Interview: Meet the 2021 Stella Prize Judges
The 2021 Stella Prize judges (Zoya Patel (Chair), Jane Harrison, Elizabeth McCarthy, Ian See and Tamara Zimet) tell us what they’ve been reading, how they spend their time when they’re not reading, and what excites them about reading hundreds of Stella entries over the coming months.
What excites you about judging the 2021 Stella Prize?
Zoya: I think the Stella Prize is such a vital part of Australia’s literary culture, and it’s an incredible honour to be able to Chair the judging panel this year. As a judge for the 2020 Prize, I was staggered by the sheer number of incredible Australian writers who submitted, and the quality of the works I read. I can’t wait to uncover even more gems this year.
Jane: Reading new writing from an increasingly diverse range of Australian women authors. Marvelling at the elucidation of their worlds, envying their gifts with language, being exposed to different cultures and ontologies.
Elizabeth: It is a fascinating and daunting task being a judge for this venerated literary award, and a great honour. It is an absolute thrill to read the blood, sweat, tears and flaming hard work that women and non-binary writers have put into creating literature this year.
Ian: There are so many terrific books produced by women and non-binary writers in this country each year, and I’m looking forward to reading and discussing these books with the other judges – it’s an immense privilege.
Tamara: I always look forward to the Stella longlist announcement. Since the prize’s inception, it has been an exceptional and handy way to guide myself through the next few months of reading. You can always see the level of care, close reading and consideration that the judges give to the lists each year. I’m so excited by the prospect of discovering writers that I haven’t read before, and being able to share and promote their work. It’s a big responsibility, and a huge honour.
What do you look for in a great book?
Zoya: It depends! There are lots of things that create what I consider to be a successful book, and the first and most important is good writing – a suitably intangible criteria, but ultimately I want to feel moved and engaged by the writing. Unique insights, complex characters and a thoughtful narrative are all incredibly important as well.
Jane: Language, bravery, new points of view, insight into an experience I haven’t had, or if I have, then a marvellous rendition of that experience.
Elizabeth: Greatness, mostly. With a dash of excellentness, a splash of uniqueness, and a twist of aceness.
Ian: Ideas that spark change, language to marvel at, characters who reveal the complexities of human nature.
Tamara: I love that the judging terms for the Stella Prize are books that are ‘excellent, original and engaging’. I am lucky enough that I get to read as part of my job as a festival programmer, and those three criteria are pretty much my personal holy trifecta of a good book. Mostly, I love reading fiction or non-fiction that changes my mind, that shifts how I see the world. There’s always a large handful each year that I evangelise about, and my friends and family have become used to receiving ALL CAPS excitable messages in WhatsApp groups at all hours. A great book is worth annoying your loved ones for.
Why do you think the Stella Prize is important?
Zoya: I think carving out a space to celebrate the works of women and non-binary Australian writers is crucial as a step towards redressing the gender imbalance in literature and also validating the quality and importance of storytelling by women and non-binary people. Change doesn’t just happen – it’s stewarded into reality through targeted activities like the Stella.
Jane: The Stella Prize has changed the literary landscape in Australia, drawing attention to a huge pool of talent that was too frequently sidelined. It is a great example of advocacy that is also respected by the reading public and hence translates into sales. The short list is my go-to reading list.
Elizabeth: The Stella Prize was conceived and developed as an all-powerful, all-imposing, great disruptor. The Stella Prize is interventionist, it is intruding; it meddles where meddling is much needed. The Stella Prize sticks its robust neck out and says, “Eh! You lot! Over here! Check out this lot!”
Ian: Beyond rewarding the work of writers – which is so often undervalued and underpaid – Stella works towards eradicating gender bias more broadly, through its schools program and the Stella Count. Its work is vital.
Tamara: Things have improved a lot since 2012, but we’re still not done: the Prize is an opportunity to celebrate the exceptional work of women and non-binary writers, and give them rightful prominence. Stella Executive Director Jaclyn Booton has referred to the organisation as “interventionist”, both for the impact of the Prize itself, and also in its work in schools and research. I think it’s such a refreshingly active take on it.
What was the last book you read by an Australian woman or non-binary writer that you loved?
Zoya: Fusion by Kate Edwards is a really intriguing, experimental narrative that challenges expectations and uses language in such an exciting, interesting way!
Jane: I have a few on the go at once. Tara June Winch’s The Yield, Bri Lee’s Eggshell Skull, Grace Karsken’s The Colony (background research for my own novel) and Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come.
Elizabeth: Sophie Cunningham’s City of Trees made me experience the natural world with new eyes. The “real world” was not impressing me very much at the time that I read that book. But soon enough, thanks to its subject matter, I found myself walking the streets of my town, gazing up at trees, newly invigorated and freshly impressed.
Ian: Tara June Winch’s The Yield, which is a tremendous novel – clever, powerful, moving and beautifully written.
Tamara: Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize this year, and was on the Stella Prize shortlist back in 2018 when it was published in Australia. Set in 1979, in the decade following the Islamic Revolution in Iran, it’s an incandescent celebration of life, creativity and literature in the face of brutality and censorship. I loved it.
What’s your favourite independent bookstore, and what do you love most about it?
Zoya: There are a few I love in Canberra, but one that stands out is definitely Muse Canberra – a book store and restaurant that curates a beautiful collection of works with a real focus on Australian writers, and also brings together an incredible program of events (which has changed of course with Covid-19, but I have no doubt they’ll keep producing wonderful gatherings around restrictions)!
Jane: Oooh, that would be like publicly naming a favourite child … but I do miss the bookstore that had a focus on Aboriginal books that used to be in Bridge Road Richmond.
Elizabeth: Readings in Carlton is a short tram ride away. Anytime I walk in there, a feeling of renewed purpose and great drama washes over me. What will I find? I have to ration my visits there, it is a thrilling and dangerous place.
Ian: I’ve learnt so much working with the incredible people at Readings Carlton, which will always be a special place to me, but I’ll nominate my local indie, Neighbourhood Books – it’s a lovely space with a thoughtful selection of books, and is run by the powerhouse Leesa Lambert.
Tam: In Melbourne I can’t go past Leesa Lambert’s Neighbourhood Books. Leesa and her team are so welcoming and knowledgeable. In Sydney, Naomi from Potts Point Books is my favourite bookseller in town. Even for somebody who works with books, it’s impossible to be across everything so I like to ask booksellers for recommendations. Leesa and Naomi always come up with something brilliant and unexpected. They have undoubtedly made me a better and more interesting reader.
When you’re not reading books, how do you spend your spare time?
Zoya: Probably writing! But also hanging out with my various animals, including loads of time with my horse Penny Lane. Horses are very high maintenance, so she probably sees more of me than my partner or family!
Jane: Gardening. I have to have my hands in dirt every day. Walking and camping in our bright orange tear-drop caravan. When theatres were open, I would see as many plays as I could. Renovating and filling my house with treasures – as simple as a feather or a beautiful stone, or as fancy as a French art deco light fitting.
Elizabeth: Listening to live radio and podcasts; making Spotify playlists for imaginary DJ nights; cooking elaborate meals; stalking internet pets in need of irl homes; stalking new and second-hand furniture in need of irl homes; worrying about my plants; worrying about my home decor; worrying about 2020; worrying about 2021; worrying about what book to read next.
Ian: Daydreaming about opening an ice-cream shop.
Tamara: I spend a lot of time with my friends here in Sydney. A lot of us don’t have our families here, so we’ve made an incredibly close community. 2020 has changed so much about our lives, and one of the major things is how – and where – we spend time together. My friends love to cook for each other (I’m the worst at it) and so there are a lot of sprawling, multi-hour meals. Any chance I have to spend with a loved one this year has taken on a new meaning and importance.