Report: Jackie Keast
Photographs: Erinna Ford
The NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were a clean sweep for Michelle de Kretser, who took out three prizes for her fourth novel Questions of Travel, including the $10,000 prize for Book of the Year. Overwhelmed by her success, Ms de Kretser offered to buy each member of the audience at the State Library of NSW a drink with her winnings.
Questions of Travel explores issues of immigration and Australian multicultural identity. It follows the stories of two seemingly different people: Laura, an Australian tourist and travel-guide writer and Ravi, a Sri Lankan refugee, forced to flee to Australia after his family is killed in political conflict.
Ms de Kretser shared the $20,000 Community Relations Commission Award for a Multicultural NSW with Andrew Bovell’s stage adaption of The Secret River.
“The reason I think multiculturalism is important is because it offers us a vision of empathy and inclusion, and that these are qualities have been in short supply in Australian public life of late,” she said. And then Ms de Kretser offered her winnings from the Community Relations Commission to the other authors shortlisted for the award.
Questions of Travel also won the $40,000 Christine Stead Prize for Fiction. It was the second time Ms de Kretser has won the award, having previously been awarded it in 2008 for Lost Dogs.
This year’s Premier’s Literary Awards topped off two years of success for Ms de Kretser and Questions of Travel; the novel won the 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction.
Established in 1979, the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, one of the nation’s most prestigious, aim to celebrate outstanding Australian literature across a variety of genres.
Under the impressive high ceilings of the Mitchell Gallery, the awards were opened this year by guest speaker Ross Grayson Bell, creative producer of Fight Club and executive producer of Under Suspicion, starring Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman.
As a producer and screenwriter, Mr Bell described himself as “the worst possible person” to open a literary awards night.
“Literature looks down its nose at cinema. In the same way, cinema looks down its nose at TV and we all look down our nose at content created for the internet,” he said, with a laugh. “But these worlds are much closer than you think. Indeed, one fundamental thing binds us all and separates us – predates the creation of the internet, moving pictures and even the printing press – the thing that binds us is story.
“Good stories bring us together. They help us know each other and ourselves a little better. Stories make us human,” he said.
Ashley Hay, shortlisted for the Christina Stead Prize, won the online People’s Choice Award for her novel The Railwayman’s Wife.
“It means the world,” she said.
The UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing ($5000) went to Fiona McFarlane for her debut novel The Night Guest. An insight into the mind of an elderly woman with dementia, the work was described by the judges as having “a fluidity and clarity of purpose rarely found in a first novel”. Ms McFarlane dedicated the award to her grandmothers. The Night Guest is shortlisted for the 2014 Miles Franklin Award.
Kristina Olsson was the joint winner of the $40,000 Douglas Stewart Prize for non-fiction for her story, Boy Lost: A Family Memoir. She thanked her brother Peter, whose story of separation from their mother is the subject of the book.
She shares the award with Michael Fullilove, author of Rendezvous with Destiny, the story of the men Franklin D Roosevelt recruited as secret envoys during World War II.
“Churchill said fighting the Second World War entailed blood, toil, tears and sweat. Sometimes I felt the same words true for writing about it,” said Mr Fullilove.
The Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry ($30 000) went to Fiona Hile for her book Novelties. She credits her introduction to poetry 15 years ago to her friend and fellow poet Justin Clemens, who encouraged her writing.
Van Badham was the winner of the Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting ($30,000) for her confronting play, Muff. “I decided to write a comedy about rape because frankly, I don’t think our society is having enough of a conversation about it,” said Ms Badham in her impassioned acceptance speech. “One in four women in this room have been a victim of sexual violence and I don’t think we’re taking that seriously enough.”
This year the judges chose to give a $10,000 Special Award to Rodney Hall, OAM, to recognise his exceptional contribution to Australian literature as both a writer and former chair of the Australian Council of the Arts.
“I suppose 39 books constitutes a kind of career,” said Mr Hall modestly.
He used his acceptance speech to make a heartfelt plea to the government to support young people in the arts. As a poor kid from Brisbane, he said his own career would not have taken off without a fellowship from the now abolished Literature Board of the Australia Council.
“I feel as if our generation, who have benefited so much from the free education system… so many benefits we had, they have all been whittled away or thrown away. I feel we’re giving the young people a raw deal,” he said to resounding applause.
Past recipients of the Special Award include David Malouf, Clive James and Thomas Keneally.
Other winners on the night included: Katrina Nannestad, who won the Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature for her story The Girl Who Brought Mischief ; AJ Betts whose novel Zac & Mia won the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature; and Kris Mrksa, whose ABC series Devil’s Dust won the Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting.