Monday musings on Australian literature: Best Young Australian Novelists (4)

The current winners of this year’s Best Young Australian Novelists were announced recently. I haven’t seen much publicity, so given I’ve reported on this award for the last two years, I thought I’d do it again this year. It’s a worthwhile award, and one that has seen writers go on to develop good careers.

Just to recap, the award was established in 1997 by The Sydney Morning Herald‘s then literary editor, Susan Wyndham. It’s an emerging writers’ award, open to “writers aged 35 and younger” at the time their book (novel or short story collection) is published. They don’t have to be debut novels, though they often are – like this year’s three winners.

The winners, as announced by Robert Moran, a culture reporter for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, are:

  • Diana Reid’s Love and virtue (winner, $8,000) (see Brona’s review)
  • Ella Baxter’s New animal (runner-up, $1,000; also shortlisted for the 2022 UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing, and the 2021 Readings Prize ) (see Kim’s review)
  • Michael Burrows’ Where the line breaks (runner-up, $1,000; also shortlisted for the 2021 Fogarty Literary Award) (see Lisa’s review)

The judging panel comprised the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum editor, Melanie Kembrey; critic and poet Thuy On; and a 2011 SMH Best Young Australian Novelist Gretchen Shirm (whom I’ve reviewed). The number of awards used to vary, but in recent years they seem to have settled on three. The prize money comes from the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

The Herald‘s Melanie Kembrey, writing in the emailed newsletter I receive, said of the candidate books:

There were clear recurring thematic interests, including consent, cultural identity and the environment; many were coming-of-age tales; and others experimented with different forms and styles. It was tough selecting the winners and many of the entrants have bright futures.

She also commented on the importance of prizes like this:

It’s tough being a novelist, let alone an emerging one. There are the occasional unicorn stories: novel selected for Oprah’s book club gets adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster and sets author up for life. But these stories are rare. The reality of life as a writer, even more so a new one, is writing around day jobs, trying to flog your manuscript, being at the mercy of publishers, and then releasing your novel and watching this thing that has consumed you disappear into the depths without leaving a ripple.

This is why, she says, this award was created all those years ago.

The winners, briefly

You can find interviews with the three authors in the Robert Moran article linked above.

Diana Reid (26)

According to Kembrey, Love and virtue is “a piercing examination of university campus culture” or, as Brona puts it, “a campus novel about sex, power and consent”. Very today themes, eh? This novel has been making quite a splash amongst bloggers and readers, including Daughter Gums to whom I gave it for Christmas.

Brona said that “It’s an easy, quick read, but layered with oodles of moral grey areas and nuanced, contemporary issues”. She appreciated the way the novel deals with the complexity of consent, and said that Reid “does not shy away from contradictory behaviours or the realities of modern life as seen through the eyes of young adults”, although she did feel it was more a novel for the age-group it’s about than for older readers. Reid wrote this when she was 24, just after she left university.

Ella Baxter (36)

Of New animal, Kembrey says its “caustic tone … will crack you up”. Kim would agree. She loved this book, describing it as “a blackly comic tale about what it is to be alive when everyone around you is dead — literally”. Literally, because the protagonist works in a funeral parlour. Kim suggests that the novel is part of the new genre of “Millennial angst” but, she says, it’s not “as navel-gazing as most of those” and is “highly original”. I am tempted.

Michael Burrows (33)

Kembrey describes metafictional Where the line breaks as “a playful take on academia and history”. Lisa found it an absorbing, unconventional novel that “interrogates the mythmaking that surrounds the Anzac Legend”.  It has, apparently, three narrative threads, which include one focusing on PhD student Matt, and another on his WW1 hero, Alan Lewis. The playful take on academia comes partly through the footnotes which, I’m told, readers should not ignore. It sounds like my sort of book.

These three books appeal to me, as being meaty but not overly earnest. I can’t help noticing, though, that it doesn’t look like a particularly diverse list.

Have you read any of these books?

Julie Koh, Portable curiosities: Stories (#BookReview)

I’ve decided to try reading more audiobooks this year, despite not being a big fan of this mode of consuming books. I’m a textual person. I like to see the print on the page, how it is set out. I like to see the words. I like to see how the names are spelt. Given my reservations and the fact that I expect to “read” in short stints, I thought short stories might be the way to go. I think they are, though my overall reservations still stand.

My first book was one that was well-reviewed when it appeared in 2016, Julie Koh’s Portable curiosities. It won the SMH Best Young Novelists Awards in 2017, and was shortlisted for several other awards, including the Steele Rudd Award for Short Story Collections (Queensland Literary Awards) and the Glenda Adams Award for New Writing (NSW Premier’s Literary Awards). I checked to see who won the Steele Rudd Award that year, because Koh’s collection is great. It was clearly a strong year. There were co-winners, Elizabeth Harrower’s wonderful A few days in the country, and other stories (my review) and Fiona McFarlane’s High places, which I’ve also been wanting to read.

So, Portable curiosities. I had no idea what this collection was about, and was delighted to find a lively, engaged and engaging interrogation of contemporary Australia, particularly as it intersects with Chinese-Australian experienceIt is highly satirical, penetrating the myths and assumptions that underpin our shaky existence.

The order of stories in a collection is always worth thinking about, and it is notable that this twelve-story collection opens with a story called “Sight” which satirises immigrant Chinese mothers who are so ambitious for their children to fit in and achieve success that they discourage any sort of individuality or creativity. Many of the stories have a surreal or absurdist element. They start realistically but suddenly we find ourselves in another realm or dimension. “Sight”, starting off the collection, is an example. Here, we suddenly find our young narrator having a “third eye” painted on her navel. This eye represents her imaginative self, so her mother organises for it to be removed in an operation.

From here, having satirised Chinese immigrant culture, Koh moves on to critique, with biting clarity, aspects of Australian culture, from misogyny (in “Fantastic breasts” where our male narrator looks for “the perfect set of breasts to have and to hold” at a conference on “The difficulties of an objective existence in a patriarchal world”) to crushing, soulless workplaces that pay lipservice to their employees’ mental health (in “Civility Place”). “Satirist rising” mourns the end of the civilised world, with a bizarre travelling exhibition that aims to ensure the continuation of the “landscapes of our mind”, while the cleverly titled “Cream reaper” (you have to read it to see what I mean) tackles foodie culture, turning foodie-ism into an extreme sport. Along the way, it also skewers multiple aspects of our capitalist culture, like the housing bubble, the commercialism of art, institutional banking, and the plight of the tortured writer.

As a retired film archivist, I loved “The three-dimensional yellow man” which takes to task the stereotyping of Asians on film. There’s “no need for a back story”, our one-dimensional (yellow man) Asian actor is told, “you’re evil”. He belongs, after all, to the “cruel, meek blank-faced race”. Again, the satirical targets are broad-ranging from film festival panels to Pauline Hanson – and embarrassingly close to the bone.

Many of the stories, like “Two” and “Slow death of Cat Cafe”, explore success, materialism and power, while the 2030-set “The Sister Company” exposes a cynically commercial “mental health industry” through the application of androids to the problem. All these stories, despite, or because of, their laugh-out-loud moments and forays into absurdity, hit their mark. A couple, such as “Two” and “Cream reaper”, felt a bit long, even though I thoroughly enjoyed their imagination, but this might have been a product of listening rather than reading, so I’m reserving judgement on this.

My favourite, however, was probably the last, “The fat girl in history”, which opens on a reference to the popular (in Australia) CSIRO Total Well-being Diet. The narrator is Julie, and, although this story also moves into surreal realms, there is a strong sense of autofiction here. Remember, though, that autofiction is still fiction so … Our narrator is a fiction-writer experiencing a crisis of confidence. She has written about a depressed girl, androids and the future – all of which appear in this collection. She’s been told that she writes like Peter Carey, though she admits she’s never read him. She reads an article telling her that contemporary literature is “in the throes of autofiction”, that the “days of pastiche are over”, and then informs us that she’s going to write autofiction titled “The fat girl in history.” Australians will know that Peter Carey has written a short story, “The fat man in history”, and that his debut collection named for this story started his stellar career. I will leave you to think about the portents and threads of meaning Koh is playing with here, but her outright cheekiness in daring us to go with her made me laugh – particularly when I saw where she went.

Portable curiosities deals with serious, on-song subjects, and I so enjoyed seeing her address them through satire, absurdity and surrealism with a healthy dose of black humour. At times the lateral thinking in these stories, not to mention Koh’s interest in satire, reminded me of Carmel Bird. A most enjoyable collection, that was expressively read by Lauren Hamilton Neill.

Julie Koh
Portable curiosities: Stories
(Read by Lauren Hamilton Neill)
Bolinda Audio, 2018 (Orig. pub. 2016)
5hrs 48mins (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781489440808

Monday musings on Australian literature: Best Young Australian Novelists (3)

I’ve posted twice on The Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists, last year, and back in 2013. Bill, in fact, chose that 2013 post in his Bill Curates series on this blog.

The award was established in 1997 by the newspaper’s then literary editor, Susan Wyndham, making this year its 25th year. An emerging writing award, it is open to “writers aged 35 and younger” at the time their book is published. It is called a “novelists” award, but is made on the basis of a specific book, which can now include short stories. It seems that the newspaper’s Fairfax Melbourne stablemate, The Age, is involved which is why the name now seems to be, simply, Best Young Australian Novelists. I don’t know when that change occurred.

This year’s winners, as announced by Jason Steger, the current Literary Editor for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, are:

  • Vivian Pham’s The coconut children (winner, $8,000)
  • K.M. (Kate) Kruimink’s A treacherous country (runner-up, $1,000) (see Lisa’s review)
  • Jessie Tu’s A lonely girl in a dangerous thing (runner-up, $1,000) (see Kim’s review)

The judging panel always includes the papers’ literary editor, so Jason Steger, plus a previous winner, Pip Smith, and another novelist, Peggy Frew. The number of awards made varies, but this year, as last, there were three.

The winners, briefly

Vivian Pham

According to Steger, Pham was a whopping 19 years old when her novel was published last year. Not what you’d call a “late bloomer” then! Her novel is set in the Vietnamese Australian community in Sydney’s Cabramatta. Steger says that while redrafting the novel, Pham came across the idea of “second-generation trauma inherited via the stories and behaviour of the previous generation”. This idea apparently runs through the novel.

Pham says that “You want to know the people that are closest to you. You know something epic has happened to them, to make them the people that they are, and you want to know why that happened.” She agrees with Steger that that novel is “a love letter to Cabramatta”, because “she felt more connection to Vietnam there than in Vietnam, when she spends all her time at her grandmother’s home”.

One of her significant influences is James Baldwin, who apparently “got her into reading seriously and realising that it could change your world”. Her second favourite writer is P.G. Wodehouse!

The judges said that “Pham’s non-judgmental portraits of parents living with trauma, and children struggling to comprehend their parents’ choices, was nuanced and wise”.

K.M. Kruimink

Lisa, as noted above, has reviewed A treacherous country, and described it as having “a playful narrative”. She tells us, as does Steger, that this novel also won the Vogel (unpublished manuscript) Award. It has also been longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction.

Unlike Pham’s more contemporary work, this novel is historical fiction set in colonial Tasmania. It’s about a young man coming to Tasmania to bring a message to a young convict woman. Originally, Kruimink was writing about the woman. However, she was a new mother at the time that she decided to pick up the work again, and

Because I was in a vulnerable place, it was too emotional for me. It was a sad story and I felt like I couldn’t write about this sad young woman and I decided to write about a silly young man instead.

She thinks she will go back to the young woman’s story, though her next novel is about something very different.

She named Hilary Mantel and Kazuo Ishiguro as writers she likes to read.

The judges loved the voice, saying that she delivered “a stand-out voice – eccentric, funny and deceptively endearing. While the research behind the writing is evident, it is handled with a lightness of touch, and the language itself is truly impressive, ornate, yet controlled and deft”. 

Jessie Tu

Tu’s A lonely girl is a dangerous thing has been making a bit of a splash, having been shortlisted for Readings’ New Australian Fiction Prize and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Multicultural Award, as well as longlisted for the Stella Prize. 

Kim, whose review I linked above, was mightily impressed. She thought it would be another book about a millennial, but found it was much more. “Its real strength,” she writes, “lies in its perspective of an Asian-Australian trying to succeed in a closeted world dominated by the white and the privileged”.

Taiwanese-born Tu was apparently clear from the start what she was writing about, and also believes, says Steger, that “what drives a good novel … is the kind of questions it considers”. For her, loneliness is a big issue – as the title suggests. She says that:

I’ve been trying to think constantly where to seek solace for my feeling that I don’t belong in this world and what I found really comforting was reading stories about women in the past, especially female artists or female writers, and realising that they have also gone through sad, lonely lives. For me to know that helps me understand that this feeling that I have is not at all special.

The judges said that “Tu, with unswerving clarity, draws out many unsettling and compelling questions regarding race, talent, performance, perfectionism, agency and worth”. They called it “provocative” and “uncompromising”, reflecting Kim’s assessment, in fact!

Have you read any of these books?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Best Young Australian Novelists (2)

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists award is announced annually to coincide with the opening of the Sydney Writers Festival. Of course, there is no live festival this year, but awards announcements can still go ahead can’t they? I have posted on these awards before, but that was 2013, so I figured I could feature them again, particularly since this year’s winners were all writers of short story collections – and, interestingly, all women.

The Best Young Australian Novelists awards were established in 1997 by Susan Wyndham, the newspaper’s literary editor at the time. Its aim is to recognise emerging writing talent, so is open to “writers aged 35 and younger at the time of publication of their nominated books”. It is called a “novelists” award, but the award is made on the basis of a specific book, which is why writers, like Sonia Hartnett below, can win more than once. I should note, too, that despite the award’s name, short stories have been allowed since 2009.

Ellen van Neerven, Heat and light, book coverIt is not the richest award – though $8000 this year for the winner and $1000 for each runner-up is not bad either – but it carries a good deal of kudos. It has also done well over its 24 years in identifying young writers who have gone on to become serious names in the Australian literary world. Past winners, with links to my posts, include:

Book coverIf you look at the Wikipedia link in the paragraph above, you’ll see that the number of awards made each year varies. In 1997, ten awards were made, but most commonly it seems that around three to four are announced. This year, it was three, as Jason Steger reported. They are:

  • Alice Bishop’s A constant hum (winner)
  • Joey Bui’s Lucky ticket
  • Josephine Rowe’s Here until August. (Rowe has won before for her collection A loving faithful animal, which I’ve reviewed.)

The judges were SMH’s Literary Editor Jason Steger, plus two previous winners, Maxine Beneba Clarke and Fiona McGregor. Steger reports that:

What distinguishes the collections are the strength of the voices and distinctiveness of their characters. The stories are firmly rooted with a solid sense of place and at their hearts a strong sense of compassion for the predicaments of the protagonists and what they are experiencing.

They are all collections I have on my radar, but not in my physical TBR, which is a shame given I like short stories. Anyhow, Steger says that they also made two honourable mentions, Kathryn Hind’s Hitch (about which I’ve written before) and Carly Cappielli’s Listurbia (which I don’t know).

Other emerging writers’ awards

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universeWhile SMH’s Best Young Australian Novelists is one of the best known emerging writers awards, there are others. Many, like this one, are age-related, such as The Australian Vogel Literary Award which was won this year by Katherine Kruimink, A treacherous country. But not all are. The UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing in the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards suite is for “a published book of fiction by an author who has not previously published a work of fiction that is booklength”. There is no age limit here. Last year’s winner was Trent Dalton with Boy swallows universe (my review), while this year’s was SL Lim with Real differences (Lisa’s review).

I have written about such awards before – about unpublished manuscript awards and emerging/debut fiction awards – so I won’t repeat the information here. However, in her May Six degrees of Separation post, Melinda Tognini mentioned a new award for young writers, the biennial Fogarty Literary Award, which was established last year. It is sponsored by the Fogarty Foundation and Fremantle Press. It is “awarded to an unpublished manuscript by a Western Australian author aged between 18 and 35 for a work of adult fiction, narrative non-fiction or young adult fiction”. The prize is $20,000 cash and a publishing contract with Fremantle Press. Not bad, eh? The inaugural winner was Rebecca Higgie for The History of Mischief, which will be published in September 2020. The next winner will be announced in May 2021.

Do you follow emerging writers’ awards and have you made any exciting discoveries as a result?