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Monday musings on Australian literature: Commonwealth Writers Prize (now defunct)

March 8, 2021

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 [1965] 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.

Best Book

Kim Scott That Deadman Dance
  • 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

Book cover
  • 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?

20 Comments leave one →
  1. March 8, 2021 23:12

    I think I thoroughly disliked more books in the first list than I liked. I reviewed the 1994 first book winner, The Mule’s Foal – a very idiosyncratic, but enjoyable book set in a Greek village in Turkey from memory. Epanomitis, the author went off into academia as far as I could make out, and wrote no more. A shame.

    • March 8, 2021 23:18

      Oh did you Bill – The mule’s foal I mean? Yes, I think she did from what I could see when I checked her out this afternoon. I’ll check out your review tomorrow. I decided not to go looking for reviews for this list as there were just too many and it would have taken me all night.

      I think you are a bit harsh about the first list, though I expected you to say this when I was writing it (!). However, I agree that they do mostly seem to be the tried and true novels that were doing the rounds don’t they.

  2. March 9, 2021 06:25

    I tremble with embarrassment in asking: what happened after 2011 ?

    • March 9, 2021 08:10

      They stopped the prize, M-R! And replaced it with a Short Story one.

      • March 9, 2021 09:06

        Sighh .. I read the post twice, and still managed to miss that. 😦

        • March 9, 2021 09:15

          There was a lot of writing in the middle there. I should do a podcast version for you M-R!

  3. Meg permalink
    March 9, 2021 08:46

    Hi Sue, unlike Bill, I liked most of the books in the first list; but there are also more books in the first list! To win the ‘Best First Book’, would have given the winner encouragement and confidence to keep writing. It would have been interesting to know what books were submitted in each category.

    • March 9, 2021 09:04

      Yes, I liked most of them too Meg. You can see the regional winners at Wikipedia but not even the short lists which is a shame.

  4. March 9, 2021 14:29

    I know the focus here is the Australian books, but for me, as a *reader* I liked finding out about Best Books and Best First Books in other regions. By following the prize, I discovered heaps of interesting writers from Africa, Caribbean and Canada, South Asia and Europe that I would never have heard of otherwise. They were available in our bookshops too, the prize had enough gravitas for bookstores like Readings to have them in stock and we didn’t need to hunt around online.
    The problem with the prize for our region was that Australia dominated with NZ bringing up the rear because the other nations in our region did not have well-developed writing industries. With the example of Canada and the Caribbean to follow, that was a problem that could and should have been addressed.
    I wouldn’t know if the short story competition achieves anything. I see the names of the winners in social media but you can only read their work online because they’re not published yet. If they go on to write anything else, how would we know?

    • March 9, 2021 14:40

      All good comments and questions Lisa. It was interesting that NZ and to some degree Malaysia and Samoa wee more visible in the First Books prize. I think that’s good, but why there? I certainly think they are trying to address the imbalance with the focus on short stories and less published authors, but how much difference they can really make is another thing.

    • March 9, 2021 19:05

      Thanks for reminding us about this prize sue. I think my favourite winner was Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones in 2007. He was a New Zealander, I recalled on looking him up. It does seem a slightly anachronistic prize now. However I agree it would be great to read more authors from other countries in our region specially.

      • March 9, 2021 22:24

        Thanks Kate! Yes, I loved Mr Pip too. I’d love our group to read more regional literature. As Lisa says though there’s the challenge of dissing it out isn’t there?

        • March 11, 2021 11:15

          I was looking for Mr Pip, too – that book has stayed with me ever since I read it.

        • March 11, 2021 12:11

          It’s a memorable one isn’t it Louise. It’s just that this being an Aussie list I decided not to list all the others to muddy the waters, but I’m thrilled that people remember that it won this award!

  5. March 15, 2021 15:22

    I was reflecting on the imbalance in prize lists with the announcement of the Women’s Prize longlist – so few Australians on these lists. Is it because the publishers can only enter so many? Mismatched publishing timetables for Aus vs US/UK? I have no answers (and I don’t truly care, although the prize money would be life-changing some authors).

  6. March 27, 2021 08:20

    I wonder if we would see a change in the country of origin of the winners if the prize had continued? There are a lot of really good authors coming out of African countries now that were not around at the time this prize was in full flow.

    I think I’m missing something – you say “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. ” but I don’t find those dates in your best books list

    • March 27, 2021 09:07

      Haha Karen, I left those out because my Monday Musings is about Australian literature so I decided to just include them and make the point about the others. It showed more clearly how skewed the lists were to Australia!

      Oh, and yes re country of origin. It would be good to think so many years on there would be change.

      • March 28, 2021 06:02

        Ah I see how this makes sense now. At least my comment shows I was reading your piece closely – just not closely enough!

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