27 April 2016
This year the Stella Prize had 173 entries: 173 books by women, who in the process of writing these books must have felt, to some degree or other, like Dorothy Hewett, who described herself in her autobiography Wild Card, as ‘possessed’ by words. When Dorothy wrote in the 1930s and later about ‘the important business of being a woman’, she makes it clear that writing was not at that time regarded as part of women’s business.
It took great force of character on the part of writers like Dorothy, and the considerable energy of literary agents, publishers, readers and reviewers to make literature the ‘important business’ of so many women in Australia. That important work is incomplete. The Stella Prize is part of a vital initiative to reward women’s books that are judged to be ‘excellent, original and engaging’ – refreshingly straightforward terms for the qualities readers value.
This year there were hard choices to be made, because the quality of the books was so high. The judges talked for a very full day about the shortlist. The books have a common preoccupation with women’s identity. In Mireille Juchau’s novel The World Without Us a character asks herself: ‘What am I?’ In Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things a character is told by a brutal guard that ‘You need to know what you are’ – and by the end of the novel she does, but not in the way he intended. Peggy Frew’s character Silver has to disentangle herself from a mother who sees herself, and only herself, in her child. Tegan Bennett Daylight’s adult characters ‘dress as ourselves, now’ – although as her stories show it takes time to work through the costumes that lead to a stable self. In one of Elizabeth Harrower’s stories a child finds herself ‘obliterated’ when the lights go out in a public place. Fiona Wright’s anorexia sufferers are so frail that ‘none of us had felt solid, somehow, for years.’
The question ‘What am I?’ seems to move through these books. Characters resist contemptuous definitions of who they are. Sometimes these definitions come from other women. They resist aggression, co-option and manipulation.
Some find confirmation in literature: Fiona Wright looks to Christina Stead, among others; Tegan Bennett Daylight’s character sticks passages from Helen Garner on her wall; Verla, in The Natural Way of Things remembers fleeting and unromantic lines from Walt Whitman. Fiona Wright releases herself in words, which she describes as ‘the strongest steel I have.’ Most of the books emphasize the physical, the value of the functional feminine body. The Natural Way of Things is particularly eloquent about this, through the resourceful character of the trapper Yolanda. In my imagination the shortlisted books are shelved together, in some beneficial category labeled ‘what you are?’
As well as self-definition, these books are concerned with communities and micro-communities: dystopian alternative communities, in the case of The World Without Us and Hope Farm, where the promise of communal living and rural bounty breaks down in the face of catastrophe; the community of harassed women in Colombo and ill women in Sydney that Fiona Wright describes in Small Acts of Disappearance; tense conjunctions of characters in Elizabeth Harrower’s A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories; the fraying or smug families of Six Bedrooms, and finally the gathering of beaten and defiant women, collectively punished for inconveniencing powerful men, who form a community of prisoners in The Natural Way of Things: a book that is so fierce and wise, so imaginative and so grounded in sad facts.
And therefore, on behalf of my fellow Stella judges and after much deliberation, I am pleased to announce that the winner of the 2016 Stella Prize is:
Charlotte Wood for The Natural Way of Things.
– Brenda Walker, Chair of the 2016 Stella Prize judging panel, 19 April 2016