Why I support Stella: Alexandra Grimwade
In our new interview series with Stella supporters, we spoke with Alexandra Grimwade, English teacher at Melbourne Girls Grammar school, about her love of books and reading, and the school’s student-run Stella Society.
What role have books and reading played in your life?
I have been an avid reader since early childhood – a journey encompassing Naughty Agapanthus (a crazy picture book that earned me the nickname of ‘Aggie’) to great classics like The Brothers Karamazov. I studied at Sydney Uni with some great teachers like Axel Kruse, Andrew Riemer, Michael Wilding, and Dame Leonie Kramer and remember pouring over myriad interpretations of books like Portrait of a Lady. I am yet to travel to India, but feel that I know it pretty well, as my annotated copy of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is always near. More and more I am drawn to poetry and short stories, especially during the week (a recent favourite is Annie Ernaux’s The Years). When I was raising four small children and not in the paid workforce, books kept me afloat!
As an English teacher at Melbourne Girls Grammar school, you’ve played an active role in overseeing the students’ Stella Society. Can you tell us a bit about how this society came about, and what impact it’s had on the school and students?
My colleague Christophe Taylor initiated the Stella Society at Melbourne Girls Grammar in 2016, and it has a special role in the school community. It offers students a chance to read beyond the curriculum and engage with newly published work. The students adore attending the Stella events as it opens their eyes to the special literary community that exists to both support and foster writers. Students relish debating ideas and literary styles found in the Stella texts, including engaging quite passionately with poetry this year thanks to Evelyn Araluen’s marvellous Stella Prize-winning work .
Why do you feel that engagement with books and reading is important for young people?
Books and reading are essentially a balm for mind, body, and soul. They offer escapism, whilst also fostering empathy and educating young readers about different periods in history, and preparing them for life’s big experiences. Reading for pleasure is a one-stop-intellectual-shop.
Beyond your work with the Stella Society, you’ve also supported Stella in a variety of ways, including as a donor. What compels you to support the organisation?
I well remember a time when book lists were all male. In my final years at school we read D.H Lawrence, Shakespeare, T.S Eliot etc. – wall-to-wall brilliant white men. Literature looked like a forbidden realm. You we so lucky to read it, luckier if you understood it, but the message was not to attempt to write it yourself. I did not encounter Barbara Baynton, Ruth Park, Christina Stead, Henry Handel Richardson, or Miles Franklin – or really appreciate the incredible tradition of Australian women’s writing – until my late 20’s. Consequently I see Stella’s mission to support, recognise, and celebrate women and non-binary authors as being wholly necessary, and it is a pleasure to introduce girls at school to such identifiable works by contemporary authors.
Can you tell us about a favourite book or author you discovered through the Stella Prize?
This is a tricky one, but I think I’ll say The Eye of the Sheep by Sophie Laguna for its unique sense of time and place in Altona, at a time when it was an industrialised suburb. I loved the child’s vision of the world captured in that text, and how wonderfully forgiving children are of their flawed parents. I taught this with Year 9 boys at Melbourne High a few years ago, and they identified with it so well.