Sarah Holland-Batt’s 2023 Stella Prize Acceptance Speech
Distinguished guests, judges, fellow writers, family, friends—
I acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present. Poetry, storytelling and song have existed on these lands for tens of thousands of years in a continuity of culture carried forward by Indigenous writers and artists today, and I extend my respect to all First Nations people present this evening.
It’s the poet’s duty to shape complex emotion into concise speech—but I may fail that task tonight. I’ve troubled for some weeks to find the words that might meet this occasion and communicate the astonished gratitude I feel for this life-changing honour.
I’ve watched with awe as this prize—founded by a small group of women committed to challenging the status quo—has transformed Australian literary in eleven short years, radically reimagining the books at the heart of our cultural conversation. The Stella is enlivened by a generosity of spirit and community that’s been quietly just as revolutionary as its work in recognising women’s writing. So it’s especially humbling to receive this honour, as it has come to stand for so much more than a literary award.
One of the gifts the Stella has given to our literary culture is the tacit understanding that prizes should celebrate an ecology of writing and publishing. I’m honoured that The Jaguar is in the company of the magnificent works on this year’s shortlist: Debra Dank’s We Come With This Place; Eloise Grills’s big beautiful female theory; Adriane Howell’s Hydra; Louisa Lim’s Indelible City; and Edwina Preston’s Bad Art Mother.
That these outstanding books have all emerged from independent presses is a testament to the vital importance of a diverse publishing industry, and I warmly congratulate my fellow authors, and their editors and publishers. I’m immensely grateful to my brilliant publisher, Aviva, and to all at UQP, whose staunch commitment to its poetry list betrays an enduring belief that poetry is a foundational form of literature on this continent, as central to our collective understanding of who we are as any other literary form.
My thanks to Jaclyn and everyone at the mighty Stella; to the judges for the deep reading and consideration that I know has led to this evening; and to the sponsor of this prize, the Wilson Foundation, for its extraordinary generosity. Thanks also to my wonderful agent, Clare; and to Judy Harris and all at the Charles Perkins Centre for making me feel so at home in Sydney. To my dear friends and loved ones, some of whom have travelled to be here tonight: I’m eternally fortunate to have you in my life. And thanks, above all, to my mother, Jenny, who navigated the long trajectory of my father’s illness alongside me with strength and grace.
The Jaguar is an intimate book, dwelling in the borderlands between life and death where my father spent his final days and hours of Parkinson’s Disease. Sitting beside my father’s hospital bed, the world was never more ordinary, never more small—yet at the same time, I was aware I was witnessing the most mysterious transformation of a human life. My book is an attempt to find a language for that final horizon of our imagining—and to think about the act of dying, which we so often resist, yet is the most universal of experiences, the last thing we will all ever do.
As these poems took shape, I found myself wondering more than once whether The Jaguar would be a book that anyone would want to read. It’s been moving beyond words to see it find the readers it has, and to know it has offered some solace to others who’ve had the privilege of caring for loved ones in old age or vulnerability.
Nights like these inevitably celebrate the end result of writing: the book. And I’m so thrilled to be part of this beautiful party. But I’d also like to say something about the living that shaped this book, and the context in which I wrote it.
Like most women I know, caregiving has been woven throughout the fabric of my working life. My father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s the year I turned eighteen. The drumbeat of specialist appointments, hospital visits, and minor and major emergencies was constant across the years. Towards the end of my father’s life, when he entered our troubled aged care system, I felt the exigencies of art give way more and more to the exigencies of caring.
Among my female friends who are writers and artists, I don’t know a single one who hasn’t felt, at some point, the impossibility of fulfilling the duty to care while maintaining artistic momentum and financial security. The idea that all three are simultaneously possible is the ultimate illusion women are expected to sustain.
This is the context in which women make art. Not only women, not all women, and not all the time—but many women, mostly women, and often. Caregiving is frequently invisible, but its consequences radiate out: career breaks, deferred ambitions, missed opportunities. For every book by a woman that’s published, there are others that idle in the realm of possibility. I think of this imaginary library often—of the art that might be made were the weight of care on women not so heavy.
And yet I’m mindful here not to use the word burden, because it’s the unacknowledged nature of caregiving that is the burden, not the work itself. There is no work more important than caring, no act more valuable than upholding the dignity of another human being. It is my profoundest wish that we might effect a cultural shift in the way we value caring—both informal, in the case of family members, andformal, in the case of workers in our healthcare systems—so as to recognise this central contribution that women make to Australian life. In the arts, there is still so much more work to be done to accommodate and acknowledge women’s caregiving, and I hope those in this room with the power to shape policy structures we operate within will continue to treat this as a live question.
My father grew up with an absence of care. His father died when he was young, during the war, and he was sent away from his alcoholic mother to a punitive boarding school, where love and human warmth were in short supply. It was an environment in which no child could rightfully expect to thrive. Reading hauled him out of grim reality, offering him vistas of other lives he might live, branching off beyond the immediate possible. As an adult, he was evangelical about books, pressing them onto others, rereading them obsessively, and instilling that passion in me.
At the end of his life, when we had to move Dad into a nursing home, he insisted on bringing his library with him. Although his cognition and eyesight were failing, the walls of his small room were stacked with hundreds of books he could no longer read. Literature was his final companion; he knew many of those books so well he didn’t even need to pick them off the shelf to relive them. Packing up his room after he died, I was struck by how cared-for his books were. He’d hand-laminated the covers himself, and not a dog-ear in sight, such was his respect.
The care we writers take with language is not disconnected from our care for other human beings. Both are a recognition that we exist in relation to others, an act of communion. Whenever I am tempted to feel complacent about the work of writing, I think of my father’s library, and the gift those books offered to him. It was a gift he passed on to me, magnified and multiplied, in return. I hope to always pay forward what literature has given me, as my father did.
Thank you again for this extraordinary honour. I dedicate this award to him.