Stella … 10 years

While the Stella Prize isn’t quite 10 years old, next year will see the awarding of the 10th prize. With that landmark in its sights, the Stella people decided to tweak the prize criteria, and have added single-author poetry collections to the forms eligible for the prize. An excellent move. Around the same time, they announced their 2022 judging panel – Melissa Lucashenko (chair), Declan Fry, Cate Kennedy, Sisonke Msimang, and Oliver Reeson – creating another nicely diverse panel.

Now and then: Ten years of Stella

To celebrate entering its 10th year, Stella held a zoom session involving three past winning and shortlisted authors, Carrie Tiffany (Mateship with birds), Emily Bitto (The strays), and Claire G. Coleman (Terra Nullius). (Links are to my reviews) The session was convened by Christine Gordon who introduced herself as a Stella founding member, and the Programming and Events coordinator for Melbourne’s Readings Bookshop.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was short and tightly focused on the value of the Stella. There was no Q&A, but I it was a good opportunity to hear from three writers whom I’ve read and reviewed here.

To honour the Prize’s inclusion of poetry collections next year, Christine started by reading from Evelyn Araluen’s poem “Acknowledgement of country” (from Dropbear). It’s a powerful, in-your-face poem that further inspired me to read this collection. (Brona has reviewed it, but doesn’t mention this particular poem.)

What did you know about the prize at the point your book was listed/won?

Mateship with Birds (Courtesy: Pan MacMillan)

Emily, who won the prize in its third year, remembers being excited by the idea behind the prize. Being a debut author, she didn’t know much about the literary landscape that inspired it, but she was amazed by the inequities that the Stella Count had revealed for women writers, across prizes, publishing, and reviewing. She was thrilled to win, but straight after, she found its value being questioned by men who wondered how worthwhile it was to win a prize only open to women! As the panel concurred, these critics didn’t understand the idea of an unequal playing field and its impact.

Carrie, Stella’s inaugural winner, said that she had not been overly aware of discrimination. She’d had good experience with her first novel – Everyman’s rules for scientific living – of the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction), which was taken very seriously. But, she did experience backlash immediately after winning the Stella, with patronising articles in The Age and The Australian, for example. The latter described her book as a “bush romance”. Had someone like Carey or Winton written the book, she said, it would have been described in terms of exploring “nature and desire”. She said that her approach now would be to talk about history and women’s lack of opportunity and education, about how women have much catching up to do. Stella, she said, has more than broken the glass ceiling, it has “smashed the wall out of the building”.

Claire said that, like Carrie, she’d come to writing late, and had had no connection with the writing community. Being longlisted and then shortlisted for her debut novel was a profound endorsement.

What did winning mean for you?

Emily BItto, The strays, book cover

Christine noted that winning the Stella has a clear impact on sales. Emily agreed saying her book had been out for a year before winning the award, and sold as much in the first two weeks after winning as it had in that whole first year. Claire said after her shortlisting, her book achieved a spike in sales. Christine then mentioned the ongoing work Stella does to keep books in the public eye, over the long haul.

Choose a favourite poem

Christine asked each participant to share a favourite poem:

  • Claire read “White excellence” (Ellen van Neerven’s Throat, which Brona has also reviewed)
  • Carrie commented first that, while poetry collections are new to the prize, verse novels like Lisa Jacobsen’s shortlisted The sunlit zone had been eligible from the beginning. She read a poem dedicated to poet Anne Carson (Maria Takolander’s Trigger warning). She loved its focus on words and the concreteness of language.
  • Emily read “This landscape before me” by, she admitted, her friend, Sarah Holland-Batt. (Available at Poetry Foundation.

Why do you write/Earliest memories of writing

Emily talked about writing newspapers for her mother – from headlines right through to the sports news! As for why she writes, she described herself as an “angsty person” concerned about finding what we can do that’s meaningful. Books give her meaning, and she decided she wanted to contribute to that. Writing feels a worthwhile thing to do. (Amen to that, eh?) She added that winning the Stella was a wonderful endorsement.

Claire G Coleman, Terra nullius

Claire said, simply, that she was impelled to write Terra nullius: it was there and had to be written. In the process, though, she found that writing was something she could do, and that it is, in fact, the only job she’s suited for! She felt that being listed for this and other prizes helped create interest in her, which probably then helped her get her next books published. The prize changed her life in the sense that it told her that she could write.

Carrie, like Emily, sees reading as life-sustaining. She also likes that she can conceal herself in her writing, she can use the novel “to express me”. She believes in the role fiction can play in encouraging empathy: through novels we can “learn what it is to be someone else”. As to whether the prize was life-changing, she said that she was obliged, as a winner, to give lectures at universities. This was challenging as she’d never done it before! She also felt that her success with her first two novels meant people were more open to her later, more difficult book.

At this point, Christine closed the session, reminding us that Stella’s aim is to get women’s writing on everyone’s agenda, and asking us all to “Be a Stella Ambassador”. But of course!

I wouldn’t say I learnt anything earth-shatteringly new. However, through the experience of these quite different writers, I obtained a first-hand sense of what Stella can mean for writers. I also enjoyed getting to know these three a little more – and I loved all four poems that were shared. There’s something about hearing a poem read.

Delicious descriptions from Down under: Carrie Tiffany on smacking

Actually, this Delicious Descriptions is not a commentary on smacking as the post title might suggest, but it is about a smacking situation – in Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with birds.  It occurs when five-year-old Michael has stolen a penny from his mother and so she smacks him:

Betty doesn’t have the heart to pull his pants down so she smacks him with the wooden spoon through his shorts and shirt-tails and underpants so she isn’t really hitting him at all, just whacking at the layers of clothing and the air trapped between them. He’s never been smacked before. As soon as she releases him he turns on her. He looks about the kitchen in fury. ‘How dare you? You pan, you rug, you – you – you … spoon.’

She gasps. She covers her face with her hands. He’s right. She isn’t a bitch or a slut; she is a pan, a rug, a spoon. She is a woman without a man – a utensil inside a house.

See what I mean about her writing? It packs so much. There’s social history here about parent-child relationships and child discipline, and about women’s lives. And, there’s psychology, particularly regarding sense of self – Michael’s positively defiant one and Betty’s self-deprecatingly negative one. It has an interesting rhythm, with the introductory long sentence describing the action followed by a series of short sentences for the emotional responses. It’s funny, too, but has such a sting. It puts a very specific spin, doesn’t it, on that old adage that “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you”!

Carrie Tiffany, Mateship with birds (Review)

Mateship with Birds (Courtesy: Pan MacMillan)

Book Cover (Courtesy: Pan MacMillan)

Carrie Tiffany is on a roll. Last month her second novel, Mateship with birds, won the inaugural Stella Prize, and this month it won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction at the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. It has also been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award. Many bloggers* have already read and reviewed it so, once again, I’m the last kid on the block, but I have finally got there.

Like her gorgeous first novel, Everyman’s rules for scientific living, Mateship with birds is set in rural Victoria in the past, this time, the early 1950s. Its central characters are the lonely, gentle dairy farmer, Harry, whose wife has left him, and his also lonely neighbour, Betty, who has brought her fatherless children to the country and who works in the local aged care home. The novel takes place over a year, a year that is paced by the life-cycle of a kookaburra family which Harry watches and documents in the spare righthand column of his old milk ledger. These notes, which are interspersed throughout the novel, are delightful and poetic, albeit brutal at times:

They work in pairs
against a fairy wren.
Dad buzzes the nest,
the wren throws herself on the ground
to draw him away.
She pluckily performs her decoy
– holding out her wing as if it is broken.
A small bird on the ground
is easy picking.
Club-Toe finishes her off.

They also provide commentary on the main story which is, as you’ve probably guessed, a love story. It is, however, no traditional romance. The boy and girl, Harry and Betty, are well past their youth and are cautious, given their previous experiences of love and relationships. They reminded me a little of Kate Grenville‘s rather dowdy protagonists in The idea of perfection. They care for each other in all sorts of practical ways: Betty cooks meals for Harry and tends his health, and Harry looks out for Betty and her children, fixing things when he can. A sexual tension underlies all their interactions – over many years – but it’s not openly expressed.  (“When he’s invited to tea he leaves immediately the meal is finished, as if unsure of what happens next”). Harry gradually takes on the role of “father figure” for Michael. However, when Michael becomes interested in a girl and Harry decides to pass on some “father-son” knowledge (“an explanation of things – of things with girls? Of … details of the workings”), including some rather specific physical advice regarding women, Betty is not impressed.

It sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it, but there’s something about Tiffany’s writing that makes it feel fresh, original. Part of it stems from her particular background as a scientist and agricultural journalist. Again, like her first novel, she grounds the story in her knowledge of farming life, but not in so much detail as to be boring. Rather, her descriptions give the novel its underlying rhythm – the landscape and the creatures inhabiting it (the kookaburras, owls, magpies, and so on); the milking; the driving into town; the way country neighbours help each other out; the sense of life going on regardless of the little dramas, the kindnesses and the cruelties, that occur. The writing is evocative but has a resigned and rather laconic tone that fits the rural setting.

Although a short book – a novella, really – it’s richly textured. There’s the main narrative drive which flips between Harry and Betty and includes flashbacks to their past, occasional dialogue, gorgeous descriptions (“The eucalypts’ thin leaves are painterly on the background of mauve sky – like black lace on pale skin”), and lists of plants, animals, medications, and so on. Interspersed with this main narrative are Harry’s kookaburra log, Betty’s notebook, Little Hazel’s nature diary, and Harry’s letters to Michael. And all this is layered with imagery involving mating, mateship, birds and humans. You can imagine the possibilities that Tiffany teases out from these. It’s all carefully constructed but doesn’t feel forced. It just flows.

In other words, this is a clever book, but not inaccessibly so. It’s generous, not judgemental. It’s also pretty earthy, with regular allusions to and descriptions of sex. If I have any criticism, it’s  in the persistent references to sexuality. At times, I wanted to say, “ok, I get it, sex – in its beauty, carnality, and sometimes cruelty and brutality – is integral to life” but I kept on reading because … of the writing. I love Tiffany’s writing. I mean, how can you not like writing like this description in which Harry compares Betty to Michael’s girlfriend Dora:

Not like Betty. His Betty is heavier, more complicated. Betty meanders within herself; she’s full of quiet pockets. The girl Dora might be water, but his Betty is oil. You can’t take oil lightly. It seeps into your skin. It marks you.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeI also kept reading because I wanted to know what it was all about. Why was Tiffany writing this particular story, I kept thinking. For some reviewers (see the links at the end), it is primarily about family, for others it is about the relationship between men and women, but for Tiffany it’s about desire. I can see that it is about all these things, but here’s the thing, the book starts with the description of four attacks by birds on humans followed by a description of cockatoos damaging crops. This, together with the sexual imagery, the frequent references to animal behaviour and to humans’ relationships with animals, suggests to me another theme to do with the nature of life, with the nature of our relationships with animals, and with how we accommodate the animal versus the human within ourselves. I’ll give the final word to the birds:

Mum, Dad, Club-Toe
break off their
preening,
squabbling,
loafing,
to attack.
They lose themselves in the doing.
I struggle to tell them apart.
Knife-beaked,
cruel-eyed,
vicious;
there is no question
they would die for the family
– that violence is a family act.

This book packs a punch!

* You may like to read the reviews written by Lisa (ANZLitLovers), John (Musings of a Literary Dilettante), Matt (A Novel Approach) and Kim (Reading Matters).

Carrie Tiffany
Mateship with birds
Sydney: Picador, 2012
208pp.
ISBN: 9781742610764

Monday musings on Australian literature: Stella, Carrie and friends

Mateship with Birds (Courtesy: Pan MacMillan)

Book Cover (Courtesy: Pan MacMillan)

For those of you who haven’t yet heard the news, I’d better start with the announcement that last week Carrie Tiffany‘s novel, Mateship with birds, was announced the winner of the inaugural Stella Prize. Unfortunately, the book is still on my TBR but with its also being shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award and longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, I need to get a move on.

Okay, now that I’ve got that off my chest, back to Stella and Carrie. When she was announced as the winner of the Prize, Tiffany, according to tweets on the night, immediately advised that she would return $10,000 of the $50,000 prize to be shared among the remaining shortlisted writers: Courtney Collins (The burial), Michelle de Kretser (Questions of travel), Lisa Jacobson (The sunlit zone), Cate Kennedy (Like a house on fire) and Margo Lanagan (Sea hearts). She wanted to recognise, I believe, the co-operative spirit of the Stella Prize, and the fact that women writers are supportive of each other. Go Carrie, I say.

Now to the “friends” part of this post’s title. In addition to the above gesture, she also said on the night that:

The Stella Prize is an opportunity to fete and honour writing by Australian women. When I sit down to write I am anchored by all of the books I have read. My sentences would not have been possible without the sentences of Christina Stead, Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley, Beverley Farmer, Kate Grenville, Gillian Mears, Helen Garner and the many other fine Australian writers that I have read and continue to read.

What a great list of writers. I first read all of these women, except Christina Stead, in the 1980s, and was blown away by the quality of their writing. Not only do they all tell wonderful stories but, as Tiffany implies, they write great sentences. You can have the best story in the world but if you can’t write a good sentence you’re not going to get far.

And sentences are clearly important to Tiffany, because in addition to mentioning them in her acceptance speech, she referred to them in an interview conducted by the Stella Prize team the day before the announcement. She was asked why she became a writer, and she said:

More than anything I wanted to become a reader and I’m pleased to have achieved that. In my early twenties I worked as a park ranger in Central Australia. I live in Melbourne now and work as a farming journalist. I started writing fiction ten or so years ago. I don’t remember any momentous shift, just a hankering to make some sentences of my own.

She was right to follow that hankering because, from what I’ve read and from the awards she’s won and been listed for, she too can write great sentences, can write in fact, like the women she named, brave sentences that take risks … I look forward to reading Mateship with birds.