Tony Birch wins the 2017 Patrick White Award

The Patrick White Award is one of Australia’s very special literary awards, and one that I posted in detail about last year when Carmel Bird was the winner. It’s special for a number of reasons. It is named for Patrick White who is, to date, Australia’s only Nobel Laureate in Literature. But, as I wrote last year, it’s particularly significant because it was established by White himself, using the proceeds of his Nobel prize money. Known for being irascible, White was also a principled and generous person. Having won two Miles Franklin Awards, among others, he stopped entering his work for awards in 1967 to provide more opportunity for other less-supported writers. His award goes to writers who have made significant contributions to Australian literature but who haven’t received the recognition they deserve.

This year’s award, as I heard on ABC Radio National when I was heading out for my patchwork group’s fortnightly cuppa, was announced at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre last night. It is special for another reason:  the award has been made to Tony Birch, making it the first time the award has been made to an indigenous Australian writer. In one sense I feel uncomfortable about labelling, because Birch has won the award on the merit of his output, but on the other hand such wins can raise awareness and provide encouragement for all those “others” who feel (and, you’d have to say, are) locked out of the mainstream.

Tony Birch, Ghost riverSo, Tony Birch. He’s a Melbourne-based writer, who has written two novels, many short stories, and poetry. His first novel, Blood, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award, and his second, Ghost River (my review) won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s award for Indigenous writing. I have also reviewed one of his short stories, “Spirit in the night” (my review), which was published in the excellent Australian Review of Fiction series.

Australian literary editor Jason Steger, writing about Birch’s win, quotes Birch on White:

“I admired the fact that as a writer in his older age he protested against the Vietnam War, that he was a great supporter of Whitlam after the Dismissal and that he had been involved with Jack Mundey’s protests and the Green Bans.”

Steger continues that this attracts Birch:

because he is “very involved” with the campaign against the Adani Carmichael coal mine in Queensland. And as a research fellow at Victoria University, his work “is essentially about the relationship between climate change and what we now call protection of country”.

The most interesting (and most memorable) parts of Ghost River werefor me, the environmental story about saving the river and Birch’s depiction of the lives of and treatment of homeless men. Michael Cathcart, in his interview with Birch on ABC’s Books and Arts Daily Program, commented that while Birch’s work features indigenous characters, his themes seem broader. Birch responded pretty much as Steger also quotes him:

I suppose my writing is broadly about class, but more essentially about valuing people who might otherwise be regarded as marginalised.

Patrick White would, I’m sure, have been proud.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Patrick White (Literary) Award

I was thrilled to hear on the radio this morning that Carmel Bird had won this year’s Patrick White (Literary) Award. Bird is such a worthy winner for this award, but more on that anon.

The Patrick White Award* is named, obviously, for one of Australia’s most significant writers and only, to date, Nobel Laureate in Literature. But, more than this, it was established by the man himself, using the proceeds of his Nobel prize money. White, for all his famed grumpiness, was a principled and generous person. Having won two Miles Franklin Awards, among others, he stopped entering his work for awards in 1967 to provide more opportunity for other less-supported writers. His award, established a few years later, continues this desire to support his fellow writers. David Carter, writing in the Australian Book Review, says this about it:

White was no friend to literary prizes and, in some ways, no friend to Australian literature, but he proved himself a friend to Australian writers. The ‘Patrick White’ is in many ways a writer’s award, created by a writer for other writers, and highly valued by them even if it hits the headlines less than the Miles Franklin.

The Canberra Times reported on the creation of this award in October 1973, stating:

Professor Geoffrey Blainey, of the University of Melbourne, said in a statement yesterday that the prize would be awarded annually to “a distinguished Australian writer — preferably an older writer whose life’s writings have not received adequate recognition or reward”.

David Foster, who won the award in 2010, said that White had intended it as ”as a kind of literary loser’s compo”! I guess it’s all a matter of perspective, of how you define “loser”, but it is good to have an award which goes to those writers who, though I wouldn’t call them losers, have fallen into the gaps. Carmel Bird is one of these.

Carmel Bird and Marion Halligan

Carmel Bird and Marion Halligan at the NLA

Before I talk about Bird, though, I’d like to share a little anecdote from Patrick White’s memoir/autobiography, Flaws in the glass. It is about a dinner party he was giving for the second winner of his award, the poet David Campbell:

It was again the evening of a dinner party, this time in honour of David Campbell the poet, who had won the award I set up with the money from my Nobel Prize. I was drudging away in the kitchen about five o’clock when I switched on the radio hoping for distraction from the boredom brought on by chopping and stirring. Like a stream of lava, out poured the news of what was happening in Canberra: that the Governor-General [Sir John Kerr] has dismissed the Government elected by the Australian people …

White goes on to say that he then rejected the Order of Australia that Kerr had recently persuaded him to accept, despite his professed antipathy to such awards, by saying his refusing it “would ruin everything”. Awards, then, are tricky beasts, and I know there are readers of this blog who are not keen on them. I understand their reasons, but I also understand that for many writers the money, regardless of any kudos that may or may not accrue, is very important.

(BTW Note the timing. White wanted his annual Award announced in the week following the Melbourne Cup, which occurs on the first Tuesday in November, “to give literature a brief chance of ousting sport from the nation’s mind”. The dismissal occurred on 11 November, suggesting that in 1975 the David Campbell announcement had been made in White’s time-frame. However, given this year’s announcement date of mid-October, White’s wish seems to have fallen by the way-side.

POSTSCRIPT: This point re timing has caused some discussion in comments and behind the scenes. I have now received in writing from the Trustee’s PR that “Perpetual as Trustee of The Patrick White Literary Award confirms that there is no stipulation in the Trust Deed in regards to the timing of the announcement of the winner.” It seems like it may have been something White talked about but never actually enshrined, which is good really. I believe that the fewer restrictions the better. Times change and donors can never be sure that what they stipulate in their times will have the desired result in later times.)

So now, Carmel Bird. Her Wikipedia article provides an excellent list of her literary output – her novels, her short story collections, the anthologies she’s edited, her non-fiction, and so on. It’s an impressive output ranging across a wide variety of forms and styles, over a long period of time. And yet, under the list of awards and nominations, you’ll see that she’s been shortlisted several times but hasn’t won any of Australia’s major literary awards. Now, at last, she has!

I last saw Bird at the Canberra Writers Festival when Marion Halligan launched her latest novel Family skeleton. On the back of my copy is a quote from the Australian literary critic, Peter Craven:

Carmel Bird is a literary artist to her fingertips … She writes prose that has the precision of poetry and that uncanny quality poetry has of making the inner life speak.

I agree, but the thing that I really like about Bird is the way her mind works. At the risk of sounding cliched, which she never is, she is fresh, original, unafraid to follow the connections her mind makes and certainly unafraid to depart from the expected. You just have to attend a live event involving her to realise this. I mean, this is an author who creates characters who then take on lives of their own, like Virginia O’Day who writes letters of advice to authors in Dear writer. And this is the author who creates a writer, Carrillo Mean, whose work she then uses as epigraphs for her novels! Have you got all that? I wasn’t surprised, therefore, to read that another idiosyncratic writer on the recognition-fringe of Australia’s literary firmament, Gerald Murnane, has described one of her books, The woodpecker toy fact, as “my kind of book”.

FL Smalls 7: Carmel Bird's Fair Game

FL Smalls 7: Carmel Bird’s Fair Game

I’ve reviewed here her cheeky fl small Fair game: A Tasmanian memoir, and I’ve read other work of hers before blogging. I also have the revised ebook edition of her book on writing, Dear writer revisited (featuring the aforesaid Virginia O’Day)I’m not a writer – that is, I have no ambitions to write fiction – but I often dip into this book because the advice is applicable to all writers.

For example, Letter Two discusses “the use of adverbs and adjectives”. Although she is referring to a piece of fiction, Bird’s advice works for any sort of writing. This, for example:

Perhaps you thought that you, as the writer, were the one who had to do all the imagining, and that the reader was to get every detail of the picture from your words. The reader of fiction takes pleasure in doing some of the work, and will more readily believe you and trust you if there is work to do. Strangely enough, the strength of fiction seems to lie as much in what is left out as in what is included, as much in the spaces between the words as in the words. This is one of strange powers at the heart of good writing. The writer’s skill likes perhaps as much in creating the spaces as in finding the words to put down.

Now, when I write my posts I regularly bother about adjectives. I seem to feel that I need them but I rarely like the ones I use. Perhaps I don’t need them at all! The other reason I like to check this book out is for the examples and advice she includes from other writers – from the likes of Helen Garner and Fay Weldon, David Foster Wallace and Frank Moorhouse, to name just a few.

She also quotes Ernest Hemingway:

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.

Oh dear. This is from Letter Fifteen, “Writers are different”. I think they are – but too often we take them for granted and do not give them the recognition they deserve for the ways they enrich our lives. I’m so glad Bird has received this award and I sure hope she is too.

* I am not sure what this award is called. In some places, including Wikipedia, it is the Patrick White Award, while in others it is the Patrick White Literary Award. Take your pick it seems.

MUBA and Patrick White awards for 2012 announced

I don’t make a practice of reporting on awards  – many of the big ones get pretty good media coverage anyhow – but every now and then something catches my fancy … and so here I am today …

Most Underrated Book Award

Apologies to those of you waiting on the edge of your seats to hear the winner of the MUBA, or Most Underrated Book Award, that I heralded a few weeks ago. It was announced on November 8th, the day after I returned from eight days away, and I simply missed it.

The winner is (was!) Wayne Macauley’s The cook.

Congratulations to Wayne Macauley and the three runners-up, Peter Barry, Irma Gold, and Jess Huon. Please check the SPUNC page which lists the books and how you can purchase each one in both print and electronic format. As SPUNC says, they would all make worthy additions to your Christmas shopping list.

Patrick White Award 2012

Patrick White (if we exclude JM Coetzee who received his award when still a South African resident) is Australia’s only Nobel Laureate for Literature. He won that award in 1973, and in 1975 he used the proceeds to establish the Patrick White Award. His goal was to advance ‘Australian literature by encouraging the writing of novels, short stories, poetry and/or plays for publication or performance’. It tends to be given to writers who have made a significant contribution to Australian literature but whom the judges feel deserve further recognition. Recent winners include poet Robert Adamson (2011); multiple award-winning novelist, David Foster (2010); novelist and short story writer Beverley Farmer (2009), a favourite of mine but I haven’t read her for a while; and poet and translator Geoff Page (2001), whom I have reviewed here.

This year’s winner is Amanda Lohrey. I have read her but not since I started this blog. The judges praised the quality of her fiction – the most recent being her novel Reading Madame Bovary – for the moral and ethical dilemmas she explores and for her prose style which ‘has developed a distinctive grace and lucidity in expressing these complex issues’. The judges also commended her role in developing the creative writing program at the University of Technology Sydney, and her work as an essayist.

Thanks to the AustLit blog for information on the Patrick White Award.

Elizabeth Harrower, The watch tower (Review)

Elizabeth Harrower The watch tower

Cover for The watch tower (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

Elizabeth Harrower’s fourth and final novel, The watch tower, is a rather harrowing (couldn’t resist that) read. It is also an astonishing read, and I wonder why it has had such little recognition over the decades or so since its publication in 1966. Thanks to Text Classics, though, it now has a second chance. It deserves it. In fact, I’d say it is one of the best books I’ve read this year (to date, of course!)

What makes it so is the writing. It has a Patrick White-like intensity – and I can see her influence in writers like Joan London and Shirley Hazzard*. But first, a little about the content. It is set in Sydney and spans roughly the mid-1930s to around 1950. The plot is slim. It concerns two sisters, Laura and Clare, who are abandoned twice – first, albeit inadvertently, by their father (through his death when Laura is about 16 years old, and Clare, 9) and then a few years later by their selfish unloving mother who decides to return to her family in England, without them. What happens to them from this point is Harrower’s subject and it all centres on the ironically named Felix, Laura’s first and only boss, who comes to the rescue, or so it seems, when mother leaves the scene.

Laura had been a girl of dreams with the ability to achieve them. She aspired to be a doctor, but when tragedy strikes and she is taken from school, she’s not overly concerned. She “had read books” and in all but those with “circumstances ridiculously removed from hers, everything ended happily for young heroines.” And yet she also

had a sensation of having mislaid a vital pleasure that she could not remember, or a piece of herself.

Clare is younger and is less affected by having to leave boarding school, but life with their mother is no picnic. She expects her daughters to “take over”, to, in effect, run the house as well as go to school, for Clare, and business college then work for Laura. And so Laura’s life of servitude to one master or another begins, while Clare takes on the role of helper and watcher. Laura gets on with the job, generously and to her detriment, particularly when the misogynistic power-hungry Felix enters the scene. Clare sees what is going on, and expects more of life, but soon realises she

had really nowhere to go. Caught, not safe, cold – There were no reliable people.

From these premises, Harrower builds a story of psychological and physical entrapment in which both girls become caught in Felix’s malevolent net. Laura, ever the Pollyanna who believes noone would be consciously mean or vicious, becomes complicit in the destruction of her self while Clare, physically caught, maintains a vision of something better and does her darnedest to get Laura to see it too.

Harrower develops all this with a slow drip-drip, through language that is tightly pared to the essentials, through a simple but not even chronology that moves in fits and starts, and through a narrative voice characterised by subtle shifts in point of view. The focus is inwards  – on a small number of characters and their relationships with each other that rarely lets outsiders in. The result is a claustrophobic tone – and a slow build up of tension and suspense. Take this description, for example, of the women upon hearing Felix, drunk, coming down the path:

Breaking their poses like trees snapping branches, the women urgently regarded each other, cleared away all signs of work in an instant, examined their souls for defects, in a sense crossed themselves, and waited.

Acts of violence do occur, but are reported in retrospect. This seems to lessen our focus on the specific event and emphasises instead the response of the two young women. Will they decide to leave this time?

Late in the novel a fourth person, 19 year-old Dutch migrant, Bernard, is thrown into the mix, creating the catalyst for the denouement. For Laura, he provides a diversion for “poor Felix” and hopefully another chance for him to show a decent side. For Clare, he shows her that for all her suffering she can still be a useful person. For Felix, he of the “cold smile” and “deaf look”, well that would be telling… And as for Bernard himself, the question is whether he will survive his Felix experience intact.

And this brings me to my final point. While she doesn’t expressly say it, and in addition to her study of power and control, Harrower seems to be exploring ideas about the soul (a person’s essence) and character. Where does one end and the other begin? How do they act upon each other, and is change possible? This is a book I won’t quickly forget.

Elizabeth Harrower
The watch tower
(with a new introduction by Joan London)
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012
ISBN: 9781921922428

(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing)

* Hazzard is only 3 years younger than Harrower but her first novel was published, I believe, in 1966, the year this, Harrower’s last, was published.