Barbara Jefferis Award 2020 Winner Announced


In early October, the shortlist for the biennial Barbara Jefferis Award, worth $50,000, was announced. This award, for those of you who don’t remember it, has very specific criteria:

“the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”.

Libby Angel, The trapeze actThe eagle-eyed amongst you will realise that it is not the sex of the writer that’s relevant here (nor, in fact, the genre). This award is for books about women and girls – and so can be written by anyone of any sex – but it must also present them in a positive or empowering way. I wrote a Monday Musings post about this “positive or empowering” requirement two years ago. That year, the winner was Libby Angel’s The trapeze act, a book I hadn’t read then, hadn’t heard much about even, and still, I’m afraid, haven’t read.

This year’s shortlist of five books comprises four by women writers and one by a man AND, notably, three of the five are by Indigenous Australian writers.

Unbelievably for me, given my usual track record, I’ve read four of the five. I wish I’d read Treloar too because I know it’s been much enjoyed by bloggers, and it is set in a part of the USA that I have visited.

Judges Robyn Sheahan-Bright, Jeremy Fisher and Barbara Horgan, as reported by Books + Publishing, said of 2020’s submissions:

We were very much struck by the empathy with which the experiences of older women were depicted as powerful role models for those younger than them in so many titles—women who were survivors of both personal and family challenges and cataclysmic social, economic or environmental events.

… and the winner is

Of course, the one I haven’t read, Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island!

You can watch the announcement here, which includes an introduction by author Bri Lee, comments on each book by judge Robyn Sheahan-Bright, comments on their books by the short-listed authors, the winner’s announcement by Barbara Jefferis’ son Michael Little, and a gracious and strong response from the winner Lucy Treloar. In her words, she repeats the message I’ve shared here before which is that prizes like this (plus all arts funding) enable writers to buy time to write.

Congratulations to Lucy Treloar – and to all the shortlisted authors. I must read this book.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Barbara Jefferis Award and negative depictions of women

A month ago, blogger Kim Forrester (Reading Matters) tweeted “I’ve stopped reading books where a woman being murdered is the plot point. Let’s change the story.” I thought this was interesting, but didn’t think a lot about it at the time because I read very little crime (though I do watch some). However, I was reminded of it when, last week, Lisa (ANZLitLovers) brought my attention to this year’s Barbara Jefferis Award and the judging panel’s comment on the submitted books – but first some background.

The Barbara Jefferis Award has very specific criteria:

“the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”.

In other words, it is not the sex of the writer that’s relevant here (nor, in fact, the genre). This award is for books about women and girls, but it must also present them in a positive or empowering way. It was controversial at the time it was established. I remember it well because I created the Wikipedia article on it. I noted that journalist and literary editor Susan Wyndham had asked whether Australia needed a new fiction award encouraging ‘positive’ portrayals of women and girls, or whether it’s “an outdated gesture in a post-feminist culture rich with female authors, characters and readers?” And then I continued with:

Several writers have supported the award, including Tom Keneally, Helen Garner, Frank Moorhouse, Gerald Murnane, Anne Deveson, Kerryn Goldsworthy and Brian Castro. However, writer and critic, Andrew Reimer dislikes the idea of focusing on “social agenda” over “novelist’s skill and imagination”, and novelist Emily McGuire agreed, stating that she doesn’t “like the idea of judging fiction based on its message”. Author and critic, Debra Adelaide, expressed her concern that the award might encourage “safe and constrained” writing and wondered whether “we are getting to the point where we have more awards than publishing opportunities”.

Libby Angel, The trapeze actJumping ten or so years later to the 2018 award, here is The Sydney Morning Herald’s report after the announcement of Libby Angel’s The trapeze act as winner:

Among a record number of books entered for the $55,000 Barbara Jefferis Award, a surprising number featured domestic violence, death or the subjugation of women, according to judge Sandra Yates, running contrary to the prize’s explicit criteria.

The first three books Yates read from the longlist saw one woman burnt at the stake, one woman pushed off a cliff and the other a victim of domestic violence.

“We were surprised, I have to say, that so many even in the longlist seemed to have such dark, negative portrayals of women in them,” she said. “We [women] don’t need any more books about our capacity to endure, I think we have established that.”

Reporting this, Lisa commented “So I am not the only one sick-and-tired of the current crop of misery memoirs and novels featuring women as victims…”

I don’t feel as strongly as Lisa about the “current crop” of books, but I am interested in the wider issue at play here, which I’d break down into three main questions:

  • How do we define positive, empowering representation?
  • Is there, currently, a prevalence of negative representations?
  • Should writers conform to a “social agenda”?

I’m not sure whether there is a definition for the judges to work with – and would be interested to hear from Dorothy Johnston who wrote a guest post here on judging this award –  but I’d define positive, or empowering depictions of women and girls as those in which women are able to exert some sort of agency in their lives. This could include Lisa’s “misery memoirs” if, as often happens, they end with the woman rising above the challenges (the violence, the abuse, the poverty, the illness – whatever the initial misery is) to take control. There can be a fine line here, though, between Yates’ notion of “enduring” and the idea of being, or becoming, empowered.

To be simplistic, we could say that, in the context of this award’s requirements, there are three “types” of books depicting women: those whose portrayals are positive (or, “ultimately” positive); those whose portrayals are neutral, that is, they are just about women getting on with the normal business of life; and those in which woman are essentially victims, with no agency to improve their lot.

Looking at the novels I’ve read that feature women and/or girls and were published between 1 January 2016 and 31 December 2017, I would say that most – by my definition, anyhow – would fall into the first two “types”. These books include:

  • Carmel Bird’s Family skeleton (my review)
  • Diana Blackwood’s Chaconne (my review)
  • John Clanchy’s Sisters (my review)
  • Claire Coleman’s Terra nullius (my review)
  • Madelaine Dickie’s Troppo (my review) (shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis’ Award)
  • Michelle de Kretser’s The life to come (my review)
  • Sara Dowse’s As the lonely fly (my review)
  • Glenda Guest’s A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline (my review)
  • Sofie Laguna’s The choke (my review)
  • Catherine Mackinnon’s Storyland (my review)
  • Emily Maguire’s An isolated incident (my review)
  • Josephine Rowe’s A loving, faithful animal (my review)
  • Anna Spargo-Ryan’s The paper house (my review)
  • Ariella van Luyn’s Treading the air (my review)

Not all of these are simple, positive depictions, but their women are not all victims, albeit some are certainly challenged by the decisions they’ve made. I know from experience, however, that my definition of “positive” is not universal, and that I see hope where others don’t. Laguna’s The choke, for example, is undeniably grim – but Laguna believes in offering hope, and, whether or not you like the ending, it is intended to be hopeful.

The only book I’ve read from this period which, by my definition, would not meet the Award’s positive depiction criterion is Mirandi Riwoe’s The fish girl (my review). That girl tries, but is ultimately powerless and so done in by men with power over her.

So, I don’t necessarily agree that the majority of current books – at least those I’ve read – focus on women as victims. Many of the female protagonists may commence as victims – like Laguna’s Justine or the two protagonists in Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things (published in 2015) – but most of the books are about confronting problems, not simply succumbing to them and enduring.

As for whether writers should conform to a social agenda, my simplistic answer is no. But that doesn’t mean that a social-agenda based award is, in itself, wrong. It just means that it would be unwise for an author to write to an award whose requirements didn’t align with what they wanted to say. We have in fact many social-agenda oriented awards – the Stella Prize and the David Unaipon Award being just two examples.

How would you define “positive depiction”, and what do you think about the current crop of novels (regardless of where you live)?

Monday musings on Australian literature: 2016 awards season dragging to a close

As the year draws to a close, our final major literary awards are being announced. We’ve seen this month the winners of the Queensland Literary Awards and the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards. The Barbara Jefferis Award has announced its shortlist, but we are still waiting for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlist.

All but one of these awards have had somewhat problematic trajectories in recent years. The Queensland Literary Awards were established in 2012 when the then Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, abolished the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. The awards were managed for two years by a volunteer committee, before negotiation with the State Library of Queensland saw the Library take over management in 2014. In 2015, new Premier Anastasia Palaszczuk announced that the government would again support the awards. However, they are now a more collaborative venture than they’d been under the abolished regime, which should ensure a more secure future for them. The Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, on the other hand, which had been awarded annually from 1996 to 2014, were downgraded to a biennial timetable starting in 2016. Disappointing, really.

Meanwhile, what has happened to the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (PMLA)? Established in 2008 after Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister, they expanded quickly from comprising just two prizes (fiction and non-fiction) to several, so that by 2102 there were six prizes with young adult fiction, children’s fiction, poetry and Australian history being added to the mix. However, there seems to be no established timetable. In 2008, the winners were announced in September, while in 2009 and 2010, we had to wait until early November. Then, in 2011 and 2012, they were announced in July, and in 2013 it was August. The last two years, 2014 and 2015, the winners were announced in December, with their shortlists announced in October and November, respectively. Given there’s been a call for entries this year, they must be happening, so presumably we’ll see this year’s shortlist soon! The PMLA people play it very close to their chest, despite having a Facebook page on which they share all sorts of literary news, because this year, as in recent ones, I’ve not been able to find a timetable. I guess we just have to have faith.

The Prime Minister’s Literary Awards have other issues, though, besides erratic timetabling, including a lack of transparency regarding the process, poor marketing and promotion, and, most serious of all, political interference in the judges’ decisions. The best known example of this occurred in 2014 when the then Prime Minister Tony Abbott over-ruled the fiction judges’ choice of Stephen Carroll’s A world of other people to award the fiction prize to Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north. But, according to Patrick Allington in The Conversation and past non-fiction judge Colin Steele, such interference has occurred a few times in the Awards’ short history. This is not good enough. As Allington writes, the stipulation that a Prime Minister has the final say about winners “compromises the Awards’ credibility, purpose and depth.”

The fun stuff … some winners

But enough of that. Let’s talk about some of the winners. I’m not going to list them all because the Queensland Literary Awards offers prizes in twelve categories and you can see them all at the site. Similarly, the WA Premier’s Book Awards has about eleven categories, and you can see those winners too at their site. I’m just going to share the few winners I’ve read and reviewed!

Elizabeth Harrower, A few days in the country and other stories

First up, the Queensland Literary Awards. The award which pleased me most is Elizabeth Harrower’s A few days in the country and other stories (my review) sharing the Steele Rudd Award for Australian short story collections sponsored by the University of Southern Queensland. This is a wonderful collection of short stories, which has been shortlisted for a couple of awards, so I’m thrilled to see Harrower receive the recognition she deserves. (And I’m pleased for Text Publishing too given the work they’ve done to bring Harrower to our attention through their Text Classics).

Fiona Wright, Small acts of disappearanceAnother a winner at these awards was Fiona Wright’s honest, insightful collection of essays, Small acts of disappearance (my review), about her experience of an eating disorder. Wright was the Non-fiction Book Award, also sponsored by the University of Southern Queensland.

Meanwhile, over in the west, at the newly biennial Western Australian Literary Awards, it all felt a little old because many of the winners have been around for a couple of years now and most of them featured in the 2015 shortlists and awards. This is not their fault of course, but it certainly brought home the impact of the awards only being two-yearly. The fiction award, for example, was won by Joan London’s The golden age, which was shortlisted and/or won several awards in 2015.

Helen Garner, This house of grief book cover

Courtesy: Text Publishing

The big news at these awards, from my point of view, is that Helen Garner’s non-fiction work This house of grief (my review) won not only the Non-fiction prize, but also the overall Premier’s Prize. A fascinating choice, because mostly, though not exclusively I know, these overall awards tend to go to works of fiction.

Western Australia, like Queensland, quarantines an award or two to writers from their states. Queensland has awards for “a work of state significance” and “emerging Queensland writer”, while Western Australia offers awards for “Western Australian history” and “Western Australian emerging writer”. The winner of this last award is a book I’ve reviewed here, Lost and found by Brooke Davis.

And so, by my reckoning, we have three more literary awards to go – the Prime Minister’s (on a yet-to-be announced date), the biennial Barbara Jefferis Award (on 25 October), and the always interesting MUBA (Most Underrated Book Award (on 11 November). Good luck everyone.

Fiona McFarlane, The night guest (Review)

McFarlaneNightGuestPenguinThose of you who followed the literary award season in Australia last year will have seen Fiona McFarlane’s debut novel The night guest pop up several times. The more it popped up, the more I wanted to read it – but also the more I thought it would be good to read with my reading group. So, I bought it, and held onto it until this year, as we did, in fact, schedule it for our end of February meeting.

The first thing to say about this book is that it’s an easy, quick read, a page-turner in fact. But, it is not a simple read. It’s a read that keeps you guessing right to the end, even though you are pretty sure you know what is going on. It’s about Ruth. She’s in her mid-seventies, and recently widowed. She lives in the family’s old holiday house to which she and her husband had retired a few years previously. And, she’s “reached the stage where her sons worried about her”.

Then, along comes Frida, from the government she says, to be Ruth’s carer, because Ruth, as we’d suspected, has dementia, albeit in early stages. She is, she feels, “still self-governing”. Apparently, both of McFarlane’s grandmothers had dementia which helps explain why McFarlane has been able to present Ruth’s state of mind so convincingly. I say “helps explain” because there’s clearly a perceptive and skilled writer at work here too. It’s one thing to experience family members with dementia, but it’s quite another to be able to present it with such authority and authenticity.

How does McFarlane do this? The most important decision a writer has to make I think – and I’ve certainly heard many say this – is the voice. For this book, McFarlane chose third person subjective, that is, it is told third person but almost completely from Ruth’s perspective. A good decision, because we can feel Ruth’s uncertainty as she slides between confidence and uncertainty, between independence and neediness, between reality and a strange world that doesn’t always make sense. Because it’s from her point of view – and not an omniscient author’s – we are kept on our toes, not always sure, as Ruth is not, of where she is on any of those spectrums at any given time. Sometimes it’s patently obvious, but other times it’s not so clear.

Ruth has a few guests during the course of the book – including Frida (of course) and a man called Richard Porter. But there is another one, a tiger! The tiger appears in the opening sentence of the novel:

Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said, ‘Tiger’.

She was of course dreaming, except that now she’s awake, she starts to hear noises, “something large … rubbing” against her furniture, and “the panting of a large animal”. These noises are too big to be coming from her cats. The tiger is ongoing “character” in the novel. More on this anon.

The second guest to arrive is the aforementioned Frida. She appears out of the blue one day – “You don’t know me from Adam” she says – to start caring for Frida. The question though is, is she “out of the blue” or is it that Ruth didn’t remember that someone was coming. Questions like this recur throughout the novel, keeping us in a sort of readerly vertigo. One minute we believe we know, and the next we are uncertain again. By the half-way point, though, I suspect most readers are pretty confident of what’s really going on, but even then there are uncertainties about how it will actually play out. All this makes the book an engrossing challenge.

Then there’s the third guest, Richard Porter, who was her first, and unrequited love, when she was a young woman living in Fiji with her missionary parents. Ruth invites him for a visit, hoping that “things could still happen to her”.

It’s hard to know how to write more about the book though because this is one of those stories in which the plot and the meaning are intertwined. However, I can say that it’s broadly about ageing, grief, love and loss. It’s also about trust, honesty and the responsibilities we have for each other.

The tiger

The tiger, as I’ve already indicated, appears on the first page. He’s a complex figure, alluding partly, I’m sure, to Blake’s “The Tyger”. But, and here perhaps I’m drawing a longer bow, he also reminded me of the tiger (aka Richard Parker, which is very close to Richard Porter, but that might be a bridge too far!) in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Both tigers reflect a duality: they are both fearsome (and perhaps representative of evil, though I like to avoid that word), but both can also be seen positively. Blake’s tiger was made by the God who also made the lamb, and so by extension can be seen to encompass both forces. Martel’s tiger needs to be kept at bay, but his very presence also gives Pi the strength and focus he needs to survive.

So, too, in The night guest does the tiger play a complex role. He appears when Ruth is at her most uncertain, most fearful, most disoriented, disappearing when she’s calm. In that sense he represents the negative. But, there’s something grand, and perhaps even reassuring about him. In his first appearance, Ruth thinks:

A tiger! Ruth, thrilled by this possibility, forget to be frightened and had to counsel herself back into fear.

A little later, when she is feeling comfortable, the tiger is “safely herbivorous”. But, he comes back, and Ruth is irritated “because there was no point to him now that she had Frida and Richard; the tiger had prepared the way for them and was no longer needed”. I’m tempted to suggest that Frida and Richard could represent the tiger’s duality, but the book isn’t simplistically conceived, so I don’t want to take that line of thinking too far.

Towards the end, when the tiger is fighting for his existence,

Ruth felt for a moment on the verge of understanding exactly what the tiger was saying when he roared. He wasn’t concerned for his safety, but for his dignity …

I’ll leave the tiger there, but I think you can see how McFarlane uses him in the novel.

There are other images and symbols which run through the book, some of them biblical, like lilies (“she was safe behind her lilies”), which makes sense given Ruth’s missionary upbringing. And, of course, Ruth’s name itself is biblical. None of this is heavy-handed though, or suggests a slavish adherence to symbolism. It just adds to the depth with which we can contemplate this book – at least, I think so.

In the end, this is a book about people – and how we treat each other. Several people, besides those I’ve mentioned here, are involved in Ruth’s life, such as her sons and a young mother who’d found her husband as he was dying. The book asks us to consider how far do we – should we – take our duty of care? How do we decide when we should intervene in another’s life and when we should not. I did enjoy this book.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers didn’t enjoy it as much as I did. I agree that it doesn’t really work as a psychological thriller, which is how some of the blurbs on my edition describe it. But, as I was reading it, I wondered whether that’s what McFarlane intended … or just how it’s been promoted?

awwchallenge2015Fiona McFarlane
The night guest
Melbourne: Penguin Books, 2014 (orig. ed 2013)
ISBN: 9780143571339

Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post by Dorothy Johnston, writer and Barbara Jefferis Award judge

Literary awards, their role and import, have come under frequent discussion here at Whispering Gums. So, when writer Dorothy Johnston, whose The house at number 10 and Eight pieces on prostitution I’ve reviewed and, more relevantly, who was one of the judges for this year’s Barbara Jefferis Award, suggested a guest post on the Award, I was more than happy to take her up on it.

I have never met Dorothy but I have “known” her for a long time as she was one of Canberra’s famous Seven Writers who published the anthology Canberra Tales in 1988. I became “reacquainted” with her more recently via blogging and her appearance in The invisible thread anthology edited by Irma Gold for Canberra’s centenary last year. It’s been a lovely rediscovery. Dorothy has published nine novels – literary fiction, and crime-mystery novels, mainly. Two of her novels – One for the master and Ruth – have been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. Dorothy blogs at her website Dorothy Johnston.

For those who haven’t heard, this year’s Barbara Jefferis Award was shared by Margo Lanagan’s Sea hearts and Fiona McFarlane’s The night guest. Here is Dorothy’s story about her experience as a judge.


The idea of splitting the Barbara Jefferis Award between The Night Guest and Sea Hearts did not come up before the three judges (myself, Margaret Barbalet and Georgia Blain) met at the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) in Sydney, at the end of September.

LanaganSeaHeartsI enjoyed working through the 72 entries, making notes, keeping in mind the selection criteria, (a work of literary merit that showed women and girls in a positive light), starring the books I knew I would want to go back to. I had no idea whether my favourites would find favour with Margaret and Georgia.

After about 6 weeks, we exchanged our long lists. One novel was common to all three of us – Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, a brilliant study of a woman who believes there is a tiger in her house. Others on my long list didn’t show up on those of the other two judges, but both had included Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts. I went back and re-read it more carefully, and was, as the saying goes, blown away.

These two entries stayed at the top from then on, while we emailed back and forth. Part of the reason for having 72 entries is that the award covered 2 years – 2013 and 2014 – and included self-published titles. By far the greatest number of entries came from the big publishers – Penguin, Allen & Unwin, Random House – though, as it turned out, 4 of the 7 shortlisted book were published by small, or small to medium presses.

We didn’t have to make a firm decision on our shortlist before the meeting; but once in Sydney we only had a morning to finalise it, then choose a winner, and then we had to spend the afternoon writing our report.

I’d had to give up some of the books on my long list because they didn’t find favour with Margaret or Georgia, and the same went for them. One I regretted letting go was Elemental by Amanda Curtin, a terrific story of a young girl growing up in a Scottish fishing village, and what happens to her subsequently. On the other hand, All The Birds Singing, by Evie Wyld, which the others both included, and which, as readers will know, won the Miles Franklin, I thought was over-rated.

McFarlaneNightGuestIf I had to make one general remark about the books that made it onto the shortlist, I would say that each one is utterly itself. What do I mean by this? I mean that, a few pages in, I recognised the voice as original, distinct, perfect for the narrative; they fitted hand and glove. So often I found that an author began promisingly, but then could not sustain the voice. Or, right from the beginning, the author pandered to one contemporary fashion or another. When you’re reading your way through 2 years of entries, you quickly learn that following the fashion is a bad idea.

There’s no whiff of conformity amongst the shortlist. Amy Espeseth’s Sufficient Grace focuses on two young women and their difficult lives in an isolated religious community. The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, by Tracy Farr, introduced me to an extraordinary musician and her instrument, the theremin.

Pilgrimage, by Jacinta Halloran, is about two sisters, one of them a doctor, and what happens when their mother is diagnosed with motor neurone disease.

Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts takes ancient selkie legends as its starting point and moves in a wholly original direction. Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest is another novel that borders the surreal in an original and quite wonderful way. The First Week, by Margaret Merrilees, is, by contrast, a realist tale that cuts to the bone.

The Mountain by Drusilla Modjeska, an ambitious and far-reaching story of Papua New Guinea in the years since independence.

We also highly commended Laura Buzo’s Holier Than Thou.

But back to that meeting at the ASA. We already knew each other’s preferences. We’d picked the same top two and could not choose between them. There didn’t seem a hair’s breadth, or knife point to tip the balance. We called in Lucy Stevens, who was overseeing the judging process. Lucy sat at one end of the table balancing the two books in her hands while we reached the decision to award the prize to both.

The presentation was held in the renovated foyer of St Barnabas Church, Broadway, a lovely light-filled space. It was a beautiful Sydney spring evening. There was music and champagne. I realized – not that I hadn’t known it before, but it came to me suddenly – that we were here to celebrate books and their authors. Angelo Loukakis, Executive Director of the ASA, welcomed us. David Day, who is Chair of ASA’s Board of Directors, spoke about Barbara Jefferis and the bequest. Tara Moss spoke about women and the arts. I looked around me. Everyone in the room cared about, and many worked hard to foster and promote, Australian literature. When I stepped up to the podium, to give my judges’ speech, I had a big smile on my face.


Thanks a bunch Dorothy for giving us your insider’s perspective on awards judging. I can see it wasn’t an easy job and love that you’ve shared your thoughts with us.

Dorothy (I’m sure) and I would love to hear your thoughts – on awards, on judging, on these particular books, or on anything else her post has inspired you to think about.