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
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”.
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”.
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?