The 2021 Stella Prize Judges’ Report
The 2021 Stella Prize longlist demonstrates the breadth of expression present in Australian literature, and the importance of raising the profile of women and non-binary voices in celebrating this expansive talent. In reading these titles, we pondered what might be lost or overlooked should a prize such as the Stella not exist to specifically examine the output of Australian women and non-binary writers.
In years as uncertain as 2020 and 2021, it is fitting that the Stella Prize longlist includes titles that span the gamut of human enterprise and experience.
This year’s reading presented a diversity of talent and expression, with books exploring people and animals through the lens of fiction and non-fiction, and with a common objective to reach into the heart of what it means to exist in the world today.
The diversity present in this longlist, in terms of style, technique and subject matter, as well as the writers’ ages, experiences and identities, is what makes it so exciting. In this longlist we celebrate experimentalism, risk and vivacity in writing. Here we have books about emotional dysfunction, colonialism, racial identity, sex, the failures of our political and justice systems, the triumph of nature, and much more.
Whilst there were far more than twelve outstanding books entered for this year’s Stella Prize, we are incredibly excited to have longlisted these texts as examples of the high calibre of emerging and established talent in the Australian literary sector.
– Zoya Patel
Chair, 2021 Stella Prize judging panel
Fathoms: the world in the whale by Rebecca Giggs
Revenge: Murder in Three Parts, by S.L. Lim
The Animals in That Country, by Laura Jean McKay
Witness, by Louise Milligan
Metal Fish, Falling Snow, by Cath Moore
The Wandering, by Intan Paramaditha
Stone Sky Gold Mountain, by Mirandi Riwoe
Blueberries, by Ellena Savage
Song of the Crocodile, by Nardi Simpson
Smart Ovens for Lonely People, by Elizabeth Tan
A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing, by Jessie Tu
The Bass Rock, by Evie Wyld
Fathoms: the world in the whale by Rebecca Giggs
Fathoms: the world in the whale is a haunting piece of narrative non-fiction that asks pertinent questions about how globalisation, consumption and our obsession with convenience is threatening the environment in connected and devastating ways. It is the impact of this interconnectedness – the messy entanglement with other humans, with the environment, and with animals – that is at the heart of Fathoms.
Rebecca Giggs is expansive and generous in her thinking, and her philosophical and scientific research. One of the many strengths of this imaginative book is that Giggs does not use anthropomorphism to draw us in. Instead, she deftly coaxes a sense of intellectual and moral responsibility by using whales as a starting point for urgent conversations.
With searing compassion and intellectual curiosity, Giggs has delivered a profound work that demands we rethink the ways we live – and how we seek and fail to protect delicate environments by confronting our individual and collective choices.
Revenge: Murder in Three Parts by S. L. Lim
S.L. Lim’s novel is a psychological portrayal of what happens when an unhinged, manipulative, violent man controls a domestic space – and the ruinous impacts it has on the lives of women and girls in his orbit.
Reminiscent of the menacing domestic oppressions explored in the novels of Elizabeth Harrower, Lim writes about the life of Yannie: a bright, brainy girl whose intellectual ambitions and longings are thwarted by her brother, Shan. Shan’s menace is enabled by his parents as a child, and as an adult, by educators and employers. Despite the unravelling of Yannie’s aspirations – and familial and social demands that she be subservient – her spirit is bold, brave, and gutsy.
Lim’s writing is tight and impeccably controlled. The fraught, charged atmosphere pervading this novel never abates. Across 230 tense pages we witness the entire life of Yannie unfold, as she shifts from a clever yet obstructed and diminished girl, to a grown woman on a quiet quest for retribution.
The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay
Laura Jean McKay’s prescient The Animals in That Country begins as a flu-like pandemic spreads its way across the countryside, rendering those afflicted with the ability to understand what animals, both wild and domestic, have to say. The plot is centred on Jean, together with the dingo Sue, embarking on a chaotic road trip to retrieve her granddaughter from her estranged son, who has spirited her away. As well as an intriguing plot, the author has gifted the reader a most unusual protagonist, the hard drinking and smoking, somewhat unreliable grandmother, Jean.
As the action progresses the voices of the various animal species become more urgent. Their dialogue is poetic yet also visceral, disturbing, challenging and often funny. The Animals in That Country explores our – often fraught – relationships with family, animals, environment and country and how we commodify and abuse each and all of these. A must read.
Witness by Louise Milligan
Louise Milligan’s timely and incredibly important book canvasses the systematic and organised hounding of sexual abuse victims who seek justice in Australian courts.
With erudite analysis, Milligan puts on trial the judges, prosecutors and legal professionals who frame their unashamed and dogged discrediting of sexual abuse victims as “all in a day’s work”. Milligan reveals victims of sexual abuse crimes being re-traumatised via the criminal justice system and its professionals, and shows how victims’ experiences in courts are frequently devastating and irreparable.
Exposing a legal system in dire need of overhaul, Milligan details how chronic distortion and undermining of victim testimony and experiences is enabled by a legal framework that sees abusers set free, legal professionals dispassionately moving on to their next case, and victims left reeling.
Metal Fish, Falling Snow by Cath Moore
Told in the captivating voice of fourteen-year-old Dylan, Metal Fish, Falling Snow is an outstanding young adult novel about family, grief and identity. While tackling many serious issues – Dylan is dealing with the death of her beloved mother and struggling to accept her Guyanese heritage – the novel is also full of spark and humour, and each page is imbued with striking and unforgettable imagery.
In Dylan, Cath Moore has created a spectacular protagonist who, for all her vulnerability and pain, is a force to be reckoned with. While Dylan’s perspective of the world may cause her to be misunderstood by those around her, she is an irrepressibly wonderful companion for readers. Her ability to see into other people’s memories – a motif that is seamlessly woven into the action of the narrative – allows Moore to shine light on the unspoken sadness of ordinary lives.
This is a novel for both young and old; a brilliant and heartfelt work of Australian fiction.
The Wandering by Intan Paramaditha
In an ingenious meeting of form and function, The Wandering uses the classic structure of a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ story to interrogate notions of travel, social inequality, free will, and how we build our lives. Beginning with a deal with the Devil – who offers the narrator a pair of red shoes that will allow her to fulfil a long-held desire to travel – the narrative transports the reader around the world: from Jakarta to Amsterdam to Tijuana. The novel evokes these settings with colour and life, but also reveals the sinister undercurrents of a cosmopolitan society.
Woven into the narrative are reinterpretations of folk tales and other stories, making the journey – or, indeed, journeys – through the novel a rich, dizzying experience. While The Wandering is unabashedly polemical at times, it always remains engaging and exhilarating, and Intan Paramaditha is to be applauded for realising the soaring ambition of this work.
Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe
In Stone Sky Gold Mountain, Mirandi Riwoe has subverted the historical Gold Rush-era novel and provided us with a lyrical, character-driven piece of historical fiction that explores identity, friendship, belonging, and what it means to exist on a land that is not your own.
Told from the perspective of two Chinese recent immigrants (siblings Mei Ying and Lai Yue) and Meriem, a white woman who works for for a sex worker on the outskirts of Maytown on Kuku-Yalanji land, Riwoe creates nuanced characters whose perspectives are often absent from this particular era of fiction or used as a footnote in history. In doing so, she has injected a unique exuberance to the genre and illuminated the experiences of people during that time beyond the pervasive white colonial narrative.
With lyricism and intelligence, Riwoe writes loyally to a period of history while simultaneously reminding the reader of the parallels between the 1870s and modern Australia: the violence and racism against First Nations people and new immigrants at the hands of white settlers; the casualised misogyny; and the varying experiences of people based on their class. Riwoe is clear-eyed and unsentimental in her approach – these comparisons are not made heavy-handedly, but presented as they are: an undeniable part of Australia, then and now.
Blueberries by Ellena Savage
Never before has memoir read quite like this. From the opening pages of Ellena Savage’s Blueberries, the reader is tipped into the chaotic and fiercely intelligent mind of the author, travelling with her to Portugal to track down the status of an assault charge laid over a decade ago. This searing and technically outstanding essay is the first of a collection that challenges, tests and demands engagement from the reader.
In writing Blueberries, Savage has uttered a challenge to the world to discard preconceptions about the form and structure of an essay or memoir, and to instead join her on a journey of experimentation that is fuelled by her strong, independent voice throughout.
In form and in content, Blueberries is exquisite.
Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson
Nardi Simpson’s Song of the Crocodile is an incredibly important book, both as the herald of an exciting new talent to Australia’s literary industry, as well as a novel that contributes to a deeper understanding of Australia’s history, and tells the stories of First Nations people in a voice and tone that has for so long been missing from our literary canon.
Exploring the experiences of a First Nations community living on the outskirts of a rural town, Song of the Crocodile focuses on four generations of one family as a vessel to explore the insidious and generational impacts of racism, colonialism and violence.
Simpson doesn’t shy away from the complexity and nuance of the characters, who are at once survivors, victims and perpetrators of trauma grounded in dispossession and injustice. However, nor does she deny these characters joy and meaning in their lives – bringing their stories to the page with great tenderness and lyricism. This book is necessary reading for all Australians.
Smart Ovens for Lonely People by Elizabeth Tan
Elizabeth Tan’s extraordinary imagination is on full display in Smart Ovens for Lonely People – a story collection that is astonishingly clever and witty, while also full of piercing insights into contemporary society. As she plays with structure and voice, Tan also explores popular culture and modern technology to great effect, and her futuristic scenarios are well thought out and all too plausible. Food scarcity, environmental destruction, capitalist bureaucracy and misogyny are just some of the ideas explored in the collection – in tales that feature mermaids, devious cats, and mangled ‘90s ballads.
Impressively, Tan never loses sight of the characters at the heart of these stories: their desires and their fears, their relationships and – as alluded to by the title – their loneliness all bring a deep emotional resonance to this stunning collection. Smart Ovens for Lonely People is a profound delight.
A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu
A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing is fresh, contemporary and bold – and has been crafted with verve by its first-time author, Jessie Tu. The novel delves into the life of an Australian artist, but not the white, male character who often frequents literature. Nor does it portray the hedonistic life of a visual artist. Instead, this novel centres on a violinist – a young, Australian-born Chinese woman. Once a child prodigy, Jena is trying for a second chance at success. She is also a woman driven by her sexual needs and a skewed sense of her own worth.
Power dynamics, along with friendships and rivalries – both musical and personal – spike the narrative. Most of the story takes place in Sydney and New York, while Shanghai also gets a nod. It’s a heady mix: the descriptions of her musical practice and the pressures of performing are illuminating, while her risk-taking and intimate relationships are writ uncomfortable, but all too believable.
The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld
At once confronting, chaotic and charming, Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock is a perplexingly brilliant novel that will challenge and test the reader. Set across multiple time periods, and with three distinct narrative voices throughout, the book blurs the line between the past and the present, the real and the imagined, the natural and the unnatural world.
The Bass Rock is about family and love, and the ways that both can undo a person – as both storm and haven. It’s about the legacy of male violence and the ways in which these traumas ripple and reverberate across time and place.
Wyld’s development of her large and diverse cast of characters is incredibly precise, and the novel continues to surprise to the very last page. This book will leave readers uncertain and questioning, but also full of the imagery and atmosphere Wyld brings to life so masterfully on the page.
– Jane Harrison, Elizabeth McCarthy, Zoya Patel, Ian See, Tamara Zimet
The 2021 Stella Prize Judging Panel