Today the long lists for the Kibble award, for a work by an established woman writer, and the Dobbie award, for the first published work by a woman writer, were released. This is the first time in the awards’ 21-year history that a long list has been announced, the intention being, as Chairperson and author Bridgid Rooney says, to ensure its writers ‘get the recognition they deserve’. In light of this, it seems worthwhile to flag which books on the longlist have been reviewed in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, and those which readers might like to pick up before the shortlist is announced on 5th June, and the winners on 24th July.
The Kibble Literary Award Long List:
James reviewed Michelle de Krester’s fourth novel, Questions of Travel, in the Newtown Review of Books, noting her attempts to defy the criticism that Australian literary fiction lacks ambition with ‘a palimpsest of themes’ that include ‘colonialism, ways of knowing, the soft incursion of technology, migration, tourism, the numbing bite of terror and the mean coinage of tolerance’. However, as the work progressed, he found its ‘declarative prose’ had the effect of boxing in the main characters, Ravi and Laura, and suggested that the author was providing answers to questions, rather than leaving these for the reader to work out. Kathy, of Play, Eat, Learn, Live, who has undertaken the admirable task of reviewing all books on the Stella Prize’s longlist, found the book took a while to get into, but appreciated the author’s ‘calm, measured, almost somnolent voice.’
Annah Faulkner’s The Beloved has been reviewed by Lauren at The Australian Bookshelf. As a fellow Queensland writer with an interest in art and disability, Lauren’s review prompted me to order this book from the library, and I hope that it finds other readers too.
Chloe Hooper’s psychological thriller, The Engagement, has a number of admirers, including Bree at allthebooksicanread, Monique at Write Note Reviews, Rebecca at Lit-icism and Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. Some, such as Caitlin at GoodReads, were more ambivalent, and her entertaining review is worth a read. I also found the book a bit of a let-down (despite being a fan of Hooper’s work), for its well-crafted tension seemed to simply dissipate.
Susan Johnson’s sensuous My Hundred Lovers elicited a range of delicious responses. Lara at This Charming Mum described it as ‘deeply moving’ and ‘blunt and unapologetic in its discussion of the unloveliness of the human body and the awkwardness of self-discovery,’ Linda at the Newtown Review of Books writes that the novel ‘remind[s] us of the wonder of our bodies simply drawing breath,’ Kate at The Truth be Told consumed the book ‘with a passion I usually reserve for expensive wine’, Janine at Resident Judge found it ‘a beautifully written book, expanding love and sexuality to encompass the whole of life and being human,’ while Debra posted a detailed review on the AWW blog and Marg wrote up a readalong hosted by Bree of allthebooksicanread. I also loved the novel’s concept and its absolutely gorgeous writing, and have long been a fan of Johnson’s oeuvre, but was a little let down by the ending.
Cate Kennedy’s book of short stories, Like A House On Fire, was referred to as a ‘hit-and-miss collection’ by ifnotread, while Kathy ‘whipped through it at a rapid pace, finding it not only beautiful, meaningful and moving but also, not to put too fine a point on it, a bloody good read.’ Janine at Resident Judge was, up until the point of reading this, quite opposed to short-stories, but found herself writing, ‘I don’t think that I’ve ever enjoyed a collection of short stories so much.’ It also prompted Denise at GoodReads to go back to Kennedy’s other works.
Patti Miller’s search for her ancestors in her non-fiction work, The Mind of a Thief , was reviewed by Anna Maria Dell’oso at the Newtown Review of Books, Mel at Migratory Mel and Deborah at GoodReads. In general, readers seemed to find themselves unsettled by the book, sometimes questioning its style and delivery, and I wonder if any novel about belonging in Australia will have this effect.
Stephanie Radok’s collection of essays, An Opening: Twelve Love Stories about Art, was intelligently reviewed by Kathy, who described it as ‘telescop[ing] unevenly between [Radok’s] personal reflections and recollections and the wider, more philosophical musings that she engages in with respect to art (particularly indigenous art).’ Radok’s book is on my desk, and I’m planning to review it this weekend.
Mateship with Birds, Carrie Tiffany’s second novel, has been widely and, for the most part, positively, reviewed. I refer readers to Paula Grunseit’s summary of this in her wrap-up of the Miles Franklin longlist.
Dobbie Literary Award Long List:
Paula also noted six reviews of Romy Ash’s Floundering in her roundup of the Stella Prize longlist in February, and mentions Courtney Collins’ The Burial in this same post. Adding to this is a review by Kathy, who describes the narrator as telling ‘the story of the bones of the earth, of the tragedy of wanting to live even when life is pain, of the bush and the struggles it holds.’
Jessie Cole’s Darkness on the Edge of Town was reviewed by Lisa Walker, who makes the interesting comment that this is a ‘you’ll read quickly and then wish you’d read slowly because you don’t want it to end.’ Meanwhile, for Shelleyrae, the prose created ‘a haunting melody of loneliness, grief and desire.’
Lynne Leonhardt’s Finding Jasper was reviewed by Amanda Curtin, who knew the novel when it was a manuscript, and by Elizabeth at Devoted Eclectic. Elizabeth found a resonance with the flawed, female protagonist, and felt the book was haunting, the way music might be.
Jacqueline Wright’s Red Dirt Talking and Lily Chan’s Toyo: A memoir, haven’t yet been reviewed for the AWW Challenge. It would be great to hear some responses to these before the shortlist is announced.
Why do we need awards for women writers?
The short answer is: to redress bias. This is the bias that leads to more books with male authors being reviewed than female authors, which is catalogued by the annual Vida statistics. It’s often an unconscious bias, which means that many take the view that male dominance of our culture is universal, when in fact it’s a skewed perspective because women haven’t been able, or even permitted, to contribute their voices. Even the more well-read among us haven’t been conscious of this attitude, as Elizabeth Lhuede writes in her account of establishing the AWW challenge.
For the long answer, I refer readers to Deborah Copaken Kogan’s eye-opening (and, to continue the bodily metaphors, jaw-dropping) account of her publishing history in which she was denied recognition and had to fight earnestly to be treated as her male peers were. As she writes, ‘There’s a reason J.K. Rowling’s publishers demanded that she use initials instead of “Joanne”: it’s the same reason Mary Anne Evans used the pen name George Eliot; the same reason Robert Southey, then England’s poet laureate, wrote to Charlotte Brontë: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.”‘ It’s also the same reason why Miss Nita Kibble (for whom the award is named by her niece Nita Dobbie) was successful in her application for the position of junior assistant at the Public Library of NSW in the 1800s: her signature was taken for a man’s.
Later, she became the first woman to be appointed a librarian with the State Library of New South Wales and held the position of Principal Research Officer from 1919 until her retirement. Had her writing been taken for a woman’s, she would never have had the opportunity to offer as much as she did to the library profession.
Until a woman’s name on a book means that she’ll be read with the same seriousness as a man’s, we need the Stella, the Barbara Jefferis, the Kibble, and the Dobbie to increase awareness of, and the audience for, Australian women’s writing. I’m damn pleased for every writer on this longlist, and hope that many more readers will find their books because of it, both in the lead-up to and the aftermath of the award ceremony.
I’m Jessica White, a novelist and researcher, and I’ve been deaf since age 4 when I lost most of my hearing from meningitis. I have a PhD from the University of London and have published two novels with Penguin, A Curious Intimacy (2007), about botany and lesbianism, and Entitlement (2012), about Native Title and grief. A Curious Intimacy was shortlisted for the Dobbie award in 2008. You can find more information about me at my website. I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.