Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s memoir of a “monstrous” mother has won the 2019 Stella Prize. The Erratics tells the story of Vicki’s return home to a prairie house in the sparse wintry landscapes of Alberta, Canada, where she grew up. Once there, the narrator faces family relationships that are strained to the point of breaking.
When the book begins, its narrator has been absent from her family for 18 years. Her mother is clearly unwell, and Vicki believes she should be declared legally “incompetent” against her wishes.
Vicki is convinced that her mother is attempting to kill her father, by starving him to death, keeping him on a diet of spinach, bok choy and kale. Her father defers to his wife, often against all reason, and indeed safety.
This book shatters social expectations that a mother is all-loving, all-knowing, and all-caring, by setting them against the bleak reality of what one mother is. It explodes culturally sanctioned ideas about what a mother ought to be, feel and do. It does so with a rare – often dark, and deeply unsettling – honesty.
The writing style is taught, elegant and clinically restrained. The narrator is almost numb.
The judges said:
Set against the bitter cold of a Canadian winter, Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s The Erratics mines the psychological damage wrought on a nuclear family by a monstrous personality. Despite the dark subject matter, this book has a smile at its core, and Laveau-Harvie shows constant wit when depicting some harrowing times.
There are many uneasy truths in this book. It’s occasionally difficult to feel empathy for the narrator, with her myriad blind spots, and the way her desires too often lead her to fashion the world according to her own needs – seen in her failure to understand the psychiatrist’s serious hesitation to commit her mother to a locked ward unless she is genuinely a threat to herself or to others. In her too easy belief that her father’s carer is a “gold-digger”. And in the many judgments that are delivered down the telephone line from half a world away, after she returns to Sydney.
“I would very much like to mean ‘we’, my sister and me,” she writes about the question of who will be caring for her aged parents. “But I’m leaving, my sanity always dependent on living somewhere remote […] My sister and her partner will shoulder almost all of what needs doing.”
There is grief, though, when news breaks that her mother’s medical team have decided she requires constant care in a mental health ward. Vicki writes:
I think of everything my mother will never see again, the view over the foothills to the Rockies from the windows of her house, the animals in the duck light, fawns gambolling unsteadily, coyotes pausing to give you the slightest of nods before loping across the lawns […]
And yet, it is difficult reading to the end: grief expressed from faraway Sydney feels disparaging of her caregiving sister’s nervously exhausted relief at, in the narrator’s words, the “wicked witch being dead”.
This is a remarkable book. It is also a deeply uncomfortable one. And that – I suspect – is precisely the point. Where the rest of us would rather deal in easy platitudes, this book is deeply honest.
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.
Alexis Wright’s book Tracker: Stories of Tracker Tilmouth has won the 2018 Stella Prize. Tracker is, in Wright’s words, an attempt to tell an “impossible story”, using the voices of many people to reflect on the life of Tilmouth, a central and visionary figure in Aboriginal politics.
At one telling point in the book, Gulf of Carpentaria activist and political leader Murandoo Yanner relates an encounter between Tracker and Jenny Macklin, then Minister for Indigenous Affairs in the Rudd government. Tracker was helping Yanner to lobby Macklin over the Wild Rivers legislation in Queensland.
Notoriously, Macklin had persisted with the Howard government’s “Northern Territory Intervention”, and was regarded with suspicion by most Aboriginal leaders. Nevertheless, she was the federal minister and had to be dealt with.
As they approached, Tracker called out, “How ya going, Genocide Jenny?”
Yanner recalls the atmosphere that followed: “You could have heard a pin drop and pistols drawn at twenty paces, and the whole thing went sour pretty quickly”.
It tells you a lot about the man. He had regular access to the corridors of power yet still called a spade a spade. He was capable of dealing with politicians of any background and station yet did not forfeit his never-back-down attitude.
He was able to gain the upper hand from the first with an irreverent comment. And, above all, he was a funny bugger. (Another memorable thumbnail character sketch, this one related by Tracker himself, is of current senator Pat Dodson as a “mobile wailing wall”: a place where white people go to confess and forgo their sins.)
It also tells you a lot about Wright’s epic tribute to Tracker. We do not read Wright quoting Yanner, but hear the whole yarn directly from the source. Born in 1954, Tracker was one of the stolen generation. His life spanned the latter years of the White Australia policy, when Aboriginal people were still legally part of the nation’s fauna, to the tumultuous period in Aboriginal politics following the Intervention, until his death in 2015.
This is not a book about Tracker’s life authored by Wright, but consists of stories and recollections told to Wright by the man himself as well as 50 others, from family and school mates, to Aboriginal and non-Indigenous leaders in our time. Wright brilliantly intersperses and weaves these together into an epic of stories and storytelling.
As the tributes to Tracker have flowed in the months since its publication, and many will surely follow as it garners further prizes and draws in ever more readers, so have proliferated the attempts to describe both the work’s genre and the mode of authorship it enacts.
In their award statement, the Stella judges call it a “biography”, but also “new way of writing memoir”. These descriptors capture aspects of the book – a birth to death tale does emerge from Wright’s layering of stories, and these are, of course, conjured from memory – but they also obscure.
Wright didn’t “write” the work but elicited the stories that comprise it through conversation. Towards the end of the book there is an unbroken sequence of nearly 100 pages of Tracker and Wright conversing, the contents of which are largely a mixture of philosophy and political economy. In these pages, Tracker’s voice is mostly serious, even earnest, as he expounds on the need to create a sustainable economic basis on which Aboriginal people can palpably enjoy their hard-won land rights and native title.
While it is no doubt true that readers accustomed to biographies in the European tradition will be struck by the novelty of reading a tribute to a storyman made up of many stories, Tracker’s strengths as a work are are not dependent on this putative departure from the biographical genre. It is simply remarkable to hear Tracker’s genuinely funny jokes and stories told repeatedly, often word for word and channelling Tracker’s unmistakable style, by such a range of different speakers. Over the course of the book, the repetition of these stories consolidates them and imprints them on the memory.
It is fitting that a book written in the mode and genre of Aboriginal storytelling should win a prize that encompasses both non-fiction and fiction. It is a work, epic in scope and size, that will ensure that a legend of Central Australian politics is preserved in myth.
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.
None 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.
Heather Rose has won the 2017 Stella Prize for her novel The Museum of Modern Love, a fictional exploration of the power of art to transform individual lives, written in exquisite prose, with rare and subtle insight.
Brenda Walker, Chair of the judging panel, said:
It is rare to encounter a novel with such powerful characterisation, such a deep understanding of the consequences of personal and national history, such affection for a city and the people who are drawn to it, and such dazzling and subtle explorations of the importance of art in everyday life.
Rose’s novel centres on Serbian artist Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present, a 75-day performance piece that took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Throughout the work, Ambramović sat perfectly still at a table in the museum’s atrium, with bright lights shining down and around her, while spectators took turns to sit opposite. As each visitor sat, Abramović lifted her face and maintained eye contact.
Within days, people began crowding the atrium to watch, the lines frequently spilling out onto the street. Some gathered overnight or in the early hours before the museum opened. Occasionally the sitters cried.
Rose’s novel subtly explores the individual lives of fictional characters in the audience, all of whom are transformed by the strange intimacy of the work. At its centre is Arky Levin, a music composer who is emotionally cut off from life.
He wasn’t sure why he needed to keep returning to the sidelines of this strange performance, but he kept finding himself taking the train, walking in the door, climbing the stairs, taking his place by the white line. The atrium was a magnet, or maybe it was Abramović. Something about this was important, but he couldn’t say why.
In Rose’s novel, chance conversations with strangers offer rare and disarming insights not only into the emotional lives of the characters, and their often tragic situations, but also into our own yearning for “some new idea of life” – a more authentic kind of intimacy or connection in our disconnected, media-saturated world.
In a list that included significant and moving books by two writers, Georgia Blain and Cory Taylor, who have both died since the publication of their works, the choice to award Rose’s novel could not have come easily to the judging panel.
Taylor’s book, Dying a memoir, genuinely broke new ground in writing powerfully and with astonishing clarity about a subject that is rarely treated with such effect. Blain’s novel, Between a Wolf and a Dog, is the final achievement of a mature writer whose work spoke clearly and in a quietly profound way to a whole generation – my generation – of women.
But Blain and Taylor would have been the emotional choice. And objectivity is – perhaps – not possible in the face of such calamity. I am uncertain. But I do think there should be a special place in literature for books that do some real work in the world.
The Museum of Modern Love is Heather Rose’s seventh book. Her previous novels include White Heart (1999), The Butterfly Man (2005) and The River Wife (2009). She is co-author (with Danielle Wood) of the Tuesday McGillycuddy series for children, published under the pen name Angelica Banks. She won the Davitt Award in 2006, and her novels have been shortlisted for the Nita B. Kibble Award and the Aurealis Awards, and longlisted for the IMPAC Award.
Rose joins previous Stella winners including Carrie Tiffany, Clare Wright, Emily Bitto and Charlotte Wood.
There are certain books that have the knack of getting under your skin. This is why George Bernard Shaw declared Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit to be a far more “seditious” text than Karl Marx’s Das Capital.
What he was getting at is the power of books to work on your emotions. The intellect can be too cold an instrument to engender empathy, to bring people who are distant from you into your “circle of concern”. And it is precisely this, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues, that matters for the pursuit of social justice.
In 2017, the Stella Prize judges have again come up with a shortlist of books that will engage your brain, but also your heart. They illuminate all the aspects of life that make us frail and vulnerable – sickness, dying, inequality – realities that many of us would prefer to ignore.
Two of the remarkable writers shortlisted, Cory Taylor and Georgia Blain, have died since the publication of their work: Blain of brain cancer; Taylor of melanoma-related cancer. And yet their books – alongside all those on this list – fasten our attention on the means to live better, more ethically, and with greater generosity. It is in the smallest things, in embracing everyday joys and sorrows, that we can learn to live large.
These are books that matter because they show us how to live in desperate times.
Let me draw them to your attention, one by one.
Georgia Blain, Between a Wolf and a Dog
Hilary is a 70-year-old filmmaker, dying of cancer, determined to choose the moment and manner of her death. She has not told her daughters, Ester and April, about her illness or her plans. Ester is the mother of young twins, a family therapist whose consulting rooms contain a world of pain – “post-natal depression, school aversion, relationship crisis, death, and loneliness”. Ester is estranged from her sister April, a once famous singer who never realised her potential, and from her one time husband, Lawrence, who has lied and cheated in his work.
The action unfolds in the space of a single rainy day – ending in the mauve light of dusk, “between a wolf and a dog”, a place filled with ambiguity and irresolution. Here, like Hilary’s last film – a “seemingly random scatter of images” – the characters find “narrative order”.
Blain is a quietly profound writer with an astonishing eye for the ways in which human beings hurt and heal one another. This, her final novel, addresses the significant questions of life, “what to keep, what to discard, what clings despite all efforts to dispel it, and what slides away”. It is modern, unflinching, and unsentimental.
Maxine Beneba Clarke, The Hate Race
Maxine is brown.
Maxine has brown skin.
Maxine has funny curly hair.
Maxine thinks her family comes from England.
Maxine has dark brown skin.
There is an utterly transfixing, yet deeply disturbing moment in this memoir in which the young Maxine, growing up in suburban, middle-class Australia, believes that she is turning white.
In a realist, not magic realist work, the fervently desired “miracle … quietly brewing” on her skin, turns out to be a rare skin condition, diagnosed after a trip to the dermatologist’s office. What the poignant humour of the memoir conceals is the extraordinary violence of a society that would cause a child to want this transformation.
Clarke’s story charts the experience of everyday racism, tracing the lives of her British-Caribbean parents on their journey to a better life. This ideal life is turned upside down by shredded school books, abusive notes left in bags and pencil cases, and the hapless ineffectuality of teachers and school administrators.
Positive experiences seem few and far between: her friend Jennifer’s kind words written in her album, or the high school teacher who had the foresight to advise Maxine that the things she’d been told in primary school were as “bizarre as I’d suspected”. It takes courage to speak out again and again on issues that many of us would prefer to think did not exist. The book soars above its subject matter, demonstrating humanity in the face of the inhuman.
Emily Maguire, An Isolated Incident
Emily Maguire’s novel centres on the sexual assault and murder of a young woman in a tough-talking, truck-stop town midway between Sydney and Melbourne. It is in the form of a thriller, but the author is perhaps less interested in seeking out the murderer than studying the town’s reaction.
Chris Rogers, the victim’s sister, is an astonishing character, reeling from the breakdown of her relationship to the love of her life; the death of her mother, and the murder of her sister. Chris struggles with men, alcohol and society’s obsession with cleavage. Then there is May Norman, a city-based journalist who arrives in Strathdee to cover the murder, and who, like Chris, is no stranger to the sexual double standard through which women – and not men – are judged for their conduct.
This novel tackles the insidious idea that rape is “never simple” but a “murky and confusing” situation in which the “lines of consent” are “blurred”. Maguire has a keen eye for the practices that excuse, tolerate and trivialise sexual violence, and for the language of misogyny that demeans women, blaming the victim for what she wore, what she did, or where she went.
What starts out as a realist venture ultimately lands in the territory of the gothic. Ghosts drift over scorched landscapes, and the bodies of murdered women rise up to haunt the living. “It’s always the men,” says the local historian. “I’ve never had a female hear the scream.” The novel’s title is, of course, ironic – it turns out that the violent death it investigates is not an isolated incident at all.
Heather Rose, The Museum of Modern Love
If everything goes to crap, it won’t be art that saves us. Art won’t matter one iota. You can’t write your way alive, or paint your way out of death.
Against the odds, this is exactly what Heather Rose achieves in her startlingly original and strangely beautiful novel. It is built around the 75-day performance piece by Serbian artist Marina Abramović that took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010.
Rose’s novel has a crystalline structure, tracing the lives of the characters who are transformed by the artwork. At its centre is Arky Levin, an emotionally-crippled composer who is cut off from life: from his daughter Alice, a medical student, and his wife, Lydia, an architect, facing the final stages of a potentially fatal illness in a nursing home without him.
Arky is joined at the performance by Jane Miller, an art teacher, who is mourning the death of her husband, Karl. There is also Brittika, a student; Healayas, a journalist assigned to cover the final days of the performance, and Danica – the ghost of Marina Abramović’s mother – who drifts, unsurprisingly, through its pages.
The unexpected oddity of the characters and their situations, and the luminous intensity of the language, marks out a philosophical territory that will be familiar to readers of Milorad Pavić, Dubravka Ugrešić or Danilo Kiš. This is an astonishingly beautiful book. In a culture that incessantly questions the worth and relevance of art for life, the novelist mounts a defence that is all the more astonishing for being successful.
Catherine de Saint Phalle, Poum and Alexandre
De Saint Phalle’s memoir is narrated through the eyes of a child who is beguiled and bewildered by her parents’ relationship, and the secret they appear to be hiding. They lead a fabled Parisian existence, always at some distance from their child. Her mother crosses herself frequently, talking incessantly about “the nuns” and what they might think. Her parenting mainly consists of reeling off long verses from The Odyssey.
Saint Phalle’s father regales her with tales of Napoleon, and could “convince me that Karl Marx was a practising Catholic” or “a bird that the sky is full of water”. He appears and disappears in the child’s life, for no apparent reason. A string of unknown aunts, cousins and siblings also arrive and depart unannounced, accentuating the book’s unstated sense of loss and abandonment, and the adults’ lack of awareness that a child may require a little more in the way of stability or commitment.
Written in soft, cloud-like prose, with a sense of elegy, this book is finally about the power of stories to conjure hope and possibility, and impart a sense of acceptance.
Cory Taylor, Dying a memoir
My suicide note was by way of apology. ‘I’m sorry,’ I wrote. ‘Please forgive me, but if I wake up from the surgery badly impaired, unable to walk, entirely dependent on other people to care for me, I’d prefer to end my own life.
Cory Taylor did not finally choose to take her life. Ultimately, she feared the trauma such a death would have inflicted on other people. Suicide, she writes, remains shrouded in a sense of “mental angst, hopelessness, weakness, the lingering whiff of criminality”.
In short, the problem is not hers but ours. We have “lost our common rituals and common language for dying,” becoming a society that only understands death, as “a form of failure”, as Taylor’s doctors seem to do. But living longer also means dying longer, and because of this the dying “are probably lonelier now than they’ve ever been”.
Taylor had already seen what it meant to die “badly”, witnessing her parents’ long, drawn out deaths from dementia in a nursing home. And so the desire to choose the way you die – assisted dying – becomes a source of comfort to her and a means of facing the things that are most terrifying about death – its total randomness, and our lack of control.
What is truly profound about this book is that – though it ought to be harrowing – it is astonishingly easy, if not strangely uplifting, to read. In part, this is because the narrative voice is so gentle, and tightly controlled. Every scene has a radiant quality; it glows.
The memoir ends with a “coming into dying”, a kind of effloresce that occurs at the edge of life – “the edge of words”. Images take over: “an over-exposed home movie footage of a girl with a dog in dappled sunshine, a car speeding down the road.” And then “The jet takes off. A kookaburra sits on a branch laughing.”
Taylor does not speak of death so much as she shows it to us, leaving the reader with an inexpressible sense of gratitude. This is writing that matters.
The winner of the 2017 Stella Prize will be announced in Melbourne tonight.
In January 2016, I began working with The Stella Prize to set up their first ever Diversity Count. This meant widening their count of books reviewed according to the author’s gender to examine how issues of race, ethnicity, disability and sexuality affected the rate of books reviewed by women.
Until 2015, there’d been no recognition of these various intersections. Like the organisation VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts in the US, Stella had concentrated its early counts on the male/female binary and, as in the US, this began to annoy women whom the industry defines not only by their gender, but also by their race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability or gender-identity.
And Stella, which not only performs the count, but also awards The Stella Prize to the best book published by an Australian woman, has also come under increasing critique by women of colour about the whiteness of the prize’s longlists.
Undertaking the Stella Count is laborious and fairly crude work. Someone has to sit down and sift through newspapers and microfiches with a notepad and a running tally of the female and male names of authors whose work is reviewed.
That is, the distinction rests on name alone. This works to a degree, though not always; think of Lionel Shriver, JK Rowling (names that don’t reflect a gender) as well as authors who are gender-queer. And it doesn’t work at all if you’re taking into consideration race, ability and sexuality. It is difficult to look at a female name on a book and assess whether or not the author is a member of the LGBTI or queer community or if she has a disability.
It may be easier to distinguish race or ethnicity by a name, but this is fraught territory for a number of reasons, not least because names lie. Then what? In the case of race, do you look up pictures of all authors and assess the colour of their skin? Do you search for non-British sounding names? How do you tell?
So, after much discussion between myself and the Stella Count Coordinator, Veronica Sullivan, we designed a survey for women-identifying authors who had their work reviewed in 2015.
This was long and often difficult work. We set up a public forum for members of the writing community to give their feedback on drafts of the survey and also established a consultative committee, which had input into the final version of the Diversity Survey.
Then, after many months, we sent the survey out to writers. When the results came back they were underwhelming and statistically insignificant. This broke our hearts a little. But then I began to think about why we had such a small uptake from those we’d surveyed.
Too late in the game
In the case of race and ethnicity (the qualifiers I feel I am best placed to speak about), I have a feeling that counting reviews comes too late in the game. I would guess that the Australian publishing industry simply does not publish enough books by women who are not white, but there are no figures for this.
For example, thanks to a recent report from Macquarie University we know that within the genre of fiction in Australia, 65.2% of literary fiction writers, 76.2 % of genre fiction writers and 86.9% of children’s book authors are women. This makes those graphs showing that men get far more reviews than women all the more infuriating. But, as yet, we don’t have the figures for racial or ethnic diversity.
How many Indigenous writers are published each year? How many non-white writers are published? And what kinds of books are being published?
Part of this lack, I think, comes from constraints placed on writers who are “othered” by the industry. For example, I think that it is probably easier for an indigenous author to be published if they write about epic struggles, rather than breezy romantic comedy. Likewise, I think that migrant writers will have an easier time getting into print if they follow the well-established trope of the happy, grateful migrant.
American author Morgan Parker writes that “we often find ourselves either being asked to ‘emphasize’ (read: exoticize) our identities (‘I love your writing about race,’ one editor told me. ‘Do you have anything else like that?’)”. And while Parker is speaking of the US, I think the same rules apply in Australia.
Safe, exotic, far away
It seems to me that the job of Indigenous writers and other writers of colour is to keep themselves and their stories at the margins of Australian literary culture. Safe, exotic, far away.
This begs questions about representation and what this means for a national literature. I listened to Indigenous author Jane Harrison speaking at the Diverse Women Writers Workshop in September and she pointed out that while Australia’s Indigenous population is (now) only about 2.44%, Australian Indigenous writing ought to make up a much larger percentage of our national literature, as our national literature should reflect Australian cultural heritage.
She’s right, of course. Toni Morrison writes that in the US the canon is,
unshaped by the 400-year-old presence of, first, Africans and then African Americans in the United States. It assumes that this presence – which has shaped the body politic, the Constitution, and the entire history of culture – has no significant place or consequence in the origin or development of that culture’s literature.
The Whiteness of the literary canon means that our ideas of good and bad writing are very narrow and, often, exclusionary.
In Australia, as in the US, only certain stories are allowed to take centre stage in our literary culture and the universal subject is still presumed to be a white, middle-class, cis-gendered, heterosexual and fully-abled male. The more deviations from this (limited and highly problematic) notion of personhood you possess, the more estranged from the centre you become.
work that draws from non-Anglo cultural references befuddles institutions (festivals, venues, funding bodies) whose understanding of ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ is structured around Western practice.
Does this mean that the Diversity Count is doomed? Maybe, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Failures teach us that we have to look harder for answers. For me this entails a lot more quantitative as well as qualitative work, which comes at the stage of publication, rather than at the reviewing stage.
I’d like to undertake a comprehensive demographic survey of the Australian publishing industry (like those that Publisher’s Weekly perform in the US), examining both those people who work within the industry, as well as the authors who get published.
At the same time we need to look through our syllabuses in high-schools and universities and think about the kinds of stories that are upheld about non-white people in Australian Literature. By including a multitude of voices to speak fully and freely about the Australian experience, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Natalie will be online for an Author Q&A between 4 and 5pm AEDT on Tuesday, 13 December, 2016. Post any questions you have in the comments below.