What a week it has been for Evie Wyld! After winning the Encore Award and the Jerwood Fiction Prize eight days ago, the British-Australian novelist, who for some years called Australia home, has now taken out this country’s most prestigious literary award. Wyld was presented with the 2014 Miles Franklin Award last night for her second novel All the Birds, Singing at a glamorous ceremony on the top floor of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Speaking on behalf of the 2014 Miles Franklin judging panel, Richard Neville, the State Library of NSW Mitchell Librarian, called the writing in Wyld’s winning entry ‘spare, yet pitch perfect’. Describing the novel as ‘unusual but compelling’ and ‘visceral and powerfully measured in tone’, he went on to say that All the Birds, Singing ‘draws the reader into its rhythm and mystery, through wonderfully and beautifully crafted prose’, noting that it was a book ‘whose deceptive sparseness combines powerfully with an ingenious structure to create a compelling narrative of alienation, decline and finally, perhaps, some form of redemption’.
For many people, however, Wyld was a surprise winner. Literary pundits and betting agencies had their money on Richard Flanagan for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, with Tim Winton shadowing him as a close second for Eyrie. Then there was 2007 winner Alexis Wright, who was a favourite for many readers for her ambitious and visionary work The Swan Book. At last night’s ceremony, interest was piqued when Wright, Flanagan and Winton were all noted as missing, leaving guests speculating on who the winner might be.
The $60 000 prize consolidates Wyld’s reputation as a talented writer. Her first novel After the Fire, A Still Small Voice was nominated for numerous awards, and last year the 34-year-old was included in Granta’s twenty best young British writers. All the Birds, Singing, which is set in Australia and on an English island, has earned high praise. Her shortlisting, and now the award win, has also attracted interest for the way it confirms the widening of the thematic ambit of the prize. Miles Franklin’s well-known stipulation was that nominated works needed to depict ‘Australian life in any of its phases’. As Michelle Smith notes in The Conversation today, there has been a history of excluding novels set overseas. Christopher Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously, which is set in Indonesia, was rejected in 1979, and Frank Moorhouse’s Europe-centred entry Grand Days was excluded in 1994. This year Wyld’s entry and that of Cory Taylor, who was shortlisted for My Beautiful Enemy, are indicative of the way that the definition of ‘Australian life’ is increasingly being challenged by the inclusion of books in which the narratives unfold, at least in part, overseas.
Still on Miles Franklin (sort of), the Stella Prize recently announced that reviewer and freelance writer Bec Kavanagh has taken up a position as the Prize’s Education Resource Development Officer. Kavanagh will be working on the exciting new Stella Prize Schools Program, which kicks off in September. The program aims to educate male and female students on the long history of women’s writing in Australia. It also hopes to provide role models for schoolgirls and emerging female writers. Writers will work with students in a series of workshops and also with teachers to develop supportive curriculum. The Stella Prize team will announce the list of authors enrolled in the program in the coming weeks.
The collective theme of the other big stories this week is freedom of speech. On Monday came the devastating news that three Al-Jazeera journalists – Canadian-Egyptian Fadel Fahmy, Egyptian Baher Mohamed and Australian Peter Greste – had lost their farcical yet terrifying court battle in Egypt and had been convicted of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false news. The convictions have made news around the world and there is now a concerted campaign to pressure Egypt to reverse what is widely seen as an outrageous conviction. On Tuesday night the Greste family were the subject of a special Foreign Correspondent report which made for difficult viewing. Amnesty International and Change.org have both initiated petitions condemning the imprisonment of the three journalists.
The Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas also made news this week following the release of its 2014 program on Tuesday. While several events, including ‘The rise of women has turned men into boys’ drew ire, the real controversy arose from the proposed talk entitled ‘Honour killings are morally justified’. Writer and activist Uthman Badar was scheduled to give the presentation until the Festival fell on its sword and withdrew the event following intense public pressure. Badar has since claimed the promoted subject of talk was not ‘of his choosing’, and that it was the festival directors who ‘insisted’ he speak on the subject.
Finally (and relatedly) the Melbourne Writers’ Festival has announced one of its headline attractions in the form of recent 2014 PEN / Pinter prize winner Salman Rushdie, who will give a talk on 28 August about the ‘freedom to write’. Rushdie – who is, of course, no stranger to censure – will no doubt provide a critical context for the increasing prominence of issues concerning freedom of speech. He will also appear at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas on 30 August. The complete program for the 2014 Melbourne Writers’ Festival is due to be launched on 16 July.
This week in Sydney Review of Books Fiona Wright, whose poetry collection Knuckled won the Dame Mary Gilmore Award in 2012, trains her critical lens on Maxine Beneba Clarke’s acclaimed debut story collection Foreign Soil, which won the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2013. Wright’s review focuses on the performative quality of ‘voice’ in Clarke’s work, on it relation to the ‘wider social circuits of violence, of bodies politic, of privilege and power’, and what Wright calls ‘an often uncomfortable interplay between acts of speaking and acts of writing, between text and voice and back again’.
We also feature Maxine Beneba Clarke herself, reviewing the Sweatshop Western Sydney Literacy Movement’s performance of #Three Jerks, which debuted at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last month and was reprised at the Emerging Writers’ Festival in Melbourne. Sweatshop productions, like the works of the individual writers involved, have focussed intently on issues of privilege and power, particularly as experienced through the lens of western Sydney. Though she is now a resident of Melbourne, Clarke – like the writers themselves – hails from western Sydney, and she considers the EWF performance in the context of the broader political and cultural themes it raises.
From the Archive this week features a very personal and compelling essay from Fiona Wright on illness and reading Christina Stead, ‘For Love and Hunger’, and Kevin Foster’s robust and amusing critique of Salman Rushdie’s most recent book, the memoir Joseph Anton, a work he finds notable for its ‘regular displays of intemperance’.