Two of Lohrey’s previous novels (Camille’s Bread in 1996 and The Philosopher’s Doll in 2005) have been shortlisted for the prestigious $60,000 prize. Her latest has been recognised as the literary volume that best presents Australian life now. She is the second Tasmanian author to ever win the prize.
As a long-time fan of Lohrey’s voice and eye, and someone with a lifetime of longing for more recognition of women’s achievements, I am thrilled to see her novel and her protagonist Erica achieve this standing.
Erica is an often prickly but generous and appealing character. Though she grows up “in an asylum, a manicured madhouse”, her childhood is much happier than is the norm for characters in literary fiction. Her father, the chief medical officer of the hospital, trains his children in diversity. All of us are “lunatics”, he teaches them, in that “we are all affected by the moon”. “Evil,” he tells them, is no more than “a chemical malfunction in the brain”.
This is an excellent foundation for someone who, in later life, finds herself with a son whose “chemical malfunction” leads him to commit an inadvertent but terrible crime. The beach shack she purchases to be near him, and far from everyone else she knows, is as disorganised and disreputable as her child. But it gives her somewhere to review her life and re-imagine a future.
That future circles around the concept of the labyrinth. Much of the novel is a masterclass in types of these mazes and the meanings and feelings the various designs afford.
A way through
All this operates as a healing process following the agony of her son’s act, trial and imprisonment. She — or rather, her planned labyrinth — gradually draws the attention of other isolates who live in the same coastal community. Various people become closely connected to her and one, Jurko, happens to know about labyrinths and their construction.
The young man, “an illegal immigrant who has overstayed his visa”, is a stonemason (a master of that ancient art) and he gradually inserts himself into her home and her life to become her “surrogate son”.
Sand, he explains, is the best foundation for a labyrinth, and this captures Erica’s attention:
I am struck by the paradox here: sand so volatile in its essence and yet so firm a basis for the rigidity of concrete.
For the reader, this becomes the novel’s coda: though everything seems so unstable, it still affords a firm foundation for our difficult, drifting lives.
As the novel unfolds, Erica’s deepening relationships with her new neighbours, and shared responsibilities and understandings, form a sort of labyrinth that leads her to the point where she can declare: “The fugue is over.”
Since Aristotle, humans have pondered the role and function of fictional narratives. Now, there is general agreement the reading of fiction builds empathy, supports our capacity for uncertainty and ambiguity, and offers new perspectives on the world.
Perhaps it is writers reaching for this combination of emotion and reflection which leads to complaints literary fiction is unremittingly bleak. But even the saddest of stories, well told, can be leavened by captivating use of language, rich portraiture and, very often, veins of humour.
This is evident in each of the novels shortlisted for the 2021 Miles Franklin award. Here the destruction of the environment, there the abuse of refugees, and over there the despair occasioned by the everyday suffering of being human. Yet they each shimmer with energy, tenderness and threads of optimism — and even occasionally joy.
Danny, a young Tamil man, comes to Australia as one of the myriad international students who, pre-COVID, used to keep our economy afloat, but then drops out of what he terms this “racket” to live as an “illegal alien” with all the attendant uncertainties and anxieties.
Working as a cleaner for the rich and mostly white people of Sydney, he finds himself in possession of information about a murder, and is probably the only person who knows whodunnit. The novel tracks him through a long day where, with Hamlet-esque indecisiveness, he agonises about whether to tell the police (and expose himself to the likelihood of arrest and deportation) or to lie low (and allow a second murder to be committed).
Despite this, the novel is infused with a lightness of being and a sense of hope. Danny’s Sydney houses rats and predators, but also libraries providing sanctuary for “illegals”, his tolerant vegan Vietnamese girlfriend, his Japanese-Brazilian abseiling friend, and accommodating householders who pay him to clean their attractive apartments.
Often very funny, often deeply touching, Adiga manages to combine serious literary fiction with satire and critique. He also offers a clear-eyed portrait — or perhaps a sociology — of contemporary Australia, and of the holy grail of amnesty always floating just out of reach.
At the Edge of the Solid World by Daniel Davis Wood
In his second novel, Daniel Davis Wood weaves the complex stories of individuals and families with history and culture, space and time.
After a family tragedy, the first person narrator of At The Edge of the Solid World gradually fractures into shards of himself.
As the novel unfolds, he unfolds, as does time. His grief is overlaid with the grief of those caught up in a current Sydney massacre, as well as the ruined cultures museumed in the songs folklorist Francis J Child attempted to save from history.
The narrator obsessively reports on every conceivable small and global disaster, spreading out across history and culture, drenching him in a lineage of loss.
The ripple effects of all the events in this account of his present are tragic, but the tragedy is enfolded in love and acts of tenderness and memory. It’s not a comfortable read. But it is an extraordinary read.
Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos
We have probably all had lunch at a place like Lucky’s, a Greek-Australian franchise offering “home cooked” food with an acceptably mainstream menu, and where, behind the counter, a febrile life simmers away.
Andrew Pippos’ first book, Lucky’s, paints a dense and convoluted landscape spanning from the second world war through to the present.
The eponymous Lucky is a Greek-American with adequate skills on the clarinet, who impersonated Benny Goodman at a wartime concert in one chapter of a lifetime of bare competence.
Matching him is Emily, a young UK journalist who, in flight from a failed marriage, is trying to write a piece about Lucky and his doomed chain of restaurants.
Between the two people and the two periods of time there is a large cast of well-written characters and a smorgasbord of joys and catastrophes.
The title of the book is sauteed in irony, but what could have fallen into bathos is rescued by the character of Lucky, whose loyalty and hapless charm kept me reading through to the almost-optimistic end.
The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts
Madeleine Watts’ debut novel is set during the record-breaking Sydney summer of 2013, and a stage in the narrator’s life where “The open wilderness of adulthood stretched ahead like so much wasteland”.
In formal terms, it is a Bildungsroman — a coming of age novel — and, as expected of its genre, the narrator spends a fair bit of time in naïve narcissism, pursuing an emotionally unsatisfying affair she knows will end in heartbreak and engaging in self-destructive behaviours that alienate her friends. But there is considerably more to it than this.
The setting for much of the novel is her job at an emergency call centre, where shift after shift she surfs the tide of desperate callers from places no one knows about and for whom the emergency services will never arrive.
Read as a standard Bildungsroman, the book doesn’t deviate far from the conventions. But read as an allegory for a nation struggling to find a way into its future, Watts shifts the grounds of this genre and offers sustained narrative traction.
The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey
Amanda Lohrey has been recognised as a fine novelist since the late 1980s. In The Labyrinth, her eighth novel, her expertise, observant eye and ear, and sense of story are fully present.
Erica has undertaken a sea-change, moving from central Sydney to a coastal hamlet close to the prison where her son is incarcerated. She purchases a rather disreputable beachside shack with a garden large enough to contain a labyrinth. She is determined to build not just a labyrinth, but the right labyrinth: one that will deliver the promise of “reversible destiny”.
A labyrinth is a powerful trope, and here it drives not only the narrative and Erica herself, but also a range of possibilities of meaning for the various characters with whom her life becomes intertwined. Though she had intended to isolate herself, the forces of kindness capture her and, gradually, she connects with those around her.
With their help, she constructs a labyrinth that is, she says, “a challenge […] to the heart”, the place where “you let go”. In her own letting go she finds no magic solution to sadness, but rather the consolations — however temporary — of connectedness.
The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott
Speculative fiction doesn’t often appear on literary award shortlists, which means when they are selected they are worth our attention.
Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron (another second novel) is set in an ecodystopia — probably not far into the future, given the current state of the planet — under military rule, where the people are simply hoping to survive.
The novel is threaded through with a strong sense of myth: the assault by capitalist imperatives on communities living in harmony with nature; the magical uncontainable rain heron; the diminished land; the woman surviving in the mountains, waiting for some sort of salvation. So far, so standard dystopia.
But this book astounds me not just for the quite brilliant conception and rendition of the eponymous rain heron, but also because of the portraits it offers: of generosity, of tenderness, of a turning toward rather than away from others. And of a plot where the deaths are caused by clumsiness or carelessness, rather than malevolence.
In a desolate social and ecological landscape, the human networks of compassion make this novel a thing of rare beauty.
The winner of the 2021 Miles Franklin literary award will be announced at 4pm AEST today.
The 6th edition of The Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature, suspended last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is back. Founded in 2014, the prize recognises writing in African languages and encourages translation from, between and into African languages. Kiswahili is widely spoken across the east coast of Africa. This year’s prize also offers a special award designed to promote and popularise a Kiswahili vocabulary for technology and digital rights. We spoke to the prize founders – literary academic Lizzy Attree, also of Short Story Day Africa, and literature professor and celebrated author Mukoma Wa Ngugi – on the challenges of growing literature in African languages.
What’s the idea behind the special Nyabola prize?
Lizzy Attree: The Nyabola prize gives us the opportunity to work in a new area that is really exciting for us. Nanjala Nyabola, the Kenyan writer and activist, approached us with the idea and the funding to target vocabulary for technology and digital rights. This was particularly interesting to us for two reasons. Firstly, we have long wanted to offer a short story prize, but have stuck with longer works because of the opportunity it gives us to focus on Kiswahili literature as a fully mastered form. But we are aware that a short story prize is a good place to start for those who are only beginning to write. Secondly, Kiswahili is often considered to be steeped in archaic, or historically poetic technical words and forms. These must be updated to accommodate the modern language of science and technology. It has been an interesting adventure to find out which words can be adapted or amended to fit with modern digital and technological advancement.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi: There is also the idea that African languages are social languages, emotive and cannot carry science. Most definitely not true. All languages can convey the most complex ideas but we have to let them. There is something beautiful about African languages carrying science, fictionalised of course, into imagined futures.
Mukoma, you also write speculative fiction; what is its power?
Mukoma Wa Ngugi: At the height of dictatorship in Kenya under president Daniel arap Moi, when writers and intellectuals were being detained and exiled, and their books banned, it was the genre writers who kept the politics alive. In fact I dedicated my detective novel Nairobi Heat to two such Kenyan writers, David Mailu and Meja Mwangi. We inherited a hierarchy of what counts as serious literature from colonialism, the division between minor and major literatures. It is important for us to blur the lines between literary and genre fiction – they are both doing serious work but in different styles. And the same goes between written literature and orature (spoken literature). Orature is seen lesser-than but, as writers and scholars have argued, orature has its own discipline and aesthetics.
How has African language publishing changed since the prize began?
Lizzy Attree: Sadly I don’t think African language publishing has advanced very much in the last seven years or that there are enough academic studies focusing on this area. The demise of the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa was part of the decline, or indicative of it. However, book festivals are growing, and we hope that in time this will lead to more awards and more publishing in African languages. Mukoma’s father, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, is a pioneer in this area, and it’s been wonderful to see his novel shortlisted for the International Booker Prize recently. Although there are many other good examples of where changes are happening, considering the size of the continent and the number of languages, there is still a huge gap.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi:Jalada Journal is a good example of how attitudes to writing in African languages have changed for the better. In 2015 Jalada took a short story written by Ngugi in Gikuyu and self-translated into English and had it translated to close to 100 languages. This made it the most translated African short story. But the genius of their initiative was that most of the translations were between African languages. The Jalada example is important for two reasons – it shows that innovation can happen when African languages talk to each other. And that for the younger writers, African languages do not carry the same sense of inferiority – English is just another language. All in all I don’t think the Nyabola prize, for example, would have been possible 10 years ago. A lot has changed where it matters the most; the ideology around African languages is shifting.
Do awards work and why are there so few major literary prizes in Africa?
Lizzy Attree: I think awards certainly work in raising the profile of writers and their work, but it is difficult to find funding for these kinds of projects.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi: It is all about setting up a viable and thriving literary ecosystem for writing in African languages. Literary agents, publishers, readership, critics, literary prizes and so on. Prizes are just one aspect. We realised that from the onset so our winners, in addition to the monetary awards, have also been published by Mkuki na Nyota Press in Tanzania. We have been trying to get them translated into English but as Lizzy points out, funding is a huge problem. We were lucky to partner with Mabati Rolling Mills and the Safal Group. We have a de facto slogan: African philanthropy for African cultural development. But all the living parts of the African literary ecosystem have to be thriving. In this, we all have work to do.
Why is African language literature so important?
Lizzy Attree: It’s been clearly demonstrated that learning in one’s mother tongue brings huge advantages to students. And where else must we find ourselves reflected if not in our own literature, in our own languages?
Mukoma Wa Ngugi: You can think of language as the sum total of a people’s history and knowledge. We store history and knowledge in language. To speak only English is to be alienated from your past, present and future. It is a pain we should all feel deeply. In my book, The Rise of the African Novel: Language, Identity and Ownership, I give the example of how early writing in South African languages remains outside our literary tradition. I talk about how that leads to truncated imaginations. We write within literary traditions, but what happens to your imagination when you cannot access your literary tradition?
The shortlist will be announced in October/November 2021, with the winners announced in Dar es Salaam in December 2021.
Born to a French mother and a Senegalese father, David Diop has won the prestigious annual International Booker prize for translated fiction. He shares the prize with his translator Anna Moschovakis for the novel, At Night All Blood is Black (2018). The book tells the story of a Senegalese soldier who descends into madness while fighting for France in the first world war. It has been a bestseller in France and won several major literary awards. Literature scholar Caroline D. Laurent, a specialist in Francophone post-colonial studies and how history is depicted in art, told us why the novel matters.
Who is David Diop?
Diop is a Franco-Senegalese writer and academic born in Paris in 1966. He was raised in Dakar, Senegal. His father is Senegalese, his mother French and this dual cultural heritage is apparent in his literary works. He studied in France, where he now teaches 18th-century literature.
At Night All Blood is Black is Diop’s second novel: his first – 1889, l’Attraction universelle (2012) – is about a Senegalese delegation at the 1889 universal exhibition in Paris. His next book, about a European traveller to Africa, is set to come out this summer.
What is At Night All Blood is Black about?
Its tells the story of Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese tirailleur (infantryman) and the main narrator of the novel (he uses the first-person pronoun ‘I’ in most of the text). He is fighting on France’s side – and on French soil – during World War I.
The novel starts with the narration of a traumatic event that the African soldier has witnessed: the long and painful death of his best friend, Mademba Diop. The traumatic event directs Alfa’s vengeance, that could also be perceived as self-punishment. He kills German soldiers in a similar way, reproducing and repeating the traumatic scene. He then cuts one of their hands off and keeps it with him.
This results in Alfa being sent to a psychiatric hospital where doctors attempt to cure him. It deals with the concepts of war neurosis and shell shock that appeared then (what we now refer to as post-traumatic stress disorder).
The form of the novel associates elements of an inner monologue as well as a testimony. This allows the reader to see, through the perspective of a colonial subject, the horrors of war.
In this sense, Diop writes a nuanced text: he describes the violence perpetrated and experienced by all sides. Alfa Ndiaye becomes a symbol of the ambivalence of war and its destructive power.
Why does the book matter?
It’s important because it addresses what I would refer to as a silenced history: that of France’s colonial troops. Though the colonial troops, and especially the Senegalese tirailleurs, a corps of colonial infantry in the French Army, were established at the end of the 1800s, they became ‘visible’ during World War 1 as they took part in combat on European soil.
Despite this, the involvement of African soldiers during the two World Wars is rarely taught in French schools or discussed in the public sphere. The violence exercised during recruitment in French West Africa, their marginalisation from other troops and the French population notably through a specific language (the français tirailleur) – created to prevent any real communication – and their treatment after the wars go against a specifically French narrative that emphasises the positive aspects of France’s colonialism and its civilising mission.
The lack of visibility of the history of Senegalese tirailleurs is also connected to the ongoing dispute about specific events. One in particular is the massacre of Thiaroye. In December 1944, between 70 to 300 hundred (the numbers are disputed) Senegalese tirailleurs were killed at a demobilisation camp in Thiaroye, after having asked to be paid what they were owed for their military service.
Diop also manages to shatter stereotypes associated with Senegalese tirailleurs. In French historical and literary representations, they are seen as both naïve children in need of guidance and barbaric warriors. Senegalese tirailleurs partook, against their will, in war propaganda: this representation was to create fear on the French side as well as on the German side (Die Schwarze Schande – the Black Shame – presented African soldiers as rapists and beasts).
Diop appropriates this in order to complicate it: while Alfa’s violence in killing his enemies follows this logic, one realises that this causes – and was caused by – great distress. Moreover, Diop also inverts this vision as he questions who is human and inhuman: Alfa asserts that his Captain, Armand, is more barbaric than he is.
Diop thus manages to question representations of black soldiers dictated by colonial stereotypes – in order to dismantle them.
Why does this Booker win matter?
Diop receiving the International Booker prize is of great importance because At Night All Blood is Black exposes a specifically French history that is connected to France’s colonial endeavours. And even though the novel focuses on France, it connects to other histories as it indirectly points to the fact that other European colonial powers also resorted to using colonial troops during wars and erased their role in subsequent commemorations.
The novel also shows the importance and power of translation as Anna Moschovakis has managed to translate all of the beauty and horror of Diop’s prose. In the same way that Diop manages to combine his dual heritage in his text, Moschovakis has allowed English readers to be exposed to a history that is specific to France, and yet similar to other histories.