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: Emily Bitto’s The strays

In my recent post on Emily Bitto’s The strays I commented on the quality of the writing but didn’t really exemplify it – so I’m doing so now. But just sharing without in-depth commentary, as I’ve been tied up this week with family matters.

Here is a description of Evan Trentham, the leading artist in the Melbourne Modern Art Group:

Evan Trentham was put together from mismatched stuff. The sinews were too short for the long bones. The tendons behind his ankles and the bald stones of his knees stuck out, hard as catgut on a tennis racquet. He was like a rubber band stretched tight and close to snapping. He wore blue work pants cut off at the knee and a white undershirt that was yellow beneath the armpits. He was paint-stained and sweat-smelling.

A taut, highly strung artist?

And here is a description of the night of on of the Trenthams’ bohemian parties:

The night that followed was a slip down the rabbit hole. Summer was taking up its place like a chestnut seller setting up his stall, lighting the coals and letting the scented smoke drift down the street before he begins to call out to passers-by. It was not too hot by the fire in the centre of the garden clearing, nor too cold away from it in the darker, leafier peripheries.

Interesting imagery here given when chestnut season is, but I like the scene she is setting.

Then there’s her description of Helena Trentham’s three daughters:

I believe she envied her daughters their relationships with one another, just as I did. And so she brought three girls into the world and let them roam it without telling them to fill the pockets of their pinafores with bread and to leave a trail of crumbs that would lead them, in a crisis, home.

Love the allusion to Hansel and Gretel here.

And finally (though it appears some time before the above quote in the book), Lily describes that moment that comes in most girl friendships when puberty reaches one before the other:

She’s leaving me behind, I thought. I felt tricked. With Eva, I had given no thought to the world of adulthood that awaited us. But she had crossed some secret threshold while I was facing the other way, absorbed still by the childish fantasies she had cultivated for us: our talk of travelling the world together […] Now, I saw so clearly that all of that had been a silly game. She had a lover, presumably, while I did not even truly know what this vague and glamorous term entailed. She had become a woman, with no thought to warn me that I should be packing away my own childhood, dismantling it piece by piece like a rotten treehouse, and preparing myself for the new world.

I remember the feeling!

Overall, I thought Bitto’s writing was nicely evocative, without being overblown.

Emily Bitto, The strays (Review)

Emily BItto, The strays, book coverLet me start by saying I really enjoyed reading Emily Bitto’s The strays. It was scheduled for my reading group the day after my return from Tasmania, and I suddenly found myself in the last day of my Tasmanian holiday without having started the book. Wah! I read it in two days, helped by several hours in a couple of airports. I haven’t done that for a long time, and what a joy it was to have a real length of time to commit to a book. It helped, of course, that having both a strong plot and an intriguing set of characters, The strays is compelling to read. It reminded me, albeit loosely, of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead revisited and Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

This is a debut novel, which also won this year’s Stella Prize. Set primarily in the 1930s, with the last of four parts set in the 1960s, The strays is both historical fiction and a coming-of-age novel. It is also a classic outsider story. Lily, who tells the story first person, is befriended when she is 8 years old by schoolmate Eva, the middle daughter of the Trenthams who, early in the novel invite a number of artist “strays” to form a utopian-bohemian artistic community. The Trenthams are inspired by the Reeds and their Heide group, but The strays is not a Heide story*.  This may be the strength of the novel, but also perhaps its weakness – a strength because it frees Bitto to tell her own story, but a weakness because it removes potential ideas on which to hang her story.

Before I get to that, though, a little more about the story. The first three parts follow the Trenthams for 8 years, from when Lily is 8 to 16. During this time Lily becomes increasingly involved with the Trenthams, in preference to her boring, conservative, middle-class parents, eventually living with them full-time. Some members in my reading group found her parents’ relinquishing of their daughter unbelievable, but this was during the Depression, and Lily’s parents did have some problems of their own to manage. I could suspend my disbelief. From Lily’s point of view, she was in thrall to the excitement of the Bohemian life, telling her parents, “I love you both but I want to be different”.

Her parents, however, should have been concerned, because the Trenthams are rather casual, neglectful parents and the four girls more or less run their own lives, sometimes being fed properly, sometimes not, sometimes, in the case of one in particular, going to school, and sometimes not. The story is as much about them, as about the artists, though we do hear about the artists too. There’s exploration of experimental art and its acceptance or otherwise by society, obscenity charges, mentee supplanting mentor, and so on. There are parties, and other occasions, where artists and children come together. Bitto, through Lily, paints all this beautifully. Indeed, I loved her ability to evoke scenes, people and places with effective, yet tight imagery.

Bitto’s use of Lily as her narrator works nicely. Through most of the novel, we see the story through her child’s point-of-view, but occasionally, with a “later I realised” type of comment, we are reminded that this is an adult telling the story of her childhood:

When was it that I became a voyeur in their midst? I was the perfect witness, an unsuspected anthropologist disguised within the body of a young girl, surrounded by other young girls who were part of the family. Yet I was cuckoo in the nest, an imposter who listened and observed, hoarding and collecting information.

This narrative style keeps the story grounded. We see the dysfunctional dynamics and its effects before Lily, wooed by the excitement, does – though she does have moments of clarity. When the youngest daughter goes missing on one occasion, she writes:

I drew in my breath. These adults were no use in a crisis.

The subtext is that her parents would be.

But, here’s the thing. The book tackles a lot of ideas. There’s the exploration of society’s reaction to experimental art; the idea of coming to terms with the past (for Lily); the utopian artist community and whether it can really work; indulgent or neglectful parenting, creating a dysfunctional family life that comes back to bite; the exploration of girlhood friendships and the whole coming-of-age thread; not to mention those big issues like loyalty and betrayal, envy, sexuality and sensuality. It’s not that these were uninteresting, or even that they weren’t well developed. It’s more that I struggled to find Bitto’s main focus, and I guess I like some sort of central idea on which to hang my understanding of a book.

My reading technique is that when I finish a book I go back and reread the beginning. This usually puts the whole into context, pinpointing what the author was about. However, this technique didn’t work wonderfully with The strays. Bitto’s Prologue starts by discussing the mystery of instant attraction between people, and then moves on to the idea of past life connections and that people’s souls can be twinned from one life to the next. These ideas are used to explain Lily’s relationship with Eva, but I’m not sure that this is fundamental to the book’s meaning. The prologue then discusses the past. Three decades after the main events, Lily receives a letter:

and I become aware of an old compulsive pain I have pressed like a bruise again and again throughout the years.


I feel a tenderness in my chest, and the past rushes in as a deluge I can no longer hold back …


I let my mind turn back once more, to recreate again that distant, still wracked past.

Is it this, the idea of coming to terms with or resolving the past, that binds the book together? It is partly. By the end of the novel, Lily has come uneasily to terms with what happened those three decades ago, and its impact on her life. I say uneasily because – and here we come to the epigraph, by William Pater, which expresses a different idea again to those in the prologue: “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life”. Lily’s uneasiness is that she has chosen “conventionality”, but recognises that part of her “is still drawn to the romance of the fully lived life”. Then we have the book’s concluding paragraphs, which are more concerned with mothering and family in Lily’s recognition that it was the Trentham children who paid the debt for their parents’ experiments. See my problem regarding central idea? Or, is it just that I’m being boringly 20th century?!

Whatever it is, they are just niggles. As a read, The strays is up there as one of my most enjoyable for the year – for its lucid writing, for the story and a setting that had such appeal, and, yes, even for that whole raft of ideas that she throws so determinedly at us. Even for that.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers enjoyed the book too.

* Interestingly, a couple of “real” people are mentioned, one being politician and later judge, Herbert Evatt – as a supporter of modern, experimental art.

awwchallenge2015Emily Bitto
The strays
South Melbourne: Affirm Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781922213211