Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Stella Prize Longlist 2017

The Stella Prize is an annual literary award celebrating women writers of both fiction and non-fiction. Named after Australian author Stella Miles Franklin, the Prize was created in 2013 in response to the lack of diversity in nominees for literary awards. It is hoped that through the promotion of excellent books by women, more people will be drawn to their works and inspiration will be given to emerging female writers.

Past winners include:

  • Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds (2013)
  • Claire Wright for The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (2014)
  • Emily Bitto for The Strays (2015)
  • Charlotte Wood for The Natural Way of Things (2016)

  • On 7 February 2017, the longlist for the 2017 Stella Prize was announced with 12 nominees from over 180 entries. This year there was a heavy emphasis on non-fiction, with a diverse range of topics. Brenda Walker, chair of the judging panel, described the books as follows:
    Many of them address urgent national issues with particular relevance to women, at a time when women are fighting to be politically seen and heard, and to secure their positions in the public sphere.
    When the list was announced, I was surprised to see that I had only read one title and was familiar with a few more, but many were completely unknown to me. Part of the excitement of these prizes is finding new writers and new titles to read.

    The 2017 longlist is as follows:

    Julia Baird - Victoria: The Queen
    Historian and journalist Julia Baird has written an epic tome on Queen Victoria that I have flipped through every time I have seen it in a bookstore, with longing and apprehension. I am intrigued by Victoria and I have heard great things about this biography, which the judges describe as "rich and compelling". But at the same time this is a massive book and I do not feel I can commit to it at this time. Maybe one day.

    Georgia Blain - Between a Wolf and a Dog
    This novel takes place over the course of one day in Sydney.  Esther is a family therapist who works to bring people together, while personally her own relationships are strained. The judges described the late Georgia Blain's final novel as "a triumph: finely structured, suspenseful and morally acute."  I am not familiar with Blain's work but by all accounts she was a fine writer.

    Maxine Beneba Clarke - The Hate Race
    The judges describe this memoir as "an important account of growing up in suburban Australia in the 1980s and 1990s." Maxine Beneba Clarke, an Australian of Afro-Carribean descent, faced discrimination and casual racism, and through this book she shows the complacency of white Australia and the reluctance to deal with issues of race. I have seen interviews with Clarke and have read some of her poetry, but have not yet read this book.

    Catherine de Saint Phalle - Poum and Alexandre
    I must admit, I have never heard of this book, nor its author. Catherine de Saint Phalle is a Melbourne based author and this is her first work of non-fiction. It is a memoir of her unmarried parents and their lives in Paris. The judges describe this as a "tender portrait of a lifelong partnership [that] deserves to be an instant classic of the biography genre."

    Madeline Gleeson - Offshore
    Lawyer and researcher Madeline Gleeson has written this important book about Australia's offshore refugee regime on Manus and Nauru. She explored the first three years of offshore processing, since it began in 2012 and what it is like behind the wire for the refugees and the staff in detention centres. The judges described this book as "a rigorous and comprehensive narrative on one of the central challenges of our times: the care for those who seek asylum in Australia when life in their own countries becomes untenable." Important indeed.

    Julia Leigh - Avalanche
    At the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival I heard Julia Leigh speak about this book. It was so heart-wrenching to listen as Leigh shared her story, but I cannot bring myself to read this book. Leigh is a novelist and at the age of 38 she started IVF in an effort to have the family she longed for. She started writing this book at the point when she decided to stop treatment, and as such it is a raw, emotional, and courageous tale of IVF and the cycles of joy and despair felt by so many women for whom IVF is unable to help.

    Emily Maguire - An Isolated Incident
    I read this book in 2016 and really enjoyed it. A page-turning psychological thriller set in rural Australia, Maguire switches perspectives between two different women as the mystery unfolds. I can see why this was nominated as it is a taut novel which addresses issues such as domestic violence, sexism and discrimination from a feminist perspective. My review of Maguire's book is available on this blog.

    Fiona McFarlane - The High Places
    This collection of stories brings McFarlane back to the Stella Prize, as she was shortlisted in 2014 for her debut novel, The Night Guest. The judges call this collection "consistently brilliant, inventive and memorable... richly observed stories about complex people and situations, told by a gifted writer." I love short stories, especially Alice Munro and more recently the work of Tegan Bennett Daylight. I look forward to reading this.

    Elspeth Muir - Wasted
    Muir was inspired to write this book after her young brother killed himself after getting intoxicated and jumping off a bridge. Alexander was celebrating completing his final exams, and was not looking to harm himself. Following the shock and grief of this event, Muir put her skills to work to write about her bereavement and explore how alcohol is consumed by young people. The judges write that "questions about celebration, bravado and the mitigation of intoxication from within and outside the family are raised in this engaging, generous and multifaceted book."

    Heather Rose - The Museum of Modern Love
    This is the seventh novel of Tasmanian author Heather Rose. The judges describe this as "an ambitious novel that demonstrates the value of art as a catalyst for love, connection, and an apprehension of mystery." The novel ponders deep questions through characters attending a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Sounds interesting, and I totally I love the cover of this book. Update June 2017: read review here.

    Cory Taylor - Dying: A Memoir
    Taylor wrote this book while she was dying from cancer. A life-affirming memoir about dying, novelist Taylor details why she wanted to choose the circumstances of her death. While I have no doubt this book is well written, I don't feel like I want to read this book. Having recently read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), I know that books about death can be inspiring and uplifting, but I think I will pass on this at this time.

    Sonya Voumard - The Media and the Massacre
    In 1996 Australia was shaken by the Port Arthur massacre in which a lone madman opened fire at a historic site in Tasmania, killing 35 and wounding dozens more. Twenty years on, Voumard has explored the way in which he media responded to the crime. Described as part memoir and part ethical investigation, this book looks at the journalist profession and their responsibilities. This book sounds fascinating to me and I have just reserved it at the library. Update February 2017: read review here.

    The Shortlist will be announced on 8 March - International Women's Day - with the winner revealed on 18 April 2017. Better get reading!