This year’s Stella shortlist showcases the diversity of writing by women in Australia. (ABC: Teresa Tan)
(Books and Arts)
In 2011 at an International Women’s Day event in Melbourne, the panel of female authors, publishers and literary journalists noted that over the entirety of its 55-year run, only 10 women had been awarded the Miles Franklin, widely considered to be Australia’s most prestigious literary award.
It seemed especially ironic given that Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, who wrote under her last two names as means of obscuring her gender, is generally thought of as Australia’s first great novelist.
Rather than accept the status quo, the panellists and other like-minded industry members dreamt up an alternative: the Stella Prize, awarded annually to a single work by a female-identifying writer.
The name of the award “reclaims Miles Franklin’s first name”, explains publisher Aviva Tuffield, outgoing executive director of the Stella Prize.
Looking back at that embarrassing moment in 2011, Ms Tuffield noted it was not an exception: “78 per cent of literary reviews in The Monthly magazine were of books by men, 80 per cent of the Financial Review, 70 per cent of the Weekend Australian.
And on the school curricula — we looked at New South Wales and Victoria — we saw the same thing.
“It sent a message … about whose voice, whose stories, whose experiences were most important.”
Stella Award is ‘breaking down barriers’
Launching in 2013, the Stella Prize quickly made its mark by dint of being one of the country’s most generous literary prizes: winners are awarded $50,000.
That’s just $10,000 short of the Miles Franklin prizemoney.
“We wanted it to be taken seriously,” Ms Tuffield said.
Alexis Wright’s book, Tracker, is a 600-page collective memoir of the life of Indigenous activist Tracker Tilmouth. (Supplied: Giramondo/Vincent Long)
Every year, roughly 170 eligible books are submitted to the prize by publishers, literary agents and writers.
The judging panel, selected by the Stella board and thought to be representative of the Australian reading public, whittle this down to a longlist of 12, then a shortlist of six, and then, finally, the winner.
This year’s judging panel comprises writers Julie Koh, Louise Swinn, Ellen van Neerven, critic James Ley, and bookseller Fiona Stager, who also chaired the panel.
As a key point of distinction from other prizes, the Stella considers nonfiction writing and novellas as well as novels.
“[There] was always this sense that when women write nonfiction it’s often seen as too autobiographical,” Ms Tuffield explains.
“And then women’s novels are often considered domestic novels, only about family life … they’re sort of damned when they do and damned when they don’t.
“So it was just [done] to break down those barriers.”
‘It never really occurred to me that we only read men’
Heather Rose, who won the Stella in 2017 for her novel The Museum of Modern Love, said the Prize was making a palpable difference to the way women were thinking about writing.
“I’ve had so many young women come up to me and say, ‘You know, it never really occurred to me that we only read men. I’ll never not think about us as being writers now.'”
Ms Tuffield points to the recent Miles Franklin line-ups as further evidence of the Stella’s impact.
“In the last five years, four out of the five prize winners have been women. It’s changed the sort of books that are being considered of the highest literary merit.”
Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman allegorises the colonisation of Australia with an alien invasion. (Supplied: Hachette)
Ms Tuffield concludes:
“If women start to win prizes, women create better art, because they have the confidence to do better work, and more women enter into writing.”
The 2018 Stella Prize shortlist
This year’s shortlist is as indicative of the Stella’s various and voracious appetite as ever, comprising a novel written by an Iranian asylum seeker, a historical novella that runs just more than 100 pages and a massive collective history of the life of Aboriginal leader Tracker Tilmouth.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar
Azar wrote The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree in her native Farsi and was inspired by the Iranian revolution. (Supplied: Wild Dingo Press)
Shokoofeh Azar became a thinker and writer in Iran, coming to Australia as an adult and political refugee. She also brought with her a tradition of storytelling and poetry that she has transformed into a novel, using a combination of ancient Persian stories and magic realism to explore the impact and aftermath of the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979.
To make sense of such a huge event, with its political and material repercussions, Azar takes us into the family of a teenage girl, Bahar, whose brother Sohrab was executed. Daily life and daily grief meet magical flourishes and poetic moments, as her mother climbs a tree and stays there to understand the world, as jinns (supernatural creatures) eat all the food, and Death himself gets drunk and takes a taxi somewhere.
This is a novel that stretches those of us who don’t know Iranian folk tales and references into a combined feeling that we should and can have an entrée into another culture, while letting us enjoy the new and the unknown. – KE
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is published by Wild Dingo Press.
The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe
Mirandi Riwoe’s The Fish Girl is a postcolonial response to a Somerset Maugham short story. (Supplied: Seizure)
The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe is a novella inspired by a Somerset Maugham short story called The Four Dutchmen. Maugham’s story is set in Indonesia and centres around the Dutchmen’s hatred of a young Indonesian woman they call a hussy. The Fish Girl tells this story from the perspective of that girl.
The girl, Mina, is taken from a fishing village to become a maid to a Dutch merchant. She has never ventured beyond the edge of the village she’s always known.
She asks: “What will be expected of her at the Dutch house? More fish?” Mina works in the kitchen and the main house, and learns the household’s new foods and new ways to dress.
She’s gripped by incredible loneliness. The pain of being separated from her mother and village colours all of her encounters.
She learns “she will need to be like one of the dhalang’s wayang puppets, as hard as lacquer, as enduring”.
Her meeting with a Dutch captain leads to her inevitable, tragic end. In the style of a parable, The Fish Girl is a beautiful reimagining of a classic story that allows the reader insight into another world. – SL
The Fish Girl is published by Seizure.
The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser
de Kretser’s previous novel, Questions of Travel, received 14 honours including the 2013 Miles Franklin Award. (Supplied: Allen & Unwin)
“The only life in which you play a leading role is your own.”
That’s the message at the heart of Michelle De Kretser’s sprawling novel, which explores the way we create stories about the people in our lives.
The book introduces us to a series of characters — most of them educated and upper middle class. Celeste is a struggling translator who tries to convince herself that her feelings for her married French lover are reciprocated.
Ash is a Sri Lankan academic in denial about his past. And then there’s Pippa — a novelist so determined to be famous, she changed her name on her 18th birthday, claiming “no-one called Narelle’s ever going to win the Booker”.
Stories are told in Sydney, Paris and Sri Lanka — all places De Kretser has called home.
The Life to Come is billed as Michelle De Kretser’s fifth novel — she won the Miles Franklin Award for her 2013 book Questions of Travel.
But this book reads less like a novel and more like a series of short stories, with each chapter loosely linked by the recurring character of Pippa.
The book is humorous, gossipy and loaded with satirical and sometimes biting observations about Australian culture. – CN
The Life to Come is published by Allen & Unwin.
Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman
As an unpublished manuscript, Terra Nullius won the black&write Fellowship, an initiative by the QLD State Library. (Supplied: Hachette)
A boy called Jacky has been stolen from his family and is living in a religious home designed to educate and “rescue” the Natives, readying them for a life of domestic service.
The Settlers look on (mostly) with approval.
There’s a desert outside, a harsh and hot badlands, where there might be a band of resistant natives, but who ever heard of such a thing?
Frontier justice is harsh and violent, meted out with glee by the likes of Sergeant Rohan. But for a settler like Johnny Star, who chose the frontier over jail, the brutality is too much and he becomes an outlaw.
There’s a western style showdown at some point.
The clues are almost there: Claire Coleman’s story could be set somewhere in 19th or early 20th century Aboriginal Australia but, hang on, something else is going on. Something magnificently strange.
The alien invaders of what was once Australia really are a VERY long way from home. This is a novel that uses speculative fiction to focus and magnify the past, with bursts of heat and light so strong they could dehydrate a cane toad. – KE
Terra Nullius is published by Hachette.
Tracker by Alexis Wright
Tracker comprises many voices, not just the author’s, in its mammoth task of relaying the life of Tracker Tilmouth. (Supplied: Giramondo)
Alexis Wright was the first Indigenous Australian to win the Miles Franklin outright for her novel Carpentaria (Kim Scott shared the award with Thea Astley in 2000).
She’s written two other novels and also nonfiction works; however, her latest is not written in the singular voice associated with her fiction, but rather is a collective memoir about the Arrente man and activist Tracker Tilmouth.
Tracker’s activism focused on organisations in the Northern Territory and Queensland and centred around self-determination. He was an incredibly intelligent and powerful figure whose passion touched many lives.
The book is a biography told through recollections of the people who encountered Tracker, who died in 2015. Wright conducted the interviews with contributors chosen by Tracker himself.
While the words are not Wright’s own, in Tracker there is still a strong lineage with her other works, which place a high value on oral history. As with her other writing, in Tracker she has taken a risk to tell a story that speaks to Indigenous Australians, and it’s one that all Australians need to know. – SL
Tracker is published by Giramondo.
An Uncertain Grace by Krissy Kneen
An Uncertain Grace tackles the nature of memory in a digital world as well as issues of sexual violence. (Supplied: Text)
A novel in five parts, An Uncertain Grace explores themes of memory, love, sex, climate change and technology. The speculative novel imagines a world, both real and virtually real, where there are trained synthetic boys, where gender can be downloaded and consciousness can be shared.
In the near future, the university lecturer Caspar receives a gift from a former student, Liv. The parcel contains a memory stick and a “virtual reality bodysuit” — a digital memoir that allows Caspar to physically experience Liv’s memories of their previous relationship.
What he remembers as an erotic seduction is deeply different through her eyes.
Liv is the connecting character in the book, which spans a century. In other stories, Ronnie, a convicted paedophile experiences paired consciousness with a jellyfish, and Cameron, a robotic boy, designed to love men who desire adolescents, begins to question the terms of his existence.
An Uncertain Grace imagines a future deeply affected by climate change, where technology and sex collide in new and confronting ways.
But at its heart, it is a story about love, intimacy and finding humanity. – CN
An Uncertain Grace is published by Text.
This year’s winner of the Stella Prize will be announced on April 12.