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.

Claire G. Coleman, Terra nullius (#BookReview)

Claire G Coleman, Terra nulliusClaire G. Coleman’s debut novel, Terra nullius, was my reading group’s third book for this year. The first two – An unnecessary woman (my review) and The sympathizer (my review) were well liked – but not so Coleman’s book. In fact that I was the only one who liked it. So, instead of my usual review, I’ve decided to tease out some of the issues my group had with the book, and see where I end up. I didn’t take notes at the meeting, so I’m relying on my memory. I may not have got all the issues down, or down correctly, but I’ll give it my best shot. In doing so, I’ll also draw on GoodReads because its users tend to be general readers, like you finding reading groups.

First though, a brief introduction for those who don’t know the book. Terra nullius starts off reading like an historical fiction novel about the colonial settlement of Australia and the concurrent dispossession of our indigenous people. Coleman’s world of Settlers and Natives, of Troopers and Trackers, of Missions to which stolen children are taken for education, of a Department for the Protection of Natives, and so on, mimics colonial Western Australia in particular, but it’s not long before hints start to appear that all is not as we’ve assumed. Before halfway, all is revealed, and we realise we are not reading historical fiction, but speculative fiction set in some near future. It is, as a result, not about indigenous Australians versus white colonists, but about colonised people of all races versus settler-colonists (“grey fellas”) from somewhere else. This realisation is unsettling, and clever, because it forces non-indigenous readers to switch identification from the colonisers to the colonised.

Now to my reading group’s response. The over-riding criticism was that it was repetitive and tedious. This is the criticism I could most understand, because partway through the novel’s second half I felt the momentum flag a little, which I put down to the structure. It’s multi-stranded, with the stories of different people or groups running parallel for a significant portion of the book. The strands include Native Jacky who is on the run; Settler Sister Bagra who runs a Mission; Settler Sergeant Rohan who leads the posse which is hunting Jacky; Esperance and her camp of free, renegade Natives; and deserter-Settler Johnny Star who is taken in by some rebel Natives. Fortunately, just as I wondered whether the separate groups – the separate strands – were ever going to come together, two things happened. A new character, Father Grark, appeared, and the strands did start to coalesce. These, along with other factors including the writing itself, were enough to prevent the book’s becoming tedious for me.

However, my reading group friends weren’t alone in their criticism. One GoodReads reviewer described it as “gratingly repetitive” and another overall positive reviewer had “some minor quibbles”, of which the main one was that “some elements of the story were repetitive”.

Another criticism made by some of my group was that they weren’t interested in any of the characters. Some GoodReads reviewers concurred. One didn’t “connect with any of the characters” and another said that “the characters, the individuals, are basic, with no complex motivations, no desires”. This surprised me, because I was interested in several of the characters, and I looked forward to their next appearance. One was Esperance, the young woman living with that renegade camp of Natives. Another was Jacky, who is the first character we meet and who, for over half the novel, struggles on alone, trying to survive and keep one step ahead of his pursuers. There are, though, a lot of characters, and I can see the argument that many of them have “no complex motivations”. However, I’m not sure that deep characterisation is always essential for speculative, dystopian fiction, such as this book is. Anyhow, regardless of this point, I can’t accept the argument that none have desires. Esperance and Jacky, for example, certainly have desires. Survival is one, and for Jacky, returning to his home, his country, is a major driving force.

One of the positive GoodReads writers said, and it reflects my response, that “importantly, Coleman’s more ‘extreme’ characters – such as Sister Bagra, in charge of a Native ‘orphanage’ – are frighteningly familiar, and it [is] these elements of the story that will linger.” She is not, in other words, a particularly complex character, but given what I know of colonial history, she is believable. I’d argue that that’s sufficient.

Then there were arguments that the book was too heavy-handed, too obvious, not nuanced enough. Again, there were GoodReads reviewers who agreed, one saying the “messaging was much too overt” and another that it could have been more subtle. However, I’m not sure that I’ve read much dystopian fiction that is subtle. On GoodReads I found a perfect example of how differently we “read” books. One criticised the chapter epigraphs, which come from various fictional “sources”, saying that “the book could have been done much more subtly without the chapter-starters explicitly comparing the colonisation to the colonisation of Australia”, while another said that Coleman’s “use of ‘archival documents’ at the beginning of each chapter gave the book rich perspective.” Again, I concur with the latter, and some in my group agreed that this feature of Coleman’s book was effective and worth exploring further.

It seems that those who are well-versed in speculative fiction’s colonisation stories – in my reading group and on GoodReads – felt that Coleman’s book didn’t offer anything new. A member in my group felt that it was so clearly Western Australia’s story that Coleman may as well have made it Western Australia. I agree that the “facts” aligned closely with the Western Australian experience, but I didn’t see that spoiling its speculative layer. In a way, it increased its effectiveness because, using the GoodReads quote above, it felt “frighteningly familiar”. There is an argument to be had, I suppose, about how “familiar” speculative fiction can be before it’s no longer speculative, but for me it worked.

Other concerns were raised in my group, but there were positives too, particularly regarding the quality of Coleman’s descriptive writing. She knows the landscape well and captures the heat and light, not to mention the weirdness of Australian desert vegetation beautifully:

He [Sergeant Rohan] did not relish another night under the alien trees, the twisted limbs, the hanging bark, the wrong colour: their waxy grey-green leaves too hard, almost glassy.

There’s more to like about the writing than this, however. From the first page when we meet Jacky on the run, I loved Coleman’s voice. It’s direct but evocative, it’s serious but peppered with a light, cheeky touch that uses throwaway lines and afterthoughts to great effect:

Dinner was a disappointment: sure the meat was fresh but it was tough and tasted like all the other Native meats – quite unappetising, only to be relished by the desperate. Good thing they were desperate then.

So, I was impressed by this book. My heart engaged with the characters who were struggling to survive their nightmarish world, while my mind was intrigued by what Coleman was doing, by her layering of historical experience within an imaginative framework, by her grounding us in a familiar story, and then overturning it to force us to see it from a different perspective. I’m not sure I followed all her intellectual twists and turns but I certainly got the point about invasion – and about the cruelty people inflict on each other in its name.

He [Johnny Star] had learned, through his friends, that the bent, broken drugged and drunk state of those surviving near the Settlements was not the habitual state of Natives. The truth was, it was a sort of depression brought on by what they had lost, brought on by being dominated and controlled by another people. Who could not be depressed, being treated like animals in a land that had once been theirs alone.

Without giving away the details, the ending is generally what you’d expect from a dystopian scenario, but it’s not without hope, without defiance too. A great read … at least, I thought so!

Lisa (Anzlitlovers) loved the book, as did Bill (The Australian Legend).

Note: I haven’t cited the individual GoodReads reviewers, but they can be found at the site’s page for the book.

AWW Badge 2018Claire G. Coleman
Terra nullius
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2017
294pp.
ISBN: 9780733638312