Stella Prize 2020 Longlist

I don’t do well at having read the Stella Prize longlist at the time of its announcement. In 2017 I’d read none; in 2018 it was one, and last year two! Will it be three this year? (BTW by the end of 2019, I had read six of the 12, one more than in 2018! At least I’m going up, albeit at a snail’s pace.)

I do do better at reading the winners, however, having read Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with birds, Clare Wright’s The forgotten rebels of Eureka, Emily Bitto’s The strays, Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things, Heather Rose’s The museum of modern love and Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s The erratics. So far, I’ve only missed 2018’s winner, Alexis Wright’s Tracker.

The judges are again different to last year’s – with the exception of the chair, Louise Swinn, who was also chair last year. 2020’s judges are award-winning journalism and author Monica Attard, journalist and editor for NITV News Jack Latimore, feminist editor and author Zoya Patel, and poet, educator and researcher Leni Shilton. Once again, as you’d expect from an organisation like Stella, attention has been paid to diversity on the panel.

Book coverThe longlist:

  • Joey Bui’s Lucky ticket (short stories)
  • Gay’wu Group of Women’s Songspirals: Sharing women’s wisdom of Country through songlines 
  • Jess Hill’s See what you made me do
  • Yumna Kassab’s The house of spirit
  • Caro Llewellyn’s Diving into glass
  • Mandy Ord’s When one person dies the world is over
  • Favel Parrett’s There was still love (on my TBR) (Lisa’s review)
  • Josephine Rowe’s Here until August (short stories)
  • Vikki Wakefield’s This is how we change the ending
  • Tara June Winch’s The yield (on my TBR) (Lisa’s review)
  • Charlotte Wood’s The weekend (my review)
  • Sally Young’s The paper emperors: The rise of Australian newspaper empires

Well, wow! All I can say is I guessed Winch and thought probably Wood, and maybe Parrett, but several of the others I haven’t even heard of. I was hoping that Carmel Bird’s Field of poppies, Madelaine Dickie’s Red can origami, and Amanda O’Callaghan’s This taste for silence, for a start, might get up – not to mention Jessica White’s Hearing Maud. But, as I haven’t read most of the longlist I’m not going to judge. I will say though that my record, that was on the up, has taken a beating, as I’ve only read one to date. Nonetheless, it is good to see diversity again in the list – both in terms of author and form.

The judges’ chair, Louise Swinn commented on the longlist that:

… This longlist is varied: it includes a graphic memoir, a young adult novel, Aboriginal songspirals, personal memoir, history, short stories and novels. We’ve been given a sense of just how influential our newspapers have been on public policy; we’ve learnt some history of our land; and we’ve been given the lowdown on both the dire statistics and the real-life stories of domestic abuse. We’ve been transported: we were sixteen years old all over again (gulp!).

All of the writers we longlisted are finding innovative ways to communicate their stories, and there is a very real sense when opening these books that an honest dialogue is being entered into. These authors are craftspeople serious about their intention and dedicated to the art. We were educated and entertained by these twelve longlisted books and we recommend them heartily.

The shortlist will be announced on March 6 (not March 8, International Women’s Day, as recently been tradition), and the winner on April 8.

Any comments?

Vicki Laveau-Harvie, The erratics (#BookReview)

Book coverTruth is that, while I like to read at least some of the Stella Prize shortlist, I didn’t have Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s memoir, The erratics, on my high priority list, though the more I heard about it, the more intrigued I became. However, it was winning the prize that tipped it over into my must-read category. What a challenging read it is.

The erratics is the story of how Laveau-Harvie and her sister responded to their estranged aging parents’ needs as infirmity caught up with them. Canadian-born Laveau-Harvie had, decades earlier, escaped the family home in rural Alberta moving, eventually, to Australia. Her younger sister had also escaped, though not so far. She lived in Vancouver. It all came to a head when their 94-year-old mother’s hipbone “crumbles and breaks” putting her in hospital. Laveau-Harvie and her sister regroup to help – their father, in particular, who, they discover, had been being systematically starved by their mother. The story of this dysfunctional family, and the sisters’ actions to save their father and ensure their mother is deemed incompetent, never able to return home, is arresting.

Equally arresting is Laveau-Harvie’s writing. It’s not surprising that she won the Stella (not to mention the Finch Memoir Prize and being shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards), because the writing grabs your attention with an impressive sureness of tone and language. It’s particularly impressive because it is, apparently, 70-something Laveau-Harvie’s first book.

The back-cover blurb of my edition concludes with: “a ferocious, sharp, darkly funny and wholly compelling memoir of families, the pain they can inflict and the legacy they leave, The erratics has the tightly coiled, compressed energy of an explosive device  – it will take your breath away”. It does all of that.

First, it’s an astonishing story of a mother who seems incapable of the love we expect from a parent. I’ll share the quote that you’ll have read before if you’ve read about this book:

One of the few coherent messages my mother repeated to me and my sister as we grew up, a message she sometimes delivered with deceptive gentleness and a touch of sadness that we weren’t more worthy prey, was this one, and I quote: I’ll get you and you won’t even know I’m doing it.

If you are a parent who feels guilty about mistakes you made in your parenting, you can rest easy after reading this (unless of course you are like Laveau-Harvie’s mother!) Most of us, I’m sure, made our mistakes inadvertently, not with the intent behind this woman’s behaviour. The problem in Laveau-Harvie’s family was compounded by the fact that their father, while not brutal like their mother, was weak, believing (or, at least accepting) everything his wife said about their daughters.

So, the story, itself, is compelling – in the strange behaviour of these two parents, and in the willingness of the daughters, despite being rejected by their mother, including being given no formal role in managing her affairs, to step in and do the hard stuff out of love for their father and, I guess, a sense of responsibility. But, in addition to the story, what makes this memoir particularly compelling is, as I’ve already said, the writing itself.

It’s a tight, spare read at just over 200 pages. It has stunning descriptions, but I’ll exemplify it with the metaphor contained in the title itself, a metaphor that draws from a geologic formation called the Foothills Erratics Terrain in the town nearest her parents’ home:

Countless years ago, the Okotoks Erratic fell in on itself and became unsafe to climb upon. It dominates the landscape, roped off and isolated, the danger it presents to anyone trespassing palpable and documented on the signs posted around it.

Unfortunately, Laveau-Harvie’s mother came with no such sign.

There is a deft handling of chronology, with the occasional bit of foreshadowing. And then there is the tone, which is achieved by a crisp story-telling style that is direct, colloquial, witty even, and that focuses on the facts with little explication, all the while conveying the challenges faced by the two sisters in negotiating their relationships with each other, their father and their mother. One of Laveau-Harvie’s techniques is to undercut a description or plan with a short, emphatic sentence like “That was the plan” or “I can’t fix this” or “I don’t do this”.

It’s an invidious situation, and you can’t help but feel their pain. She writes at one stage of not remembering certain events:

I do know this: where there is nothing, there must be pain; that’s why there is nothing. Be glad if you forget.

There’s another of those short concluding sentences – “Be glad if you forget”. It’s powerful.

The strongest part of the narrative concerns the relationship with her sister who, still living in Canada, is the person on-site, and who has always been less able distance herself from the pain. There’s a telling sentence about their choices of mementoes from the house:

I salvage a few other things … things from my childhood … my sister takes only things acquired by my mother after we had left home, heavy crystal goblets, silver serving plates, full dinner sets of translucent china. I want only the connection to the past, she wants never to feel it again.

So, this sister, the one who wants to distance the past takes on, at a cost to her health, more than Laveau-Harvie believes sensible: “I can see sinkholes of simmering resentment about to develop between us.” Laveau-Harvie explores the challenges of siblings negotiating the care of aging parents with the clear-eyed honesty she applies to the whole story, albeit, at times, I wondered how the sister felt about her depiction. Presumably, it’s ground they’ve well-covered between each other.

The book, then, is compelling and many readers, like Kim (Reading Matters), have found it a “compulsive read”. I did too. But, there was also something about the tone that disquieted me, as it did Kate (booksaremyfavouriteand best). This surprised me because I wasn’t expecting to feel this way. I love fearless honesty. It’s one of the reasons (besides her writing) that I like Helen Garner so much. She is not afraid to say the hard, unpalatable things. And yet, I found it difficult at times here. I think it’s because I felt some of this “honesty” was attended by an unkindness, by a willingness to laugh at another’s expense (though, admittedly, she also frequently laughs at her own).

An example is her description of the array of carers she and her sister put in place for their father. It’s funny, and has an element of truth, recognisable by anyone who has experienced the situation. But I bridle at name-calling, so “the gold-digger” and “the housekeeping slut” did not make me laugh. (I particularly hate women calling other women “slut”, even a “housekeeping” one – but that may just be me!) And then there’s the description of the breakage of some fine china freighted to Australia:

I imagine customs officers dropping the box because it has a label that says ‘Fragile’, satisfied at the sound of something delicate breaking.

Ultimately, however, although I couldn’t help reacting, occasionally, with the disquietude that I did – I realise I can’t judge. How can I, when the family life she experienced is beyond my ken? And, the ending is inspired. She draws on myths about the Okotoks to lay her mother – that “bitterly unhappy and vindictive old woman” – to a potentially more peaceful rest.

The erratics, then, is an impressive debut. It’s compelling and, significantly, it prompts us to think about the importance of love, responsibility and respect within all families.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeVicki Laveau-Harvie
The erratics
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2019 (Orig. pub. 2018)
217pp.
ISBN: 9781460758250

Stella Prize 2019 Winner announced

The Stella Prize winner was announced tonight while I was at yoga so I had to wait, impatiently – oops, no, it was yoga, so I was very calm thanks to my wonderful neighbour and teacher – until I got home, to discover the winner. I only managed to read three of the six, which is one more than I had read by last year’s announcement, but I do have a fourth on my TBR.

Before I announce the winner, which most of you will have heard by now anyhow, here is a quick recap:

  • the longlist was announced on 7 February: check out my subsequent Monday musings post for an interesting conversation about the judges’ comments; and
  • the shortlist was announced, as is tradition, on International Women’s Day: Jenny Ackland’s Little gods; Enza Gandolfo’s The bridge; Jamie Marina Lau’s Purple Mountain on Locust Island; Vicki Laveau-Harris’ The erratics; Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip; Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic.

Vicki Laveau-Harvie, The erraticsAnd the winner, from around 170 books submitted, is a memoir, Vicki Laveau-Harris’ The erratics, a book that intrigues me, although I have to admit I wasn’t expecting it to win – but there you go, you never can tell. It is the third non-fiction book to win the award in seven years, nicely confirming Stella’s aim to be broad in the forms it encompasses. The other two were Alexis Wright’s collective biography, Tracker (2017), and Clare Wright’s history The forgotten rebels of Eureka (2014, my review).

The winner receives $50,000, and each shortlisted author receives $3000, as well as a three-week writing retreat on the Victorian coast, making it a generous prize.

Now, while I haven’t read The erraticsKim (Reading Matters) has, and found it “compulsive” reading. Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) has too, and was less enamoured, but she explains her reactions in detail. These reviews are worth reading. Kim also has a postcript explaining book’s publishing trials.

Anyhow, here is an excerpt from what Louise Swinn, this year’s Judging Panel Chair, said at the announcement:

The six shortlisted titles all have something to say about the way we live today, two in the form of nonfiction and four novels. These books are very outward-looking and unafraid. They deal with complex and complicated issues. They can be unsettling.

The winning book elegantly tramples all over the Stella requirements: it is excellent, engaging and original in spades. It is moving and funny, and as powerful in what it leaves out as it is in what it includes. It is also a first book, and I hope it’s the first of many. It is my considerable pleasure to announce that the winner of the 2019 Stella Prize is Vicki Laveau-Harvie for her memoir, The Erratics.

She also made an interesting comment about the Stella Prize itself:

In this seventh year of the Stella Prize, the high quality of the general submissions could, for anyone not paying attention, make you wonder why we have this prize at all. But the Stella has never been about an actual lack of talent — it is about perception and how this has affected the amount of space women’s writing has been allowed to take up.

It will be interesting to see this year’s Stella Count, because that’s where we can see what progress (if any) is being made.

If you have any comments on the winner, I’d love to hear them.

Stella Prize 2019 Shortlist announced

As you probably know, the Stella Prize is the award I particularly like to follow, though I don’t always post on the Longlist and the Shortlist as I am this year. The Longlist was announced on 7 February (my post), and the shortlist was announced, today, International Women’s Day, as has, appropriately, become tradition.

Here is the shortlist:

What an interesting list – and one for which I’ve already read two, and am currently reading a third. This year there are two, not one, non-fiction works on the list, out of the five on the longlist.

Louise Swinn, the 2019 Judging Panel Chair, says that:

The six finalists on the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist explode the myth of the death of the book, and they are a hearty response to the under-representation of women’s work in awards. This is an incredibly diverse knot of books, with broad subjects showing that identity is shaped across many continents and informed by many cultures. Non-fiction and fiction works stray from their formal constraints as authors give authentic voices to those who are otherwise under-represented. The books on this shortlist inform and entertain, and while they speak absolutely to our moment, their insights are timeless

Anyhow, what do I think about the list? Well, it is an intriguing one – and from what I’ve heard and/or read myself the list encompasses quite a variety of concerns and styles, and is not, probably, what you’d call conventional! Whether you agree with the judges choices or not, I like this.

The winner receives $50,000, and each shortlisted author receives $3000, as well as a three-week writing retreat on the Victorian coast. It’s a lovely generous prize. The winner will be announced on 9 April.

Now, I’ll get back to my reading … but if you have any comments on the list, I’d love to hear them.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Stella judges on the zeitgeist in Australian fiction

Last week I reported on the longlist for this year’s Stella Prize, and shared an excerpt from the judge’s comments. For today’s Monday Musings, I’m reiterating most of that – for us to think about and discuss:

Reading for the Stella Prize … [is] a sample of the zeitgeist, a look at what is informing our thinking right now …

It feels like a big year for fiction, and our longlist reflects this. … Family relations and the persistence of the past in the present continue to inspire writers, and several books were concerned with the aftermath of trauma, especially sexual violence. Realism continues to dominate Australian fiction, with a few standout departures into other modes.

We wished for more representations of otherness and diversity from publishers: narratives from outside Australia, from and featuring women of colour, LGBTQIA stories, Indigenous stories, more subversion, more difference.

I’m not aiming here to get into a beat-up about their choices – because we all know that judging in the arts is such a subjective thing – but they did raise the issue, so I thought we could have a little think …

Starting with what they say is dominating contemporary fiction:

  • family relations
  • impact (“persistence”) of the past in the present
  • aftermath of trauma (particularly sexual violence)
  • realism

And then, looking at what they felt they didn’t see much of, which was “otherness and diversity”. They defined this as narratives that:

  • are not based in Australia
  • come from and feature women of colour, LGBTQIA people, Indigenous people (and, presumably, other “differences”, such as people with “disabilities”)
  • are subversive
  • are different

There are a several ways we can look at this. Firstly, do we agree with their assessment of Australian fiction, specifically, of course, that written by women – recognising that they are talking about trends, not exceptions as there will always be those. My sense is that they are right. Certainly, several books in their longlist are about family relationships – particularly fathers and daughters/parents and children – and about how the past continues to impact present behaviours and lives.

Secondly, if we agree with the judges’ assessment, does it matter? I’d say it does, because it suggests that we are not being introduced to the breadth and depth of Australian experience but to a subset of it.

Jamie Marina Lau, Pink Mountain on Lotus IslandThirdly, if we agree it does matter, why is it so? Is it because this is what publishers think readers want to read? It’s interesting, for example, that the most subversive books in the longlist are probably the two from the small independent publisher, Brow Books (Lau’s Purple mountain on Locust Island, and Tumarkin’s Axiomatic), and that the indigenous work in the list (Lucashenkos’ Too much lip) is published by UQP, a university press which has a history of supporting indigenous writing.

Anyhow, what I’m going to do is share here some books written by women and published last year that I think offer “otherness and diversity”, not, as I said, to say that I think these should have been shortlisted – because I haven’t read all the books the judges did, and I don’t know which ones were submitted anyhow – but just to offer some ideas and to have you offer some back!

  • Glenda Guest’s A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline (Text) (my review), which could be seen to largely fit the zeitgeist/trends the judges identified – family relations, the impact of the past on the present – but it is also about “otherness”, in that the main character is an older woman who has been diagnosed with dementia.
  • Krissy Kneen’s Wintering (Text), which I haven’t read but Kneen does tend to be subversive. Is this book so – or is it simply a variation on Tasmanian Gothic?
  • Margaret Merrilees’ story about lesbians, Big rough stones (Wakefield Press) (my review)
  • Angela Meyer’s dystopian-tending-realism-departing story, A superior spectre (Ventura Press) (my review).

This isn’t what you’d call a lot! I did find a few more by men, but. We see stories all the time about “other” experiences, about the many challenges we are facing as a society – on the news, for a start. Where are they in our fiction?

Now, over to you – and if you’re not Australian, I would of course love to hear what you have to say about “otherness and diversity” in your neck of the woods.

(PS This may not publish, as scheduled, on Monday night AEDST as we are out in the wilds of NE Victoria where internet connection is flakey.)

Stella Prize 2019 Longlist

I don’t do well at having read the Stella Prize longlist at the time of its announcement. In 2017 I’d read none, and last year I improved on that by having read one of the 12-strong longlist. By the end of the year, though, I had read five, which is good for me, given in 2017, I’d only read three. How will I go this year?

I do have a BIG fail though, which is that until now I had read all the winners – Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with birds, Clare Wright’s The forgotten rebels of Eureka, Emily Bitto’s The strays, Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things, and Heather Rose’s The museum of modern love – but I have yet to read 2018’s winner, Alexis Wright’s Tracker.

The judges are again different to last year’s – with the exception of the chair, Louise Swinn, who also judged last year – which is good to see.  The 2019 judges are writer, journalist and broadcaster Daniel Browning; writer Michelle de Kretser (whom I’ve reviewed a couple of times here); bookseller Amelia Lush; Walkley Award-winning journalist Kate McClymont (who is in that Media Hall of Fame I wrote about a couple of weeks ago); and writer and publisher Louise Swinn (the chair). Once again attention has been paid to diversity on the panel.

Here is the longlist:

  • Jenny Ackland’s Little gods (novel/Allen & Unwin) (my review)
  • Stephanie Bishop’s Man out of time (novel/Hachette)
  • Belinda Castle’s Bluebottle (novel/Allen & Unwin) (Theresa Smith Writes review)
  • Enza Gandolfo’s The bridge (novel/Scribe) (Lisa’s review)
  • Chloe Hooper’s The arsonist (non-fiction/Penguin Random House) (Lisa’s review)
  • Gail Jones’ The death of Noah Glass (novel/Text)
  • Jamie Marina Lau’s Purple Mountain on Locust Island (novel/Brow Books) (Amanda’s guest post here)
  • Vicki Laveau-Harris’ The erratics (memoir/Finch Publishing)
  • Bri Lee’s Eggshell skull (memoir/Allen & Unwin) (Kate’s – booksaremyfavouriteandbest – review)
  • Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (novel/UQP)(on my TBR, and coming up soon) (Lisa’s review)
  • Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic (essays/Brow Books) (my review)
  • Fiona Wright’s The world was whole (essays/Giramondo) (on my TBR – I loved her Small acts of disappearance

So, I’ve read and reviewed just two – creeping up my one each year! – and have a guest post for a third on my blog. I have two more on my TBR right now, and a couple more I am very keen to read, including Chloe Hooper’s The arsonist. I have been out tonight, and  so had tried to get a head start by partially drafting this before I went out with my “guesses” inserted – I had only 5 right!

The judges commented on the longlist that:

Reading for the Stella Prize … [is] a sample of the zeitgeist, a look at what is informing our thinking right now …

It feels like a big year for fiction, and our longlist reflects this. As well as some strong debuts, it was reassuring to see so many books from writers whose work we have admired for some time. Family relations and the persistence of the past in the present continue to inspire writers, and several books were concerned with the aftermath of trauma, especially sexual violence. Realism continues to dominate Australian fiction, with a few standout departures into other modes.

We wished for more representations of otherness and diversity from publishers: narratives from outside Australia, from and featuring women of colour, LGBTQIA stories, Indigenous stories, more subversion, more difference.

[…]

Ultimately, we chose books that strove for something big and fulfilled their own ambitions. … These are all artists concerned with the most important questions of our age and how to live now, and it has been a pleasure to be in their company.

I like their comment about a wish for more diversity – but I would expect nothing less from them. As always there are surprises, but that’s to be expected. It would be a sad world if we all came up with the same 12 eh?

Anyhow, I’d love to know if you have any thoughts on the list.

The shortlist will be announced on March 8 (International Women’s Day, as has become tradition), and the winner in April.

Stella Prize 2018 Winner – and how the Stella is tracking (pun alert!)

I don’t always write announcement posts here – even when I write short and or longlist posts, because the news is usually so immediately known. What can I add? However, I’ve decided to post on last night’s Stella Prize announcement for a couple of reasons, one being the significance of the winner and the other being a statement released by Aviva Tuffield, the Prize’s Executive Director.

First, the winner. If you haven’t already heard, it’s Alexis Wright’s Tracker. This is the second time a non-fiction work has won since the award started in 2013. The first non-fiction winner was Clare Wright’s wonderful The forgotten rebels of Eureka (my review). For a full report of the announcement, check Stella’s page which contains Wright’s acceptance speech, the judge’s comments and an introduction to the book itself. I’ll just share a few highlights.

Alexis Wright, TrackerIn her speech, Wright commented on the diversity in this year’s shortlist:

The great celebration today is that we have many exciting, diverse voices in the world of Australian letters. We encompass the world right here in our literature. And even in this shortlist that has been judged as being some of the very best of women’s literature published in the past year, we demonstrate our remarkable diversity, internationalism, and maturity as people of many backgrounds, and here including Indonesia, Iran and Sri Lanka, as well as two Aboriginal writers. A literary dialogue that allows us to have greater knowledge and understanding of each other, and acceptance of difference, and respect for each other in our diversity, is what will make Australian literature truly marvelous, relevant, and far stronger than it has ever been.

Well said … I have so far read the book set in Indonesia (Riwoe’s The fish girl), and one of the two Aboriginal writers (Coleman’s Terra nullius). I plan to read more, because it’s an exciting list.

One of the things that interests me about this book, besides its being indigenous literature, is that Wright – not surprisingly once you know her work – plays with form, in this case what I’d call the biography-memoir (or vice versa) or what is formally being called “a collective memoir”. Wright said this in her speech, after explaining the significance of her subject, Tracker Tilmouth:

I thought very deeply about how to develop this book about him by using our own storytelling principle of consensus. I was not always sure that my approach would work as I continued on a long journey of six years from conception to finish, and gathering a mountain of material, but I was sure collaborative storytelling was the right way, and that it did work in the end is what matters. I am grateful for the storytelling skills of our culture and carried them into the book, which allowed, as Tracker himself wanted, everyone to speak for themselves, to tell their own part in the story.

I love this description, not only because it articulates what she was trying to do, but because she alludes specifically to “the storytelling skills of our culture” which is something I have mentioned in posts in the past, but a little hesitantly for fear of sounding like I was “exoticising” indigenous people. The thing is that when I read indigenous Australian stories, or hear indigenous Australians tell stories, I am frequently conscious of a very specific, and lively, storytelling culture.

In her statement announcing the winner (out of 170 submissions), judges’ chair, Fiona Stager said:

The winning book is unique in the history of Australian letters and it artfully fulfils all the Stella Prize’s criteria: it is excellent, engaging and original. We invite all readers to immerse themselves in a history, a landscape, a time and a story that is heartbreaking, poignant and humorous. […]

… the judges wish to acknowledge the craft of the author and pay tribute to the richness of the memories shared by the many people she interviewed. This book will enrich and change the understanding of readers. A man like Tracker Tilmouth could change our world. It takes a writer like Alexis Wright to change the world of Australian letters.

Stella Prize’s page on the book provides more information, including the judges report, an interview with Wright and a book extract.

In her speech, Stager also paid tribute to Aviva Tuffield. It was largely Tuffield’s statement about the Prize, released the day before the announcement, that committed me to this post. In it, Tuffield articulates what the Prize has achieved since its inception in 2012.  She reiterates why the Prize was established in the first place: “hard data had proved that women writers were underrepresented in three key areas:

  • as winners of the major literary prizes;
  • as authors of the books that received the most review and media coverage; and
  • as authors of the books on the school curriculum.”

She said those founding the prize appreciated that “much of this inequality arose from unconscious bias”, as evidenced by data showing that “‘blind’ orchestra auditions and CV assessments yield such different results to what happens when faces and names are attached.” However, whether conscious or unconscious, the impact is the same, and it’s serious because it “sends clear messages about whose voices, whose stories and whose experiences are most important.” Hence, the prize …

And, six years on, she says, the effects are clear (for the details, please check her statement at the link above):

  • women are now winning more prizes generally, and being increasingly shortlisted, across all major prizes.
  • more women writers are being added to school curricula. Victoria’s English curriculum now has gender parity in terms of authors listed, as opposed to being just over 30% of the list in 2014.
  • the ‘kinds’ of books that are now being considered of the ‘highest literary merit’ has shifted, with “novels focusing on contemporary family life or relationships – using those as microcosms for society at large – and often with female and even child protagonists” now being recognised.
  • general awareness of the breadth and quality of Australian women writers has increased. She says that “When Stella started many people told me that they didn’t realise there were so many good women writers in Australia – and especially writers of nonfiction (as Stella is for fiction and nonfiction books)”. She argues that Stella’s longlists and shortlists have raised awareness of the breadth of women’s writing, and that this awareness has spread beyond these lists to other writers who have said their work is being taken more seriously.
  • the ripple effect created when people see more women writers being recognised. “The landscape”, she writes, “changes: role models are provided, unconscious bias is dismantled, stereotype threats are banished.”

Now, some of this is more anecdotal than “proven” and not all of it is only due to the Stella, but the Stella Prize is, I’d say, making a significant contribution. And it will continue to do so because Stella’s job is not done. More is needed, she says, “in terms of diversity and extending Stella’s benefits to all women writers” and more also, as the #metoo movement has proved, “to shift the power structures of our patriarchal society” to ensure that women are heard. Finally, as we’ve seen before – and as is evidenced in other spheres like the gender pay gap – “things can slip back very quickly.”

So, I say thanks to Aviva Tuffield and the Stella Team. I am proud to count myself as a Stella Spark.

Stella Prize 2018 Shortlist announced

Claire G Coleman, Terra nulliusAs you probably know, the Stella Prize is the award I particularly like to follow, though I don’t always post on the Longlist and the Shortlist as I am this year. The Longlist was announced on 8 February (my post), and the shortlist was announced, yesterday, International Women’s Day, as has, appropriately, become tradition.

Here is the shortlist:

  • The enlightenment of the Greengage tree, by Shokoofeh Azar (Wild Dingo Press)
  • Terra nullius, by Claire G Coleman (Hachette)
  • The life to come, by Michelle de Kretser (A&U)
  • An uncertain grace, by Krissy Kneen (Text)
  • The fish girl, by Mirandi Riwoe (Seizure)
  • Tracker, by Alexis Wright (Giramondo)

Interestingly, as has happened in the past, the proportion of non-fiction to fiction in the longlist has not carried through to the shortlist. Five of the twelve-strong longlist were non-fiction works, while just one of the six books in the shortlist is. And unfortunately, it’s not the one I’ve read! Seriously, though, I am glad to see Alexis Wright’s Tracker, which is about the Aboriginal leader, political thinker and entrepreneur Tracker Tilmouth, on the list. However, this pattern suggests that it is difficult to judge fiction against non-fiction and that the Stella Prize’s goal of offering one award irrespective of form or genre is perhaps harder to achieve that it sounds? In a sense I can understand it. If the award is about excellence in Australian writing, and if excellence includes some sense of innovation, then it is likely that such definition of “excellence” is more likely in fiction. (By the way, innovation to me can include experimenting/innovating in style, form, genre, structure, content, so it’s not impossible in non-fiction, just more constrained – perhaps?)

Anyhow, what do I think about the list? Well, firstly, I’m pleased so see that the list accommodates diversity. I’m also pleased to see that my pick, Terra nullius (which I’ll be reading soon) is on the list, and that The fish girl which I bought because of its long-listing is also on the list. I even mailed a copy to my American friend for her birthday this week. And, I’m not surprised to see The life to come and An uncertain grace on the list, given the quality of these writers and the buzz about their books. I’m disappointed, though, that the book I’m reading now, Sofie Laguna’s The choke, is not on the list – not because I believe it should be as I haven’t read enough of the books to make that assessment, but because it’s one I would have read when the winner is announced! Oh well … c’est la vie. Fortunately, I’m enjoying The choke so my reading time is certainly not wasted!

The winner receives $50,000, and each shortlisted author receives $3000, as well as a three-week writing retreat on the Victorian coast. It’s a lovely generous prize. The winner will be announced on 12 April.

Now, I’ll get back to my reading … but if you have any comments on the list, I’d love to hear them.

Stella Prize 2018 Longlist

I don’t do well at having read the Stella Prize longlist at the time of its announcement, and in fact last year I’m ashamed to admit that I’d read none. Terrible really for someone who’s supposed to be interested in Australian women’s writing, but there you go. My excuse is that I’m always behind in reading current books. Unfortunately, by the end of last year, I’d still only read three of the 12-strong 2017 longlist – but those I read were good’uns! If only there were more hours in the day – or, perhaps, fewer other things to do!

Anyhow, I can say that I have read (and liked) all the Stella Prize winners to date: Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with birds, Clare Wright’s The forgotten rebels of Eureka, Emily Bitto’s The strays, Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things, and last year’s winner, Heather Rose’s The museum of modern love.

The judges are again different to last year’s, which is good to see. It must surely keep the prize fresh to introduce new eyes, new perspectives, each year. (The chair, Fiona Stager, has been a judge a couple of times before, but some experience doesn’t go astray does it?) The 2018 judges are writer Julie Koh, critic James Ley, bookshop-owner Fiona Stager (the chair), writer and publisher Louise Swinn, and writer Ellen van Neerven (whom I’ve reviewed a few times here).

Bernadette Brennan, A writing life Helen Garner and her workAnyhow, here is the longlist,

  • The enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, by Shokoofeh Azar (novel/Wild Dingo Press)
  • A writing life: Helen Garner and her work, by Bernadette Brennan (literary portrait/Text Publishing) (my review)
  • Anaesthesia: The gift of oblivion and the mystery of consciousness, by Kate Cole-Adams (science-based non-fiction/Text Publishing)
  • Terra nullius, by Claire G Coleman (novel/Hachette Australia) (I’ll review in March)
  • The life to come, by Michelle de Kretser (novel/Allen & Unwin) (on my TBR pile)
  • This water: Five tales, by Beverley Farmer (short stories; novellas/Giramondo) (I love Beverley Farmer)
  • The green bell: A memoir of love, madness and poetry, by Paula Keogh (memoir/Affirm Press)
  • An uncertain grace, by Krissy Kneen (novel/Text Publishing)
  • The choke, by Sofie Laguna (novel/Allen & Unwin) (on my TBR, and am very keen to read having attended a lively conversation with her last year)
  • Martin Sharp: His life and times, by Joyce Morgan (biography/Allen & Unwin)
  • The fish girl, by Miranda Riwoe (novella/Seizure)
  • Tracker, by Alexis Wright (memoir/biography/Giramondo)

So, I’ve read and reviewed one, and will definitely read another, Terra nullius, by March. I have bought or been given a couple of others, and am keen to read a few more. On the other hand, there are a couple here that I hadn’t heard of at all – the books by Azar and Morgan.

The judges commented that the longlist

… challenges the reader to experience the pleasures of reading different forms of writing: speculative fiction, novella, memoir, biography, non-narrative nonfiction, history, short stories and work in translation.

I like this. Last year, I noted that there was significantly more non-fiction (more than half in fact), fewer short stories, and not much diversity. This year fiction represents just over half, and only a couple of the non-fiction are memoirs. Three of the non-fiction works are about writers and artists – Helen Garner, Michael Dransfield and Martin Sharp. This year’s list is significantly more diverse too, with indigenous writers Claire G Coleman and Alexis Wright, an Iranian born writer in Shokoofeh Azar, Riwoe’s book set in Indonesia, and our now well known Sri Lankan born writer Michelle de Kretser whose book is set in Sydney, Paris and Sri Lanka. Of course, as always, there are books I would like to have seen here but, overall, it’s an interesting list and I hope to have read more of it by the end of this year than I did last.

Meanwhile, I’d love to know if you have any thoughts on the list.

The shortlist will be announced on March 8 (International Women’s Day, as has become tradition), and the winner in April.

Heather Rose, The museum of modern love (#BookReview)

Heather Rose, The museum of modern loveAs I neared the end of Heather Rose’s Stella Prize-winning novel The museum of modern love, I slowed down. I wanted, of course, to know how it was going to resolve, but I wanted to savour it too. It doesn’t seem right to rush the end of thoughtful books like this.

But, I have to admit that I was initially hesitant about reading the book, as I am about any book inspired by a person or work I don’t know. I fear missing something important. However, I did want to read it and my reading group scheduled it. The die was cast. Then, as I was about to start reading, Brother Gums sent me a link to the documentary Marina Abramović: The artist is present about her and the performance piece which inspired this novel. I was set! As it turned out, I think Rose’s writing is evocative enough that it wasn’t necessary to have seen the film, but it did add a layer to the experience.

So, what is The museum of modern love about – besides love, that is? Its centre is performance artist Marina Abramović’s 75-day piece, The Artist is Present, which she performed at MoMA in the spring of 2010, to accompany a large retrospective exhibition of her work. The piece involved her sitting, still, quiet, at a table all day, 6 days a week (MoMA is closed Tuesdays), with gallery attendees invited to take turns to sit opposite her and share a gaze. It was an astonishing success, with, by the end, people camping out overnight to get the chance to sit. Many attended for days just to watch, creating, as Rose describes it, quite a community of spectators. In the end, over 850,000 people attended, with 1,545 people sitting (including Rose). (All are recorded at flickr.)

Anyhow, from this premise, Rose weaves an engaging, thoughtful story about art and love. It has two main narrative strands, telling the real Marina Abramović’s story and that of an attendee, the fictional musician Arky Levin, whose life is stalling, partly due to a restraining order made by his now-unresponsive terminally-ill wife that he not visit her. Interspersed with these, enriching the exploration of the themes, are smaller stories of other attendees, and family and/or friends of the protagonists. It’s narrated by a mysterious third person voice, who starts the novel with

He was not my first musician, Arky Levin. Nor my least successful. Mostly by his age potential is squandered or realised. But this is not a story of potential. It is a story of convergence.

This is a very particular omniscient narrator, some sort of artist’s muse who self-describes late in the novel as a “good spirit, whim … House elf to the artists of paint, music, body, voice, form, word”, one whose job is sometimes just “to wake things up”. This could be cutesy or forced, but it isn’t because Rose doesn’t overdo it. Mostly the story progresses without the intrusion of this narrator, so that when s/he appears we pay attention.

The moral conundrum at the novel’s heart is – is art enough or is love more important? It’s explored primarily through Levin, whose friends suggest he should appeal Lydia’s court order.

I know you’re going to say that she wanted you to do this; she wanted you to make music. But is that enough?

Music, it sounded feeble suddenly in the face of the yawning gap between life before Christmas and life these past four months. (p. 158)

So what does Levin do? Continue to live his increasingly lonely life making music, or follow his heart?

Levin’s story is off-set against other stories, notably that of Jane Miller, a friendly, recently widowed art teacher visiting New York from Georgia. She is lonely, like Levin, missing her husband “achingly, gapingly, excruciatingly. Her body hadn’t regulated itself to solitude.” She becomes one of the mesmerised watchers, but she also connects with others in the crowd, including Levin and Brittika, a PhD student from the Netherlands who is writing her thesis on Marina. Jane forms a natural link between the two themes of love and art.

What, then, is art?

The first time Jane attends the performance, she overhears people in the crowd questioning what the show is about, asking what is art, in fact. There are, of course, the naysayers, the ones who say that “art is irrelevant. If everything goes to crap, it won’t be art that saves us”. But Jane thinks differently, and turns to the man next to her who is, you guessed it, Levin, and says

I think art saves people all the time … I know art has saved me on several occasions.

As the novel progresses, various claims are made for art. Our muse, speaking particularly for artists, believes that “pain is the stone that art sharpens itself on time after time” and that “artists run their fingers over the fabric of eternity”. Marina’s art teacher says to her 16-year-old self that  “Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart”, which causes Marina to consider that “Art … could be something unimaginable”. At one point Marina is reported as saying “I am only interested in art that can change the ideology of society”.

Jane, the viewer, though, has her own epiphany:

And maybe this was art, she thought, having spent years trying to define it and pin it to the line like a shirt on a windy day. There you are, art! You capture moments at the heart of life.

But, I think it is art critic Healayas who makes the clearest, simplest point when she says during a discussion about Marina’s performance:

She simply invites us to participate … It may be therapeutic and spiritual, but it is also social and political. It is multi-layered. It is why we love art, why we study art, why we invest ourselves in art.

… and what has love got to do with it?

Everything, if art, as all this suggests, is about humanity.

Let’s look specifically at Levin. It would be easy to criticise him, as his friends and daughter gently do, for being passive. But, we do get the sense that Lydia encouraged his passivity in their life together, that she liked to be in control, not in a control-freak way but in that way that super-competent people can do. Moreover, Lydia made her order out of love for him, to let him continue creating his art, rather than look after her which she didn’t believe was in him. So, what’s Levin to do? How does he reconcile his love against hers?

The resolution when it comes is triggered by art, by Marina’s performance. And this, as Jane believes art can do, probably saves him. I say probably because Rose, clever writer that she is, leaves the ending uncertain. As she and Levin realise,

the best ideas come from a place with a sign on the door saying I don’t know.

This is an inspired and inspiring book that leaves you pondering. I’ve only touched the surface.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked the novel.

aww2017 badgeHeather Rose
The museum of modern love
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2016
284pp.
ISBN: 9781760291860