Monday musings on Australian literature: Multicultural NSW Award

Synchronicity strikes again, this time concerning the idea of multiculturalism. In the last week or so, it has popped up several times – in Lisa’s post on the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist, in the conversation I attended last Thursday featuring historian Michelle Arrow on her book The Seventies, and then in the Festival Muse conversation this weekend featuring Asian-Australian writer Alice Pung. I’ve taken all this as a hint that I should talk a bit about multicultural writing in Australia and have decided that a good way to do it – this round anyhow – would be through the Multicultural NSW Award. It’s one of the many categories in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

Before focusing on the award, though, I’ll reiterate my comment in my Alice Pung conversation post (linked above) that during the conversation she mentioned several writers, all of whom are writers of migrant experience – Christos Tsiolkas, Benjamin Law and Anh Do. It gave me the sense that there’s quite a sense of fellow-feeling, or, at least, respect, amongst these writers. I like that: we all need peers with whom to share our challenges and experiences don’t we?

So, the Multicultural NSW Award

As far as I can tell, this award has changed name several times. It seems to have been established in 1980 as the Ethnic Affairs Commission Award. At some time its name changed to the Community Relations Commission Award, and then again, around 2014 I think, to the Multicultural NSW Award. From the start though, its goal and content has been the same.

It’s an interesting award because it is not form specific. Works submitted can be:

  • fiction;
  • non-fiction;
  • drama (in various forms, including plays, musicals, theatrical monologues);
  • poetry, single or in collection; or
  • screenplays/scripts for film, television, radio

The main limitation is content: submitted works must deal with or further our understanding of migrant experience, cultural diversity or multiculturalism in Australia. The prize is decent – currently $20,000.

Maxine Beneba Clarke, The hate raceRecent past winners are:

  • 2018: Roanna Gonsalves’ The permanent resident: short story collection
  • 2017: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The hate race: memoir (my review)
  • 2016: Osamah Sami’s Good Muslim boy: memoir
  • 2015: Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond’s Black and proud: The story of an AFL photo: social history/sociology
  • 2014 Joint winner: Andrew Bovell’s The secret river: playscript adapted from Kate Grenville’s novel The secret river
  • 2014 Joint winner: Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of travel: novel (my review)
  • 2013: Tim Soutphommasane’s Don’t go back to where you came from: social and political history
  • 2012: Tim Bonyhady’s Good living street: The fortunes of my Viennese family: biography of a family
  • 2011: Ouyang Yu’s The English class: novel (Lisa’s – ANZLitlovers – review)
  • 2010: Abbas El-Zein’s Leave to remain: A memoir: memoir

To see all the winners back to 1980, check out Wikipedia.

There are a few points worth making here, the first being that, as per the award criteria, the focus is the content, not the author so, while most of the winning authors come from diverse backgrounds, not all do. Andrew Bovell (and the author he adapted for his winning play, Kate Grenville) are both white Australians. The second point is that the award is true to its word about diversity of form, with the winners ranging from novels to social history, from plays to short stories. The winners also include at least one book for young people, Ursula Dubosarsky’s The first book of Samuel, back in 1995. The shortlists add to this diversity, by including, for example, poetry and television scripts. Another point is that the winning works cross time, from way past to the present. Finally, although a few of the winners over the history of the prize discuss or are by indigenous Australians, it’s good to see that in 2016, a biennial Indigenous Writer’s Prize worth $30,000 was added to NSW’s suite of awards.

I don’t want to write a long post tonight as there’s a lot going on in my life at present, so I’ll just conclude with some words from a 2014 guest post on the Wheeler Centre blog. The post is about the need for “true diversity in our media”. The writer Fatima Measham says that lack of diversity in our media

is a problem because it leaves us with a patently false construction of our society.


greater diversity of perspectives and commentators leads to clarity, a sharper sense of the aspects of conflict and power that grip democratic life.

I can’t think of a better argument for why we need to read diverse literature and, therefore, for the role that awards like the Multicultural NSW Award can play in bringing diverse voices to the fore.