8 April 2019

Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s 2019 Stella Prize acceptance speech

I would like to acknowledge that this event is being held on the traditional lands of the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin Nation, and pay my respect to their Elders, past, present and emerging.

I want to begin by thanking all those who contribute to making the Stella Prize the remarkable beacon it is in the Australian literary landscape: the administrators and the ambassadors; the judges; the generous patrons who support the prize plus all the wonderful donors, large and small.

And to thank every person here tonight: each one of you upholds, by your presence, the belief that the written word is important, powerful, worth all it takes to do it –  and that women writers should, and must, be given the means and the recognition to hold up half of the literary sky.

I have felt honoured to be one of the twelve long-listed authors, and then one of the six on the shortlist for the Stella Prize. I am proud to be in their company, and to be here tonight with these women whose books are beautiful, confronting, ground-breaking, timely, essential, books that leave your world better than it was before you read them.

This prize rewards women who write truth – historical, political, and the truth of the heart and the soul: the truth of individuals, of each of us, and the truth of the world we live in.

Receiving the 2019 Stella Prize will make this year one I will not forget. It’s going to be the year of the Stella for me, and I am thrilled by the opportunities it opens up.

But I think it should also be much more broadly the year of the Stella, for another reason. This is a time when speaking truth seems more important than ever. These are times when the powerful seem determined to make words mean what they want them to mean (‘exonerated’ now meaning ‘not enough evidence to convict’). We hear phrases like ‘alternative facts’, and ‘fake narrative’, and wonder how those are even semantically possible.

This prize rewards women who write truth – historical, political, and the truth of the heart and the soul: the truth of individuals, of each of us, and the truth of the world we live in.

The generosity of this prize is going to allow me to make my time count, to travel for the research I need to do for the next book I hope to write. I will be able to stand on Main Street in Neche, North Dakota, population 702, where my grandfather decided, a century ago, to walk away from his life as it was, to make something better. I can start digging there, trying to find clues to the hidden quarter of my heritage, of which I have only recently become aware. I hope I will find the threads of stories that might resonate for anyone with family; I know they will be the stories of us all.

The generosity of this prize is going to allow me to make my time count, to travel for the research I need to do for the next book I hope to write.

Family secrets again, but with wider ramifications than those I wrote about in The Erratics.

I am beholden to use my time and my resources wisely because I have been awarded this prize. I must discover a real story; think and feel and write, not just a family saga set partially in North America, but a story hopefully more relevant and universal, which wrestles with questions of how we know who we are, what makes us who we are, and why we sometimes turn our backs on what went before us. How we define a meaningful life, and what compromise and grief we are willing to endure to live that life.

And since I have, somewhat in spite of myself, taken you off to a landscape of wide open spaces and big skies, I would like to tell you a little story that takes place in a landscape like this – but it’s a story about a book.

When I was ten or eleven, I was an avid reader, although now I have difficulty remembering the titles of the books I devoured. I read books beyond my years, partly thanks to the librarians at the local library, boredom or complicity on their part, who knows; and partly because my parents belonged to the Book-of-the-Month Club, and new books arrived regularly.

Sometimes the new book did not hang around on the coffee table or the piano. It disappeared. That’s when I knew I needed to get my hands on it, because it would have coarse language and adult themes, both of which appeared to be keys to an adult world I was trying to figure out.

I remember one book clearly from that time, and I don’t know if it was one of the disappeared ones (which I always found) but I doubt it. My memory is that it was tame. It was historical romance, set on the American prairies in the early 20th Century. (I haven’t managed to find it on the web yet, but I will.)

Our heroine is a beautiful young woman with aspirations. She takes singing lessons but she doesn’t just want to be modestly accomplished. She wants to study abroad, to practise and to perform, to make something of her gift and be acknowledged.

She stands at the top of a rise on the prairie, it’s either sunrise or sunset, I can’t remember, and she sings. She closes her eyes to the beauty of the landscape before her, the rolling hills, the golden wheat, a brave stand of trees in the distance. She ignores her small audience of prairie dogs and the occasional eagle.  She desperately wants to be somewhere else. She sings her heart out.

A well-presented young man, her suitor, has ridden in from behind her. He gets off his horse some distance away and she doesn’t notice the whispering grass announcing his approach, because she is singing. She has unbuttoned the top buttons of her bodice so she can slip her dress down over her shoulders a little, a sort of Montana version of an opera singer’s gown. (Don’t worry – this is as raunchy as it gets.)

She clasps her hands at her waist like a diva and sings.

You can see where this is going: there will be a proposal and all that ensues – and all that ensues is not all bad. That’s the rub – some of what ensues is good, glorious even. But you just know that her singing will be become restricted now to lullabies for calming fretful babies, and hymns in church, and you probably feel as bad about that as I do.

You know that soon this heroine is going to really need something like a Stella Prize. I don’t think she had that luck. This story has stayed clear in my memory for half a century, when I have forgotten other books, because she did not have that luck.

I’m sure many of you are thinking that this is a dinosaur tale from another time, and in lots of ways you are right. Things have changed, but not as much as one would hope. Reading the results of the Stella Count shows us that equality is not yet the norm, that women’s talents and achievements are not yet striving to excel on a level playing field. That’s why what is happening here tonight is important.

I’ll close by thanking, again, all the people who have accompanied and supported me and The Erratics: The Stella Prize – again, my gratitude for this honour and this chance to go further – but also those close to me, friends and family, especially my wonderful children, one of whom is here tonight.

The Erratics, which is my first book, has had an unusual publishing story. It won the Finch Memoir Prize in 2018, and then found itself out of print six months later, last December, when that publisher closed.

It has been supported and rescued by the actions and efforts of a series of remarkable women I can only call my fairy godmothers, for lack of a better way of thinking of them, and I am sorry not to mention them all here – the list is long. Among them, however, are Caroline Baum, Jeanne Ryckmans, my agent, and Harper Collins Fiction Editor Catherine Milne. My book is out in the world again with a magnificent new cover that makes my heart sing.

Thank you.

 

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