The Stella Prize has shown that feminist activism in the literary sector can work. From its inception, in 2013, it drew attention to the lack of women shortlisted for awards.
Over time, the prize culture in this county seems to have shifted to such an extent that it seems unlikely we’ll see another “sausage fest” shortlist anytime soon. And Stella’s regular counting of gender in Australian book reviews has made editors think about the gender of the authors they’re reviewing and the writers reviewing them.
Prices may also be responsible for more subtle shifts in literary culture. The Stella Prize has challenged implicit, ingrained ideas about what an award-winning book should look like. The shortlists have highlighted books that are quirky, activist and challenging. This year’s shortlist is no exception, steered largely away from established authors and major presses.
Taken together, the books on this year’s Stella shortlist suggest something about the forms of courage currently at work in Australian women’s writing: the courage to perpetuate culture in the wake of colonial violence, to taking political and personal risks by writing about a repressive regime, writing despite death and grief, stigmatization and taboo.
There is also courage in representing women who clearly don’t “hold it together” in their roles as mother, partner, and friend, or who “let themselves go” in terms of not maintaining the forms of physical or emotional control that society expects of them. To read these works is to be gripped and forced: they stay with you.
Read more: Something remarkable has happened to Australia’s book pages: Gender equality has become the norm
We come up with this place by Debra Dank
What strikes me the most this multi-generational memoir is his generosity. Here, Debra Dank pulls the reader in and shares stories not only about her childhood, but also about her ancestors and her children. There are many voices present here, but the reader is guided by the warmth and humor of the narrating voice, and by the vivid details of place and culture it provides.
This is a story of family, belonging and country, thriving despite the trauma caused by racial violence. The segments each tell an aspect of Dank’s life story as it intertwines with Gudanji/Wakaja Country and history; incidents from her life share space with stories from her parents, grandparents and then her children.
Many of these stories are concrete moments of memory that do not look away from a violent history, but are determinedly focused on community and continuity. I emerged from this book grateful Thank you for being willing to share it with us as readers.
big beautiful female theory by Eloise Grills
This is a work of memoir, theory, art history and visual essay, in which Eloise Grills tackles the big question of how women are influenced by how their bodies are perceived by others. A series of essays, illustrated by Grills’ captivating artwork, invites us to reflect on the fat body in culture, and what it feels like to grow up and be perceived as a fat woman.
The effect is candid and visceral: this combination of forms and media allows Grills to speak in multiple, contradictory ways about how women’s senses of their bodies are felt so intensely yet socially limited. She’s not shy of criticism—her art and words share the page of quotes from cultural critics and theorists who think about the effect of misogyny on women’s bodily experience—but there’s celebration and fellowship here too, especially in her tribute to an unsung history of “fat lady painters”.
This work also reflects extensively on the complex history of confessional writing and women’s art, and how confession is now being shaped and monetized by social media.
Read more: Big beautiful women and familiar dystopias: New graphic non-fiction interrogates 21st century life
The Jaguar by Sarah Holland-Batt
Sarah Holland-Batt is the most established author on this year’s shortlist. The jaguar, her third book, is a powerful volume of poetry. The strongest poems deal with scenes most people would turn away from: her father’s slow death from Parkinson’s disease, complete with hospital visits, dementia, grief.
In these poems, the devastating, mundane world of the hospital and nursing home comes to life: the brilliant opening poem depicts the speaker’s father as a giant koi, “leading the mottled zeppelin / from his body in a single ceaseless turn”, surfacing when the nurses bring his food. In another, the speaker’s mother is in the hospital, listening to David Attenborough, and the ward and world of his documentary become entangled: “Buzzers / zip and sting like electric / whipbirds.”
There are some dramatic shifts in tone in this collection, from these stunning hospital poems to others about travel, love and sex. Throughout, Holland-Batt uses form and language purposefully, with the dexterity and confidence of a poet who knows exactly what she is doing.
Hydra by Adriane Howell
This debut novel is a tight and page-turning account of a woman who apparently can’t ‘keep it together’. Finding herself separated from her husband and her cherished career as a mid-century modern furniture specialist, Anja lives in a secluded house in the middle of a naval base.
In this suggestively haunted place, she falls under the spell of a mysterious creature that may or may not be an urban myth. She’s a woman who doesn’t do what her job or her friends or her partner expect her to do, but she’s not an outcast: she’s a hot mess.
I love this novel’s focus on the world of work and its expectations, and the complexities of female friendship. Objects take on talismanic-emotional qualities and, in their own way, become drivers of the plot. Hydra is a new take on the Gothic representation of a place with a multi-layered history. It’s detailed, memorable and hard to put down.
Indelible City by Louisa Lim
Louisa Lim uses a combination of memoir, biography and historical research to tell a layered story about Hong Kong’s history and present. It is simultaneously a story of her own experiences growing up in Hong Kong, a historical account of Hong Kong’s complex colonial history and the story of a street artist and garbage collector, Tsang Tsou-choi, who calls himself the King of Kowloon.
His sense of disinheritance and his determination to paint shaky calligraphy all over the city that is painted over, but also sold in art galleries, is used by Lim to reflect on the city’s past and its heartbreaking recent history of protest and oppression . It is also used to reflect on Lim’s own position as a journalist and woman who grew up in Hong Kong.
Indelible city ultimately eschewing the possibility of journalistic detachment in the face of seeing a vibrant city subjected to an authoritarian regime. Lim decides to take up the paintbrush himself and tells a story that is unapologetically activist. The result is a report that is both painstakingly researched and gripping to read.
Read more: Louisa Lim’s ‘excellent’ portrayal of a dispossessed, rebellious Hong Kong is the activist journalism we need
Bad Art Mother by Edwina Preston
The figure of Veda Gray, the mother of this novel‘s title, borrows from many female artists throughout history who have produced art in the face of a social structure that makes it very difficult to do so.
Aspects of her story mirror that of Australian poet Gwen Harwood, who found it impossible to get her poetry published under her own name, but remarkably easy under a male pseudonym. In her anger, Harwood published a sonnet that, read acrostically, said, FUCK ALL EDITORS. Veda undertakes a similar protest, but with devastating personal impact.
Like Harwood, Veda writes poetry about aspects of women’s daily life in the household and care that are considered unworthy by male gatekeepers. Veda is an unruly, confused, “bad mother” who makes a difficult deal with a wealthy couple to share the care of her son. She is joined in a suggestively detailed world of restaurants and art in 1960s Melbourne by a cast of other female artists whose genius finds different paths to the light.
Preston uses Veda, and her son Owen’s narrative figure, to reflect on the choices women must make—now as in the past—between their own creative achievements and what society expects of them as mothers and wives.