Six books that shock, delve deeply and destroy pieties: your guide to the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist



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This year’s Stella Prize shortlist is difficult to sum up or pin down – but the experiences of young people are a recurring theme.
Stella Prize/The Conversation

Camilla Nelson, University of Notre Dame Australia

Young people – how they think and feel, how institutions (families, schools, clinics, courts) fail them – are a recurring theme in the books shortlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize.

These six surprising books – four novels, a memoir and a collection of essays – cover subject matter as diverse as grief, loss, history, childhood, and Indigenous resistance. They make risky aesthetic choices. Some feature dazzling experiments with language, structure and form. Despite, or, more likely, because of this, they also have a tight grip on reality.

They are searing and often searching; intent on excavating the “present’s beating heart”. They share an attitude that is daring, sometimes darkly funny, always serious and thoroughly unsentimental. These books are difficult to sum up or pin down. Here is our critical guide to them.

Little Gods, Jenny Ackland

Olive May Lovelock is blessed with the sunny kind of optimism that is typical of an Australian childhood, set against the broad flats of the Mallee. She saves a joey, and tames a raven named Grace. She checks the warm wombs of roadkill for babies. Olive wears an old pair of binoculars around her neck to “see things better”, but life proves deceptive.

There are secrets here. A mother who rarely hugs or pays attention to her daughter, an unmarried sister whose baby is taken away at birth, an uncle who loses his pregnant wife in a car accident.

When Olive finds out she had a baby sister who died – a secret that “everyone knows”, as the local school bully tells her, but nobody is allowed to tell – she is determined to find out what happened. Olive pieces together the answers out of fragments of her own memory, and those of the children around her. But memories are deceptive, “[they] get you where they want you, not the other way around”. The answers prove dark in a way that is breathless, soul-crushing and peculiarly Australian.


The Bridge, Enza Gandolfo

In October 1970, Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge – a “nation building project” that ought to have been a symbol of the brave, bold modern city – collapsed in Australia’s worst industrial accident, leaving 35 workers dead.

The opening pages of Gandolfo’s book conjure the physical terror of that moment, “[…] the men were falling, falling off, falling through the air”, she writes, “bashed by the flying debris; their arms reached for the sides of the girder, for something, but there was nothing”.

In Gandolfo’s imagining, the Westgate Bridge becomes the site of another horror 40 years later. Jo and her best friend, Ashleigh, a granddaughter of one of the Westgate survivors, are on the verge of finishing high school, flush with the future, when their lives are shattered by a car crash – senseless, alcohol-fuelled.

This novel, set among migrant communities in Yarraville in Melbourne’s west, explores how accidents of this magnitude not only waste the lives of those who die, but continue to haunt the living, who must struggle for a lifetime with the weight of trauma. This is a book about guilt, ambiguity and moral culpability. It searches amid half-made lives, misguided dreams and murky realities, asking stern questions about responsibility and remorse.


Pink Mountain on Locus Island, Jamie Marina Lau

Lau’s debut novel is a head trip of a book, filled with the shards of broken sentences. Written in short chapters, it embraces a contemporary reality that veers wildly between boredom and violence, mediated through retro technologies, including grainy VHS videos, and YouTube tutorials. It is sometimes hard to tell what is real and what is believable – whether there is, as Lau writes, any difference between “a false-alarm scream and a death-scream”.

But the book is always emotionally true to the chaotic inner life of its young protagonist, 15-year old Monk, whose world hovers between childhood and adulthood, English and Cantonese, familial neglect and a desperate desire to be noticed.

At one stage, Monk’s father asks, “Would you look away if somebody was forcing you to look at their emotions?” Lau doesn’t give us the chance. She makes sure we look, straight-on.

Monk’s mother is absent in Shanghai, her artist father is addicted to Xanax and alcohol, and she is infatuated with a “messiah” figure named Santa Coy, who ignites all their lives – pulling Monk into a dangerous world of drugs, pushers and parties. Lau’s book captures the voice of its teenage protagonist and a new kind of transcultural millennial life in the digital age.


The Erratics, Vicki Laveau-Harvie

Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s memoir tells the story of an estranged daughter’s journey home, when she is summoned to care for a mother with a fractured hip. Vicki’s mother suffers from some kind of undiagnosed mental illness, which has caused her to isolate herself and her husband from the world on their rural property, set in an eerie landscape in a remote region of Alberta, Canada. Vicki’s father suffers from dementia, and Vicki and her sister are convinced their mother has been slowly starving him to death.

Vicki’s mother is clearly unwell, and probably has been for their entire lives. She also possesses extraordinary powers of persuasion, convincing doctors, nurses and, at times, her own ailing husband that she has no daughters, or only one daughter who is dead, or only two daughters who have both disappeared.

Says Vicki: “I have a vision of my mother’s influence making its way through my father’s mind, filling the tiny spaces left by the rounded contours of his brain, solidifying around the synapses until not even his thoughts are his own.”

There are hints here of childhood trauma – reasons for leaving, reasons for not caring, or even trying to care. Vicki’s sister has long ago changed her name because “hearing her childhood name cast her back into the black chasms of before”.

The prose style is numb, clinically distant. It is sometimes difficult to empathise with the detached narrator and the care she cannot – or will not – show. But this is a startling memoir of family damage. We can only guess, “where there is nothing, there must have been pain”.


Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko

Kerry Salter enters the pages of Too Much Lip on a stolen Harley Davidson Softail, “a dozen blue eyeballs popping fair outta their moogle heads at the sight of her”, with Kerry – “blackfella du jour” – barely resisting the “urge to elevate both middle fingers as she rode past”.

She has come to say goodbye to her grandfather, Pop Owen, and to say hello to a mother who spends way too much time “on the turps”. This is a book about colonial violence, contemporary state-sponsored violence, diffuse racism, and their relationship to domestic violence, searing child abuse, family dysfunction and intergenerational trauma.

Kerry and her siblings cope in different ways, mostly thorough crime, alcohol and “too much lip”. But when the local mayor, a shady real estate agent whose grandfather terrorised Indigenous people, wants to build a prison on land that has spiritual, cultural and personal significance to Kerry’s family, they pull together and fight to save their river. Resistance for the Salters is less about the Native Title Act, and more about missing sister Donna’s commercial know-how.

Lucashenko’s book is shot through with defiance and anger; present day thefts are offset by the memory of historical ones. Hers is a darkly funny, searingly violent world, in which there are no easy fixes – only hard, complicated truths.


Axiomatic, Maria Tumarkin

To say that Maria Tumarkin’s essay collection scrutinises our ideas about “History” and the past is inadequate. This book rips into our pieties, interrogates our easy platitudes, and forces us to see the world – words, things, people, feelings – in new ways. History is exactly the right subject for Tumarkin, because there is no easy forgetting in the world she describes, just as there is seemingly no limit to “how much sorrow and pain about the world a person can carry inside”.

Each essay in the collection takes an axiom about history and tests it against our gritty present day realities. In “History Repeats Itself”, Vanya, a community lawyer, helps young people on a collision course with the criminal justice system “who live their lives on a highway where they are repeatedly hit by passing trucks”. In “Those Who Forget the Past Are Condemned to Re – ”, a child flees a stepfather’s violence only to be returned to a house of blood and broken teeth.

Her essay “Time Heals All Wounds” is a harrowing examination of teenage suicide. One boy writes in a suicide note: “Please do not assume you know why. Even I’m not completely sure.”

Facing all this would not be possible without Tumarkin’s sonorous wisdom; her capacity to turn things, words, people, sentences over on the page to see what they’re made of. Lucid and grave; this book is a revelation.


The winner of the 2019 Stella prize will be announced in Melbourne on April 9.The Conversation

Camilla Nelson, Associate Professor in Media, University of Notre Dame Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Don’t worry, a school library with fewer books and more technology is good for today’s students



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School libraries are no longer just places where books are stored.
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Elizabeth Tait, RMIT University; Huan Vo-Tran, RMIT University; Paul Mercieca, RMIT University, and Sue Reynolds, RMIT University

A recent article about a new approach to a school library sparked vigorous discussion on social media. Many worried the school had completely abolished traditional library services. The article describes how a Melbourne school changed its library to a technology-focused centre staffed by “change adopters” who host discussions with students and encourage creative thinking.

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The school’s principal was forced to defend the library’s restructure. She wrote that its traditional purpose hadn’t been lost.

The College Library has been transformed into a Learning Centre that continues to offer all library services to students and staff, including a significant collection of fiction and non-fiction books, journals, newspapers, magazines and other print resources, as well as online access to other libraries.

This school’s approach isn’t unique. Many schools have reconfigured their library spaces to embrace a model of integrating library services – where traditional library resources are combined with technology. Some have installed new technologies in so-called “maker spaces”. These are where students can be creative, often using technologies such as 3D printers and recording suites.

The purpose of today’s libraries isn’t only to maintain the traditional roles of promoting reading, developing information literacy and providing access to a collection of books and other resources. Today’s school libraries are fundamental to broader digital literacy, information provision and developing critical evaluation of information.




Read more:
Technology hasn’t killed public libraries – it’s inspired them to transform and stay relevant


The importance of the library

School libraries improve student achievement. A synthesis of international studies demonstrates that having a library leads to successful curriculum outcomes, including information literacy and positive attitudes to learning. It also improves academic achievement through higher test or exam scores.

A detailed study of 30 teacher librarians in Australia showed they also play a key role in supporting students with special educational needs. They do this by identifying readers and students at risk and working with them to improve both educational and social outcomes.

Teacher librarians have dual educational and librarianship qualifications. This means they have knowledge of pedagogy and curriculum combined with library and information management skills.

Today’s students need guidance in interpreting online information.
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Libraries and library staff have consistently responded to the changing needs of society. And library professionals have been at the forefront of embracing technology: from establishing the first computer labs in schools in the 1980s through to working with students and teachers to use new technologies such as 3D printing, robotics, gaming and recording suites in learning and creativity.




Read more:
Technology and learning in the classroom: six tips to get the balance right


Libraries and technology

There is a lack of understanding of what librarians can do for a school community and a belief children don’t need help with learning how to use technology. Information can be inaccessible, and misunderstood, without proper instruction, guidance and support. This is especially true for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t have good access to the internet at home, or those with learning differences.

As the evidence base for what makes an effective library grows, it’s becoming recognised that

the 21st century school library professional is a digital leader, an innovator, a creator, a promoter, a resource and research specialist, a curriculum adviser, and much more.

Teacher librarians educate children in the core skills of searching and evaluating information. They also support and empower students in areas such as digital citizenship. This enables children to fully participate and engage with the complex digital landscape.

As Chelsea Quake, a teacher librarian at a Melbourne public school, told us:

Students leave school reading fake news, turning to Instagram for answers to their health questions, and falling flat on their first university paper, because they never truly learnt how to research.

Skills such as information and digital literacy are core requirements for civic participation. Young people have tremendous opportunities to leverage the power of technologies to ensure their voices are heard about issues that will affect them and their children in the future. And they need new and evolved library services to help them get there.




Read more:
Friday essay: why libraries can and must change


The Conversation


Elizabeth Tait, Lecturer in Information Management, RMIT University; Huan Vo-Tran, Lecturer, Business IT and Logistics, RMIT University; Paul Mercieca, Lecturer, Business IT and Logistics, RMIT University, and Sue Reynolds, Senior Lecturer, Business IT and Logistics, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.