When the shortlist for the Miles Franklin award was unveiled earlier this week, there was just one thing missing – men. All five finalists were female, with the list reigniting a debate on just how much unconscious literary bias exists in Australia.
The Miles Franklin is Australia’s most prestigious literary award, paying $50,000 to the winner. Until 2012, the competition required the winning book to contain a focus on Australian life.
This change led to Anna Funder’s All That I Am, a novel set briefly in Melbourne but mostly in Nazi Germany, winning in 2012. Funder was the fifth women to win the award since 2000.
Other winners have included Kim Scott, Thea Astley, Tim Winton, Alexis Wright, Peter Carey and Shirley Hazzard. Only ten women have won the award in 65 years, with Jessica Anderson winning twice and Thea Astley winning a record four times.
This year’s shortlist features five novels, including Carrie Tiffany’s Stella Prize winning Mateship with Birds. The other shortlisted authors are Romy Ash, Annah Faulkner, Michelle de Krester, and Drusilla Modjeska.
This year’s judges include Anna Low, Craig Munro, Richard Neville, Susan Sheridan and Murray Waldren. Neville, Mitchell Librarian at the State Library of NSW, says at first glance the shortlisted novels are focused on family, but each offers a different focus and reading experience. “Each approaches their subject from very different perspectives, but all deliver complex, engrossing narratives which persist long after the books are closed,” he said.
Who are the female authors up for the prize?
Romy Ash – Floundering
Floundering is Ash’s first published novel. Previously shortlisted for the 2011 Vogel Award, it was published by Text Publishing in 2012. Her essays and short stories have been appeared in The Big Issue, The Griffith Review, Best Australian Stories, Best Australian Essays and Voracious: The Best New Australian Food Writing.
Floundering is the story of two young boys who are taken on a road trip by their wayward and absentee mother, after being raised by their grandmother. It is written entirely from the perspective of one of the young male characters, a notoriously difficult thing for an author to pull off. The novel combines vivid and sensory writing with expertly orchestrated tension as the boy’s mother disappears again mid road trip.
Ash told the Griffith Review that she had the character before she had the story mapped out. “I have been working on the manuscript for Floundering for three years. I guess it began with a character, with the boy whose eyes the world of the book is seen through. This character just wouldn’t leave me be,” says Ash.
Ash’s novel has been short-listed for a variety of awards including the Commonwealth Book Prize, twice for the 2013 Australian Book Industry Awards as Literary Fiction Book of the Year and as Newcomer of the year. It has also been long listed for the Stella Prize and the Dobbie Literary Award, both female-only literary competitions.
Annah Faulkner – The Beloved
Also a debut novelist, Annah Faulkner has won the last Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Emerging Queensland author before the awards were cancelled in 2012.
The Beloved is the story of painter Roberta “Bertie” Lightfoot, and her family in post-colonial Port Moresby during the fifties and sixties. After struggling through polio as child and emerging crippled, Bertie turns to art to escape the bullying. Art done well is often uncomfortably insightful, and the novel explores the tensions of family exacerbated by creative practice devolve into discord, jealousy and violence.
In an interview with Booktopia, Krester shares that she always wanted to be a writer, and that she draws inspiration from music. “My music hero is Beethoven. His piano concertos and symphonies invite me to question life’s big themes and his quartets inspire stories. He fuses passion with restraint and genius with craft. His surrender and complete commitment to his art is humbling.”
Michelle de Kretser – Questions of Travel
Michelle de Kretser is a novelist and non-fiction writer. The Sri Lankan born Australian author’s previous works have been critically acclaimed both in Australia and internationally. Her second novel The Hamilton Case won the Tasmania Pacific Prize, the Encore Award and the Southeast Asia and Paciric Commonwealth Writers Prize. Her third novel, The Lost Dog, won the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards awards for book of the year and the Christina Stead Prize for fiction in 2008 and made the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize in 2012.
Questions of Travel is an ambitious and richly-rewarding novel. It weaves the story of heiress and travel writer Laura Fraser moves to London with the story of Ravi Mendes, a Sri Lankan who flees his homeland to Australia. The novel explores the many aspects of travel, of home, and of Australian identity.
Set in multiple countries and cultures, de Kretser was focused on getting the details right. She shared her commitment to detail with the Sydney Morning Herald: “”I love detail in fiction. That’s my sense of the material, the concrete. I like three-dimensional novels that are like walking down a corridor and you find a niche in the wall or a door might be open and you can go into a room or peer in, and sometimes the door is closed but you know there is a space in there.”
Drusilla Modjeska – The Mountain
Drusilla Modjeska is a multi-award winning Australian literary heavyweight of literary non-fiction. She has won multiple NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Kibble Award, and The Australian Bookseller’s Book of the Year award. Her trio of books on Australian women writers were a breakthrough that brought many excellent older Australian authors back into print.
She is nominated for the Miles Franklin award for her first novel, The Mountain. Set in Papua New Guinea in 1968 as the nation moves toward independence, it follows the story of academic Leonard and his wife Rika. It also follows the story of Jericho, who becomes the first Papuan to teach at the university.
After Leonard’s fateful trip to The Mountain to study and film an isolated village and the intricate bark cloth artists who live there, the story erupts. The novel is a detailed, evocative and provocative story set in a complex and evolving culture.
On the book, Modjeska told the Australian Writers’ Centre: “I’ve had it in my mind to do this for about twenty years! In 1968 when I was there it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I could possibly write it. I knew from the start I would need a lot more experience before I could tackle such a big and complex topic,” says Modjeska.
Carrie Tiffany – Mateship with Birds
Carrie Tiffany is a journalist and the author of two critically acclaimed novels. Mateship with Birds was announced the winner of the first ever Stella Prize this year, and is also longlisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize (previously the Orange Prize).
Tiffany recently told Women’s Agenda about the struggle to find the time to write that she has a single working mother. She also shared her thoughts on being a woman writer in Australia. “Some of the things I’ve been experiencing in the last few days (since winning) have really demonstrated why we need the prize. I would love for there to be a time when we don’t have to have the Stella Prize, but that time is not now,” she says.
Mateship with Birds is a beautiful and unusual book. Set in the 1950s in rural Australia, and combines poetry, bird watching, Freudian themes with an ongoing meditation on loneliness and the land.