The great celebration today is that we have many exciting, diverse voices in the world of Australian letters. We encompass the world right here in our literature. And even in this shortlist that has been judged as being some of the very best of women’s literature published in the past year, we demonstrate our remarkable diversity, internationalism, and maturity as people of many backgrounds, and here including Indonesia, Iran and Sri Lanka, as well as two Aboriginal writers. A literary dialogue that allows us to have greater knowledge and understanding of each other, and acceptance of difference, and respect for each other in our diversity, is what will make Australian literature truly marvellous, relevant, and far stronger than it has ever been.
This is an extract from the Stella Prize acceptance speech by Waanyi author Alexis Wright, who won the 2018 Stella Prize for her collective biography, Tracker, about Tracker Tilmouth. Wright was given a standing ovation as she collected her award, and deservedly so, as she gave expression to a form – collective biography – which stems from an Aboriginal ‘storytelling principle of consensus’. Wright acknowledges how diversity in our literature leads to empathy and acceptance. Reading opens minds in a way that perhaps no other form does. Given this, it’s good to see that 37 titles have been nominated by their readers as featuring diversity in some way in March and April, including those on the Stella shortlist.
As Sue T mentioned in her Literary and Classics roundup, one blogger has reviewed Tracker (thanks Nancy!). It’s a huge book, but it would be great to see some more reviews of this work over the next few months.
Terra Nullius by Aboriginal writer Claire G Coleman was also shortlisted for the Stella. Her novel has been widely reviewed by AWW readers, with Kim, Sue & Anna adding their reviews in April & May. Kim didn’t warm to the book, finding it repetitive and that the characters didn’t engage her. These responses were also expressed by Sue’s book group, with whom she discussed the novel. However both Kim and Sue’s book group agreed that Coleman’s use of language is, as Kim puts it, ‘vivid and wonderfully alive’.
Sue, whose opinion differed from that of her book group, connected with the work intellectually and emotionally. She wrote, ‘My heart engaged with the characters who were struggling to survive their nightmarish world, while my mind was intrigued by what Coleman was doing, by her layering of historical experience within an imaginative framework, by her grounding us in a familiar story, and then overturning it to force us to see it from a different perspective’. Anna of GoodReads also liked the technical elements of the work, commenting that ‘the writing style is engaging, and I liked the way that different strands of the story came together as the book progressed.
Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, also shortlisted, was reviewed by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best, who ‘found this book hard reading, predominantly because of the structure. The Persian tales interwoven with the narrative about the family resulted in a story that was intricate and meandering. Tales of jinns, ghosts, incessant snow storms and the building of a palace of mirrors were vivid but also so numerous that I felt the family’s story lacked cohesion.’ Brona found the weaving more convincing, and it seems that a taste for the book’s genre – magical realism – might have a role to play in its reception. She concludes ‘When the real world you live in suddenly gets turned on it’s head, sometimes the only response is imagination and the only hope is magic.’
Miranda Riwoe’s novella The Fish Girl was another Stella shortlistee. Her story, Kim writes, ‘perfectly encapsulates worlds colliding, whether that be Mina’s traditional upbringing coming up against colonialism or the Dutch sea captain’s love of a Javanese girl coming into conflict with his companion’s lowly view of native women’. Sue T reviewed the work in detail, meditating on Riwoe’s postcolonial response to Somerset Maugham’s short story ‘The Four Dutchmen’.
Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace, also on the shortlist, was reviewed by Bill of The Australian Legend. Exploring the consciousnesses of characters who are transitioning genders, androids, octopuses, are unconsciously predatory in their desires, or asexual, this is a book which places empathy at its core in innovative ways. As Bill writes, ‘Kneen is an accomplished writer, melding metafiction, erotica and speculation to produce entertaining yet thoughtful fiction.’
Beyond the Stella shortlist, there were a number of other reviews of words that explore gender and sexuality. Janine, on her Resident Judge blog, reviewed Sara Hardy’s The Unusual Life of Edna Walling.Walling was a landscape architect who lived in Australia and England and wrote gardening columns for Home Beautiful. There’s some speculation about Walling’s sexuality, as Janine canvasses, but there isn’t enough evidence and, as she writes, ‘it was a different time – in the first half of the twentieth century – and silence cloaked what we would now see differently’. Arguably, this silence still accompanies the lives of many lesbian/queer women today, as many of AWW’s guest posters have discussed.
Another book that contemplates gender is Eddie Ayres’ Danger Music, which chronicles Ayres’ experiences of transitioning from female to male. Ayres, who was teaching at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music during this process, uses metaphors from music to explain his gender dysphoria. As LuvvieAlex quotes from the book, ‘It felt like I was trying to play a melody on my cello, but all the strings were badly out of tune and I had to constantly adjust, compromise, struggle.’ Alex ‘didn’t know the first thing about gender dysphoria’ but metaphors like this one shone a light onto the condition.
A number of reviews explored writing by authors with migrant heritage, including two books of short stories, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil and Melanie Cheng’s Australia Day. J.P. Kyle enjoyed the former because of ‘that zing of familiarity when reading novels written by women who have actually lived in Melbourne’ and she liked the book so much she was giving it to her mum (what better recommendation could you want?!). Ashleigh of The Book Muse described Cheng’s stories as ‘simple, yet complex’, and their diversity provides ‘a snapshot into modern Australian life and how everyone is trying to find a way to live together.’
Other engaging works that were reviewed include Amal Awad’s Beyond Veiled Cliches: The Real Lives of Arab Women. Anna of GoodReads found this book an interesting read, with its insights into the lives of women in the Middle East and Australia, although she wanted to read more of the lives of women who weren’t living in urban areas, or who hadn’t been able to access education.
Another book which chronicles the lives of migrant Australians is Heather Morris’ The Tattoist of Auschwitz, about Dale, a Slovakian Jew imprisoned in Auschwitz, where he tattooed prisoners’ numbers onto their skin. In the camp he finds and falls for Gita and, remarkably, they find each other after the war and settled in Melbourne. This book was unanimously enjoyed by Ashleigh of The Book Muse, Kim of Reading Matters, Claire and Carolyn.
Finally, congrats are also in order to Sarah Krasnostein for The Trauma Cleaner, which won the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Nonfiction and the Victorian Prize for Literature. A book which follows Sandra Pankhurst, a husband and father, drag queen, sex reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, trophy wife and then trauma cleaner, it is testimony to the diversity and courage of one individual’s life. Jenny, Nancy and Janine each found the book compelling and extraordinary.
Alexis Wright was spot on when she spoke of Australia’s ‘rich community of letters’. Thank you to our reviewers for being part of this community, and I hope to read many more of your thoughts as I compile our next round-up in June.
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) and Entitlement (2012). I’ve just completed a book of non-fiction about Rosa Praed and her deaf daughter Maud and am currently writing an ecobiography of 19th century botanist Georgiana Molloy. You can find more information about me at my website. I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.