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Stella … 10 years

October 7, 2021

While the Stella Prize isn’t quite 10 years old, next year will see the awarding of the 10th prize. With that landmark in its sights, the Stella people decided to tweak the prize criteria, and have added single-author poetry collections to the forms eligible for the prize. An excellent move. Around the same time, they announced their 2022 judging panel – Melissa Lucashenko (chair), Declan Fry, Cate Kennedy, Sisonke Msimang, and Oliver Reeson – creating another nicely diverse panel.

Now and then: Ten years of Stella

To celebrate entering its 10th year, Stella held a zoom session involving three past winning and shortlisted authors, Carrie Tiffany (Mateship with birds), Emily Bitto (The strays), and Claire G. Coleman (Terra Nullius). (Links are to my reviews) The session was convened by Christine Gordon who introduced herself as a Stella founding member, and the Programming and Events coordinator for Melbourne’s Readings Bookshop.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was short and tightly focused on the value of the Stella. There was no Q&A, but I it was a good opportunity to hear from three writers whom I’ve read and reviewed here.

To honour the Prize’s inclusion of poetry collections next year, Christine started by reading from Evelyn Araluen’s poem “Acknowledgement of country” (from Dropbear). It’s a powerful, in-your-face poem that further inspired me to read this collection. (Brona has reviewed it, but doesn’t mention this particular poem.)

What did you know about the prize at the point your book was listed/won?

Mateship with Birds (Courtesy: Pan MacMillan)

Emily, who won the prize in its third year, remembers being excited by the idea behind the prize. Being a debut author, she didn’t know much about the literary landscape that inspired it, but she was amazed by the inequities that the Stella Count had revealed for women writers, across prizes, publishing, and reviewing. She was thrilled to win, but straight after, she found its value being questioned by men who wondered how worthwhile it was to win a prize only open to women! As the panel concurred, these critics didn’t understand the idea of an unequal playing field and its impact.

Carrie, Stella’s inaugural winner, said that she had not been overly aware of discrimination. She’d had good experience with her first novel – Everyman’s rules for scientific living – of the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction), which was taken very seriously. But, she did experience backlash immediately after winning the Stella, with patronising articles in The Age and The Australian, for example. The latter described her book as a “bush romance”. Had someone like Carey or Winton written the book, she said, it would have been described in terms of exploring “nature and desire”. She said that her approach now would be to talk about history and women’s lack of opportunity and education, about how women have much catching up to do. Stella, she said, has more than broken the glass ceiling, it has “smashed the wall out of the building”.

Claire said that, like Carrie, she’d come to writing late, and had had no connection with the writing community. Being longlisted and then shortlisted for her debut novel was a profound endorsement.

What did winning mean for you?

Emily BItto, The strays, book cover

Christine noted that winning the Stella has a clear impact on sales. Emily agreed saying her book had been out for a year before winning the award, and sold as much in the first two weeks after winning as it had in that whole first year. Claire said after her shortlisting, her book achieved a spike in sales. Christine then mentioned the ongoing work Stella does to keep books in the public eye, over the long haul.

Choose a favourite poem

Christine asked each participant to share a favourite poem:

  • Claire read “White excellence” (Ellen van Neerven’s Throat, which Brona has also reviewed)
  • Carrie commented first that, while poetry collections are new to the prize, verse novels like Lisa Jacobsen’s shortlisted The sunlit zone had been eligible from the beginning. She read a poem dedicated to poet Anne Carson (Maria Takolander’s Trigger warning). She loved its focus on words and the concreteness of language.
  • Emily read “This landscape before me” by, she admitted, her friend, Sarah Holland-Batt. (Available at Poetry Foundation.

Why do you write/Earliest memories of writing

Emily talked about writing newspapers for her mother – from headlines right through to the sports news! As for why she writes, she described herself as an “angsty person” concerned about finding what we can do that’s meaningful. Books give her meaning, and she decided she wanted to contribute to that. Writing feels a worthwhile thing to do. (Amen to that, eh?) She added that winning the Stella was a wonderful endorsement.

Claire G Coleman, Terra nullius

Claire said, simply, that she was impelled to write Terra nullius: it was there and had to be written. In the process, though, she found that writing was something she could do, and that it is, in fact, the only job she’s suited for! She felt that being listed for this and other prizes helped create interest in her, which probably then helped her get her next books published. The prize changed her life in the sense that it told her that she could write.

Carrie, like Emily, sees reading as life-sustaining. She also likes that she can conceal herself in her writing, she can use the novel “to express me”. She believes in the role fiction can play in encouraging empathy: through novels we can “learn what it is to be someone else”. As to whether the prize was life-changing, she said that she was obliged, as a winner, to give lectures at universities. This was challenging as she’d never done it before! She also felt that her success with her first two novels meant people were more open to her later, more difficult book.

At this point, Christine closed the session, reminding us that Stella’s aim is to get women’s writing on everyone’s agenda, and asking us all to “Be a Stella Ambassador”. But of course!

I wouldn’t say I learnt anything earth-shatteringly new. However, through the experience of these quite different writers, I obtained a first-hand sense of what Stella can mean for writers. I also enjoyed getting to know these three a little more – and I loved all four poems that were shared. There’s something about hearing a poem read.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2021 08:35

    Nice write up, Sue. Thank you.

  2. October 8, 2021 19:34

    Thanks for this Sue. It was great to learn the perspectives of these specific writers.

  3. October 8, 2021 21:33

    That’s interesting that those writers don’t seem to have known a lot about the Stella prior to being listed. And it never occurred to me that Claire Coleman hadn’t always considered herself a writer, she seems so natural. I really must see if I can persuade her to do an author interview. Hopefully Indig. SF #3 is on the way.

    • October 9, 2021 10:46

      I think Bill, it’s understandable because Carrie was the first winner, and Emily, the third, so it wasn’t a well established award by then. And, as Claire said, she was not a writer before her book came out and was clearly not immersed in the literary world the way some up us litbloggers are!

      But yes, Claire Coleman’s admission was really interesting, and quite heartfelt. It truly felt that she hadn’t found her “place” until she wrote this book.

  4. October 9, 2021 01:45

    I agree, poetry becomes more accessible for me when it’s read (performed?). Although if I was as familiar with these authors and this prize, as you are, I would have longed for the Q&A. I wonder why they didn’t include that.

    • October 9, 2021 10:22

      Yes, I don’t know Buried. My guess is that it was meant to be a tribute session rather than a traditional author panel. But I don’t know.

  5. October 9, 2021 17:46

    I’m thrilled to see that poetry is now part of the Stella process and I loved hearing our host and authors reading some of their favourite poems on Thursday evening (I spotted both you and Kate in the roll call), especially when two of the featured poets, where ones that I had read & reviewed!

    Claire’s admission was quite startling, although I could hear Bill in my ear asking me if I’d read Terra Nullius yet? I would have liked to hear what Clare Wright had to say about her experience, being one of the first non-fiction winners of this award.

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