10 April 2018

Alexis Wright’s 2018 Stella Prize acceptance speech

I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of this land and pay my respects to the Elders past and present.

I would also like to acknowledge the ancestral stories of our people, which we safeguard in the world’s oldest library – the land, seas, skies and atmosphere of this country.

Thank you to the judges and the administrators of the prize, distinguished guests, and all of you who share our rich community of letters for being here tonight to celebrate the phenomenal strength that the Stella Prize is giving to women’s writing.

I have the deepest respect for the remarkable books of all the nominees:

Shokoofeh Azar, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree

Claire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius

Michelle de Kretser, The Life to Come

Krissy Kneen, An Uncertain Grace

Mirandi Riwoe, The Fish Girl

As writers, we deeply understand the commitment each of us has made to writing; to a solitary occupation of working with words; to finding ways of focusing on the writing over the long journeys it takes to develop books that are worthy of matching the high standards we set for ourselves.

What is foremost in our minds as we write is that one day we will reach the end of the journey, and perhaps that we will have a manuscript that in some way resembles the original vision, idea, quest, goal, need or whatever it was that we once had in our mind about the need to write a book. This backstory to writing is the personal one, and perhaps kept more sacred than the book itself.

We all have incredible stories behind the creation of the books we write, and I have always believed that any book is nothing less than a monumental achievement.

The great celebration today is that we have many exciting, diverse voices in the world of Australian letters. We encompass the world right here in our literature. And even in this shortlist that has been judged as being some of the very best of women’s literature published in the past year, we demonstrate our remarkable diversity, internationalism, and maturity as people of many backgrounds, and here including Indonesia, Iran and Sri Lanka, as well as two Aboriginal writers. A literary dialogue that allows us to have greater knowledge and understanding of each other, and acceptance of difference, and respect for each other in our diversity, is what will make Australian literature truly marvellous, relevant, and far stronger than it has ever been.

I can tell you that I am completely overwhelmed that Tracker has won the Stella this year and cannot believe it. I was not expecting something like this, and I really had to spend some time unpacking this idea.

Although I could not be happier with this book and the tremendous feedback it has been receiving from readers since its publication last November, it is truly amazing that Tracker has been acknowledged by the Stella judges in this way. I am totally floored, and would like to thank you for considering the important messages in this book and its style. I wanted it to be a book for our times and from our place in the world. I am deeply grateful to you for helping Tracker reach a greater audience.

Tracker Tilmouth was a visionary and a person of enormous inner strength who genuinely loved this land and knew it like the back of his hand. And much more, he genuinely made people feel alive. He could do this to people no matter who they were. He would do this whether it was through his thinking and ideas of how to build Aboriginal economies, political maneuvering and analysis, or from his endlessly sharp and, at times, irreverent wit, from the jokes that would make you laugh or make you annoyed with him. Or he could make you feel alive from the way he endlessly challenged you to be much more than how you saw yourself, or wanted to be.

He took people out of their comfort zone, and he had the ability to get through the doors of the highest places in this country to articulate an Aboriginal position. Getting through the door was the goal as far as he was concerned. Even though he was serious about his objectives, he always enjoyed the arguments and the negotiations and relished the contest. He would say to me, You got to have fun, Wrighty, and he did. And if he saw me or anyone overdoing it, or trying too hard to make a case that he thought might be wasted, he would say, Come on, Wrighty, stop feeding cream to pigs.

I wished he could have lived longer and have realised more of his visionary ideas about how to build a strong economic future on traditional lands for many Aboriginal people, to fulfil his vision for the enjoyment and use of land rights.

His ideas are in this book through his words, and from his archives – the minds of the people who knew him. He would have wanted you to make his ideas your own, and to elaborate on his ideas, and make the vision splendid (a favourite phrase of Tracker’s) greater than anything you ever imagined possible.

I thought very deeply about how to develop this book about him by using our own storytelling principle of consensus. I was not always sure that my approach would work as I continued on a long journey of six years from conception to finish, and gathering a mountain of material, but I was sure collaborative storytelling was the right way, and that it did work in the end is what matters. I am grateful for the storytelling skills of our culture and carried them into the book, which allowed, as Tracker himself wanted, everyone to speak for themselves, to tell their own part in the story.

I would like to express my gratitude to Tracker, and the many people who so generously spoke about the way that much of this country’s history with Aboriginal people was shaped during Tracker’s lifetime and through his life’s work in trying to achieve better outcomes in this history. I am grateful for the opportunity a grant from the Australian Research Council provided for developing some of the work on this book. I would also like to say thank you to the University of Western Sydney’s Writing and Society Research Centre for the great support you gave me through the development of the book.

I thank my publisher, Giramondo Publishing, and Ivor Indyk and Nick Tapper for their patience, thought and belief in this book of which I am very proud.

Thank you to Toly and our children for the greatest gift of all: your understanding and love.

I know that John Wiley is also here tonight. John and his wife Myriam Boisbouvier-Wylie are among the greatest supporters of Australian literature. They established and fund the Boisbouvier Chair in Australian Literature that I currently hold at the University of Melbourne, and in collaboration with the State Library of Victoria.

I feel very honoured that Tracker’s daughter Shaneen and her husband, Luke, and their two little girls are here tonight. Tracker totally and utterly adored, and delighted in, his granddaughters Elaina and Yvette. I think he would have been proud for them to see a book about their poppa being awarded one of the country’s most prestigious literary awards, the Stella Prize for 2018.

Thank you.

– Alexis Wright, winner of the 2018 Stella Prize for Tracker, 12 April 2018

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