Wright won the Miles Franklin, another prestigious literary award, in 2007 for her fiction. (ABC: Teresa Tan)
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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains images of people who have died.
“How do you tell an impossible story, one that is almost too big to contain in a single book?”
This is the opening line of Alexis Wright’s book Tracker, which has won the 2018 Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing.
It’s the second time in the six-year history of the prize that a nonfiction book has won, and the first time an Indigenous Australian has won.
Joining Tracker on this year’s shortlist were works by established novelists Michelle de Kretser and Krissy Kneen, alongside novels by emerging writers Shokoofeh Azar, Claire G Coleman and Mirandi Riwoe.
“I knew right from the start that I couldn’t write a [traditional] biography of Tracker,” says Wright, who counted the late Arrente man and activist Leigh Bruce “Tracker” Tilmouth as a close personal friend and colleague in the fight for Aboriginal rights.
“He was too big a personality. A lot of people said he was ‘too much, way out there’, and even he would say ‘I can be a chameleon, I can be whatever you want me to be’.”
Tilmouth was instrumental in the creation of the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service and the Aboriginal health service in the southern part of the Northern Territory, and served as director of the Central Land Council for many years.
“He knew people left, right and centre, from the top to the bottom of this country. He’d been everywhere and he went everywhere and he didn’t stay still. So, how do you write a biography about someone like Tracker?” Ms Wright said.
Wright thinks Tilmouth was a personality too large and complex to capture with a single voice. (Supplied: Giramondo)
The Miles Franklin Award-winning writer (best known for her 2007 novel Carpentaria) approached this big challenge with a bold strategy, sharing the task of encapsulating Tilmouth amongst a great number of people who knew him, and the man himself.
The result is described as a “collective memoir”.
Wright recorded hundreds of hours of interviews, painstakingly arranging the results into a tome weighing in at just over 600 pages.
She says that this approach to form wasn’t just in service of verisimilitude: “I went back to our own [Indigenous Australian] ideas of storytelling, where people have responsibility for story, along storylines … people speak for different parts of the story. And long stories might go right across the country.”
“I’ve attended countless meetings in my lifetime of our mob, and all those meetings have been letting everybody talk, everybody have their say and reaching some sort of consensus. So, I wanted to copy that — our way of doing things.”
Wright expresses gratitude for the win, but is also pragmatic: “Because of the publicity associated with the Stella, it ensures that a lot more people will hear about the book and read it.”
“It helps the book to survive — and this book must survive.”
The Stella Prize is an annual literary award that takes in novels, novellas and nonfiction written by female-identifying Australians. Read more about the history of the prize and this year’s shortlist.