Stella Prize 2020: a readers’ guide to the contenders



Emily McPherson College Library, Russell St, circa 1960s.
Museums Victoria/Unsplash, CC BY

Camilla Nelson, University of Notre Dame Australia

Words can help us imagine the world more deeply. Even as we retreat into our homes in this time of crisis, words can help us reach out to each other and pile up strength.

The Stella Prize is awarded each year to celebrate Australian women’s writing. This year’s shortlist brings together some of the best Australian writing in any genre. They are books about courage, strength, compassion and love. And they give us something of what we need – teaching us that to be alarmed is not to be cautious or careful; that to try to bear everything on one’s own is not necessarily to be strong.

These books can help us draw on our inner resources; to dig deep. Not only to find a point of calm, or, indeed, relief from boredom as the lockdown wears on – but more importantly, compassion, altruism, the capacity to cross social distances, reach out, help and support each other and our society in a time of crisis.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

When you read The Weekend you’ll probably learn some things about yourself that you didn’t know, and a few you’d rather not. This book takes a long look at women’s lives and friendships as we get old, at a time in life when everything we thought we knew – about ourselves, about our loved ones – is being thrown into doubt.


Allen & Unwin

Three grieving women gather together for Christmas to clean out the beach house that belonged to their friend Sylvie, who has died. There is Jude, a once famous restauranteur, who has spent her adult life in a love affair with a wealthy married man. Adele, a once-famous stage actress, who is newly impoverished, having just broken up with her partner Liz. She is yet to tell the others. Finally Wendy, a public intellectual in her waning years, grieving for her dead husband. Without Sylvie to balance them, tensions rise.

This book cuts like a knife through social pieties but never loses its humanity. In one particularly wicked scene, Adele conducts a “leisurely inspection” of her best friends’ washbags, casually laying bare their “private vulnerabilities”: who has constipation, who takes Valium, and who still uses age-defying face cream.

As the characters clean out the house of “depressing old things” that “nobody wanted” the tensions of grief and emotion pull them in unexpected directions. Old betrayals are unearthed, words can’t be taken back (“out it slithered in a disgusting mass”) and lives shatter.

Wood has a keen eye for the emotional havoc life wreaks, even – or especially – as we amble off into old age. Her observations are knife-sharp, often merciless, but also warm and deeply alive.

The Yield by Tara June Winch


Penguin

Language can take you deep inside experience – because words teach you not only how to speak, but also how to think and feel. A large part of Tara June Winch’s new novel is written as entries in a Wiradjuri dictionary, put together by the dictionary-maker Albert Gondiwindi. The first word – the “once upon a time for you” – is yarrany, Wiradjuri for a hickory acacia or spearwood tree, and Albert tell us “from it I once made a spear in order to kill a man”. Another word is baayanha meaning yield, which Albert calls “a funny word”. In English the word “yield” is the reaping, the things than man can take from the land”. But in Albert’s language “it’s the things you give to, the movement, the space between things”.

The action of The Yield centres on Albert’s granddaughter, August, who has returned to Country for her grandfather’s funeral after years in exile. Memories resurface, as August is entangled in circles of kinship, with aunties, nieces and cousins.

There are sombre notes. To August, everything is “browner, bone-drier”, and the evocative place name Massacre Plains reminds us that this is a site of invasion and violence. And then there’s the mystery of August’s missing sister, Jeddah.

The community is besieged by a mining development. Diggers roll into town, flanked by military-green Humvees. Winch charts the relationships between white activists and Indigenous rights groups, as they organise acts of resistance.

Aunty Betty and Aunt Carol Gibson get themselves locked against a fence in an act of protest. “Don’t fight back” says Mandy to August. “They can’t arrest us for sitting in”. Hours later rocks are hurled, water cannons discharge, and police squirt teargas. The past “filtered into their voices as they screamed together ‘Re-sist!‘”

Of course, Albert’s dictionary – “the old language, kept safe. Digitised. Captured forever” – is another kind of resistance. When August listens, she can hear the way “English changed their tongues, the formation of their minds”. This is also a book of hope in this resurgent language.

Here Until August by Josephine Rowe


Black Inc Books

The opening story in Josephine Rowe’s collection is called Glisk, a Scots word meaning a split second: a flash; a single instant. It’s a wonderful opening title in a short story collection that seems to telescope, stack and compress time, propelling characters across continents, through stark or solemn landscapes, or pinning them down in small towns.

Rowe’s characters are mostly fleeing grief or trauma, trying to find solace in strange lands. In Glisk, protagonist Fynn returns after working in a whiskey distillery in the Northern Isles of Scotland. The title conjures the fatal car accident that drove Fynn from Perth. But it also describes an earlier accident in which Fynn and his siblings built a raft with foam and buckets so they could journey out to an island to see the bioluminescence in the ocean. Only that time, catastrophe had been avoided.

These are wonderful stories. In Chavez, an agoraphobic young woman grieving for a dead husband, stays at home watching terrorist videos, until a neighbour asks her to look after her dog, forcing her to engage with the world. In The Once-Drowned Man a taxi driver and her passenger head for the Canadian border, engaging in an oddly uncomfortable struggle over grief and hurt.

Rowe’s stories deftly capture the fleeting and precarious moments that can shape and place us, or move us – like Fynn – towards a faltering redemption, “with the dark folding over the top of him”, all in a glisk.

There Was Still Love by Favel Parrett

Parrett’s third novel opens with an image of extraordinary dislocation, evoked through all the “little brown suitcases … on trains, and on carts” or “strapped to the top of buses” carried by people whose lives have been uprooted by war. Inside the suitcases, not just clothes and toiletries, but “all they can hold … your heart, your mind, your soul”.


Hachette

Favell’s novel tells the story of two sisters, Liska and Ludek, who are separated as teenagers, firstly by the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and then by the Cold War. Ludek stays in Prague, while Liska travels to London and on to Melbourne.

Liska negotiates the problems of a second language, together with her husband’s straightened work opportunities. Ludek travels the world as a member of Prague’s Black Light Theatre, a child kept at home to ensure her return to life behind the Iron Curtain. Both raise children in vastly different worlds. Both build and sustain homes that are marked by love.

Parrett paints a picture of the sometimes troubling life lived in a communist state, coloured by vivid details of 1980s culture. The prose is lyrical, and the child’s perspective is diffuse with a kind of magic.

This is a book about strong women. It is a story about complicated family lives, longing for home, and the worlds women build – through love – for their families.

Diving into Glass by Caro Llewellyn


Penguin

Just after her 40th birthday, Caro Llewellyn – recently arrived in New York, working her dream job as director of the PEN Festival for writers – collapsed as she ran through Central Park. In hospital a few days later, her neurologist told her that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an illness associated with the central nervous system – chronic, debilitating and lifelong.

This memoir is a record of Llewellyn’s struggle not to be defined by her disability. Its title enviably encapsulates the things that glitter and shimmer and exhilarate in this book. A sense of breathless energy just leaps off the page. “I was a runner all my life,” Llewellyn writes. Not just long and short distance, but also hurdles and relay. “It didn’t matter what I ran, so long as I was spent when I crossed the finish line”.

This is a book about many things: Llewellyn’s career, the strength she draws from her charming and ingenious father who was wheelchair-bound, having been struck by polio at 20. He married twice, courting his first wife – a hospital nurse – from deep inside an iron lung. Llewellyn learned a lot from her parents, though not always strictly wise. They included, “carry on like absolutely nothing’s wrong”, “build an impenetrable wall around your weaknesses”, or best of all “no matter how impossible it seems, how long the odds, words and a good story can help you overcome every single thing stacked up against you”.

But, as Llewellyn writes, “The day my legs went numb on the running track in Central Park, every one of those lessons evaporated”. This is not a book about overcoming illness or disability. It ends – much like it starts – with Llewellyn’s gaze on the horizon, searching.

See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill

Jess Hill’s book is a deeply felt exploration of institutional failure. It opens with Hill standing in her backyard “hanging clothes out to dry on a stunning summer night alive with the screeching of fruit bats”, in a place where she “felt content, peaceful; safe”. Then comes the stunning realisation that many women do not get to feel safe, not at night, and not in their own backyard.


Black Inc Books

It’s 2015, a year on from the morning Australians woke up to see Rosie Batty, “a solitary woman, raw with grief” on their television screens. In front of her was “a clutch of reporters who’d barely hoped for a statement”. Batty told the media about the murder of her son – 11-year-old Luke Batty – at the hands of his father. It was the scenario she’d warned about countless times, in courts and police stations, in front of lawyers and judges and to social workers. Her pleas had been dismissed and disbelieved.

See What You Made Me Do brings together stories of domestic violence and survival from all walks of life – from the affluent neighbourhoods of Sydney’s Bible Belt to struggling remote and regional communities. Hill investigates the social and psychological causes of domestic abuse and its terrifying consequences. She talks to frontline social workers, counsellors who work the hotlines, and police.

Hill’s book maps the contours of a twisted public debate, through which the rights of children and women to safety – to feel secure, to live free from violence – are repeatedly brought up short by politics.

The Stella Prize will be announced online by Julia Gillard from 8pm (AEST) on Tuesday 14 April 2020.The Conversation

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

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

2019 Stella Prize Shortlist & Winner


The links below are to articles that takes a look at the shortlist for the 2019 Stella Prize, and finally the winner of the prize, ‘The Erratics’ by Vicki Laveau-Harvie.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/07/stella-prize-2019-your-guide-to-the-shortlist
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/09/stella-prize-vicki-laveau-harvies-the-erratics-wins-best-book-by-female-australian-writer
https://www.booktopia.com.au/blog/2019/04/09/2019-stella-prize-winner/

Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s remarkable, uncomfortable memoir wins the 2019 Stella Prize


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Vicki Laveau-Harvie has won the 2019 Stella Prize for her memoir The Erratics. With rare honesty, the book shatters expectations of what a mother should be.
Stella Prize

Camilla Nelson, University of Notre Dame Australia

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.

This is Laveau-Harvie’s debut work – making her the second first-time writer to win in the prize’s seven year history. The book’s road to the Stella Prize is an impressive one: first released by a now-defunct independent publisher, it was reissued by a major publishing house, after being longlisted for the Prize.

Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s debut memoir explores family relationships on the edge.
Stella Prize

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.




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


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.The Conversation

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

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

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



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

Camilla Nelson, University of Notre Dame Australia

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

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

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

Little Gods, Jenny Ackland

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

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

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


The Bridge, Enza Gandolfo

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

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

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

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


Pink Mountain on Locus Island, Jamie Marina Lau

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

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

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

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


The Erratics, Vicki Laveau-Harvie

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

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

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

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

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


Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko

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

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

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

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


Axiomatic, Maria Tumarkin

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

2019 Stella Prize Longlist


The links below are to articles reporting on the longlist for the 2019 Stella Prize.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/07/stella-prize-2019-gail-jones-bri-lee-and-chloe-hooper-make-thrilling-longlist
https://www.booktopia.com.au/blog/2019/02/07/longlist-announced-for-2019-stella-prize/

Alexis Wright wins 2018 Stella Prize for Tracker, an epic feat of Aboriginal storytelling



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Alexis Wright, author of Tracker: a book written in the mode and genre of Aboriginal storytelling.
Stella Prize

Ben Etherington, Western Sydney University

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.

Tracker by Alexis Wright, from Giramondo.

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.




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


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.

The ConversationIt 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.

Ben Etherington, Senior Research Lectureship-literature, Western Sydney University

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

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.