28 July 2015
Without a keeper of words, stories tumble and fall, eventually melting into the ether, never to be heard of again. Stories link us to our mob, doesn’t matter if you are Koorie, Irish, Kiwi, Welsh or Indian. It’s the listening and telling of these stories that bring our people close, both young and old. Stories keep our culture and our faith alive.
— Grace Beside Me by Sue McPherson
Magabala Books, 2012
Stella Schools Coordinator Bec Kavanagh once told me that the Schools Program is all about the inclusion of voices, not the exclusion of any.
She was referring to the program’s objectives of bringing more Australian women’s writing to set-text lists and classroom discussions – to subvert cultural assumptions that men are better writers, simply because women have long been excluded from school curricula and the canon.
Bec’s words struck me as a good tagline for a new movement happening in Australian literature: #LoveOzYA.
For a while now, Australian YA has been underrated in its own market by global forces – a fact that was made painfully evident recently when the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) released lists of the most borrowed books from public libraries across the country. The list of most-borrowed YA titles was a strikingly star-spangled lineup, with 8 of the top ten places occupied by American titles.
It’s fair to say that #LoveOzYA has been borne from necessity, in much the same way the Stella Prize was. The prize was conceived in 2011 in light of the fact that, at that point, only 10 individual women had ever won the Miles Franklin Literary Award over its 54-year history, and also to combat the underrepresentation of women on the literary pages of the major Australian newspapers and on school booklists. Similarly, after becoming aware of the mounting evidence that Australian youth literature is often overlooked in favour of its international equivalents, a fire has been lit within the YA community.
And underneath it all runs this message: the inclusion of voices, not the exclusion of any.
Reading anything is a marvellous act. To quote author Libba Bray, ‘Every time you open a book, it is a strike against ignorance.’ The #LoveOzYA movement has not been conceived to chastise young readers for choosing American YA authors over Australian. Instead, we are trying to help Australian YA be heard over the deafening boom of American blockbusters – because right now the market is crowded; with nine international buy-ins for every one Australian YA book published.
More than anything, we are trying to show young Australian readers that their voices matter – that stories about them and for them are important. Just as it can be frustrating for women to work, read and write within a system that overlooks their stories, I’d hate to think that Australian teenagers are being led to assume that only American writers are able to portray their experiences or write stories that will resonate with them.
I also see the #LoveOzYA movement as crucial to the continued momentum of the Australian arm of the We Need Diverse Books campaign. True, this movement started in America, but just as #LoveOzYA has created a conversation around national identity, #WeNeedDiverseBooks has become part of the broader discussion around a lack of diversity in book publishing generally. Australian literature – especially youth literature – needs to have very different conversations and outcomes around campaigning for more diversity in our literature, particularly concerning Indigenous voices. I see #LoveOzYA as a means to support the We Need Diverse Books movement in Australia, because if Australian books are drowned out by international titles, we’ll struggle even more to support diverse voices within our own market.
#LoveOzYA and the Stella Prize are united in their efforts to promote Australian writers and literature. Just as the Stella Prize grew out of the wonderful support of the literary community, including writers, booksellers, publishers and beyond, #LoveOzYA has taken off on the strength of its own grassroots community – the readers, bloggers, vloggers, booksellers, teachers, librarians, writers, editors, and publicists.
#LoveOzYA and the Stella Prize share a common goal in supporting and enriching Australian literary culture, to the benefit of writers and readers, and inspiring future generations to come. Stella has already done so much in paving the way for Australian women writers – through the Prize, Schools Program and Stella Count – to ensure the inclusion of their voices, where once they were excluded. In this, too, I see a connection with #LoveOzYA, which encourages young people to read Australian YA, so that they may grow up knowing the value of Australian stories. After all, it’s the listening and telling of these stories that bring our people close, both young and old. Stories keep our culture and our faith alive.
#LoveOzYa image credit: Braiden Asciak