Tag Archives: Maxine Beneba Clarke

NSWPLA 2017

Last night (that is, Monday 22 May), the New South Wales Premier’s Literature Awards were announced at a cocktail event at the Art Gallery of NSW. The award recipients collectively took home a total of $310.000. I have attended this event in the past, but for a number of years now I’ve settled for watching from afar, depending on the generosity of tweeters for glimpses of the event. Here’s what I garnered this year, depending mainly on the hashtag #PremiersLitAwards. Links are mainly to either my blog posts about books or the State Library’s listings of the awards.

In the lead-up, there were plenty of congratulations to the shortlisted authors, plus an occasional erotic spam and on Sunday the rumour that the evening would be hosted by Sunil Badami. A little before 6 last night that rumour was scotched when Hamish Macdonald (not the comedian Hamish who appears on radio with Andy) tweeted that he was ‘delighted to be hosting’ and added that the awards were to be presented by ‘@GladysB’, which I think makes her the first non-Labor premier to have done so in person for a very long time.

Uncle Allen Madden started things off with a ‘wonderful’ Welcome to Country. Joanna Murray-Smith gave the keynote address. Don Harwin, Minister for the Arts, spoke briefly. Gladys Berejiklian gave the Premier’s address. No tweet quoted any of them as saying anything memorable – which I attribute to the tweeters not realising that there were people out here hanging on their words.

Hamish Mc took the mic. His first act was to pay a ‘lovely tribute to the late Dr Rosie Scott’, recipient of the special award last year. His second tweeted utterance was to promise to tackle anyone who made too long a speech. This may be the reason that hardly a word from any of the recipients was tweeted from the room. A pity, because the acceptance speeches are part of the joy of these evenings.

The serious business of handing out the prizes began with the Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting. My money was on The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell. I hadn’t seen any of the other shortlisted works, but they would have had to be bloody brilliant to snatch the prize. They didn’t.

The Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting was shared by The Code, Series 2 Episode 4 by Shelley Birse and Down Under by Abe Forsythe. No argument from me, though a citizen of Sutherland Shire, the setting of much of Down Under, had dimmed my enjoyment of that movie with some pretty telling information about its lack of attention to detail. (I wonder if anyone from the Shire is on the judging panel.) .

They were now zooming through the prizes. The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature went to Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall, and the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature to One Thousand Hills by James Roy and Noël Zihabamwe.

Peter Boyle’s Ghostspeaking won the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry, and he had the distinction of being quoted on Twitter. He thanked Vagabond Press for ‘allowing him to have the length he needed to express himself’.

I’m glad I wasn’t a judge for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction, because i would have found it hard to pick between Talking To My Country by Stan Grant, The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft by Tom Griffiths and Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner. It turned out the judges chose Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead by Thornton McCamish, which must be a fabulous book.

About now, @RobinElizabee tweeted, ‘So many authors were so confident that they wouldn’t win that they didn’t prepare a speech. Imposter syndrome is real.’ Ah, the humility!

The UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing went to Letter to Pessoa by Michelle Cahill.

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, one of the big ones, went to The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose. I haven’t read this book but the Emerging Artist has been going on about it for months, so the judges’ decision is heartily endorsed in my house.

At this stage, the Premier handed over the Distributor of Bounty role to Ray Williams, Minister for Multiculturalism, He spoke and presented the next three awards.

The biennial Translation Prize went to Royall Tyler (who translates from Japanese). This year for the first time, there’s a second translation prize, the Multicultural NSW Early Career Translator Prize, which was won by Jan Owen.

Of the contenders for the Multicultural Award NSW I’d read only The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke (aka @slamup). I was very happy to see it win. @JulieKoh tweeted a photo of the book’s publisher Robert Watkins, a very white man, accepting for Clarke, a very black woman. On the screen above him his words are being typed: ‘I am very clearly not [her]’, the only laugh of the night that made it out to the Twitterverse. It was followed by tears: @RobinElizabee tweeted, ‘Robert Watkins reading of @slamup’s speech had him and all of us in tears. Let’s do better.’

Now @thatsunilbadami, earlier rumoured to be hosting the event, appeared on Twitter to congratulate Maxine Beneba Clarke ‘for her powerful, inspiring & accomplished memoir’. Western Sydney solidarity is a beautiful thing.

The People’s Choice Award went to Vancouver, the third novella in the series Wisdom Tree by Nick Earls, who shortly afterwards tweeted this photo with the words, ‘People! Look what you did! Thank you.’gong.jpg

The evening ended with the big prize: Book of the Year went to The Drover’s Wife, the first play to win this award. I wish I’d been there to applaud. The State Library tweeted video of Leah Purcell’s completely charming acceptance speech (if you watch, be sure you stay to the very end). ‘I’m speechless. Just as well I got my thankyous in first, eh?’ You have to love the contrast between her demeanour and the completely appropriate tone of the judges’ report as quoted in today’s Guardian:

Leah Purcell’s retooling of Henry Lawson’s story represents a seismic shift in postcolonial Australian playwriting. Brave, ruthless and utterly compelling from the first image, this epic tragedy is a passionate howl of pain and rage … a bold and exciting contribution to Australian playwriting – and, arguably, to Australia’s very identity.

Which is part of why I love these awards evenings. People of whose achievements I am rightly in awe step up to the podium one after another and reveal themselves as people just like you and me, even though they are still awe-inspiring. Who knew?

Added later: Lisa Hill has a post on the awards that gives links to reviews, her own and other people’s, of almost all the winners, plus the shortlisted titles. Click here to get there.

Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Hate Race

Maxine Beneba Clarke, The Hate Race (Hachette Australia 2016)

haterace.jpgI finished reading The Hate Race on the eve of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, celebrated in Australia as Harmony Day, and this year the day on which the Turnbull government put forward legislation intended to make it legal to insult, offend or humiliate someone on the basis of their race.

As a result, soon after finishing the book I read Adam Liaw’s Twitter thread being ‘a bit frank about race’ (well worth reading), and some of the painful contributions to the thread #FreedomofSpeech initiated by Benjamin Law. These read almost as continuations of the book, placing it as part of a vast, continuing, necessary conversation. The connection became explicit when Benjamin Law tweeted a recommendation to ‘read Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir of growing up black in Australia. Utter punch in the guts’. And it’s true that Clarke’s book gives devastating heft to the abstractions ‘insult’, ‘offend’ and ‘humiliate’.

But it would be a mistake to think of The Hate Race as an extended tweet about racism, whether micro-agressive, casual, everyday, or viciously intentional. It’s a beautifully written memoir about growing up as an Caribbean–African-heritage girl in suburban Sydney in the 1980s and 1990s. Its focus on racism gives it power and coherence, but doesn’t stop it from being very funny in places and heartbreaking in others, from having a satisfying (and surprising) overall narrative arc, and any number of story-telling pleasures along the way. The narrator tells us again and again that she is making a story out of her experience. ‘This is how it happened,’ goes her refrain, ‘or what’s a story for.’

There’s a wonderful tale involving Cabbage Patch Kids, and Maxine’s time on the debating team in high school is a source of complex humour. There are stories of teenage love, of intellectual adventure, of defiance, smart-arsery and righteousness. I expect that anyone who has been to school in Australia will recognise the truth of the playground politics.

There’s one passage I’m tempted to quote as most vividly transcending the extended-tweet form and exemplifying the book’s complex honesty – for those who’ve read it, I’m thinking of the ‘incident with Baghita Singh’ from Chapter 19. But I’ll avoid spoilers. Here’s a taste, from Chapter 7, of the world as seen by little Maxine, one of many such tiny gems:

I have only one memory of entering a church with my mother. In it, I am about four years old. We are walking, my mother and I, along Wrights road on the way home from preschool, when the heavens unexpectedly open. Sheets of freezing rain pour down on us. Umbrella-less, we huddle under the small awning of the nearby white-painted timber Anglican church. But the rain seems to be chasing us, curving in under the church awning in piercing darts, as if directing us into the arms of the Lord.
—–When my mother eases open the heavy wooden church door, rows of polished pews with plush red cushioning reveal themselves. Light streams through the pretty stained-glass windows.
—–‘What is this place?’ I am breathless with awe. ‘It looks like the inside of a Pizza Hut restaurant.’

At about the halfway point, I was filled with vicarious terror for the people whose names are named: Carlita Allen, Maxine’s vicious nemesis from the first day of preschool; Mrs Kingsley, the preschool teacher who smilingly refused to believe that a little black girl’s father could be a mathematician; Mrs Hird, who turned a deaf ear to racist taunts and objected furiously to the use of the word racism;  the vile bullies Derek Healey and Greg Adams; all the abusive children and adolescents, the obtuse or collusive teachers. It was a relief to read in the acknowledgements that all names apart from the author’s have been changed. But I do hope that Carlita and Greg and Derek and the rest read the book and are inspired to do some hard thinking. As a white man, I’ve been pushed to face at least bystander behaviour on my part. Perhaps even John Howard and Pauline Hanson, offstage characters whose names are not changed, might have their worlds expanded if they open these pages.

aww2017.jpgThe Hate Race is the fourth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Overland 222

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 222 (Spring 2015)

overland222.jpgLike most issues of Overland this one includes:

the results of at least one literary competition: Peter Minter asks in his judge’s report on the 2015 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize, ‘Isn’t nurturing the penniless avant-garde something we should all embrace?’ As well as the poetry prize, this issue announces the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize.

the regular columnists: I always enjoy Alison Croggon, who here takes issue with the idea of art as therapy, and Giovanni Tiso, who airs his ambivalence about his preference for old books. Natalie Harkin, a Narungga woman, poet and academic, makes her debut, reflecting on the importance of sharing personal narratives.

at least one intelligently provocative article: Stephanie Convery in Get your hands off my sister sounds a forceful warning against ‘activism centred on an unshakeable faith in women’s accusations of sexual assault’. The whole essay is worth reading, but I was struck by her point that harsher penalties for sexual assault don’t prevent it, but move it to a different location, ie, especially in the USA, to prisons.

• an excerpt from a work in progress: This is usually my least favourite thing in a magazine, especially when not clearly labelled, because the reader tends to be left hanging. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The current inhabitants of the island is an exception. It’s a sharp stand-alone story of encountering racism in her childhood that make me look forward to her memoir, The Hate Race, later this year.

high level journalism: Antony Loewenstein’s After independence throws light on the state of South Sudan four years after gaining its independence. Loewenstein had been living in Juba, the capital, for most of the year before the anniversary, and what he reports isn’t pretty.

• a literature report: Ben Brooker’s article on vegetarianism and the left cites sources from Marx to Anna Krien, including books with titles like Brutal: Manhood and the Exploitation of Animals and The Sexual Politics of Meat, on the links between vegetarianism and progressive social movements (Marx wasn’t convinced). I met the term ‘carnism’ here for the first time, and learned that vegetarian scholarship is a thing. Incidentally, he mentions Hitler, but not that Hitler was vegetarian.

cultural studies. Dean Brandum and Andrew Nette give a workmanlike account of the Crawfords dramas HomicideDivision 4 and Matlock Police, with emphasis on their function as at times ‘a kind of entertainment auxiliary in the fight against crime’. It’s oddly comforting to see the TV shows one deliberately didn’t watch in one’s 20s become the stuff of cultural history.

debate: Well, not exactly a debate this issue, but Four perspectives on race & racism in Australian poetry by AJ Carruthers, Lia Incognita, Samuel Wagan Watson and Elena Gomez presents four strikingly different takes on their given subject and they do strike some sparks off each other. Racism and neo-orientalism run deep in Australian culture in general and Australian poetry in particular, but it depends where you look. Spoken word, conceptual poetry, radically experimental writing are thriving sites for non-white poets. The ‘narrowly expressive “I-poem”‘ may or may not be part of the problem. Sam Wagan Watson has the best single sentence: ‘There is no clinical evidence to suggest that racism is a by-product of mental illness, although I’ve heard many try to argue the fact.’

fiction: five short stories in this issue, including the Neilma Sidney Prize winner. It’s a grim lot, featuring anti-Muslim nastiness in the suburbs (the prize-winner, by Lauren Foley), a refugee school teacher who (not really a spoiler) kills himself (Ashleigh Synnott), a young, possibly Aboriginal woman entering a situation of sexual exploitation (Jack Latimore), a dystopian future where birds and insects are mechanical (Elizabeth Tan), and a woman who remains painfully silent when her boyfriend jokes about violence against women (Jo Langdon). All good stories, but not a lot of laughs and no real twists in the tail.

poetry: Toby Fitch takes over from Peter Minter as poetry editor with this issue. They judged the poetry prize together, and the three place-getters are the full poetry content, making this in effect a hand-over issue. Apart from writing his own poetry, Toby runs the poetry nights at Sappho’s in Glebe and is poetry reviews editor on Southerly. I look forward to his Overland regime.

Always a good read, usually cover-to-cover.

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015: My Day 2

My Friday at the Festival was a long day. Also wet. Anticipating queues, I arrived early for my first event, and turned out to be one of three people sheltering under the long marquee for a good half hour. Sadly, attendance was pretty sparse for an excellent session:

10 am: Australia in Verse
As is often the case, this event’s title was irrelevant. With poetry events at the SWF, it’s the who that counts rather than the what.

Sam Wagan Watson and Ali Cobby Eckerman were in conversation with Ivor Indyk. Jennifer Maiden’s name was in the program but back trouble kept her away, that and her wish that the two Indigenous poets should have the floor. I was sorry not to see her, but it was wonderful that we got so much of the two who were there.

The poets spoke about their backgrounds. Sam’s south-east Queensland childhood was full of story-tellers, writers and artists, solidly Aboriginal though not in denial about European heritage as well. He described himself as a child of popular culture. Ali’s mother was taken from her family when very young; Ali herself was taken; and she relinquished her own baby son. Their paths to becoming poets were vastly different, as is their poetry.

Both read a number of poems, and spoke about what their poetry meant to them. Ivor Indyk was wonderful in the chair. When Sam said something about his early poems being well received, Ivor said that was because they were good: ‘And I’ll say what was good about them in a minute.’

There was a lot of laughter, and some tears.

And on to:

11.30: Writers on Writers: Rilke
I know very little about Rilke. I read his Letters to a Young Poet when I was a young non-poet, and I love this passage from Etty Hillesum‘s diaries, written on her way to Auschwitz, which makes me want to know more:

I always return to Rilke.
It is strange to think that someone so frail did most of his writing within protective castle walls, would perhaps have been broken by the circumstances in which we now live. […] In peaceful times and under favourable circumstances, sensitive artists may search for the purest and most fitting expression of their deepest insights so that, during more turbulent and debilitating times, others can turn to them for support and a ready response to their bewildered questions, a response they are unable to formulate for themselves, since all their energies are taken up in looking after the bare necessities.

So I was interested.

There was a lot to absorb. All four panelists knew an awful lot about Rilke, which they were enthusiastic to share: much more than could possibly fit into an hour. Luke Fischer, enthusiastic young scholar–poet, fell over his own words as he gave us three trains of thought at once. Lesley Chamberlain, a learned Englishwoman in jeans, made sure we knew how to pronounce Brancusi properly. Peter Morgan, from Sydney University’s German department, was in the chair and had interesting things to say about translating Rilke. Elder poet Robert Gray seemed to rise every now and then from the depths of abstract thought to make a brief contribution. It was fascinating theatre, and pretty good as an impressionistic introduction to a poet who, they said, sits at the beginning of modernism.

Not that it was like a fish and chip shop, but I had three takeaways:

  • Rilke is the one who ended a short poem describing an ancient sculpture with a phrase that seemed to come from nowhere and go everywhere, ‘You must change your life.’
  • He regarded his letters as part of his literary output. (This was a relief, because if the Letters to a Young Poet were dashed off there’s no hope for the rest of us.)
  • Something that came up in response to a question at the very end, that seems relevant to to Etty Hillesum quote is Rilke’s concept of the reversal. As far as I could understand, the idea is that if you set out to experience any pain and painful emotion fully rather than numbing them out or seeking distraction from them, then at some point a reversal happens, and the pain is in some way transcended.

Time for lunch, in what was now a beautiful sunny day by the Harbour, and then:

1.30: The World in Three Poets

3 poets

This was a wonderful session. Kate Fagan (not pictured), herself no mean poet, did an amazing job of introducing poets Ben Okri, David Malouf and Les Murray. That is, she said just a few extraordinarily well crafted words about each of them, leaving most of the hour for them to read to us, followed by a short question time. It was an almost overwhelming combination of talents.

The woman sitting next to me said she was there mainly for Ben Okri – she’d read some of his novels (‘if you can call them novels’) and hoped that hearing him read in person would help to understand them. As if he’d heard her, his final reading was from his current novel, which he introduced by saying that his novels had often been described as poetic. My transitory companion was pleased.

Les Murray read nothing from his most recent book, which of course was because he had a whole session on that book – Waiting for the Past – the next day. What he did read was marvellous. And when David Malouf read, Les was a picture of concentration – as if he was in training for an Olympic event in Listening to Poetry.

David began with his ‘Seven Last Word of the Emperor Hadrian’. Heard in the context of the previous day’s session on the classics, this revealed itself more clearly: the speaker, anticipating death, bids a tender farewell to his soul, the reverse of what we would expect in the Judaeo-Christian mindset, and there is something deeply moving about that.

All three of these extraordinary poets shone in the question time.

3  pm: Australia’s Oldest Stories: Indigenous Storytelling with Glen Miller
It’s 51 years since Jacaranda Press published a children’s book, The Legends of Moonie Jarl by Moonie Jarl (Wilf Reeves) and Wandi (Olga Miller), which has been described as the first book written by Aboriginal people. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation have re-published it this year. Glen Miller, nephew and son respectively of the authors, talked to Lydia Miller about his own very interesting life – as very young worker in the coal mines, public servant, cultural tourism entrepreneur, and now as elder and activist in the Maryborough Aboriginal community – and about the origins of the book as he remembered them. He was very good value, but I can’t have been the only person in the audience who was hanging out to be read to. Eventually, he did read us one story – almost apologetically, as if an audience full of adults wouldn’t want to be read a children’s story. There were no complaints.

It being Friday, I was joined by the Art Student for:

4.30: The Big Read
The Big Read is where a big theatre full of people, mainly adults, sits back to be read to. This event used to be for ninety minutes, but it’s sadly been cut back to just an hour, and that hour has to accommodate the presentation of the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Awards.

This year the awards presentation featured some unscheduled theatre. The set-up has always been a little awkward, as one by one the young novelists stand silently off to the side of the stage while their novels are described, and then again while the others have their turns. This year, the first recipient, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, clearly feeling the awkwardness acutely, sat down in a spare chair while his book (The Tribe) was being described. When he was shepherded away from that chair after receiving his award, he looked around and saw that there wasn’t a chair (Beatles reference intended), so sat on the floor. His successors – Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ellen van Neerven and Omar Musa (Alice Pung, the fifth recipient, was in Melbourne with a small baby) – each made the decision to join him. Linda Morris from the SMH said it was like a sit-in. Perhaps next year there will be chairs, and the young novelists may even have a moment each at the microphone.

On to the show itself: Camilla Nelson read from Alice Pung’s book; Kate Grenville read from One Life, a kind of biography of her mother; Steven Carroll read an extended passage about a guitar from his novel, Forever Young; Damian Barr gave us a snippet of Glaswegian childhood from his memoir Maggie and Me. Annette Shun Wah was as always a warm and charming host.

It’s probably telling that when we went to Gleebooks on our way to dinner to buy Damian Barr’s book it was sold out. After a dinner up the hill at the Hero of Waterloo, we uncharacteristically returned to the Festival for an evening session:

8.00 Drafts Unleashed + Slam
MCd by Miles Merrill, mover and shaker on the Australian spoken word scene, this featured an open mic plus a number of featured guests, all of whom were invited to read something completely new. Benjamin Law read us the opening scene of the TV series currently in production based on his memoir The Family Law. He did the voices and the accents, and it was a wondrous thing to see this slight, mild man transformed before our eyes into a big, loud, wildly inappropriate woman. The rest was fun too, but we were weary and left before the show was over, walking back to Circular Quay through the spectacle and crush of the Vivid festival.