Your guide to the Miles Franklin shortlist: a kaleidoscopic portrait of a diverse nation



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The Miles Franklin authors with their novels, clockwise from top left: Felicity Castagna, Eva Hornung, Kim Scott, Michelle de Kretser, Catherine McKinnon and Gerald Murnane.
Courtesy Perpetual/ Copyright Agency/ Martin Ollman/Timothy Hillier. Eva Hornung image: Noni Martin., CC BY-NC-ND

Jen Webb, University of Canberra

The Miles Franklin award is famously for “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”. That’s a very broad palette, yet for most of the award’s existence — 1957 to the present — it has recognised a rather narrow field of “Australian life”.

The 60 novels honoured to date include 42 written by 28 men, and 18 written by 14 women. Almost to a person, these winning authors are Anglo-Australian. While their narratives cover an impressive range of issues, topics, periods, structure and narrative voice, it is notable that in a country described by our prime minister as “the world’s most successful multicultural society”, the Miles Franklin seems to have remained a bastion of monoculture.

Until recently, that is. Women authors are appearing more frequently – on the shortlists and as prize winners – and the cultural and linguistic heritage of authors is similarly expanding. This year the mix of shortlist authors, and the content of their novels, is impressively diverse.

Border Districts

Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts is explicitly a literary novel, one with no overt plot and really only one voice. The narrator is fastidious to the point of primness, narrow and self-absorbed: a fussy old man who drifts into Grandpa Simpson moments, telling stories that wander from point to point with no apparent destination. Yet this work is also a remarkable account of memory, its fractures, and its fragments. This gives the lie to the narrator’s insistence that he is writing a report, not a novel, and casts a gentle melancholy over the work.

The unnamed narrator seems to have lived a life at arms length, remaining encased in abstractions, neglecting to experience anything at first hand. What I found the most desolate image in the novel is his childhood collection of glass marbles. The material expression of his life’s effort to “recollect” and “preserve” his memories and moods, they are no more than tiny flashes of colour, frozen in their glass bubbles, seeing and saying nothing.

In his sense of colour, and his hankering for the clarity of memory, is the suggestion that he contains within himself another man, one who yearns to feel.

No More Boats

Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats opens in 1967, the year Harold Holt disappeared and, through the magic of narration, incorporates in the opening pages what is yet to come: 2001, the Tampa crisis, the September 11 attacks. In these pages, Antonio, the protagonist, is both young Italian migrant, and the ageing man who has become the face of: “We will decide who comes to this country …”

He and Rose live in Parramatta, where young men like their son Francis are testing out models of masculinity; where young women like their daughter Clare are crafting lives beyond their parents’ oversight; a rich human zoo that provides the stage for a brilliantly observed and sensitively recounted novel illuminating the politics of identity, family, community and nation.

His family are forced to confront the public scandal of Antonio’s xenophobia, to understand why a migrant in a migrant community could be so thoroughly seduced by the violent logic of the hard right. There are no real answers, of course; but beyond the family’s distress and the community’s upheaval is the shadow of two centuries of Australia struggling against “too many boats”.

The Last Garden

Eva Hornung’s The Last Garden is based in a South Australian religious community named – perhaps ironically – Wahrheit. There is little truth here though, and easily as many secrets and violences as are found beyond Wahrheit’s boundaries. These are flushed out by the tragedy that opens the novel, where Matthias Orion, not-fully-committed member of the church, destroys everything he can reach on his property, and slaughters first his wife and then himself.

Their 15-year-old son Benedict arrives home from boarding school to discover this horror; and even as it breaks him, so too it marks the end of the community’s Nebelung, their mythical home. The novel is told through a careful interlacing of Benedict’s and the pastor’s perspectives. The latter fails miserably to care sufficiently for the deeply traumatised Benedict, who after all has become “part of the wound” the community finds itself suffering.

Left largely to himself, and to the horses that escaped his father’s murderous rampage, and to the fox that stands in for that angel of death, Benedict lives with, and like, the animals. In that living he finds a way to recover some sense of self, and to re-enter his community: though whether as messiah or as restored son is uncertain.

The Life to Come

The Life to Come, Michelle de Kretser’s new novel – actually a discontinuous narrative in five sections – offers an insider-outsider view of contemporary Australian society through the shifting focalisations, points of view and voices that comprise the sections. The threads that weave it together are Pippa, a self-satisfied, hyper-performative, not-quite-good-enough novelist, and “real” novelist George Meshaw, who disdains her shallow conceits and her populist writing style.

Pippa is the more visible of the two. She spends much of the novel charming and then disappointing friends, and struggling under the burden of her mother-in-law’s condescension, while always firmly focused on herself. George appears principally through his novels – the last of which, along with Pippa’s last, are tossed in the bin by Pippa’s disenchanted neighbour, who had hoped to find warmth and meaning in these works, but found only words.

While the stories are set in Sydney and in Paris, with references also to Sri Lanka, the twin foci of this novel (for me, at least) are, first, an excoriating critique of Australian colonialist attitudes and politics, and next the burning realisation that – as one character observes – “The only life in which you play a leading role is your own”; we are all merely bit players in the lives of others.

Storyland

Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland is also structured in five discrete sections, the transitions here being characterised by the pulsing of time, rather than the geographical shifts of de Kretser’s work. Storyland starts and ends in the Illawarra region, during the early days of colonisation, where the possibility of trust or friendship between the local Wadi Wadi people and the invading British is constantly thwarted.

The sections between swoop up through the 19th and 20th centuries to a post-apocalypse future, and then cascade down again. Key elements – a river, a cave, a clever man’s axe – appear in each time period, connective tissue that binds them together. Characters too reappear, individuals or their descendants struggling with colonial society and its mores, with missed opportunities for connection, with the collapse of the environment and human society.

I read this novel as a migrant, and as a person of European descent, so I am not well positioned to evaluate the merits of McKinnon’s use of Aboriginal language and representation of the Aboriginal characters, but for me they were both convincing and moving. Story is not politics, but in it we can find ways to review ourselves and our histories, and perhaps begin to find points of conciliation.

Taboo

Taboo, by Kim Scott, is located squarely in the post-Apology present, when the Australian government can express regret for the Stolen Generations while maintaining the Northern Territory Intervention; and when Aboriginal communities across the country are building new ways to enter the future without deserting the past.

Focalised primarily through the young woman Tilly, daughter of an Aboriginal man who, toward the end of his life, realised the power of language to heal his community’s wounds, it follows the people of Kepalup and their establishment of a Peace Park to settle the ghosts of local Aboriginal people slaughtered by the ancestors of local pastoralists.

Though the novel is necessarily tragic – killings, stolen children, wrecked lives – it also has something generous and pragmatic at its heart. Says Uncle Wilfred of the white community: “Sorry for the history, they say. Know it’s our country, our ancestral country. They’re not gunna give the land back, but know we’re the right people.”

Despite the record of massacre, despite the clumsy interventions by white people – well-meaning but condescending, unaware of how little they know of Noongar culture – the community turns to recovering their language, retelling stories, reclaiming culture, and finding “magic in an empirical age”.

These six novels convincingly meet the criteria of the Miles Franklin, providing accounts of Australian life in all its phrases, in stories of “the highest literary merit” that craft a kaleidoscopic portrait of this society.

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The Conversation

The winner of the Miles Franklin will be announced at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Sunday 26th August from 4pm at Deakin Edge, Fed Square.

Jen Webb, Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Banjo Prize Shortlist


The link below is to an article that looks at the shortlist for the 2018 Banjo Prize.

For more visit:
https://blog.booktopia.com.au/2018/08/13/banjo-prize-2/

The 2018 Daggers Awards Shortlist


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the 2018 Crime Writers’ Association’s ‘Daggers’ awards shortlist.

For more visit:
https://blog.booktopia.com.au/2018/07/27/cwa-dagger-shortlist-2018/

Provocative, political, speculative: your guide to the 2018 Stella shortlist



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None of the books on the Stella shortlist offer a comforting vision of contemporary Australian life.
Shutterstock

Camilla Nelson, University of Notre Dame Australia

Six years ago, The Stella Prize burst onto the Australian literary scene with an air of urgency. The A$50,000 award was the progeny of the Stella Count – a campaign highlighting the under-representation of women authors in book reviews and awards lists. In the years since, the prize has challenged the gendered ways in which we think about “significance” and “seriousness” in literature.

Judging a literary award is invariably a contest of aesthetics and politics. And the Stella has never shied from difficult, taxing or surprising choices. It has awarded nonfiction in a field traditionally dominated by fiction; first time writers rather than established names; and in an increasingly commercialised and globalising literary marketplace, it has consistently championed the work of small and independent publishers.

There is, nonetheless, something distinctive about a Stella book. It often draws attention to the pressing social issues of our times – not only gender bias, but also racial prejudice and social and economic inequality – and testifies to the enduring significance of more intimate human themes: sickness and death, grief, love or family. The one quality the books share, I suspect, is that of provocation.

A Stella winner is a book that challenges its readers; it attempts to do a bit of work in the world. And this year’s Stella shortlist doesn’t disappoint.

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar,

Azar’s novel narrates the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl, Bahar, who is burnt to death two days before the revolution reaches its height. Militants “boiling” with “hatred and fervour” break into her family home, pour kerosene across the tables, and set them alight, crying “God is great, God is great!”

Bahar narrates the story as a ghostly presence at the centre of her once happy family. The mass slaughter of dissidents, the execution of her brother, the rape and murder of her sister; such events are rendered as unremarkably as her sister’s transformation into a mermaid and her mother’s attainment of enlightenment in the greengage tree.

It is a convention of magic realism that the narrator remains estranged and distant, withholding any kind of explanation, even as ordinary life is invaded by elements of terror that are too strange to believe. This is an uneasy tension – holding beauty and horror together in a single sentence. The effect, in this novel, is to suggest that no conventional means exists to render such realities explicable.


The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser

To read a book by Michelle de Kretser is to fall in love with the novel all over again. There are few ironists so scathing and few stylists so astonishing that they can demolish a character’s pretensions in a few deft strokes. Her latest work maps the gaucheries of Australian literary, intellectual and academic life. Here, the appearance of virtue is more important than its actuality. BioBags and free-range eggs are no less status objects than designer dresses and the right shade of red lipstick.

The novel opens with the character of George Meshaw, the author of many “abstract but oppressive” books (one of which is ominously titled Necessary Suffering). George soon exits right, clearing the stage for a plethora of equally self-involved people, all of whom dutifully cart around his books, largely unread. Linking their stories is George’s undergraduate student Pippa Elkinson. “I love English,” Pippa gushes at one point. “In that case, I suggest you learn to write it,” replies George.

Pippa is all confidence and fakery. She travels abroad to gather experiences for her writing, which she insists, without a hint of irony, is based on reality. She leaves warm, supportive comments on the Twitter accounts of her carefully cultivated friends, while her agent runs her books through a simulated audience reaction indicator to test their market value. Pippa is all surface, though she later turns out to have surprising depths. As the narrator dryly observes, “Pippa would always need to demonstrate her solidarity with the oppressed – Indigenous people or battery hens, it scarcely mattered.”

Narcissism of all kinds is the target of this novelist’s ire. But de Kretser works her magic less through the classic tool of empathy – the recognition that other people are also human beings with feelings – than the shock of seeing our own little lives through the perspective of someone else’s.


Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman

Coleman’s debut novel uses the tools of speculative fiction to gain fresh insights into the history of Indigenous dispossession. It opens with Jacky Jerramungup, an Indigenous boy stolen at an early age to be used as cheap rural labour, fleeing across the country – evading capture at a mission run by sadistic nuns, eluding the Troopers and native police sent by a murderous colonial administrator to hunt him down.

Each chapter opens with a fragment from the archives of colonial bureaucracy, which appears convincingly real, but is Coleman’s invention. This is not the only strange or unexpected thing in her work. Half way through the book, what feels like a novelistic landscape drawn from the moral cesspit of the 19th century turns out to be the scene of some future invasion – a feverish figment of a dystopic dreamtime at the end of the present century.

This speculative terror – an invasion of spaceships bearing aliens from other planets in search of moisture – draws attention to the other, more familiar history of invasion, which is ongoing. As one character observes, “This has happened before, the English believed they had exterminated all of the Tasmanian Aborigines, the Palawa, in fact they survived the invasion, they still exist now.”


An Uncertain Grace by Krissy Kneen

Kneen’s adventures in speculative erotica are invariably amusing and playful, but also strangely sad, if not overtly sentimental. In a series of interlinked stories spanning a century from the near present to a post-human future, Kneen explores questions of sex, science and gender at a time in which the boundaries between humanity and machinery are beginning to dissolve. In a complex feat of speculative world building, the novel leaps forward in stages to catch a glimpse of a post-apocalyptic future in which sea levels have risen, water has flooded the cities, and jellyfish inhabit our cellars and basements.

Along the way, we meet an array of odd characters: Caspar, a middle-aged academic who climbs into a virtual skin suit to inhabit the point of view of the young female student he seduced and then discarded; Cameron, a teenage sex-robot built to aid studies in hebephilia who begins to have thoughts and feelings of his own; Ronnie, a child sex offender, whose mind fuses with a school of jellyfish.

Behind all this, the central – if submerged – controlling presence in the novel is Liv, a writer working at the interface of technology and narrative. Liv is 129 years old at the book’s end, seeking to find out what it means to be a human living in a post-human world.


The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe

Riwoe writes against the grain of W. Somerset Maugham’s classic short story “The Four Dutchmen” – a tale about a “Malay girl” brought on board a Dutch tramp ship, plying its lucrative trade in the waters off Indonesia. Upsetting the balance of homosocial shipboard life, the “Malay trollop” is casually slaughtered and thrown into the sea.

The desire to rework the subjectivities of colonial characters – giving them air and life – is a marked cultural tendency of our time, a product of this century’s interest in reclaiming the voices of the oppressed and marginalised. Many of these stories, like Jean Rhys’s postcolonial classic The Wide Sargasso Sea, centre on reclaiming the voices of women. And yet, there is a kind of horror in the experience of inhabiting the point of view of characters who are so obviously destined for tragedy.

Riwoe gives the “Malay girl” a name – Mina – together with a set of hopes, dreams and aspirations, but Mina’s choices are narrow, and her trajectory through the world is marked by a terrifying lack of agency. The perfumed air, the gorgeous food, the tropical vegetation, do nothing to alleviate the suffocating sadness. The “Malay girl” is traded by her father, and ultimately discarded as “bad rubbish”. Riwoe takes advantage of the novella form to deliver an ending that is brutal, sharp and lingering.


Tracker by Alexis Wright

Wright’s non-fiction study of the Indigenous activist Tracker Tilmouth is not written in Wright’s own words, but the words of others. It is, as the author points out, an attempt to capture the life of a man who communicated constantly, gave his ideas away freely, but never wrote anything down. Tracker, the “constantly travelling traditional song man”, is remembered by others “through the stories they kept telling about him”, and about his “ideas and dreams”. This is the way in which he touched lives and built communities.

Tracker is not an easy book. It is, as Wright states, an “impossible book”. It seeks to capture “the rare thing that does not want to be caught” – and perhaps cannot be caught. It is a book that needs to be read aloud in order to be experienced. It attempts to contain all the aspects of language and story that are left out when words get set down in patterns of black ink on a page.


The ConversationNone of the books on the Stella shortlist offer a comforting vision of contemporary Australian life. And yet language illuminates, where ordinary life is dark and hazy.

Camilla Nelson, Associate Professor of Writing, University of Notre Dame Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Heart-warming, biting, tragic, funny: the Miles Franklin shortlist will move you



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Each of the five shortlisted authors for Australia’s prestigious literary prize is a first-time nominee.
Shutterstock

Jen Webb, University of Canberra

The 2017 Miles Franklin Award winner will be announced tonight, but I’m not taking bets on who it’s likely to be. Each shortlisted novel is by a first-time nominee. Each is of satisfyingly high literary quality and very different in voice, logic, focus and story.

But they do have one feature in common: each includes as a key character an author, or authors. I’m not sure I have ever read a shortlist where the protagonists of each volume shared an occupation. Of course all five include heartbreak, loss and death — that is, after all, de rigueur for literary fiction — but the focus on the lives and works of writers, and on narratives about narrative, presents as though the Australian literary community as one turned to look inward, and then wrote down what it saw.

We have a worn out, avant garde novelist (Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn); an ambulance-chasing journalist (An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire); “famous Australian writers” (Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill); and academics in linguistics (Waiting by Philip Salom) and engineering (Extinctions by Josephine Wilson).

Art imitates life

I started with Last Days of Ava Langdon, by poet and novelist Mark O’Flynn. This book, which channels the Australian-New Zealand writer Eve Langley, opens with the rhythm and pulse of a prose poem:

Sound of the sea slapping at the green and greasy legs of pier. The crashing of dishes. A cartoon whale.

This, on the very first page, sets the tone for the rest of the novel, one that vividly renders the glorious Blue Mountains environment (and its small towns with their country values), and the portrait of a writer who might have been, should have been, no longer is.

O’Flynn presents his Langley/Langdon as immensely sympathetic, and stunningly irritating. “All her life”, says the narrator, “has been the pursuit of the perfect line”.

While any writer must surely doff the cap to that pursuit, Ava’s single-mindedness has been more destructive than productive. She valiantly channels Oscar Wilde, refuses to acknowledge that she is ancient and frail, ignores the squalor of her home, and flickers between hope and hopelessness about her writing. She is a damaged person, a dada artist. She has lost her family and friends and she dies alone.

Still, Ava’s imagination (to say nothing of her splendid dress sense) brings a degree of sentience to the world, casting it in a luminous light. O’Flynn’s novel brings to bear a cold but tender gaze on “the last days” of someone who, but for fortune, could have been an extraordinary Australian artist.

Misfits in an unforgiving world

Philip Salom, another poet, gives us Waiting. It relies on the skill of poetic diction and the narrative traction of strong characters, the “looking awry” that so often accompanies mental illness, and the urgency to connect, to find a safe haven in an unforgiving world.

He juxtaposes together two pairs of difficult people to propel the narrative. The first two are Big (a cross-dressing, over-performing “crazy professor”) and his partner Little (quiet, crushed Agnes, the troubled lamb of god). They have effectively fallen out of history and are, Agnes reflects, “two characters in a novel who have no further story”.

The second pair, by contrast, are the inheritors of a further story: designer/landscaper Angus (coincidentally Agnes’ cousin) and the linguist Jasmin. They are creeping by fits and starts toward a relationship, but unlike Big and Little, who cling together for the most part in real intimacy, Jasmin and Angus struggle to connect, given their tendency to compete with each other, and their misunderstandings of each other’s values and professions. For Angus, the physical shaping of the material world is what matters. For Jasmin, it is the socio-political positioning of work that matters.

The novel is set against the increasingly threatening qualities of bushfire in the Australian environment, and the increasingly constrained options for those who do not or cannot fit into middle class conventions. The characters’ stories play out, to an end that promises consolation, at least.

Not so isolated

With Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident, we leave the poets and misfits and return to the “real” world: small-town New South Wales, and the struggle to make a living, maintain an identity, and retain hope for the future.

Chris Rogers, a barmaid and some-time prostitute, is faced with the loss of her beloved younger sister Bella, whose body is found on the side of the road, raped and murdered. May Norman, an ambitious journalist, attaches herself to Chris to report on the story and the unfolding investigation. So far, so crime thriller.

But actually, this is more an analysis of mourning, woven through with a biting critique of the social and legal context in which, in Australia, one woman is murdered each week, on average, by someone close to her. At one point May reflects on yet another appalling story of such violence, and observes:

This had nothing to do with what had happened to Bella and what happened to Bella had nothing to do with Tegan Miller and none of it had to do with the rich Sydney housewife left out to rot in the street which had nothing to do with the Nigerian girls stolen as sex slaves…

The unwavering attention paid to violence against women and to the commercial exploitation of suffering renders the title bitterly ironic: all these “isolated incidents” add up to a deeply felt and troubling novel.

Extinctions of all kinds

Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions is the winner of Dorothy Hewett Unpublished Manuscript prize, so has already made a significant mark on the literary landscape. It offers a tragic portrait of the various ways in which extinction looms — environmental, personal, cultural.

We see the sorrows, indignities and regrets of old age, as viewed through the eyes of retired theoretical engineer Fred Lothian, who fills his home with designer furniture rather than with his family.

We see the heartbreak of a wasted life, in his brilliant son, Callum, who was left with acquired brain injury following a car accident. And we see the struggle for identity in his adopted daughter, Caroline, who researches species extinction and is disconnected from her own Indigenous heritage. Together, these stories present an overwhelming narrative of loss, failure and distress.

But there is the possibility of an alternative in the form of Fred’s neighbour Jan. Though like Fred and his family, she has suffered great loss, she brings a wonderful energy and resilience, and a refusal to resign herself to extinction. Instead, she presses Fred to start over, to find a more productive way to be.

Literary satire

Finally, we come to Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers, one of the funniest novels I’ve read in a long time. He sails close to the wind of defamation (were the original authors still alive), unmercifully lampooning the models for his “extraordinary Australian writers”.

Like a supremely confident stand-up comic, he pushes the joke from initial humour through infuriating repetition to helpless laughter. And along the way, he shows impressive knowledge of Australian literary culture, so erudite readers can play the game of “spot the reference”. We see the sexism that runs through literary culture. We revisit the poetry wars— “a knife fight in a phone booth” — in the character of Arthur rhutrA, an author of whom it was said that: “the only constraint he couldn’t overcome was his lack of talent”.

We bump into parallel-universe versions of Ern Malley, Australia’s most infamous literary hoax, and radio characters Dad and Dave. We meet the litigious Stratford, self-proclaimed original author of works plagiarised and made famous by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce.

We are confronted by the rightwing racist Edward Gayle (writer for the journal Quarter) and the communist Francis McVeigh, whose early memory of reading Marx’s Manifesto “terrified me so much I had nightmares for the next six months”. Literary giant after literary giant, publisher after publisher, is kneecapped by these excoriating and hilarious accounts of the players, their work, and the impossibly interwoven lives they lead.

Compassionate voices

There is a surprising degree of compassion in the narrative voice that relates each of these novels, even when they are also characterised by sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued commentary. The characters are damaged — as are most human beings — but (with the exception of some of O’Neill’s writers) they are rarely people of ill will.

The ConversationThe narrators, in each case, maintain the distance required of an objective observer, yet cannot help but record small acts of humanity, the struggle to manage, to be recognised and to recognise others. This makes them, as a group, the most heart-warming selection of shortlisted novels that I have read for some time.

Jen Webb, Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award Shortlist


The link below is to an article taking a look at the Miles Franklin Award shortlist for 2017.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/07/miles-franklin-awards-2017-shortlist-reviews-of-the-books-youll-read-next