Stella Prize 2019 Overview: what was shortlisted this year? By Shelley Carter

Picture credit to 2ser Tuesday Book Club

Since its inception in 2013, the Stella Prize has aimed to “recognise and celebrate Australian women writers’ contribution to literature.” It celebrates those who courageously and authentically share their stories, subvert genres, and experiment with form. This year was no different, and both the longlist and shortlist offering a range of titles that provide a snapshot of the issues currently affecting women in Australia.

The longlist for 2019 provided 12 incredible stories, all touching on different subjects in different forms, but all a triumph for female writers. The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper and Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee were two of my favourite books from 2018/19 and, while they didn’t make the shortlist, I still highly recommend reading them both.

The judge’s report states that while each entry is outstanding in its own right, there was a noticeable and significant lack of diverse voices in this year’s group. LGBTQIA and Indigenous voices as well as women of colour were missing, and they had hoped for “more subversion, more difference.” It is an unfortunate downfall of the publishing industry, but hopefully as we move towards celebrating works from own-voice authors we will see a more diverse shortlist in 2020.

The Stella Prize shortlist is indeed an excellent example of the zeitgeist, especially in regards to women finding their voices in the midst of the prolific nature of sexual assault and sexual violence. The #metoo movement seems to have had an impact on the works written this year, and female empowerment is certainly a massive theme. Longlisted book Eggshell Skull is an example of this, as well as shortlisted title Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko – the title itself a feminist statement.

Louise Swinn, Chair of the 2019 Judging Panel, summarises the entries as a “hearty response to the under-representation of women’s work in awards” and “authors [giving] authentic voices to those who are otherwise under-represented.” Going by what the judge’s report stated, it’s clear there’s still a long way to go.

First-time author Vickie Laveau-Harvie took out the top prize with her memoir The Erratics. However, all of the shortlisted titles were noteworthy, so here’s a breakdown to give you an idea of what to add to your TBR!

The Shortlist

The Erratics – Vicki Laveau-Harvie (Non-fiction) – WINNER

This memoir is a deeply emotional look at the impact a mother’s mental illness has on her surrounding family members. Laveau-Harvie reveals that her father has been abused by his wife. “He has been systematically starved and kept a prisoner in his own home, and begins to realise what has happened to him and embarks upon plans of his own to combat his wife.”

Little Gods – Jenny Ackland (Fiction)

Set in western Victoria, this poignant story follows 12-year-old Olive as she discovers a dark family secret, threatening to tear her family and the community apart. A dark coming-of-age novel, Little Gods addresses guilt, family relationships and the pain of growing up too quickly.

The Bridge – Enza Gandolfo (Fiction)

The Bridge is a dual narrative story set in both the 1970s and 2009, based on true events.

22-year-old Antonello is an Italian immigrant working on the West Gate Bridge in Melbourne, in the 1970s. In an instant, his life changes course forever when he is involved in the worst industrial disaster Australia has seen.

In 2009, Jo is on the cusp of adulthood and ready to graduate high school. In a tale that seems to parallel Antonello’s, an event in Jo’s life threatens to blow it off course and change her future.

Pink Mountain on Locust Island – Jamie Marina Lau (Fiction)

Lau’s work is an experimentation of form, described as “fizzing, staccato and claustrophobic prose” that “bounces you between pulverised English, elastic Cantonese and the new dialect of the digitised world”. It is a brave exploration into the world of art, drugs and violence.

Too Much Lip – Melissa Lucashenko (Fiction)

Lucashenko’s novel follows “wise-cracking” Kerry Slater as she heads back to her hometown to visit her dying Pop… on a stolen Harley. If that’s not a recipe for trouble, I don’t know what is! “Trouble is Kerry’s middle name”, after all.

Axiomatic – Maria Tumarkin (Non-fiction)

Axiom; noun.

A statement or proposition which is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true.

Axiomatic is a boundary-shifting fusion of thinking, storytelling, reportage and meditation.” A non-fiction book for lovers of language, it delves into the origins and stories behind 5 axioms of the English language. Seven years in the making, Axiomatic “tells us a great deal about the forces that shape our culture and the way we live.”

Final Thoughts

While every book on the shortlist is a triumph in its own right, the comments (and contradictions) made by Louise Swinn and the judge’s summary beg the question as to what needs to be done to diversify the books that make it onto these awards lists. From what I have gathered as a member of a few women writers’ groups, there is no shortage of published works by authors that identify diversely. So why is it that there is still a lack of diversity? I’d be curious to know what awards, such as the Stella Prize, will do to change the “under-representation”.

 

 

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