The $10,000 Book of the Year was awarded to Bruce Pascoe for his ground-breaking work, Dark Emu. Mr Pascoe also shared the inaugural $30,000 Indigenous Prize with
Ellen van Neerven for her debut Heat and Light
Photographs: Aristo Risi
The NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2016 were a celebration of the literary achievements of some of Australia’s best authors, poets, translators, playwrights and screenwriters.
Around 300 writers, publishers and politicians mingled in a stately room decorated with native flowers and black marble. Indigenous musician Mathew Doyle opened the ceremony with a welcome to country and paid respect to the Aboriginal elders – past, present and future.
Dr Alex Byrne, NSW State Librarian and Chief Executive, gave the message of welcome. “We gather to recognise the richness of Australian writing,” he said. “In recognising the best of our nation’s literary works, we can reflect on the quality and diversity of Australia’s vibrant literary and publishing industry.” His speech focused on the need to encourage diversity in writers and the need to continue funding the State Library.
Playwright Wesley Enoch, who gave the official address of the evening, spoke of Australia’s complex and diverse cultural legacy. “We are the sum of all these parts, of these inherited methods of living,” he said. “We inherit stories that become our responsibility to preserve and promulgate.”
Jennifer Byrne, host of the ABC’s The First Tuesday Book Club, was the Master of Ceremony for the evening. “Please be quick,” was her instruction to guests on the podium.
Mike Baird followed wearing the obligatory blue tie. “It’s very hard to find another event I am less qualified to present,” he said, “although in Year 10 I topped English.” He thanked the judges, the writers and the guests. He spoke of his sister Julia Baird, saying how they existed in two very different parts of Sydney’s community. “My sister is an incredible writer, though these days she tries to keep a distance from me,” he said. “I’m not very good for her career.”
The NSW Book of Year went Bruce Pascoe for Dark Emu, which also jointly won the $30,000 Indigenous Writers prize with Ellen van Neerven for Heat and Light. Dark Emu challenges Australia’s complicated relationship with identity and landscape. Heat and Light examines the Indigenous experience of family through nuanced glass, creating a compelling narrative of a young woman’s Indigenous experience.
The $20,000 Multicultural NSW Award went to Osamah Sami for Good Muslim Boy, a poignant and hilarious memoir of trying to find one’s place in the world. The charismatic Sami left the audience in hysterics with his tongue-in-cheek humour aimed at Premier Mike Baird. “He hasn’t assimilated, repeal the award.” he said. And then accepted the award.
The $30,000 Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting went to Angus Cerini for The Bleeding Tree, a fiery black comedy of downtrodden women who rise up against the patriarchy and an exploration of the ramifications of abuse. All of the other nominees were women.
The $30,000 Betty Rowland Prize for Scriptwriting went to Cate Shortland for Deadline Gallipoli, Episode 4: ‘The Letter’. Her script interwove the unpredictability, tension and emotion of the ANZAC evacuation from Gallipoli.
The $30,000 Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature went to Rebecca Young and Matt Ottley for Teacup, which beautifully conveys through sparse illustrations the multifaceted tale of a young refugee.
The $30,000 Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literary went to Alice Pung for Laurinda. Alice wasn’t there to accept her award, but her publisher from Black Inc Books accepted it for her. On a pre-recorded video, she spoke about the importance of prominent role models for diversity.
The $30,000 Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry went to Joanne Burns for brush, a poetic exploration of daily social interactions. Her work focuses on locality, and in her acceptance speech she lamented the gentrification of Kings Cross and the implication’s for Sydney’s artistic community.
The $40,000 Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction went to Magda Szubanski for Reckoning: A Memoir, a compelling and honest account of inter-generational trauma. She called her elderly mother while she accepts the award. Her mother was too ill to attend, so Mike Baird held the phone, so she could listen to her daughter’s acceptance speech.
The $5000 UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing went to Sonja Dechian for an Astronaut’s Life, a collection of scenarios and characters both vivacious and dreamlike.
The $40,000 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction went to Merlinda Bobis for Locust Girl. A Lovesong, an allegorical work of fantasy that explores dislocation and trauma in a post-apocalyptic world. Merlinda took the stage wearing a gold vest. “How can we care across borders?” she said. “The locust girl sings her response.” Then she sang an ethereal song to a dazed audience.
The People’s Choice Awards went to the charming Lisa Gorton for The Life of Houses. “I always thought these awards went to people with friends,” she said. The 2016 Special Award went to Dr Rosie Scott, in recognition of her prolific literary legacy, her tireless activism and her general compassion. She was too ill to read out her speech, so her daughter read it for her. “It’s reassuring in these difficult times, when arts budgets are being slashed by the Federal Government, that this award is still being funded by the State Government. On behalf of all writers, thank you.”