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.

Alexis Wright, Carpentaria

Alexis Wright‘s Carpentaria won the Miles Franklin Award in 2007 and I read it back around then but it’s a book that keeps coming back to me so I thought it was time I shared why. This won’t be my usual review, but rather random comments on the ideas that float around my head.

First though, you do need a bit of an idea of what it’s about. It’s a wild novel and the plot is complex with its interwoven stories of the inhabitants of a fictional town called Desperance (great name!) in northwest Queensland. The local Indigenous people, the Pricklebush mob, are engaged in a number of disputes – amongst themselves (the Westend and Eastend groups) and with various non-Indigenous people and groups including local police, government officials, and the large multinational mining company operating on their sacred land. But it’s also about personal soul-searching as some of the main characters work to resolve their place in the world. There’s a large array of colourful characters, including Normal Phantom (the ruler of the family), Mozzie Fishman (religious zealot), Will Phantom (activist and Norm’s son, who undertakes a spiritual journey with Fishman), Elias Smith (mysterious outcast saviour), Bruiser (by-name-and-nature town mayor), to name just a few.

It is fundamentally, but not only, about black-white relations in a small town. It doesn’t polarise the issue the way books dealing with this topic often do. The whites are presented pretty negatively, but the Indigenous people are not painted as saints either. They are flawed, and have conflicts within their own community as well as with the white occupants of the town. I like the honesty of this. Some of the problems within the Indigenous population are due to the European invasion and the impact of dispossession, but some are clearly just because they are human with all the normal arguments, jealousies, power plays etc that are found in any family or community. Wright is most interested in conveying the complexity of black culture: its struggles to cope with the colonisation, and the conflict within black communities about how to respond. Consequently, the novel touches on many contemporary issues – land rights, deaths in custody, mining rights, boat people, petrol sniffing to name just a few. It could almost be seen as the contemporary corollary of Kim Scott‘s That deadman dance.

Towards the end of the novel comes this:

Old stories circulating around the Pricklebush were full of the utmost intrigues concerning the world. Legends of the sea were told in instalments every time you walked in the door of some old person’s house. Stories lasted months on end, and if you did not visit often, you would never know how the story ended.

It’s from Will who is sitting on top of the pub, waiting for the cyclone to do its damage. I like it because it rather describes the way the novel is told – circularly more than linearly, and certainly rather disconnectedly. I am always interested in structure, and structure is one of the main challenges of the book. I suspect the structure has something to do with the Aboriginal world view and way of seeing stories – and that understanding this structure better might help better understand the book. It’s both circular and multilayered.

The centre or heart of the novel comprises Elias’ burial at sea and Norm’s being tested. The notion of ‘trespass’ is introduced specifically here. It’s a critical notion in Christian religion. It also alludes to European civilisation trespassing on Indigenous land and culture. And, of course, Indigenous people have their own sense of trespass. In some (many?) ways, trespass is a core theme of the book:

Pausing momentarily, he [Norm] tried again to recite the prayer, before stopping to linger once more on the perplexing word trespass. Trespass had been a big word in his life. It protected black men’s Law and it protected white men. It breathed life for fighters; it sequestered people. The word was weightless, but had caused enough jealousies, fights, injuries, killings, the cost could never be weighed. It maintained untold wars over untold centuries – trespass.

What makes the book special is its language, which is often playful. I chuckled many times as I read it: the wordplay, and the comic set pieces in particular were well done. The set pieces include Angel Day’s retrieval of a Virgin Mary statue from the town dump, and Elias Smith’s emergence from the sea. Popular culture and language (such as clichés) are incorporated, both through allusions and simply as part of the rather colloquial text. Added to this, is the mix of biblical (parting of the waters/mist, big flood, feeding with fish) and traditional imagery and symbolism. I don’t completely understand the meaning of the traditional imagery/symbolism, but it’s there, and can be felt even if it can’t be fully articulated by us who are not part of the culture: water (sea, lagoons, rivers), fire, fish, birds (seagulls, pelicans and others), serpents, land, music, and so on. It’s interesting how many of these images work in both cultures. The novel teems with imagery, most of it worthy of further exploration.

And while I’m talking of language, the names are highly evocative: Desperance, Uptown and Pricklebush, Normal Phantom, Angel Day (Agnus Dei?), Truthful (the cop), Bruiser (the town mayor), Mozzie Fishman, Joseph Midnight, Will (a very wilful young man), and Hope.

There is also surrealism (or is it magical realism?) mixed with the real, which adds to the challenge and fun of reading this book: it is sometimes hard to tell what is ‘real’ and what is ‘dream’ or ‘myth’ or ‘imaginings’. Much of this aspect of the novel explores connections between Indigenous and Christian religions and cultures, which makes sense given the strong role missionaries played in the first century or more of contact.

This is one of those novels that begs comparison with others and yet it is so itself that any comparison does neither it nor the other book justice. However, I’m going to throw a couple of ideas out there anyhow: Tim Winton‘s Cloudstreet, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One hundred years of solitude. All three deal with family on an epic scale and with a level of inventiveness that can make you high.

Without giving the conclusion away, I will say it ends on a positive image for Indigenous people, on the idea of “singing the country afresh”. There is no simple solution, and many unanswered questions are left hanging, but there is hope – which is just about how a book like this should end.

Alexis Wright
Melbourne: Giramodo, 2006
ISBN: 9781920882174