While Kevin Rudd was in Darwin proclaiming the need for “a national imagination” to grasp the economic potential of northern Australia, his Arts Minister, Tony Burke, was in Brisbane to celebrate the nation’s top imagination-makers at the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, announced on the terrace of the State Library last night.
Burke no doubt won the gratitude of the winners, who each received a tax-free $80,000, but he also earned the hearts and minds of the audience - an assembly of publishing-industry players - when he affirmed the importance of literature as “a reminder of what is important to a nation”. Burke announced the winners in six categories:
Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser
Jam Tree Gully by John Kinsella
The Australian Moment by George Megalogenis
Prize for Australian history
Farewell, dear people by Ross McMullin
Young adult fiction
Fog a Dox by Bruce Pascoe
Red by Libby Gleeson
Future Awards, Burke said, should include the categories of playwriting and screenwriting.
In his introductory remarks he said that he had spent “a lot of time reading and studying and thinking about” all of the shortlisted titles, especially the winning titles.
But John Kinsella’s collection of poems, Jam Tree Gully, seemed to be a particular favourite. Burke, who takes time out of every day to read a poem aloud, quoted one of Kinsella’s poems called “Sacred Kingfisher and Trough Filled with Water Pumped from Deep Underground”, which frames the intelligence of a bird that reads a coffin-like trough as a container for “dead water / from deep in the earth”. The judges described the collection “as an extraordinarily attentive chronicle” to life in the wheat belt of Western Australia:
Referencing Thoreau’s wish, in Walden, to “live deliberately”, Kinsella’s poems offer keen observations of animal life (wild, feral and domesticated), landscape, weather, and the social life of Australian country towns and the small properties that encircle them.
In his acceptance speech, Kinsella - who has written more than 20 books of poems and is known for his environmental ethics - urged people to observe “the small changes in the environment, which are actually massive.”
“My work,” he said, “is not an instruction. It is a plea to look around.”
Kinsella was not the only writer to use the platform to send a message. Michelle de Kretser used her acceptance speech not simply to thank Kevin Rudd for bestowing the nation’s richest literary prize upon her, but also to attack him for his “callous and shameful” asylum-seeker policy.
De Kretser’s novel, Questions of Travel, which also won the Miles Franklin earlier this year, interweaves the narratives of two travellers: Laura, a discontented Australian tourist, and Ravi, a Sri Lankan refugee. The judges commented:
As they crisscross the world and each others’ paths, never quite escaping the ties of home, de Kretser’s novel assembles an array of encounters and experiences for each of her travellers to raise questions that are droll, piquant, satirical, sometimes devastating.
Deploying a quotation from Franz Kafka, de Kretser argued that literature should be “an axe to break the frozen sea within us.” With Tony Burke standing at her side, she concluded her speech with an anaphoric address to her benefactor: “Mr Rudd, I hope you read my book. I hope it makes you smile. I hope it makes you think. I hope it breaks your heart.”
After the ceremony several people remarked that they had thought de Kretser was building to a refusal of the prize or perhaps an avowal to donate the money to charity. “You have given me $80,000 and I have given you a book,” she had said, suggesting an imbalance of economy.
Nobody in their right mind would deny de Kretser the opportunity to express her views, and many will be grateful that she did. But bad press offers little incentive for politicians to keep literary prizes in the budget.
Prizes that are not bestowed in perpetuity (as is the Miles Franklin and other philanthropic prizes) can be cancelled in an afternoon, as we saw in 2012 when the Newman Government cancelled the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, in part to save costs but more likely in dark response to the 2011 shortlisting of David Hicks’s autobiography, Guantanamo: My Journey, which caused furious commentary in conservative circles.
May we hope that whomever is Prime Minister following the 7 September election will continue to uphold the importance of literature in building the nation’s imagination.