2017 marks the fifth year that the Stella Prize has been awarded: five years of strategic advocacy for women’s writing, five years of necessary adjustments to the unequal focus of our literary culture, and, most importantly, five years of celebration in the form of an internationally visible prize. It feels like an early but important anniversary.
This year the judging panel shortlisted six books, three memoirs and three novels, from more than 180 entries. The common preoccupations of the shortlisted writers align with some of Australia’s most urgent current debates: racism, sexual violence, end-of-life care and the composition of families. These books are a challenge to national complacency. Maxine Beneba Clarke writes, ‘if racism was a shortcoming of the heart, experiencing it is an assault on the mind.’ Her book The Hate Race requires all of us to understand the relentlessness of this assault during children’s formative years in suburban Australia. Emily Maguire, Heather Rose and Cory Taylor also write in various ways about the terrible consequences of racism, although this is not the core focus of their work.
Physical and psychological sexual violence, from social coercion to outright murder, shape the writing of many of our shortlisted authors – most notably Emily Maguire. And three works on the shortlist: Between a Wolf and a Dog, Dying: A Memoir and The Museum of Modern Love present the reader with confronting questions about who is best equipped to make decisions about end-of-life care.
The shortlisted books all explore relationships between mothers and children. The memoir Poum and Alexandre is a maternal character study of great resonance and wisdom, showing how a mother, and a couple prepared to defy fascism were vulnerable to peacetime disparagement on the basis of their relationship. In An Isolated Incident mothering is pliable, passed between sisters as they grow into adulthood, in a country town where mothers do it tough.
A distinctive aspect of the books shortlisted this year is a common exploration of the way stories are told, and the way characters are centrally defined by their individual practice of art and storytelling. Cory Taylor has the heartfelt belief that ‘writing, even if most of the time you are only doing it in your head, shapes the world, and makes it bearable.’ Writing is at the centre of a life she knows she will soon lose. Maxine Beneba Clarke has a refrain and a reminder of ‘that folklore way West Indians have, of weaving a tale’ in her story of self-definition in a hostile environment.
Questions of who we are and what art might achieve are the subject of The Museum of Modern Love. This unusual and original novel asks what it means to be seen – not only to witness the 2010 performance of the artist Marina Abramovic, which frames the book, but what it means for children to be seen by teachers, for friends to apprehend one another, for a photographer to look through a lens, for old lovers to meet in a glance. The meaning of connection and acknowledgement, of vision and performance, is grounded in the convincing lives of Heather Rose’s characters. The significant issues that emerge from the 2017 shortlist, including the horrors of sexual and sectarian violence and the arrangements that might be put in place at the end of a life, appear in this novel that is both an exploration and an example of artistic brilliance. I am delighted to announce that Heather Rose is the 2017 winner of the Stella Prize for her novel The Museum of Modern Love.
– Brenda Walker, Chair of the 2017 Stella Prize judging panel, 18 April 2017