FAW NSW Walter Stone Biennial Award for Life Writing 2016: Judge’s report

FAW NSW Biennial Awards

In July this year, Geordie Williamson, Chief Literary Critic of The Australian, wrote of the crisis facing the development of an Australian National Literature exacerbated by government funding cuts to the arts, ‘the defunding of literary magazines that incubate literary talent, [and] the likely dismantling of our local publishing industry through the scrapping of parallel importation laws’. A recent ‘Spectrum’ article noted that Carmel Bird, a distinguished author and winner of the 2016 Patrick White Award was unable to get her latest novel published ‘mainstream’—so I would urge entrants to be active and creative in finding paths to publication.

There is no doubt that the strength of Australian literature is evident in the response to the 2016 Walter Stone Award for Life Writing, attracting 36 entries nationwide—the standard was astonishing. To give you an idea, when assessing at university, one might expect 2 or 3 high distinctions in a postgrad cohort of this size. I would have been fighting to give 15 high distinctions and another 10 distinctions at the top end of the range, so this was the most challenging yet most pleasurable task I have ever undertaken.

It was a privilege to be able to read such a remarkable collection of Australian life writing that captured the pulse of the nation… biographies from colonial times to the present; writings that reflected on the first World War during the centenary of Gallipoli; and memoirs that provided snapshots of life in the 20th century in rural and urban Australia—ranging from Sydney’s North shore to Melbourne, Kalgoorlie, Darwin, Deniliquin and Lake Cargellico. Entries included the impact of domestic violence and dysfunctional families; raising goats in Tasmania; travelling around Australia in an FJ Holden; sailing around Tasmania; life in Indonesia in the 1990s; a history of Norfolk Island weaving the writings of Colleen McCullough and Ruth Park; a memoir with YouTube links to listen to mood music while reading; and a considered reflection on the changing nature of women’s gender roles through the second half of the twentieth century. Two memoirs wrote of the hurt and grief emanating from the need to hide sexuality because of the discrimination and harassment towards lesbian and gay couples; others wrote of the fear of terrorism; coping with cancer; stroke; mental illness; and aspects of ageing.

Six well-researched biographical works included the lives of Harriet Mary Dowling (nee Blaxland); writer Katherine Susannah Pritchard; Rhodes scholar Philip Ridgeway Le Couteur (the extract focussing on research into his cricket career and interest in the Australian ‘googly’); and a biography of Dorothy Rudder, a Sydney soprano and vaudeville artist famous in the 1920s and 1930s—the latter artfully fashioned including scans of memorabilia items found in an old suitcase.

I was personally enchanted with an experimental piece called ‘Interview/Interrogation: an un-autobiography’ that challenged the very nature of auto/biography and involved the reader by posing nothing but questions.

Writing copious notes I compiled a long list of fifteen. I hope all of these works will be published—all met the competition criteria being ‘original, creative and inspiring works which present to the audience an engaging work of literary excellence that shows some aspect of Australian history or have some Australian Historical significance’.

Eventually the fifteen became five—all were page turners and each in its own way broke new ground in the field of life writing: The Music People (Adam Kerezsy) is a memoir that enmeshes the reader in the absolute joy of music; Returned (Phillip Siggins)—a family memoir that offers profound insights into the effects of war and ageing; The Impossible Dream (Jim Brigginshaw)—a coming of age memoir of a miner’s son who hoped one day to be a journalist, written with great humour; The Girl with the Jesus Eyes (Jan Ryan)—a delightful memoir written from the perspective of a child about life on the Air Force Base in Darwin; and Homecoming: A Memoir (Richard Yaxley)—a discovery of the life of Tom Stott, the writer’s uncle, who had been killed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915.

I recently listened to Frank Moorhouse’s 2015 Fryer lecture on Australian literature when he quoted Ross Campbell saying that neurologists and writers both work on the brain. I thought about the criteria ‘original, creative and inspiring works’… to inspire can mean ‘to make someone have a particular strong feeling or reaction’. All five evoked strong feelings and reactions and each would be worthy of the award. Homecoming, with its eloquent language, placed the reader and narrator with ‘young Tom Stott’ on the farm and eventually at Gallipoli; explored the nature of war and nationalism; the meaning of life and love; and effectively linked the Great War to the current ‘War on Terror’. From the opening line…

My mother rang on a rainy Sunday night and said ‘I don’t know what I’ll do with all this stuff, once I’m gone.’

until the last sentences:

Because it’s time, Tom. We, your family, need your story—and not just the ultimate chapter. We need as much as we can get. It’s time for you to come home.

I was drawn again and again to the writing and inspired by the ideas expressed within and declare Homecoming: A Memoir written by Richard Yaxley the winner of the 2016 Walter Stone Award for Life Writing.

Dr Rae Luckie 
5 November 2016

REFERENCES: 

Moorhouse, Frank, ‘The Survival of Australian Writing: The role and authority of the literary imagination’. Fryer Lecture in Australian Literature, 2015, <https://soundcloud.com/user-466792516/fryer-lecture-in-australian-literature-frank-moorhouse>, accessed 3 November 2016.

Sullivan, Jane, ‘Turning Pages: In Praise of the Winning Carmel Bird.’ Sydney Morning Herald, Online (29 October 2016), <http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/turning-pages-in-praise-of-the-winning-carmel-bird-20161020-gs6vhk.html>, accessed 3 November 2016.

Williamson, Geordie, ‘Australian Literature Crisis as Government Funding Cuts Kick In.’ The Australian, Online (2 July 2016). <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/australian-literature-crisis-as-government-funding-cuts-kick-in/news-story/81314d2fe9c3735ac3706e729b66cc94>, accessed 3 November 2016.

 

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