s Leaning towards infinity
- 1996: Gillian Mears’ The grass sister
- 1995: Tim Winton’s The riders
- 1994: David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon
- 1993: Alex Miller’s The ancestor game
- 1991: David Malouf’s The great world
- 1990: Robert Drewe’s The bay of contented men
- 1988: George Turner’s The sea and summer
- 1987: Blanche d’Alpuget’s Winter in Jerusalem (shared with a NZ book)
You will see that Australia won the lion’s share of these prizes (21 of 25). The exceptions were 2010 won by a Samoan writer, 2007 and 1989 by a New Zealand writer, and 1992 by a Samoan-New Zealand writer. Things were a little different for the Best First Book award …
Best First Book
- 2010: Glenda Guest’s Siddon Rock
- 2008: Karen Foxlee’s The anatomy of wings
- 2007: Andrew O’Connor’s Tuvalu
- 2005: Larissa Behrendt’s Home
- 2004: Nada Azar Jarrar’s Somewhere, home
- 2002: Meaghan Delahunt’s In the blue house
- 2001: Arabella Edge’s The company
- 1998: Emma Tom’s Deadset
- 1995: Adib Khan’s Seasonal adjustments
- 1994: Fotini Epanomitis’ The mule’s foal
- 1993: Andrew McGahan’s Praise
- 1991: Thea Welsh’s The story of the year of 1912 in the village of Elza Darzins
- 1989: Gillian Mears’ Ride a cock horse
So, fewer won by Australians here (13 of 23), and another country involved too: 2011, 2009, 2000, 1999, 1996, 1992, and 1990 by New Zealand writers; 2006 and 2003 by Malaysian writers; and 1997 by a Samoan writer.
There’s another interesting thing here. All of the winners of the Best Book award continued to be published and be well-known after their win. This is not the case with the Best First Book winners where a few have not become well-known on the literary scene (though many have continued to write and publish, some now overseas).
I have read many of the Best Books, and a few of the Best First Books, but mostly before blogging. Interestingly, the Best Books reflect the very “white” focus in Australian literary awards at the time (with a couple of exceptions), while the Best First Books reflect greater diversity. I wonder whether this fact is behind the Foundation’s change to focusing on short stories, because the aim seems to have also changed from “simply” recognising achievement to developing, promoting and encouraging writers. The prize, they say,
is open to writers who have had little or no work published and particularly aimed at those places with little or no publishing industry. The prize aims to bring writing from these countries to the attention of an international audience. The stories need to be in English, but can be translated from other languages.
What do you think about all this?