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Monday musings on Australian literature: Best Young Australian Novelists (3)

May 10, 2021

I’ve posted twice on The Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists, last year, and back in 2013. Bill, in fact, chose that 2013 post in his Bill Curates series on this blog.

The award was established in 1997 by the newspaper’s then literary editor, Susan Wyndham, making this year its 25th year. An emerging writing award, it is open to “writers aged 35 and younger” at the time their book is published. It is called a “novelists” award, but is made on the basis of a specific book, which can now include short stories. It seems that the newspaper’s Fairfax Melbourne stablemate, The Age, is involved which is why the name now seems to be, simply, Best Young Australian Novelists. I don’t know when that change occurred.

This year’s winners, as announced by Jason Steger, the current Literary Editor for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, are:

  • Vivian Pham’s The coconut children (winner, $8,000)
  • K.M. (Kate) Kruimink’s A treacherous country (runner-up, $1,000) (see Lisa’s review)
  • Jessie Tu’s A lonely girl in a dangerous thing (runner-up, $1,000) (see Kim’s review)

The judging panel always includes the papers’ literary editor, so Jason Steger, plus a previous winner, Pip Smith, and another novelist, Peggy Frew. The number of awards made varies, but this year, as last, there were three.

The winners, briefly

Vivian Pham

According to Steger, Pham was a whopping 19 years old when her novel was published last year. Not what you’d call a “late bloomer” then! Her novel is set in the Vietnamese Australian community in Sydney’s Cabramatta. Steger says that while redrafting the novel, Pham came across the idea of “second-generation trauma inherited via the stories and behaviour of the previous generation”. This idea apparently runs through the novel.

Pham says that “You want to know the people that are closest to you. You know something epic has happened to them, to make them the people that they are, and you want to know why that happened.” She agrees with Steger that that novel is “a love letter to Cabramatta”, because “she felt more connection to Vietnam there than in Vietnam, when she spends all her time at her grandmother’s home”.

One of her significant influences is James Baldwin, who apparently “got her into reading seriously and realising that it could change your world”. Her second favourite writer is P.G. Wodehouse!

The judges said that “Pham’s non-judgmental portraits of parents living with trauma, and children struggling to comprehend their parents’ choices, was nuanced and wise”.

K.M. Kruimink

Lisa, as noted above, has reviewed A treacherous country, and described it as having “a playful narrative”. She tells us, as does Steger, that this novel also won the Vogel (unpublished manuscript) Award. It has also been longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction.

Unlike Pham’s more contemporary work, this novel is historical fiction set in colonial Tasmania. It’s about a young man coming to Tasmania to bring a message to a young convict woman. Originally, Kruimink was writing about the woman. However, she was a new mother at the time that she decided to pick up the work again, and

Because I was in a vulnerable place, it was too emotional for me. It was a sad story and I felt like I couldn’t write about this sad young woman and I decided to write about a silly young man instead.

She thinks she will go back to the young woman’s story, though her next novel is about something very different.

She named Hilary Mantel and Kazuo Ishiguro as writers she likes to read.

The judges loved the voice, saying that she delivered “a stand-out voice – eccentric, funny and deceptively endearing. While the research behind the writing is evident, it is handled with a lightness of touch, and the language itself is truly impressive, ornate, yet controlled and deft”. 

Jessie Tu

Tu’s A lonely girl is a dangerous thing has been making a bit of a splash, having been shortlisted for Readings’ New Australian Fiction Prize and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Multicultural Award, as well as longlisted for the Stella Prize. 

Kim, whose review I linked above, was mightily impressed. She thought it would be another book about a millennial, but found it was much more. “Its real strength,” she writes, “lies in its perspective of an Asian-Australian trying to succeed in a closeted world dominated by the white and the privileged”.

Taiwanese-born Tu was apparently clear from the start what she was writing about, and also believes, says Steger, that “what drives a good novel … is the kind of questions it considers”. For her, loneliness is a big issue – as the title suggests. She says that:

I’ve been trying to think constantly where to seek solace for my feeling that I don’t belong in this world and what I found really comforting was reading stories about women in the past, especially female artists or female writers, and realising that they have also gone through sad, lonely lives. For me to know that helps me understand that this feeling that I have is not at all special.

The judges said that “Tu, with unswerving clarity, draws out many unsettling and compelling questions regarding race, talent, performance, perfectionism, agency and worth”. They called it “provocative” and “uncompromising”, reflecting Kim’s assessment, in fact!

Have you read any of these books?

27 Comments leave one →
  1. Neil@kallaroo permalink
    May 11, 2021 00:26

    Yes, I’ve read A lonely girl is a dangerous thing. I have a slightly different slant to most folks. I have a daughter who started learning violin at 4 (I didn’t start till was about 14), and strove to get into the local symphony orchestra, via study in Sydney and Austria. She didn’t, but while we were a little upset at the time, with the advent of COVID, she’s probably much better where she ended up, as a violin teacher in a private school.

    Anyway (after all that preamble), I found the story quite engaging, and it felt quite realistic. The heroine is pretty full-on, but I suspect that sort of ego goes with the territory. The story is worthy of recognition, even if it just sensitises folks to how musicians operate!

    • May 11, 2021 08:57

      You have intrigued me even more to read it now Neil, because of your assessment of why it’s worthy of recognition. Kim’s review was so positive too that she’s upped my interest.

      • Neil@kallaroo permalink
        May 11, 2021 09:47

        That’s a fair swap. You intrigue me with some books, I like to intrigue you with others.

  2. May 11, 2021 03:54

    None of these are my type of thing…

  3. May 11, 2021 09:52

    Such talent among the young ! These can scarcely be called YA writers, as they’re up for multiple award, the clever things. The caretaker of my apartment building has the family name of Pham, and he is one of the sweetest people I know; so Sydney’s as well off for Phams as Melbourne. [grin]

    • May 11, 2021 14:51

      How lovely M-R that you have a great caretaker. There’s another Aussie writer with that name too, Hoa Pham.

      And no, young but not YA!

  4. May 11, 2021 15:16

    I tried The Coconut Children and abandoned it… too much purple prose for my taste.

    And you know what I think about Tu.

    • May 11, 2021 16:59

      Yes, I remembered that you’d abandoned the Pham. I haven’t seen what Tu wrote, but I have heard about it. I feel I should hold judgment until I’ve seen it for myself … and then there’s the issue of the work versus the person??

      • May 11, 2021 17:09

        Yes, I hear you about the work versus the person, but I think that I have plenty else to read without needing to spend my time on her work.

  5. May 11, 2021 15:17

    Thanks for the link to my review. Tu’s novel is certainly provocative. I heard her at the Perth Lit festival earlier in the year (she appeared via zoom) and she was a very deep thinker but spoke eloquently and with a lot of authenticity about what it is to be Asian and a young woman in Australia. But she was also very forthright about her deep need to be famous and how she realised this was not an aspiration of which to be proud. I found her fascinating.

    • May 11, 2021 17:01

      Wow, that’s interesting kimbofo. Most people I thought grew out of “a deep need to be famous” but I suppose not all do, or some do later than others? I love that sort of honesty and willingness to expose things about oneself that you’d not proud of.

      • May 11, 2021 19:56

        I’m paraphrasing, of course, but she said as oldest child of Asian parents she was used to being the dutiful hardworking daughter who was recognised for her achievements, but when you’re in the real world that kind of recognition isn’t always forthcoming.

        • May 11, 2021 21:19

          That’s very true. I think we all do need to compliment others more… In the workplace, anywhere, really. It’s too easy to criticise and pick up problems but somehow not to praise (genuinely).

  6. Meg permalink
    May 11, 2021 18:38

    Hi Sue, I have not read any of the above novels, though I did try to read Jessie Tu’s novel. I gave up. I didn’t like how sex seemed to be dominating the story. I do believe in encouraging young writers – The Vogel is excellent at encouraging such writings. I will endeavor to read A Treacherous Country. Maybe I am too old, but I like to read novels which will encourage me to keep me reading, and not ones that I think are wasting my time.

    • May 11, 2021 19:23

      Thanks Meg. I consider myself warned about the sex! Anyhow, I may not get to it. I agree with you re the Vogel.

  7. May 11, 2021 21:18

    I enjoy young authors and after years of reading white Australian Lit , I enjoy what first and second generation Australians have to say about us Anglos. It’s a year or so since I read and loved Jamie Marina Lau, so it’s time I gave one of these a try (Meanwhile I hope Lau is working on #2).

    • May 11, 2021 22:02

      Yes, well said Bill. I’m really interested in the perspectives of others too, as uncomfortable as that can sometimes be, eh? I want to read done of these too.

    • May 11, 2021 22:29

      Lau has a debut novel out called Gunk Baby.

      • May 11, 2021 22:41

        Thank you Kim, I’ll chase it up.

      • May 11, 2021 22:46

        Thanks kimbofo, great to hear this – though wouldn’t this be her second novel? Or is Pink Mountain on Locust Island not really a novel?

  8. May 15, 2021 01:14

    Interesting! I haven’t read any of them, but I like the sound of Pham’s book. The passing down of trauma through generations is interesting. I’d also like to see what a combination of influences from PG Wodehouse and James Baldwin looks like…

    • May 15, 2021 16:26

      Haha, Andrew, I wonder if that combination is in the book? Anyhow, I’d like to read it too!

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