8 May 2014

The 2014 Stella Prize award night: speeches & pics

Annabel Crabb

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Annabel Crabb gave a fabulous keynote speech:

In the last six months, I have slept with more than 160 women. It sounds exhausting, because it is. But I do mean it quite literally. I have fallen asleep with my face in biographies, historical adaptations, and with bold new voices in fiction lending fierce, yet tautly compelling, narratives to my dreams. I have curled up with feminist polemics, and graphic novels. My bedside table is a tottering tribute to my promiscuity. For months, I read, and read, and read, with an appetite verging on the goatish. But at some point each night, usually with my forefinger marking the page and the bedside lamp lightly tanning my eyelids, I inevitably dropped off.

I have learned many things. I have learned, for instance, that the very best thing about reading a great book is the same as the very worst thing about reading a bad book; the deep and unshakeable secret suspicion that perhaps if I wrote a book, it would turn out like this one.

When you read as normal human beings read, you are guided by all sorts of unseen forces. You choose things you think you’ll like. You avoid things you just know you’re going to hate. You read things you have to read. And necessarily, it means that you miss out. Increasingly, in recent decades, I have read for business rather than specifically for pleasure. The stack of porky political memoirs, essays, policy tomes, biographies, forensic accounts of the rise of this person and the fall of that one never seems to get any smaller. I should read them all, and I try to, so to take any time out at all to read anything outside of politics, has over the years – and this has got worse with every baby – started to feel like an indulgence. So I cut back on all those other genres: Fiction. Fantasy. Exercise and diet books. Self-help. Horror. Travel writing. Apart from, of course, Bob Carr’s memoir, which is – happily – all of those things.

So when I signed up for Stella, it was with the inexpressibly sick strategy that if I turned the reading of other books into an actual obligation, I could then enjoy them guilt-free. And it worked like a charm.

Reading as a judge is a completely different sort of experience. Instead of picking your own weird little goat-track through the books published in any given year, all of a sudden you’re reading all of them. This gives you a perspective unavailable to just about anyone else, with the possible exception of certain parts of the publishing industry, a tiny slice of the OCD community, and a hardy band of retired English teachers.

All of a sudden, you start to see patterns. A rash of “Every Mother’s Nightmare” books. A strong contingent of emotionally-knotty adventures set in tropical, exotic or distant climes. I blame the artificially depressed price of international airline travel for these, plus the ghostly hand of Michelle de Kretser, who in her Miles Franklin winner Questions of Travel did what countless thousands of Australians before her have impotently aspired to do, which is to write a superb novel about backpacking. I am reminded of 1991, when Andrew McGahan’s Praise won the Vogel, and everyone I knew at university – myself included – sat down to write our own gritty works incorporating filthy share houses, doomed love affairs and stoned misadventures. I would like personally to express my sympathy for any subsequent Vogel judge who had to weather that derivative wave of dirty realism.

Folded inside every great novel are the countless spores of its illegitimate children; now there’s a depressing thought.

But I must say for all the rough stuff I encountered on the way, my Stella reading was a chasteningly good experience. Chasteningly, because when I sat down to read such a vast cross-section of the books written by Australian women in the last year, I realised how much good stuff I’ve missed from not doing so every year.

So many stories, so many ideas, so many insights. I miss them because I read predominantly for work. Others might miss them every year for all sorts of reasons; because they’re not up the front at bookshops, or because they’re not reviewed in the paper. That’s the beating heart of the Stella idea, I suppose; it’s a bid not to create quality, but to remind you, by means of a discreet little bookshop cough, where you might easily find it. We all need a little push.

Let me tell you a little about the judging process. I should mention, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the Stella bylaws, that the Prize mandates the appointment of five judges. Four are to be experts. One judging post is to be reserved for a high-profile person who is not known primarily as an author. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen: Of the judges on the panel, I alone courageously represent the voice of inexpert Australia. And it’s a responsibility I do not wear lightly, I assure you.

The actual expertise was supplied by our chair, Kerryn Goldsworthy, and her colleagues Brenda Walker, Tony Birch and Fiona Stager. At our all-day judging session – sort of like the best-ever English literature tutorial, without the annoying Kerouac groupie – we agreed of our shortlist that all of us could live with any one of those six books winning. In one way, of course, that made it harder. But in another, it was a blessed release. I can assure you there was none of that stomping and huffing you hear about from time to time, and I would like to thank my fellow judges for their wisdom and good humour.

And we ended up with a pearler of a shortlist. Three nonfiction and three fiction, which was a complete accident, but a terrifically nice one. It’s all about Wrights and Nights, of course, which was also – I promise – an accident, but which makes us extremely at home in this first term of the Abbott Government.

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It’s not necessary for Stella books to be about women, but it’s something I love very much about this shortlist that every single book on it tells us a hidden woman’s story.

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites has been a huge success, and rightly so. How extraordinary that a 200-year-old Icelandic murderess could be exhumed from her freezing grave, a shriveled packet of unreadable old passions, a Scandinavian bog-woman, and so tenderly have the life breathed back into her by a young Adelaide writer. Hannah Kent’s technical skills are so obvious that they hardly need me to point them out, but to bring deep suspense to a story whose ending is clear from the very beginning; quite an achievement. A very hard book to stop reading.

Anna Krien is one of Australia’s most compelling long-form journalists. Her toughness and persistence is evident all the way through Night Games, the story of a rape case involving a shifting number of AFL footy players, depending on whether you were part of the jury or not. The amazing thing about Krien is that her toughness is combined with this incredible sensitivity, which is what makes this such a special book. As a reporter, she’s covered with nerve endings, and that’s a hard way to be, especially in the cops and footy areas. You can feel the intellectual and emotional work she’s put into this book on every page.

Fiona McFarlane is a baffling proposition; a young woman, a first-time novelist, who has written, in The Night Guest, about an old woman with such assurance and panache that by the half-way mark I wanted to requisition her birth certificate. Who are the most hidden women in literature? Old women, and this book is hugely sharp, funny, sexy and all those other things that books about old women hardly ever are. It made me laugh out loud, and I’ve circled the exact places where, Fiona, just in case you’re anything like me and always want to know.

Kristina Olsson’s book Boy, Lost is a mesmerising reminder that sometimes the person closest to you in the world can be a hidden person. To write about the suffering of others is an unavoidably intimate thing to do. To write about the suffering of one’s own mother is unbearable, especially if it’s news to you, and yet somehow Olsson manages to keep it together. I don’t know how, God knows I didn’t, I was a mess reading it. A snatched child. A lifetime of missed chances at reunion. It’s a work of love, miraculous in its sheer emotional stamina, its faith, so like that of a child.

Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book is literally about a hidden woman; a girl who hides in a hollow tree while the world disintegrates around her. But nothing else about The Swan Book is literal; of all the things I learned from this book, the most profound was a new way of reading, the discipline of patience it instills in a reader, the value of simply sitting still and listening to a raucous, cacophonic, elliptical display of rage and beauty. Reading this book is like sitting through the most extraordinary electrical storm. For a while, you fight against your powerlessness in the face of it. And after a bit, it dawns on you that that’s the point.

And finally, Clare Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. Over ten years, Clare Wright took to the nation’s well-known portrait of the Eureka rebellion with all the care of a conservator, dabbing away it and revealing, stroke by stroke, the women who had silently been there all along. It’s hard to imagine a more exciting work of history, and indeed this brick of a book is thrilling from the very first page, demonstrating that even the events we think we know so well can harbour vast and teeming secret lives.

I recommend all six of these books to you tonight. I hope I have adequately preserved the last secret – which of them has won the Stella Prize – for the last final agonising minutes of my life in which I am formally required to do so. I am a journalist, so discretion is not my strongest point. My mother-in-law, a retired English teacher who read all of the long list, has been at me like you wouldn’t believe. I have a text message to her ready to go, as soon as Kerryn is out of her chair.

At this moment, each one of those six books is a contender. And for us as judges, they always were.  

– Annabel Crabb, 2014 Stella Prize judge

Kerryn Goldsworthy

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Kerryn Goldsworthy announced the winner:

This has been a very easy speech to write, for three reasons. First of all it needed to be short; there’s really only one thing that you want to hear from me. Secondly, there was no need to think of any jokes, as I knew that I would be following Annabel and anyone who tries to be funny in the wake of Annabel is doomed to failure. And thirdly, the hardest part of any piece of writing is always the ending, and in this case I had my punch line ready-made.

Many of you will have noticed that this year there were equal numbers of fiction and nonfiction books on both the longlist and the shortlist. This happened quite by chance, and all of the books were in direct competition with each other. Next year the ratio may be different, but the principle will be the same: the prize will go to the book the judges deem the best.

Still, one of the many questions that people ask about the Stella Prize is the one that goes ‘How do you compare fiction with nonfiction? Isn’t it like comparing apples with oranges?’

But as anyone who’s ever tried to do it knows, even just comparing one novel with another novel is in itself a bit like comparing apples with oranges. There’s no question about it: judging literary prizes is hard. But the answer lies in the Stella Prize criteria, which can be found at the website: the guidelines say ‘The winning book will be excellent, original and engaging.’

This combination of qualities is what the judges are looking for. And when you look at the entries through that particular lens, it becomes much easier to compare any given book with any other. What the judges have to decide is which of the entries, whatever genre or form they may take, combines those three qualities most successfully.

This can involve a high degree of difficulty for writers. If you are writing, say, a contemporary realist novel, then true originality of either style or subject matter can be quite hard to achieve. And if you’re writing in a genre like history or biography that requires scrupulous scholarship and close attention to detail, it can sometimes be difficult to be consistently engaging. Excellence, of course, is achievable in any form and any field, but by definition, excellence can be pretty elusive as well.

Every book on the shortlist meets all of our three criteria in different ways, so we had six different kinds of books to juggle and judge against each other, almost all of which combined two or more genres in their different storytelling tasks. As all good books should, they address subjects of significance and concern, and indeed among the six, they cover a startling array of gruesome topics: domestic violence, dementia, arson, rape, murder, execution, bloody rebellion, and catastrophic climate change on a global scale.

Fortunately, each of these books has its lighter moments, including a tiger prowling around the living room, an Aboriginal elder who looks like Mick Jagger, and a store on the Ballarat goldfields advertising breast pumps for sale. And each of the authors treats even her darkest materials with some combination of generosity, intellect, humour, hope and style. The shortlist includes a few brightly coloured streaks of surrealism, quite a lot of social history, some tragedy, some comedy, a dystopian vision, an assortment of characters brilliantly brought to life, and some bold ventures into both the future and the past.

Perhaps most importantly, all of these books are full of ideas. And they give us not only new stories, but also new ideas about old stories. The book we’ve chosen as this year’s winner is full of stories, and full of ideas. It sheds new light on a dark old tale; it breaks new ground in an energetic and fearless way; and it combines intellectual distinction with liveliness and humour. The winner of the 2014 Stella Prize – for her excellent, original and engaging book – is Clare Wright with The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka.

– Kerryn Goldsworthy, chair of the 2014 Stella Prize judging panel

Clare Wright

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Clare Wright gave a generous and inspiring acceptance speech:

No one writes books to win prizes, but holy flip it feels astonishingly good to have won the Stella. Of all the literary prizes on offer, I reckon this one is the sweetest of all. The Stella Prize is like the Brownlow Medal of the book world: all muscle, spine, grit, determination, courage and skill with a touch of glamour. Only at the Stellas, we get to bring not only our WAGs, but also our HABs ­— our husbands and boyfriends. Here’s a shout out to all the fellas who have made such an effort to look so smashing tonight. My husband is unfortunately at home looking after the kids but I know he was relishing the chance to walk the red carpet with me tonight.  I told him not to worry as next year the Stellas are sure to be at Crown Casino and we’ll book the babysitter heaps earlier.

First up, I have some serious thanking to do.

My thanks to:

Hannah Kent, Anna Krien, Fiona McFarlane, Kristina Olsson and Alexis Wright and to Debra Adelaide, Gabrielle Carey, Melissa Lucashenko, Anne Summers, Helen Trinca and Evie Wyld for giving the world your beautiful, fearsome and fearless books. I am deeply honoured to be in the company of such talented authors, some of whom I’ve admired from afar for a very long time, others whose work I am excited to have only just discovered. Also to all your publishers for backing your talent and vision.

The Stella judges and the Stella Executive and Board, who have worked tirelessly to make this event possible. If it’s any consolation to you, Miles Franklin wrote this in a letter to Vida Goldstein’s mother in 1911: “It is inefficient to be worked to death always like we are. Now I think the inefficiency lies in the fact that we try to do more than we can. It is not supposed to be an intelligent thing to run any machine beyond its limit and yet that is what is done with the human machine all the time. I am going to try a readjustment from this time on.  I’ll only work about twenty-four hours out of every day instead of twenty-six.”

To the many patrons, donors and sponsors who make this a truly grassroots award.

To my family, particularly my husband Damien, my kids, Bernie, Noah and Esther, and my mother Ruth, for their constant love and support in the face of absence and seemingly endless Eureka madness;

To the History Program at La Trobe University, who physically housed and intellectually nourished me over the course of my research, and the Australian Research Council who funded my postdoctoral fellowship.

To my agent, Jacinta di Mase, who is just frankly awesome.

To my editor, Mandy Brett, a saviour and now a friend.

And to Michael Heyward and everyone at the magnificent Text Publishing for taking a punt on a big book of historical nonfiction about a bunch of noisy sheilas getting up to no good on the nineteenth-century frontier.

In 2007, Professor of History at Harvard University, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, famously remarked that “well-behaved women seldom make history”. Well the women of Eureka certainly proved Ulrich’s Law when they raised their voices above the carefully modulated tones of Victorian-era convention in order to proclaim the people’s right to freedom and independence in a new upside-down society where merit was supposed to count for more than inheritance.

I don’t think it’s too cute to say that my book, which aims to write those women back into the historical roots of Australia’s political culture, parallels the ambition of the Stella Prize, conceived as a means to redress the quantifiable imbalance of esteem and visibility given to female authors in Australia’s literary culture. The Stella Prize, in its own not-so-quiet way, has ushered in a new dawn of recognition for Australian women’s writing, celebrating equity over elitism and excellence over entitlement.  Ellen Young, one of the leaders of the 1854 democratic protest movement, would have been proud. “However we may lament great misdeeds in high places”, wrote Ellen, “justice must be awarded to the universal demand of an indignant people”.

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Last year, the inaugural Stella winner, Carrie Tiffany, manifested the spirit of the Stellas by donating a portion of her award to her fellow shortlistees. This year, the Nelson Meers Foundation has replicated that generosity. But I too would like to use the opportunity of my great good fortune to give something back. I believe in the power of the written word to create change, to make a difference; to change the life of individuals, to change our national life, and with any luck to change our planet’s lifespan. I also believe we should all have equal access to that power. With this in mind, I intend to donate 10% of my award, split between two organisations  that work indefatigably to achieve such empowerment.

The first is the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which works at a community level to raise literacy levels and close the gap in educational outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. It’s astonishing and heartbreaking to realise that just $140 will buy an ILF Early Literacy Book Pack for remote communities. My donation will allow the ILF to get twenty early literacy kits in the Book Buzz project into the hands of families (mothers, babies and toddlers) in the family engagement program that is run in Alice Springs through the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress.

The second organisation is my local high school, whose dedicated teachers work within the constraints of an under-funded public system to give all our kids the benefits of the free, secular education that is their birthright in a democratic nation. I will donate $2500 to Northcote High School, to be held in trust to fund an annual academic award, the Eureka Prize for Women’s History. This prize will recognise originality and creativity in a project, in any discipline, that investigates the experiences, ideas and actions of a woman or women in the past.

I am grateful for the chance afforded me by my Stella Prize to make these modest gestures.

But I am perhaps most thrilled that the prominence afforded by being a prize-winning author will bring new readers to my book.  I think my fellow authors will agree that it is always the response of readers that makes all the long, lonely, hungry hours of research and writing worthwhile.  It’s when I get emails like this one from “Jo”, which I received last week, that I know why we do it:

“Dear Clare, my husband has just given me a copy of your book “The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka”.  I have only just started reading it and am fascinated already. I am 73 years old and when I was learning about the Stockade at school, many years ago, I told my teacher that my grandmother’s aunt had been hidden in straw by her husband in their tent on the stockade. I was told off for telling lies and went home very upset as I remember my grandmother telling me this story.  Well lucky me, my mum had a copy of her obituary (which I still have) published in the Ballarat newspaper dated 1927 and entitled “A Grand Old Lady” – Ballarat memories”. It is quite a long notice and tells this story of how Sarah was hidden by her husband William Wilmot in the straw in their tent.  I took this to school and my history teacher actually apologised and said she did not realise that there were any women at the stockade. I have always been interested in the history of our country and my grandmother loved to tell me stories of our family as I was such a willing listener.” 

If only our national cultural and political institutions were as good listeners as Jo.

Professor Ulrich, in a less-well-known passage, also had this to say about story-telling and history-making:

“History is a conversation and sometimes a shouting match between present and past, though often the voices we most want to hear are barely audible. People make history by passing on gossip, saving old records, and by naming rivers, mountains, and children. Some people leave only their bones, though bones too make a history when someone notices.”

My sincere thanks to the Stella Prize for starting this marvellous conversation. There is no doubt that people are taking notice.  I confidently predict that before too long, there will be very little shouting and a whole lot more listening.

– Clare Wright, winner of the 2014 Stella Prize for The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka

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Sam Meers presenting the shortlist prizes. Thanks to the Nelson Meers Foundation, 2014 Stella Prize shortlistees received $2000 prizemoney each.

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Brenda Walker, Aviva Tuffield, Clare Wright and Annabel Crabb

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Annabel Crabb, Clare Wright and Claudia Karvan

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Clare Wright and Anne Summers

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Clare Wright, Fiona McFarlane, Hannah Kent and Kristina Olsson

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The 2014 Stella Prize winner, Clare Wright

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