Social change & purpose at the heart of the 2021 Stella Prize shortlist

Social change & purpose at the heart of the 2021 Stella Prize shortlist

Stella Prize

This year’s Stella Prize shortlist showcases some of Australia’s finest fiction and non-fiction writers with themes of social and cultural evolution at the heart of many of the six titles.

Australia’s major literary award for Australian women and non-binary writers, The Stella Prize is worth $50,000. The six books shortlisted include:

  • Fathoms: the world in the whale by Rebecca Giggs (Scribe Publications) 
  • Revenge: Murder in Three Parts by S.L. Lim (Transit Lounge) 
  • The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay (Scribe Publications) 
  • Witness by Louise Milligan (Hachette Australia) 
  • Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe (University of Queensland Press) 
  • The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld (Penguin Random House) 

Each of these powerful books explores aspects of human nature and social evolution with untold histories and stories at their core. The achievement of writers to produce such works in a challenging climate must also be celebrated. Writers adapted to new and unprecedented circumstances, learning to promote the books they’d spent years writing, in digital rather than physical spaces.

“These are six exceptional titles that speak to the current times,” Jaclyn Booton said on RN Breakfast this morning. “These are stories about nature, animals and the natural world, the voices and stories that haven’t been previously told, issues of family, community, retribution.”

Booton is the Executive Director of the Stella Prize and believes each of the short-listed authors brought their best work and best creative minds to their projects.

“As recent events have shown, there’s significant cultural change needed in this country to ensure women’s voices are heard,” she said in a statement. “Books can be a tool for positive social change. I encourage everyone to seek out these books and delve into the stories and perspectives within.”

Mirandi Riwoe’s second book, Stone Sky Gold Mountain, follows the story of a pair of Chinese siblings during the gold-rush as they try to seek their fortunes in Australia.

“It is Australian history told in a way you’ve never seen,” Booton told RN Breakfast. “It brings a really unique perspective, it’s incredibly compelling, character-driven. I can’t recommend it enough.” 

Riwoe spoke to RN Breakfast this morning, saying she was interested in exploring the gold-rush era because she wanted “…to see how much racism hadn’t changed over the years.”

“I wanted to make some connections or look at what it is like now compared to then.”

Rebecca Giggs is short-listed for her book “Fathoms: the world in the whale”, which is among just two non-fiction titles on the list.

Giggs’ book explores the awe-inspiring lives of whales, and reveals what they can teach us about ourselves, our planet and our connection to other species.


S.L. Lim is the first non-binary writer to make the short-list in the prizes’ history, with their second novel “Revenge: Murder in Three Parts” which chronicles the story of Yiannie, a young Malaysian woman struggling to find herself in a cruel, unforgiving family environment.

“I didn’t write and publish books so that no one would read them, and now more people will get a chance to read my work and that’s lovely,” Lim told Women’s Agenda.

Lim believes prizes like the Stella are critical for both readers and writers.

“It’s a bit of venerability for people to pay close attention to a work of art because people are worried about liking things too much or not enough,” she said. “So prizes provide some institutional validation and give people cover for their own desire.”

Laura Jean McKay, whose novel The Animals in That Country” won the the Victorian Prize for Literature and Prize for Fiction in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, is also among the short-list.

Evie Wyld’s “The Bass Rock” is also up for the prize. It follows the story of three women in Scotland and stretches across decades in time.

“I just wrote about what was at the front of my brain in those moments, which turned out to be a lot of violence and anger,” Wyld said, explaining that she wrote the book during the hours her young son was napping. “There’s a lot of family history in the book, I’m inspired by a whole bunch of stuff.”

Louise Milligan’s non-fiction book “Witness” traces the power imbalances within the country’s legal systems, covering cases including the case against George Pell.

“I decided to write Witness after I myself was a witness in one of the biggest cases of the decade,” she said. “It was an unnecessarily bruising experience.” 


Milligan is a celebrated Four Corners investigative reporter, and recently produced the episode, “Bursting the Canberra Bubble”, which examines the historical rape allegation made against Federal Attorney General Christian Porter, which he strenuously denies.

Publishers likewise continued to release books in spite of mounting economic pressure.  

Since it was first awarded in 2013, the Stella Prize has become an influential and much-loved feature of the Australian literary calendar, significantly boosting sales and raising the profile of women’s writing in this country. 

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