Reflecting on the richness and diversity of our vibrant literary and publishing industry
Report: Amanda Smuin
Photographs: Erinna Ford
The NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2015 were a celebration of the literary achievements of some of Australia’s best authors, poets, translators, playwrights and screenwriters.
The night began with a message of welcome by Dr Alex Byrne, NSW State Librarian and Chief Executive, who said, “This evening’s celebration of the Premier’s Literary Awards recognises the best of our nation’s literary works and also allows us the opportunity to reflect on the richness and diversity of Australia’s vibrant literary and publishing industry.”
Dr Byrne’s comment was reflected in the judges’ decision to award the $10,000 prize for Book of the Year to The Bush by Don Watson, who also took home the $40,000 Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction. As the title suggests, the book explores the idea of the bush and what it means to Australians. The judges praised “the profundity of Watson’s thinking, the scale of his subject and the virtuosity of his writing”.
On accepting his awards, Mr Watson said, “My delight is boundless; my embarrassment is about the same. This is not an expression of my Protestant temperament, it’s because I’ve seen the shortlist.”
It was an impressive list of nominees, whittled down from over 500 entries across a range of genres, including fiction and non-fiction, poetry, writing for children and young people, writing for stage, film and radio, as well as the work of translators.
The night’s nominees included a number of authors nominated for other literary prizes. Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett and Golden Age by Joan London, both shortlisted for the Christina Stead Prize for Literary Fiction, are on the shortlist for this year’s Miles Franklin literary award. The 2015 Stella Prize winning novel was also in the running at the Premier’s Literary Awards, shortlisted for the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing.
The list of this year’s shortlisted authors and books was also notable for its celebration of diversity and multiculturalism. This was reflected in the addition of the inaugural $5000 Multicultural NSW Early Career Translator Prize, which was won by Lilit Zekulin Thwaites. Brian Nelson took home the $30,000 NSW Premier’s Prize for Translation. Both writers thanks the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for recognising the importance of translation to “literary culture and in culture generally”.
The $20,000 2015 Multicultural NSW Award WENT to Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond. Their book, Black and Proud: The Story of an Iconic AFL Photo, explores racism in both sport and the general community and was inspired by an iconic photograph of Nicky Winmar, an Indigenous Australian Rules player, in which he lifts up his shirt to point at, and demonstrate his pride in, the colour of his skin. This was not the only winning work to explore racism and the way that Australia has treated its Indigenous community. Tom Wright won the $30,000 Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting for Black Diggers, which explores the way Indigenous soldiers were treated during and after WWI.
Figgy in the World by Tamsin Janu was another winning book to explore different cultures both outside and within Australia. The book was inspired by her career as a youth worker in remote communities in the Northern Territory. She wants children to read her book and think about other people in the world, and their similarities and differences. Ms Janu was a joint winner of the $30,000 Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature, along with Catherine Norton.
Unlike Ms Janu, Jennifer Kent, winner of the $30,000 Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting, wrote her award-winning screenplay The Babadook, expressly to scare people and was very gratified to learn that her childhood hero Stephen King has seen the film and was “completely freaked out”.
The evening celebrated both young, emerging authors such as Luke Carman, whose novel An Elegant Young Man won him the $5000 UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing, and long celebrated Australian writers such as David Malouf, who took home the $30,000 Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry. This is not the first time Mr Malouf has received a prize at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. He was the first winner of the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction at the inaugural awards in 1979.
This year, the $40,000 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction went to Mark Henshaw for The Snow Kimono, who used his acceptance speech to thank the NSW State Government for its generous support for the arts. In place of Premier Mike Baird, who is currently in Japan, was Troy Grant, Acting Premier and Minister for the Arts, who said, “We remain committed and proud to support the Premier’s Literary Awards. The awards are some of the richest and most prestigious in the country.” This is certainly true as $310,000 was awarded over the course of the evening across the 13 prizes.
However, during the evening’s opening address, Ross Mueller, the critically acclaimed Australian playwright, columnist and author, lamented the lack of importance placed on the arts in Australia as a whole, and highlighted the cuts to funding of the arts in the recent budget announced by the Federal Government.
Mr Mueller’s sentiments were echoed throughout the awards ceremony. Jaclyn Moriarty, winner of the $30,000 Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature, also expressed her gratitude at being able to use the prize money to keep doing what she loves: writing for young people. She added, “There might not be votes in the arts but I don’t know how you can put a value on a book that will speak to an unhappy teenager.”
A Special Award was given at the end of the evening to recognise the great body of work by David Williamson AO, arguably one of Australia’s greatest and most prolific playwrights. Mr Williamson has over 40 plays, screenplays and teleplays to his name and his work is “marked by its Australianness, intelligence, wit and engagement with social issues”.
He said, “A true artist should be starving in a garret; we all know that. I have to admit that I’m not exactly starving in a garret so I would like to do something for my fellow writers tonight and give the prize money to the Ensemble Theatre’s new writing commission, a competitive commission for young playwrights”.
Don Watson, Luke Carman and Jennifer Kent will speak about their award-winning works with senior judge Ross Grayson-Bell, tomorrow, Thursday, May 21 at 1.30-2.30pm at Sydney Dance 2.