The 2014 ACT Writers Centre Award winners were announced at the end-of-year Christmas celebrations, held on 16 December in the courtyard of Gorman Arts Centre, Braddon.
The annual awards include the Marjorie Graber-McInnis Short Story Award, the Michael Thwaites Poetry Award, the ACT Writing and Publishing Awards and the inaugural Anne Edgeworth Fellowship for Young Writers. The winners and highly commended are listed below.
Marjorie Graber-McInnis Short Story Award
- Judge: Irma Gold (author & editor)
- Winner: Ashley Thomson for ‘A White Woman in Ōjin’
‘A White Woman in Ōjin’ was the stand-out on every level. Beautiful written, with a distinctive and resonant voice, the storytelling reels the reader in and holds them to the very end. The prose is taut and polished; it has clearly been worked and reworked. It was also the only submission that was entirely error-free. An intriguing and skilful story, and a most deserving winner.
- Highly Commended: Christine Kearney’s ‘Hooking In’, Cara Lennon’s ‘The Loose Thread and the Sterile Needles’, and Alison O’Hara’s ‘The Garden House’.
‘Hooking In’ is the story of a family adjusting to their new life in Canberra. Written in a Garneresque style, the small but vivid details in this story bring it alive. The language is evocative and the format deliberately fragmentary. This mostly works, reflecting the fragmentary nature of the family’s life, jolting us from moment to moment as both small and large events shape their shifting world.
‘The Loose Thread and the Sterile Needles’ is a quirky story that takes us on a somewhat surreal journey, precipitated by a strange encounter in a car wash. The narrative is compelling, the dialogue convincing, and the strong voice is sustained throughout.
‘The Garden House’ is a story that builds slowly but surely towards its devastating conclusion. With a confident and engaging style, it explores the sensitive (and potentially fraught) subjects of bi-polar disorder and suicide with mostly successful results. A quietly potent story.
Michael Thwaites Poetry Award
- Judge: Dr Penelope Cottier (poet)
- Winner: Robyn Lance for ‘Stilettos’
The poet describes a wedding from the point of view of women’s feet. The language combines very cleverly the noise of words and their shape on the page, with a subtle evocation of the future. The first time I read this poem I said ‘I do’, and I haven’t regretted it since.
- Highly Commended: Susan McGrath’s ‘Calling me in’, Gregory A Gould’s ‘Jack and Jill’ and Kavya Robinson’s ‘Implausible Birds’
‘Calling me in’ evokes the bravery and disappointment of childhood skipping games in an audacious and powerful way.
‘Jack and Jill’ uses repetition and slabs of word as weapons that demand attention.
‘Implausible Birds’ has a remarkably poised last stanza that says a lot about desire, painting, war and poetry.
ACT Writing and Publishing Awards: Nonfiction Book Category
- Judges: Robyn Cadwallader (author and editor) and Robert Macklin (author of Australian history and biography).
- Winner: Scott Bridges for 18 Days – Al Jazeera English and the Egyptian Revolution (Editia)
Scott Bridges’ book could hardly be more relevant at a time when Al Jazeera’s Australian correspondent in Egypt, Peter Geste is once again being told his case is ‘under review’. The behind the scenes story of the news agency’s activities during the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak is brilliantly told. Scott Bridges’ narrative takes us into the heart of the political crisis and reveals the drama and the courage involved in bringing the story to air. The publisher, Editia, at Gorman House has produced a totally professional and splendidly edited work. Scott Bridges is a fine reporter and an outstanding writer. Warmest congratulations on a very fine publication.
- Highly Commended: Margitta Acker’s Meat Pies and Mumbling Blokes – A Canberra Memoir (Ginninderra Press), and Kristen Alexander’s Australian Eagles: Australians in the Battle of Britain (Barrallier Books)
Meat Pies and Mumbling Blokes – A Canberra Memoir is a charming memoir. Margitta and her fiancé Chris arrived from Germany in 1962 as a bright young couple eager for a new life. And for the next 50 years they became part of that special mix that is the National Capital. In the telling they seem to have lived a charmed life, settling in Curtin, producing two fine young sons, visiting their native land several times and welcoming the folks to Australia for regular visits. The authenticity of Margitta’s story shines through, but one cannot help but feel that she has passed over some of the more interesting elements – her childhood in war-torn Germany, the decision to leave the family come to Australia, the inevitable ups and downs of married life. Nevertheless, her story is a valuable insight into Canberra of the 1960s and 70s, and a very heart-warming read.
Australian Eagles: Australians in the Battle of Britain – Kristen Alexander writes extremely well and her experience in writing about aviation history is evident in her confident handling of the material. Her thorough research provides detailed and poignant portraits of six Australian pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain. One of the strengths of the book is the commitment to telling the personal stories of the men, and not simply the details and technicality of their missions, through the inclusion of many excerpts from the diaries of the pilots themselves, accounts of the pilots’ personal relationships, as well as the struggle for those who wait at home. Beautifully presented, with very good layout and clear well produced photographs, especially considering that some of them are quite old.
ACT Writing and Publishing Awards: Fiction Book Category
- Judges: Andrew Croome (author) and Lynda Carmody (Bookseller, National Library of Australia bookshop manager)
- Winner: Samantha Tidy for The Happiness Jar (Storytorch Press)
This year’s winner is a compelling story about awakening and renewal. Written in a beautiful and direct style, its journey of transformation takes us from the Australian city, to remote country, to the crowded streets of India. Its characters are wonderfully and vividly drawn: raw and never sentimental. Through their experiences, Samantha Tidy prompts us to reexamine our understandings of grief, legacy, honesty and family. The Happiness Jar is a powerfully constructed and at times surprising work: a thread that runs back and forth in time between different cultures, places and points-of-view. Above all, it is a satisfying, original and engaging novel with a unique perspective, and a worthy winner in 2014.
- Highly Commended: Jordan Morris’ Round and Round.
The world inhabited by this year’s highly commended novel is part mythical, part mundane, but purely fascinating, as teenagers are pitted against adults and mere mortals against gods. Jordan Morris’ Round and Round is a sharp and unexpected coming-of-age story that is full of humour and unafraid of risk. Its characters, like their dialogue, are quick, witty and enormously enjoyable to spend time with. Allegory, suspense and the will to challenge authority and the world order make _Round and Round_ a work that is both a pleasure to read and one of a kind.
ACT Writing and Publishing Awards: Poetry Book Category
- Judges: Stuart Barnes (poet, poetry editor of Tincture Journal, poetry reader for Verity La, and poetry flash reader for One Throne Magazine.) and Penelope Layland (poet)
- Winner: Lesley Lebkowicz for The Petrov Poems ( Pitt Street Poetry)
A seamless, complex and incredibly well structured collection, The Petrov Poems is as gripping as a psychological thriller, with a mellifluous and slightly sinister urgency. The writing is exquisite (“The silence/ pushes against the delicate coils/ of her ears”) and deadly (“Will they be buried/ where they sought refuge?”). From the opening poem, the pace is clipped, urging the reader to pursue, as ASIO did, the Petrovs’ fate. Lesley Lebkowicz experiments successfully with style: from free verse to couplets, sonnets and the brilliant “steps” of ‘Torment’. The poems cohere as small chapters in a verse novelette, but such is the familiarity of the subject matter that almost all of them also stand alone as comprehensible—and fine—poems. The terrible isolation of the Petrovs is wonderfully evoked—isolation from their country of birth, from their “rescuers” (the ASIO agents), from their new countrymen, and from each other, culminating in Volodya’s terrified and terrifying mental decline.
- Highly Commended: Geoff Page’s Improving the News (Pitt Street Poetry), Melinda Smith’s Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call (Pitt Street Poetry), and Irene Wilkie’s Extravagance (Ginninderra Press).
Improving the News is an accomplished collection, compelling and investigate from beginning to end. It opens and closes with humorous and precise meditations on death (and its inescapableness), life, knowledge and language (“now she’s five years dead/ offering ideas for poems restless in her head”). These are reflections from a mature poet at the height of his powers, aware of it—and aware, too, of what lies ahead. In between these framing moments are well written poems on entropy (“the slowing sadness of the malls,/ the lonely hopes of new boutiques/ still soaring as the market falls”), Asylum Seekers, the Stolen Generations and self-reflexivity. Geoff Page is deft and witty and his timing good (“We get along though well enough,/ sleeping back to back”). His sense of when a wry observation will turn a trick is so practiced that, just occasionally, a line will feel just that—practiced. There are one or two poems (‘TheColumnist’, for example) that are a touch polemical. One of Page’s strengths is his ability to deftly write in a range of styles, from tercet to couplet to free verse.
Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call opens with an incisive inquiry into memento mori—“the 13:00 funeral service/ will commence promptly at the appointed time/ whether I am there or not” (‘Passengers are reminded’)—and closes on a joyous note of hope: “The news will flash in from the edge of the world:/ get dancing, the sun is coming back” (‘Grey water’). In between, poems about poetry, technology, the environment, for example—delivered experimentally, with originality, with wit—are astutely grouped. Melinda Smith’s eye is observant; her sense of the right image for the moment, and the right moment for the image well honed. Present in the poems about birth, motherhood and divorce is a prurient sense of invading someone’s privacy when they’re vulnerable; interestingly, this sense is lacking in the poems about adultery. Most indelible are those that flaunt images simultaneously elegant and disturbing: “a mere boy in a magic chariot/ swerving and scorched/ the same murder/ crouching in each garage” (‘crash site’); “You shall be stripped// of walnut, of honey, of toffee./ … When you reach the bone/ you shall enter the heaven of bleached skeletons” (‘Gora’: “a Hindi word that can mean both white and beauty”); and, from ‘New undergraduates tour the psychology clinic’, “This is the room of too much truth, and not enough”.
Extravagance is a deft, wry, yet affectionate read of the Baby Boomer generation. It is no surprise that a number of its poems have been anthologised, others included in publications such as Award Winning Australian Writing: “All day [at Circular Quay] a sculptured girl/ …/ dreams of being somewhere else/ but hears the meager clink of coin –/ stares ahead when children test for proof/ of life or stone” (‘Living Sculpture’). Recurrent images—heat, light, the universe, the spider, the leech, among others—create a finely sequenced and cohesive collection. Skin is “unborn”, “outer”, “separate” (‘Chimera’, ‘Behind the Sun’, ‘Webs’, respectively). Irene Wilkie’s eye for the natural world is pointed without being didactic; ‘Crete’ manifests some of the most accomplished observations: “a man in thongs/ spears an octopus/ …/ trails across the road/ a scream in ink and blood”. In ‘Glass Graphic’, an all too familiar incident is on display: “You hear the thud on the windowpane/ …/ claws bunched beak caught/ wide in the shock/ of arrested flight”. The poems evoking music are less convincing. The ekphrastic poems are particularly memorable, especially ‘Dead World’, with its chilling final lines: “What eye remained to mourn/ the ear of stone?”. This is a satisfying and appealing collection.
ACT Writing and Publishing Awards: Children’s Book Category
- Judges: Aleesah Darlison (children’s author) and Vanessa Little (Director, Libraries ACT)
- Winner: Tania McCartney for An Aussie Year (Exisle Publishing)
This is a professionally produced, yet accessible, book for children. It brings together a variety of cultures and celebrations – delightfully linking them together as a cohesive year in the life of Australian kids. The text and illustrations are highly sympathetic and great fun. The language makes your tongue roll around in your mouth, which is great fun. The text is great for little kids while the design of the text and illustrations will appeal to slightly older newly independent readers. Both the text and gorgeous colour illustrations in this non-fiction hardcover picture book are inclusive, unifying, warm and humorous – from the endpapers at the beginning to the cheeky kangaroo at the end. The word art, succinct list of events for each month, cute and colourful drawings, sign-posts and speech bubbles allow information to be presented in a highly visual and easily digestible way. Any Australian child should see themselves in the book and recognise their friends from school and their streets. This book is cohesive, joyous, celebratory, delightful and inclusive.
- Highly commended: Joy McDonald’s The Very Sad Fish-lady, and Maree Teychenne’s A Lion, a Whale and a Flea.
The Very Sad Fish-lady is unconventional and original. This emotive and whimsical self-published tale of a lonely old fish-lady reads almost like a fable or allegory. The gentle story is well-paced and the text restrained, as a picture book text should be. The pencil illustrations are accomplished and detailed, although their impact would have been greater if they were in colour. A lovely picture book that deals with perennial themes in a fresh and imaginative way. Evocative and tender, the reader of this story feels instant empathy for the old fish lady. The dark and light illustrations amplify the quiet sad tone of this lovely story. The conclusion of the story felt a bit abrupt. Overall though this is a reflective, beautiful tale with pictures that touch the heart.
A Lion, a Whale and a Flea is an excellent classroom resource, or even for use at home, for children to brush up on their spelling skills. This helpful textbook is brimming with exercises to assist children in learning to spell (especially tricky words) in a fun and entertaining way. Loads of potential for this book to be used as an educational tool in schools.
Anne Edgeworth Fellowship for Young ACT Writers
- Selection committee: Dr William Grey, David Vernon and Kelli-anne Moore
- Winners: Zoya Patel and Lisa fuller
Comments from the selection committee:
Zoya Patel and Lisa Fuller both plan to write about their very different cultural and ethnic experiences. They frame their projects differently: Zoya will write a novel-length memoir, a genre linked more closely to personal experience than fiction, and one which poses special cultural challenges. Lisa will write a novel concerning the fictional disappearance of a girl from a Queensland country town; a story which will enable her to explore the secrets, hidden histories and spiritual beliefs of a rural indigenous community. There are significant sensitivities in using Aboriginal culture in fiction and an important contribution of the Fellowship will be to help Lisa to negotiate with community elders and others about some of these issues.