Safe to say, this year’s Stella Prize shortlist has broken the mould. For a prize that was already somewhat revolutionary in promoting women and then non-binary writers, and for throwing fiction and non-fiction into the same $50,000 prize pool, this year represents another revolution: the inclusion of poetry.
The result was a kaleidoscopic longlist that spanned from short story, poetry and essay collections to a graphic novel, long-form experimental essay, cultural memoir, and just two novels; and from this, a shortlist dominated by poetry and experimental non-fiction, and with the first-ever shortlisted graphic novel.
It feels like Stella has begun a new chapter.
Chair of this year’s judging panel, Miles Franklin-winning author Melissa Lucashenko (Too Much Lip), writes:
“The 2022 Stella Prize shortlist is big on emerging voices writing in unconventional ways—from regions, positions, and literary forms that transcend the mainstream. These authors are writing back, insisting that ‘other’ lives – First Nations lives, poor women’s lives, queer lives, and Filipina lives – matter on the page just as they do in everyday affairs.”
Taking you through this six-book reading list are RN’s book experts: Claire Nichols and Sarah L’Estrange from RN’s The Book Show and Kate Evans from RN’s The Bookshelf.
The Stella Prize winner will be announced on April 28.
Homecoming by Elfie Shiosaki
Homecoming doesn’t look like the other books on this year’s shortlist — or indeed any other book I’ve read this year. Its unique structure alternates poetry, prose and archival material to tell the story of four generations of Noongar women from WA writer and academic Elfie Shiosaki’s family.
These four ancestors, who Shiosaki collectively calls grandmothers, demonstrated incredible courage and resilience while living through key moments in Australia’s shameful colonial history. Mattalan, the eldest, “belonged to the ancestral waterways of her de Ella Wilman moort in the south west of Australia”, in pre-colonization times; her daughter Ella Mary was an early advocate for Aboriginal women’s rights; Elfie’s great-grandmother Olive was separated from her family de ella and raised in native settlements; and Elfie’s grandmother Helen was raised in secret, as Olive tried to avoid the authorities who might take her away from her.
The women’s stories are told in fragments—in poems, letters, and through artefacts (there are reproductions of a handwriting worksheet and paperbark painting by Olive, for example). Shiosaki’s creative treatment of each fragment elevates it to something of great power. Oral histories are transformed into poetry: the testimony of Olive is delicately laid out on the page, highlighting the music of her voice.
Homecoming is an incredibly impressive debut. NC
TAKE CARE by Eunice Andrada
TAKE CARE is the second poetry collection by Eunice Andrada, who was born and raised in the Philippines. There are poems about the Filipino diaspora, rape culture and the dehumanizing machinery of both war and online domains. Throughout are references to bodies in their soft tenderness and also as sites of abuse and exploitation.
TAKE CARE is divided into four sections: TAKE, COMFORT, REVENGE and CARE. While the tone is intimate and compassionate, the work is complex in the way it probes the dual forces of patriarchy and imperialism. There is anger here too, at historical and contemporary instances of sexual violence against women.
The title of Andrada’s poem Subtle Asian Traits is taken from the name of a popular Facebook group, and it subverts stereotypes about Asian people by describing specific experiences: “my Asian insomnia, my Asian speechlessness, / my Asian exhaustion — I keep labeling until / the words run clear.”
In the poem Sexual Assault Report Questionnaire: Describe your hair., Andrada highlights the gendered nature of the justice system: the question, we’re told in the Notes section, is an actual field on a sexual assault reporting form from the New South Wales Police. Andrada’s tender and vital treatment highlights the obtuseness of such a question in the context of sexual assault.
Personal testimony and historical reckoning are capable of powerful effect. The collection is lyrical and beautiful, but you’ll be left seeing it with anger at the injustices Andrada so skillfully highlights in this collection. SL
Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down
A woman receives a message on Facebook, out of the blue, calling her by a name she had shed 20 years and two countries ago. It jolts her back into her old life and earlier self: a childhood in Australia in the late 70s and early 80s — a place of poverty and precarity, and occasional kindness.
In the first few pages of this remarkable, brutal book, we meet a woman named Holly, in 2018; but for most of the rest of it, we’re in Maggie’s life of her.
“I was five when I went into resi,” she tells us. Residential care and foster homes; places where she and another girl learned to communicate through the walls of the house, tapping in code.
Sounds sweet, doesn’t it?
“He’s coming,” is one of the messages. Not so sweet after all.
And this detailed, carefully observed, tenderness-and-rage study of childhood on the edge would probably be enough to make this book memorable. But there’s more. Maggie grows up.
What else happens, what propels her into those opening pages of the book, had me clutching my hair and putting the book down. gasping. And I promise I’m not a melodramatic reader. Pick it up again though, won’t you? KE
Stone Fruit by Lee Lai
Rendered in gorgeous hues of black, white, gray and blue, this graphic novel is about Ray and Bron, the “weird queer aunties” to their young neece Nessie. When we first meet them, the three are playing in nature, their faces transformed into those of grinding, sharp-toothed monsters. But when Ray’s sister Amanda calls to interrupt the fun, the monsters vanish, and we see these characters in all their worldliness and pain.
The tension between the three adults is high. Amanda, who is a single mother to Nessie, has a problem with Bron. Ray tries to keep the peace, but eventually the tension starts to wear away at her relationship with Bron.
Lee Lai – an Australian cartoonist living in Montreal – has a great ear for dialogue. The conversations between Ray, Bron and Amanda veer from warm and funny to cruel and heartbreaking, and are always believable.
There is much heavy material in this book, but the scenes of Bron, Ray and Nessie playing together are joyful and touching. As Lai writes in the book, the days the three spend together are “like little islands of solace” in “a time that I think we both came to remember as an ocean of shit.” NC
Dropbear by Evelyn Araluen
University of Queensland Press
Dropbear is the debut poetry collection by Evelyn Araluen, an award-winning writer, and co-editor of Overland literary journal.
While it is playful and satirical in tone (with titles like THE LAST BUSH BALLAD and Appendix Australis), it is also deeply serious in its interrogation and deconstruction of Australian colonial mythology.
Araluen layers imagery and literary references; in the poem Dropbear Poetics, for example, the creation story of Tiddalik sits alongside a reference to May Gibbs’s Snugglepot.
Elsewhere she draws on Dorothy Wall’s Blinky Bill and the works of DH Lawrence, Banjo Patterson and Kenneth Slessor, among others. (At the end of the book, she provides a helpful explanation of the literary references that appear.)
Gibbs’s seemingly innocent gumnut babies are cast in a new light in the poem Mrs Kookaburra Addresses the Natives, in which Araluen directly incorporates the author’s words to highlight the demeaning way Indigenous peoples are referred to in her famous Snugglepot and Cuddlepie series.
In her acknowledgements, Araluen writes: “Many lives and stories have been erased, exploited or violated in the short but haunted history of Australian literature.” This collection is an electrifying literary recalibration. SL
No Document by Anwen Crawford
Grief can knock you flat, send the world off its axis, make you reach for all the metaphors. And for Anwen Crawford, an image of a horse in a knacker’s yard is just one of the ways she searches for understanding in No Document: her hybrid essay-reflection-poem-tribute to both a friend and collaborator, to art, and to politics .
They were friends at art school, and took part in guerrilla art – and she was on the other side of the world when he died. She feels that because they were friends, her grief was not recognized or taken seriously, but she needs to honor it.
In doing so, she uses fragments and reflections. Stories sit in tension between the highly personal and the public, political, and historical — veering between those terrible feelings that are both interior and expansive; particular and vague.
Grief can be about place: walking past an underpass and hearing the hiss of spray paint from a shared graffiti excursion years before. But in reflecting on loss, she also reveals what she gained from this friendship, as a force for creativity, ideas.
This is a book that teeters between the intellectual and the emotional, ending with a powerful oomph of poetry: “Sometimes I sense / there is only a membrane / between us. / Sometimes I hear you in the light.” KE
For more coverage of The Stella Prize listen to The Book Show and The Bookshelf podcasts.