2023 Stella Prize, Literary prizes, News

2023 Stella Prize winner announced

Congratulations to Sarah Holland-Batt on winning this year’s Stella Prize for her poetry collection The Jaguar, which I reviewed favourably here 

She takes home $60,000 thanks to the generous support of the Wilson Foundation.

According to the chair of the judging panel, Alice Pung, the author “writes about death as tenderly as we’ve ever read about birth”,  adding:

She focuses on the pedestrian details of hospitals and aged care facilities, enabling us to see these institutions as distinct universes teeming with life and love. Her imagery is unexpected and unforgettable, and often blended with humour. This is a book that cuts through to the core of what it means to descend into frailty, old age, and death. It unflinchingly observes the complex emotions of caring for loved ones, contending with our own mortality and above all – continuing to live.

You can read the full announcement, made tonight, on the Stella Prize website.

This is the second year in a row that a poetry collection has won. Last year that honour went to Evelyn Araluen’s debut collection of prose and poetry, Dropbear.

2023 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, Book review, Debra Dank, Echo, Literary prizes, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading First Nations Writers, Reading Projects, Setting

‘We Come with This Place’ by Debra Dank

Non-fiction – paperback; Echo Publishing; 252 pages; 2022.

Debra Dank’s We Come with This Place is a love letter to Country and family.

A brilliantly evocative memoir about place and culture, it explores Australia’s dark history and the special connection First Nations people have with Country — that is, the lands, waterways and seas to which they are connected.

It takes us on a wondrous adventure out bush, but it also shows us the terrible injustices inflicted on First Nations people and the violence that underpins Australian history. And yet, this is not a misery memoir. It’s hopeful, even joyous in places, and it brims with an intense love for Aboriginal culture and traditions.

Our story is etched into the rocks and it whispers through the trees and with our kin who are more than human. The wind tells it, sometimes strolling gently, sometimes bellowing from cavernous, dark, felt places, where eyes do not see, and only our goodalu can feel.

Warm and generous

Based on Dank’s PhD in Narrative Theory and Semiotics, We Come with This Place is written in a spirit of generosity and is warm-hearted, tender and humorous.

It mixes autobiography with intergenerational family history and First Nations storytelling. (The dreaming tale of three water-women “who came out of the salt water to the north-east of Gudanji Country” is a recurring refrain.)

It gives us a glimpse of another way of life, one in which relationships — with plants, animals, landscapes and ancestors — are crucial and grounded in reciprocity. And where family ties and kinship are key.

As a child I sat with my two sisters and our mum and dad at the fire, watching the gidgea logs burn to coals that could cook a nice, charred edge on a goanna. This night, though, it would be chunks of the recently killed bullock charring on gidgea. The gidgea burned and its dry heat worked its way under our skin and smoothed the dryness already there from the sun, becoming an extra layer of warmth. There was often a chill in the air at night in this place. We sat in company with our old stories, living our new stories and speaking our place into them where they came together. Our dad didn’t often waste air with words, he practised a silence that let other stories be told, so as we sat with the gidgea, we learned to hear and feel those stories waiting in the gaps between the noise.

The narrative is not told in chronological order; instead, it comprises a mix of vignettes, stories and anecdotes which move back and forth in time and cover Dank’s upbringing on remote Queensland cattle stations, her parent’s troubled but loving marriage, her own marriage (to a white man) and the ways in which her grandparents guided her and passed on traditional knowledge and how she, herself, is doing the same with her own grandchildren.

Her father’s story

Much of the memoir focuses on her father, Soda, with whom she has a close but complex relationship. She details his brilliant skills as a horseman and station hand (he could fix anything despite never being trained) and his deep knowledge of Country.

But she also reveals how the trauma of racist violence runs deep. The hardships and horrendous experiences he endured throughout his life (he witnessed, for instance, the brutal rape of his mother by station men when she stood up for herself and refused to return to her place of work), using this as a prism through which to view so many injustices experienced by First Nations people.

As a memoir about resilience, identity and family, We Come with This Place — which has been shortlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize is heartfelt and honest. It should be required reading for all Australians. I adored it.

Debra Dank is a Gudanji/Wakaja woman who has almost 40 years of experience as an educator. She has worked in schools and universities across Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and the Northern Territory.

This is my third book for the 2023 Stella Prize. I am trying to read as many as I can from the shortlist before the winner is named on 27 April 2023. I also read this book for my #ReadingFirstNationsWriters project, which you can read more about here. All the books reviewed for this project are on my dedicated First Nations Writers page

2023 Stella Prize, Adriane Howell, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, Transit Lounge

‘Hydra’ by Adriane Howell

Fiction – paperback; Transit Lounge; 256 pages; 2022.

Adriane Howell’s novel Hydra is all kinds of strange and wonderful, an artful blend of Australian Gothic and black comedy, with a dash of sad girl tale and folklore thrown in for good measure.

It is the least predictable thing I have read in a long time and it wrong-footed me at almost every turn. This is a good thing because I love it when a story takes me in an unfamiliar direction and throws up surprises in unexpected places.

The quirky story is narrated by Anja, a young Melbourne-based antiquarian specialising in mid-century furniture. She works in an auction house that runs estate auctions, “ransacking dead people’s houses” to profiteer from their good furniture and valuable belongings.

When we first meet her we learn she is grieving the death of her mother. Her short-lived marriage has also broken down following a holiday to the Greek island of Hydra. And she’s constantly bickering with her rival at work, Fran, who provokes her by sitting in her seat and making snide comments about her attire.

Anja, it seems, holds grudges, is cynical and bad-tempered. But she does dream big and wants to advance her career by introducing a new taxonomic system for buyers and sellers in which furniture is classified on the emotional response it evokes — suggesting Anja is either naive or narcissistic.

Then, when she behaves badly at work, tussling with a client over a rare (and supposedly famous) chair that she refuses to sell, she loses her job.

Taking the small inheritance she has from her mother, she flees the city and moves into a secluded cottage on the fringes of a naval base. She dreams of growing her own vegetables and living a quiet life, but the lack of internet access and the sudden appearance of strange “gifts” — foul-smelling human excrement, a mangled rabbit with its guts spilling out — on her doorstep puts paid to that idea.

Her isolation now begins to feel claustrophobic and her behaviour becomes increasingly unpredictable and unhinged. The demons within and the demons outwith seem to be conspiring against her.

Anja’s narrative, which features elements of backstory, including her ill-fated trip to Greece, is interspersed with classified naval documents, hinting at a mysterious investigation dating back to 1986. When the two narrative threads come together, the “a-ha!” moment it delivers is a delicious revelation.

Hydra is a truly original and entertaining read. In its depiction of a woman losing her grip on reality, it reminded me a little of Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss and Ella Baxter’s New Animal. But it’s a refreshing take on an urban myth and deserves wide plaudits — and maybe, just maybe, Australia’s top literary prize for women writers.

For other takes on this novel, please see Kate’s review and Lisa’s review.

This is my second book for the 2023 Stella Prize. I am trying to read as many as I can from the shortlist before the winner is named on 27 April 2023. 

2023 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Poetry, Publisher, Sarah Holland-Batt, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘The Jaguar’ by Sarah Holland-Batt

Poetry – ebook edition; University of Queensland Press; 144 pages; 2022.

First things first. I am not a connoisseur of poetry. Over the lifetime of this blog (19 years and counting) I have only read and reviewed three collections.

I often feel out of my depth when reading poetry. I don’t know what makes a good poem from a bad one. I never know whether to read a collection cover to cover, or to dip in and out. Should I read all the poems in one go? Or just a few at a time spaced out over the course of a week or more? I just don’t understand the **rules** for reading and critically assessing them.

Bearing all that in mind, I picked up The Jaguar, Sarah Holland-Batt’s latest collection (she has two others to her name), on the basis it was shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize.

And I loved it.

It’s intimate. Confronting. Emotional. Philosophical. Alive. Warm. Tender.

Life story in poetry

The collection is divided into four parts, and because the poems are threaded together to tell a narrative — the life and death of the writer’s father — their order is carefully designed to take you on a journey. I read these poems, one after the other, as if devouring a page-turning novella in which I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next.

Right from the start we are thrown into the morass and turbulence of one man’s life. In the opening poem “My Father as a Giant Koi”, Holland-Batt writes:

My father is at the bottom of the pond
perfecting the art of the circle.

By the second poem, “The Gift”, we understand he is wheelchair-bound, “garlanded by summer hibiscus”, and that he has been waiting a long time to die:

A flowering wreath buzzes around his head—
passionate red. He holds the gift of death
in his lap: small, oblong, wrapped in black.
He has been waiting seventeen years to open it
and is impatient. When I ask how he is
my father cries. His crying becomes a visitation
the body squeezing tears from his ducts tenderly
as a nurse measuring drops of calamine
from an amber bottle, as a teen in the carwash
wringing a chamois of suds. It is a kind of miracle
to see my father weeping freely, weeping
for what is owed him. How are you? I ask again
because his answer depends on an instant’s microclimate,
his moods bloom and retreat like an anemone
as the cold currents whirl around him—
crying one minute, sedate the next.
But today my father is disconsolate.

The first section of The Jaguar continues to build on this theme, of an ill father living a tortured existence until his death. (It’s not until the very last poem in the collection, “In My Father’s Country”, that his illness is named, when Holland-Batt writes “the creeping lisp of Parkinson’s. / Indiginities compound. Language / sluices away from you, bolts / like a gelding from the box.”)

But there’s humour, too. In the titular poem, we learn that the jaguar is not a spotted cat, but a car, one that “shone like an insect in the driveway” and which her father constantly tinkered with, to the point that he “jury-rigged the driver’s seat so it sat so low / you couldn’t see over the dash”. Neither Holland-Batt nor her mother would get in it. Then, finally …

…his modifications killed it, the car he always wanted and waited
so long to buy, and it sat like a carcass
in the garage, like a headstone, like a coffin—
but it’s no symbol or metaphor. I can’t make anything of it.

Grief, loss and break-ups

The second part deals with grief and loss, but it also jumps back in time to recall childhood memories of her father and more recent ones in hospital, including his diagnosis:

The neurologist explains my father’s vanishing
substantia nigra—Latin for black substance,
midnight bullet of memory.
Bleaching the size of a broadbean
is turning my father jerky, compulsive
— “Substantia Nigra”

In part three,  the focus shifts slightly to a relationship breakdown:

I laze around in French lingerie. Why not?
You’ve gone; the world hasn’t stopped
—”Classical Allegory”

And this one (in full, because it’s so good):

When it ended, he said I had never let him in—
as if I were a country club with a strict dress code
and he’d been waiting outside all those years
without his dinner jacket, staring in
at the gleaming plates of lobster thermidor,
scores of waiters in forest green blazers,
and the stout square shoulders of other men
who alternated tweed and seersucker over the seasons,
silver cloches ringing them in at dinner like bells—
so I said, maybe you’re right, maybe that’s how it is,
when you wanted a table I was always full,
when you want a table in the future I’ll be full then too,
I’m booked out permanently, and no, you can’t borrow
a coat, you have to bring your own, that’s our policy.
— “Parable of the Clubhouse”

By the final part, Holland-Batt’s focus has moved to widescreen as she depicts time spent travelling abroad — to Morocco, Nicaragua, Egypt, New Hampshire, Andalusia, and more.

The final destination

But it’s her trip to the Yorkshire of her father’s youth — depicted in the poem “In My Father’s Country” — that provides the collection’s final, powerful destination. In it, she reveals lingering memories, many tinged with regret:

Each car ride with you was a test—
so sorely you wanted

a mathematician. You got
a daughter instead: wilful, uninterested

in inverse relations. We drove
Bournemouth to Land’s End,

each groyne and harbour wall
pebbled with unnavigable stone

as you drily taught, blue anorak
zippered to the neck. I knew

how to disappoint, feigned boredom.
Pigheaded, I picked over tchotchkes

in seaside shops, chucked gulls
sodden chips, ignored your puzzles.

Throughout The Jaguar, Holland-Batt paints exquisite pictures, plays with language, and shows us the power of parables and metaphors and similies. In shying away from sentimentality, she highlights her father’s humanity and offers a powerful testimony to living life vividly.

The Age calls it “an affecting meditation on mortality” to which I concur.

This is my first book for the 2023 Stella Prize. I am trying to read as many as I can from the shortlist before the winner is named on 27 April 2023. 

2023 Stella Prize, Book review, Literary prizes

2023 Stella Prize shortlist

Earlier today, the shortlist for the 2023 Stella Prize was announced.

The titles, in alphabetical order by author’s surname, are as follows:

  • We Come With This Place by Debra Dank (Echo Publishing)
  • big beautiful female theory by Eloise Grills (Affirm Press)
  • The Jaguar by Sarah Holland-Batt (University of Queensland Press)
  • Hydra by Adriane Howell (Transit Lounge)
  • Indelible City by Louisa Lim (Text Publishing)
  • Bad Art Mother by Edwina Preston (Wakefield Press)

Each of the shortlisted authors receives $4,000; the winner will get $60,000.

Typically, I have not read any of the books on the shortlist, although Hydra and We Come With This Place — purchased after the longlist was announced — are both in my TBR. A library reservation of The Jaguar came through yesterday, so that’s lying in wait, too.

Not sure my other reservations for the remaining three books will come through in time for me to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on Thursday 27 April – but I’ll see what I can do.

You can read more about the shortlist on the official website and see what the Guardian had to say about it here.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fiona Kelly McGregor, historical fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Iris’ by Fiona Kelly McGregor

Fiction – paperback; Picador Australia; 464 pages; 2022.

I used to think only two things made girls go wrong, [Sergeant] Armfield says grimly. Men and poverty. Now I know differently. Now I know that some women simply have a streak of evil.

What is a criminal? That’s the big question at the heart of Iris, a voice-driven novel by Fiona Kelly McGregor, which has recently been longlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize.

Based on the real-life story of Iris Eileen Mary Webber (née Shingles), a petty criminal in 1930s Sydney, it’s written in the vernacular of the time and depicts a violent underworld of sleaze, drugs and destitution.

Here, in the Depression-era slums, Iris makes a living through sex work, shoplifting and, later, an elaborate scam in which she defrauds businessmen for “unpaid invoices”. But she also teaches herself the piano accordion and does short stints as a busker.

Her story is told in exacting detail and is based on the public record — court documents, police reports, gaol records, census data, newspaper items and so on. It took the author nine years to write (she published other books in between) and she claims it is a story “suspended between the possible and the probable” — in other words, it’s rooted in fact, but elements have been fictionalised.

A resilient woman

Iris is a terrific character — feisty, determined, quick-thinking and resilient in the face of ongoing hardship — so I can see how McGregor might have been drawn to telling her story.

She grows up in country NSW, gets married to a man she doesn’t much like, finds she can’t fall pregnant to him and eventually, in a pique of rage, shoots him during an argument. From there she goes on the run, and her life takes a dramatic turn when she lands in Sydney and is “rescued” by a woman who runs a “house of ill repute”.  With no education, no family support or social welfare to fall back on, Iris must get by as best she can.

And that’s how her life of criminality begins because she has to survive somehow. But does that make her a bad person?  McGregor doesn’t cast judgement; she just tells the tale and lets the reader draw their own conclusions.

She depicts Iris as a quick-witted, creative and high-spirited woman, who is kind and has a strong sense of community, often paying off other people’s debts when she has the money to spare. But she lives in a rough, dangerous and deeply misogynistic society. This danger is only heightened when she falls in love with another woman and has to hide her queer identity from the rest of the world. Criminality, it would seem, infects every aspect of her life.

Detained in custody

Iris’s bawdy, defiant story is told in the first person as she awaits trial in Long Bay State Reformatory for Women. Her rich and flavoursome backstory is told in alternate chapters so we know the outcome of her crimes from the beginning — that is, she gets caught and arrested — but we don’t know all the detail until it slowly comes to light. The fun of reading the book is following her journey from innocent country girl to desperate city crim.

Did I like this book? I’m not sure. I feel ambivalent about it. I loved the vernacular voice, the period detail and the descriptions of Depression-era Sydney (the city is like a character in its own right). But the narrative is too long.

And while I understand McGregor is charting Iris’s experiences, the cyclical nature of her life — trying to better herself then resorting to crime to make ends meet, a pattern that keeps repeating over and over  — didn’t hold my attention.  Another writer might have edited the timeline for dramatic effect, but I guess that wasn’t McGregor’s goal.

Iris has also been reviewed by Lisa at ANZLitLovers and Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Suitcase Baby’ by Tanya Bretherton: A riveting true crime story about an impoverished Scottish immigrant convicted of the murder of her three-week-old baby in Sydney in 1923.

‘My Mother, A Serial Killer’ by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans: Another riveting true crime book about an Australian woman who murdered her husband in the 1950s, then killed two other men she knew.

‘Foals Bread’ by Gillian Mears: A novel set in rural NSW in the 1920s and 30s and written in the vernacular of the time about a feisty female who becomes a showjumping champion.

‘Iris’ doesn’t seem to have been published outside of Australia. Try hunting down a copy on bookfinder.com or Book Depository, or order it directly from Australia via the independent bookstore Readings.com.au. Shipping info here.

Australia, Author, Book review, Jackie Huggins, Magabala Books, memoir, Ngaire Jarro, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading First Nations Writers, Reading Projects, Setting

‘Jack of Hearts QX11594’ by Jackie Huggins & Ngaire Jarro

Non-fiction – paperback; Magabala Books; 224 pages; 2022.

Jack of Hearts QX11594 is an affectionate portrait of Jack Huggins, a former POW and son of a First World War veteran, as told through the eyes of his daughters, Jackie Huggins and Ngaire Jarro.

The book has recently been longlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize, which is how it came to my attention, but I can see that Lisa at ANZLitLovers reviewed it last September, so I am not sure how I missed it.

Wartime experiences

It’s an interesting account of one man’s wartime experiences and the legacy he left behind, but it also reclaims the important role Aboriginal soldiers played in Australian history. That’s because Jack Huggins was a First Nations man who signed up to defend the country at a time when Aboriginal Australians were not even considered citizens. In this context, why did he and so many other Aboriginal men go to war, his daughters wonder.

There were many reasons why Aboriginal men and women went to serve in defence of their country. For many, it was for love of country, to defend their country and sovereign rights, for others it was for payment, security, pursuit of freedom and adventure. We believe our Father’s motivation was to follow in his Father’s footsteps …

Based on personal recollections and written in a naïve, conversational style, the book follows one man’s journey from an idyllic childhood in Ayr, in northern Queensland, to his time as a prisoner of war working on the notorious Burma-Thailand Death Railway during World War Two.

It covers his return home, where fell in love with an Aboriginal woman and got married. He died seven years later from a heart attack, aged 38, leaving behind his wife, Rita, and a trio of young children — three-year-old Ngaire, two-year-old Jackie, and Johnny, who was just four months old. (As an aside, Jackie Huggins has previously written her mother’s life story in a book titled Auntie Rita, which was published in 1994.)

Two voices

The book is told in two distinct voices and while they’re not labelled as such, it’s clear that the more personal elements are Ngaire’s and the more factual ones are Jackie’s. Together, the sisters piece together their father’s story from family anecdotes, defence force records, letters, photographs and interviews with people who knew him personally.

They also retrace his steps as a soldier, where he was captured by the Japanese in Singapore and put to work building the notorious railway, a forced labour project in which “nearly 39 per cent of all those who worked in the railway perished […] mainly from disease and malnourishment”.

As well as being a loving portrait of a man who survived against the odds, Jack of Hearts QX11594 shines a light on the role Aboriginals played in Australia’s ANZAC tradition. The sisters write that in the wars, both First and Second, “Indigenous men and women were spotlighted, welcomed, seen and recognised, serving on the frontline and protecting each other”. But when they were repatriated, it was another story:

For many returned Indigenous veterans, discrimination and prejudice flourished. They were left out of society and were not served in shops and public places, after fighting for their country. They were scorned and degraded and could not get the necessities of a good life such as employment and housing.

Jack, an only child, was one of the lucky ones. He had a good job in the post office and had been raised in a loving home. His parents were unusual in that they were Aboriginal homeowners. The sisters say that it has always puzzled them as to “why Father’s family […] remained ‘free’ people while other Aboriginal people were being herded off in droves to missions and reserves all over Queensland”. They wonder if they claimed another identity to escape, which was common practice at the time.

Another perspective 

I had a couple of minor issues with the editing of the book — the word “very” is used repeatedly, there’s a lot of repetition and sometimes statements are made that could have been fleshed out to add more colour and vibrancy — but I’m being pedantic.

This isn’t the kind of book you read for its literary merit. If you judge Jack of Hearts QX11594 on the sisters’ desire to learn more about their father’s short life by writing his story, it has hit its mark.

Will it make the Stella shortlist? Probably not. But this is a worthy contribution to our nation’s history, one that debunks the myth that only white Australians went to war, by quietly sharing a deeply personal account so different to what most of us have been previously told.

UPDATE (17 March): I neglected to mention that the sisters are from the Bidjara/Birri Gubba Juru nations.

I read this book for my #ReadingFirstNationsWriters project, which you can read more about here. All the books reviewed for this project are on my dedicated First Nations Writers page. I also read this book because it is on the 2023 Stella Prize longlist .

2023 Stella Prize, Book review, Literary prizes

2023 Stella Prize longlist

I’m on the other side of the country (Melbourne, which is a 4hr plane trip away) for a few days to help my sister celebrate a special birthday. When I was booking my trip I was excited to see it coincided with the Stella Prize longlist announcement, so I bought a pair of tickets and invited my teenage niece to come along.

(My niece has become an avid reader in the past couple of years and our tastes are remarkably similar despite us never having talked about books before.)

That announcement was last night. It was held at the Wheeler Centre, opposite the State Library, in the CBD.

After an introductory speech by the Executive Director of Stella, Jaclyn Booton, the Chair of judges, Alice Pung, wasted no time in announcing the 12 books on the longlist, a mix of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. She then invited the panel of judges — Astrid Edwards, Beejay Silcox, Jeff Sparrow and Alison Whittaker — to join her on stage to discuss the books in more detail.

Each judge took it in turns to champion a book — their passion and excitement about each title really shone through, making me (and I’m sure everyone else in the audience) itching to read them.

The list (see below) is an excellent one. The past couple of years I felt the Stella had lost its way, trying to be all things to all people, and I abandoned the notion of reading the shortlist as I had done in previous years. But this year’s longlist seems genuinely exciting.

I liked that judge Beejay Wilcox said these were books that offered the thrill of the unknown — in other words, they weren’t predictable and often wrong footed the reader. These are the qualities I, too, look for in books. I like them to shun the tropes and try new ways of telling a story, either through structure, plot or both and they get extra bonus points if they do exciting things with voice.

Anyway, here’s the list in full in alphabetical order by author’s surname — note that the hyperlinks take you to the book’s entry on the Stella website:

Interestingly, I’m about quarter-way through Iris, so I’m delighted to see that on the list, and I have We Come With this Place and Hydra in my TBR already.

After the discussion about the individual titles, the panel of judges talked a little about the judging process and why they were excited by the list as a whole. It was pointed out that most titles on the list are by small independent presses, which are more inclined to publish off-the-wall or “risky” books.

And the judges were very frank, claiming that of the 200+ books submitted for consideration some of them were just plain terrible and maybe shouldn’t have been published at all!

But readers shouldn’t worry that the books that made the cut were judged by their covers or their look, feel and heft: all titles were read on e-readers to reinforce the idea that it was the text, and the text alone, being judged.

Will I read the entire longlist? Probably not, but I’m going to give the shortlist a red hot go after it is announced on 30 March.

The winner of the $60,000 will be named on 27 April.

You can watch a video of the announcement here: https://www.youtube.com/live/ovhLRqaivgU?feature=share