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?
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?
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 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.