Prime Minister’s Literary Awards Shortlist, 2012, announced: Fiction

I don’t announce all shortlists and awards but I do like to follow the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards so am announcing its shortlist for fiction for 2012:

One of the reasons I like to take note of the Prime Minister’s Awards is that it seems depart a little from the other awards around the country. For example, in 2011 the award went to Stephen Daisley’s Traitor, a book that received little notice in other national awards. And in 2010, Eva Hornung‘s wonderful Dog boy won. It also had received little recognition elsewhere. This year’s shortlist contains only two novels in the Miles Franklin shortlist – those by Mears and Funder – and Miller’s novel was longlisted. I’m not saying this is a totally bad thing. In fact, it demonstrates the depth of writing in Australia.

What particularly pleases me about this year’s list is the inclusion of Janette Turner Hospital. It’s been a while since we’ve heard from her, but I do have Forecast: Turbulence, a short story collection, on my Kindle. This just might be the incentive for me to bump it up my reading priority order.

Two new categories were added to the Awards this year: Poetry and History (this latter having previously been a separate award). The complete shortlist can be seen on the Office for the Arts website.

Winners of the 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards

National Library of Australia, photo taken by ...

NLA, 2004 (Image courtesy John Conway, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Brought to you straight from the afternoon presentation with Caroline Baum in the National Library of Australia Theatre:

  • FictionTraitor, by Stephen Daisley
  • Non-fictionThe hard light of day, by Rod Moss
  • Young adult fictionGraffiti moon, by Cath Crowley
  • Children’s fictionShake a leg, by Boori Monty Pryor and Jan Ormerod

This afternoon’s panel discussion followed the formal announcement and presentation of the awards this morning. The afternoon session, chaired by journalist and broadcaster Caroline Baum, involved a panel of three winning authors (Stephen Daisley, Rod Moss and Boori Monty Pryor) and one shortlisted author (Laura Buzo).

Baum led off her discussion with a question to the authors about their use of technology. It turned out that they were generally a conservative lot though Pryor did admit to having, and using, a laptop. A later question from the audience brought the response from Moss that while he did not use technology in a sophisticated way he was happy for publishers to apply whatever technology they saw fit to get the works out there. Our audience member was wanting more though. Perhaps aware of the recent apps for TS Eliot’s The waste land and Jack Kerouac’s On the road, he was hoping the authors were thinking more imaginatively about using technology in the creative process rather than for distribution after the fact … but these authors were not quite there yet it seemed.

Another question Baum asked was to Stephen Daisley on writing about place. She said that roughly 50% of authors writing about foreign places say they must visit a place to write about it, while the other half argue that visiting the place isn’t necessary. Daisley admitted that he had not visited all the places he’d written about in his novel Traitor, which of course led Baum to ask how one can write about a place without going to it. Daisley’s answer? One word: Google!

I won’t summarise the full discussion, but will mention one other issue Baum raised, and that was to do with indigenous Australians and the problems they – and we – are facing. Pryor (an indigenous Australian) and Moss (whose book is about his experience as an artist working amongst indigenous Australians) answered along similar lines. Moss suggested that he had no “answer” but that what is missing is “genuine friendship” between black and white Australians. Pryor said that it was up to each person to make their own journey but that a true recognition of the special nature and importance of indigenous language, land, art and storytelling would have a ripple effect. In other words, what I “heard” them both saying – and what I’ve heard others say – is that more important than such things as health and education programs is, simply, the showing (or, should I say, feeling of) real respect. Not lip service, not a “send them here, send them there” attitude, but a true respect for the people and their culture. From that all else should logically flow. A sobering but not negative conclusion to what was a fascinating hour or so spent in the company of some very thoughtful people.

Postscript: Some interesting changes are occurring in the literary prize community. This year the Miles Franklin award and the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards included prize money for the shortlisted books too. This is, don’t you think, a great step, recognising, if in a small way, that such awards do have a strong subjective element. So, in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards the overall prize money remains the same in 2011 as it was last year: $100,000 for each of the four categories. But this year the winning book in each category will win a tax-free prize of $80,000, and each short-listed book (to a maximum of four in each) will receive $5000. I do hope the winners are happy with their reduced purse!

Alan Gould, The lakewoman: A romance

Alan Gould, The lakewoman

Book cover (Courtesy: Australian Scholarly Publishing P/L)

I’m a little embarrassed to say that until The lakewoman was shortlisted in the 2010 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, I only knew of Alan Gould as a poet. Turns out, though, that he has written several novels, of which this one is his most recent. It is, ostensibly, a war novel, in that much of it is set in or around World War 2, but it is not in fact about the war.

It’s an intriguing book that slides literally and metaphorically between the solidity of the earth and the fluidity of water, between pragmatism and magic (or enchantment). It tells the story of Alec Dearborn, an Australian grazier’s son who was born in 1918. He goes to Cambridge in England and, when the war starts, decides to join up with the British Army rather than return home. The novel starts with his having landed in a lake, after parachuting from a plane for the D-Day Invasion. He is drowning, dragged down by his weapons bag and parachute, but is rescued by – yes – a lady in a lake. Ha! Now you see why it is called a “romance” because, while it contains “a” romance, it also hearkens back to the “romances” of yore, like the Arthurian legend. Here is the set up, pp. 2-3:

As he vomited he also wondered why this sudden young Mamzelle happened to be present at the exact, unlikely spot in France where his foolish body had come to earth. It was a question that would usefully occupy his mind later, when he was behind the wire with the austere leisure to brood on the magic that settled into his life following this, his fluky rescue. Magic? He was not a fellow given to outlandish notions, and would interrogate the dubious word, looking for its sense, not in mumbo jumbo, but as some friable quantity existing within the very crevices of everyday occasions.

In this passage, we see how carefully Gould has laid out his novel. He introduces us to the ideas of coincidence (fluke) and magic versus the everyday business of living, and he uses foreshadowing to distract us from plot issues (what will happen next) towards more interior ones (what is the meaning of what happens). As the novel progresses, this fellow who is not given “to outlandish notions” finds himself drawn, almost telepathically (it seems), to his rescuer. She , Viva, rather like the Arthurian lady-in-the-lake, frames the rest of his life, one way or another.

What happens on the surface of the novel is fairly matter-of-fact. Alec’s life runs its course in a mostly unremarkable way. One of the central questions of the book is that which Alec poses to his sister, Bell, a little while after he returns to Australia:

What I can’t work out is […] Well, how a person knows whether the existence he’s been given has been of value to anyone else.

This is Alec’s conundrum. He does not fulfil the traditional expectations of a grazier’s son (“Dearborn”, after all), despite his “prospects” : he’s intelligent, sensitive, and physically capable (“the dynamism in balance with the dreaminess”). Much of this failure stems from his being “disarmed” on June 6, 1944, by Viva. There are some lovely, appropriate wordplays in the novel, and one of these centres on the idea of disarming/arming, which works beautifully against the novel’s military background:

‘If you think about me, then, when you are gone, I will be arming you still,’ she assured him, mysteriously.

Soon after he leaves her, he ponders what has occurred:

‘I feel distress at having relinquished you,’ he supplied on consideration. For it was distress, he recognised, to be walking away from this sudden new claim on his life. ‘It is this that has disarmed me, I reckon,’ he explained for her.

I will be arming you, she reminded.

It is difficult with this WordPress theme to get the formatting right: this last statement by her is in italics in the novel and suggests either his memory of her words or an actual telepathic communication. Which one it is, is one of the lasting ambiguities of the novel. Italics are used throughout the novel for “communications” like this and for interior monologues/reflections, usually Alec’s, since this is a third person narrative, told mostly from Alec’s point of view.

By now you may be thinking that this novel is a fantasy, even a romantic fantasy, but not so. Neither is it magical realist. It’s simply that there is a sense that slightly mystical things may be happening, things that make sense psychologically but that also convey another plane of human thought and behaviour. It reminded me, at times, of Patrick White‘s Voss, but to suggest more than that would be to do it a disservice because it is not at all derivative. Rather, it is simply that the story focuses on a dimension of experience that can’t always be logically explained but that is nonetheless very real. Gould has, I think, pulled this dichotomy off, by careful manipulation of tone: through language that is poetic but not overdone; a pacing that is meditatively slow at the beginning and pragmatically faster at the end; evocative chapter titles (such as “To Fling the Lovely Foolish Body”, “Had You Down Dead”); the occasional light touch (“‘You are the invasion?’, she asked”); and timing that foreshadows just enough to make sure we stay focused on the ideas and not the facts.

And for me, the main idea (the one that provides an “undercurrent” to all the others) is that of completing the self, which is something Alec struggles  to do. In the end though:

…the joy, the completion was her presence, and the talk was strangely superfluous. Yet by convention they did talk from some region of the mind where the words did not especially matter but the proximity of the person created an entirety of being.

This is a rather melancholic, but by no means sentimental, book – and it moved me deeply.

Alan Gould
The lakewoman
North Melbourne: Arcadia, 2009
ISBN: 9781921509346

Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, 2009

Nam Le’s The boat has won the fiction category in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. Much deserved too I say! Interestingly, the non-fiction prize was shared by two books: Evelyn Juers’ House of exile, and Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds’ Drawing the global colour line. Lisa, at ANZLitLovers, recently wrote about Juers’ book – you can read what she says here.

The Boat – Recap

Back in February I reported on my bookgroup’s discussion of The boat on our group blog, but that was before I started writing here. I won’t repeat here what I said there – as you can read it yourselves. I will note though that one of its stories was included in Mandy Sayer’s recent anthology, The Australian long story. That has to say something! If you haven’t read it yet, think about it now. Nam Le is a new voice on the scene and I certainly hope he isn’t a flash in the pan.