A novel by La Trobe student Carrie Tiffany, completed as part of her PhD studies in English, has won the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award and is one of five works shortlisted for this year’s prestigious Miles Franklin literary award to be announced later this month.
Ms Tiffany’s novel Mateship with Birds also won the inaugural $50,000 Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing in April. Another of the six shortlisted novelists for the Stella Prize was Lisa Jacobson, honoured for her verse novel, The Sunlit Zone, which arose from a La Trobe PhD in creative writing completed in 2009.
Mateship with Birds, Ms Tiffany’s second novel, is set in 1950s rural Australia. One of her PhD supervisors, Dr Catherine Padmore, says it ‘deals beautifully with small and intimate moments, and finds the great significance in those moments.’
The book has also been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction and the Melbourne Prize for Literature Best Writing Award.
Strength of English Program
Executive Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, Tim Murray, congratulated Ms Tiffany and Ms Jacobson and said the University was proud of their achievements. ‘The success of both Carrie and Lisa also reflects on the strength of the English Program at La Trobe,’ he said.
Professor Murray said writers from La Trobe English have been awarded a slew of prizes over the last eighteen months.
Paddy O’Reilly’s The Fine Colour of Rust is on the Gold Medal shortlist of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, to be awarded in July. Adrian Hyland’s Kinglake-350 was shortlisted last year for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and The Age Book of the Year Award, and Kelly Gardiner’s Act of Faith, was longlisted for the 2012 Gold Inky Award and highly commended in the Australian Association of Authors Barbara Jefferis Award.
Sharing the prize
In a notable departure from traditional prize ceremonies at literary awards, Ms Tiffany invited her fellow shortlisted novelists onto the stage when she accepted her award, and donated $10,000 of her prize money to be divided amongst the other five novelists.
‘When you give writers money, you give them time,’ Ms Tiffany said on a Radio National interview, explaining her reason for sharing some of the prize money.
Alternative literary voice
Lecturer in English Dr Alexis Harley says Ms Tiffany’s achievement is part of a milestone in Australian literature. ‘The establishment of the Stella Prize to recognise women’s writing in Australia addresses a bias not only in our nation’s literary values, but in our idea of what Australianness is. The dominant myth of Australianness is unrelentingly masculine. It’s bushrangers, goldminers, Anzacs,’ says Dr Harley.
‘Thus the Stella Prize helps bring alternative literary voices to the public eye and ultimately, I hope, will help to enlarge our ideas about what it is to be Australian.’
Ms Tiffany’s PhD supervisors are Dr Padmore and Associate Professor Sue Martin, while Ms Jacobson was supervised by Dr Padmore, Professor Richard Freadman and Associate Professor Alison Ravenscroft
In Ms Tiffany’s novel, birds are both symbols of love and life, but also of entrapment; the novel is unflinching in its portrayal of the death that stalks country life – both on the land, and in the old people’s home where Betty works.
Betty’s neighbour, Harry, is a dairy farmer living alone with a whippet – a dog vastly unsuited to frosty mornings on a dairy farm. He takes comfort in the soulful eyes of his cows, his regular companionship with Betty and her two children, and in observing the family of kookaburras on his property.
Both Harry and Betty are driven half-mad by their longing for human contact, while remaining a respectful distance from one another – across the table at Sunday tea, across the paddocks through the rest of the week.
In Mateship with Birds, rhythms of desire flow alongside the rhythms of the season and the lifecycle of the kookaburra family in Harry’s trees. This is a delicate novel, in which the apparent restraint of the characters is belied by the powerful rhythms of language.
The Sunlit Zone
In The Sunlit Zone, Ms Jacobsen tackles a form that is not widely celebrated in contemporary literature: the verse novel. The form suits the subject matter: the ebb and flow of the ocean can be felt in the poetry and the powerful storyline, while the allusions and silences of the verse suggest the mystery of a futuristic world in which nothing is certain.
The protagonist and storyteller of The Sunlit Zone is North, who lives in a Victorian coastal town that seems reminiscent of towns on the Great Ocean Road. Nothing is as it seems – North feels sorry for whales beached on the sand but tempers it by the knowledge that the animals are clones – GM replicas to replace the real whales that haven’t been seen in years.
On the face of it, the subject seems unsuited to poetry, but Ms Jacobsen’s poetry tells a powerful story that is rich, multilayered, and beautifully rhythmic. – Suzi Macbeth