Interview: Beejay Silcox – 2023 Stella Prize Judge

An interview with writer, literary critic and 2023 Stella Prize Judge, Beejay Silcox.

Beejay Silcox

What excites you about judging the 2023 Stella Prize and awarding the next Stella Prize winner? 

The same thing that excites me most about being a critic: the chance to connect hungry readers to brilliant books. Our literary culture doesn’t need more gatekeepers, it needs locksmiths – that’s why prizes like the Stella matter so much, they open spaces for conversation and creation. The Stella Prize is also an evolving record of Australian storytelling, and that’s a special history to be able to join.

What do you look for in a great book?

An invitation – perhaps even a duty – to participate. The books I love most trust me to find my own way through the moral murk. I want to be left with questions, to have my certainties shaken.

What impact has the Stella Prize had on you personally as both a writer and a reader?

Oh, do I have an answer to this question! I moved to Egypt in early 2018 and enroute, I filled my suitcase with the entire Stella longlist – a pre-emptive literary tonic for homesickness. The first book I read was Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace. I found that novel so magnificently discomforting: a taboo-shattering, ethically snarled, darkly sensual wonder. I wrote Krissy a late-night fan letter – the first fan letter I’d ever sent – and signed off with a glib invitation to stay (“If you ever find yourself in Cairo…”). A week later Krissy arrived on my doorstep bearing a 2ft-long sausage, and the clues to a generations’-old Alexandrian mystery. It was the beginning of one of the most dearly-held friendships of my life.

What was the last book you read by an Australian woman or non-binary writer that you’d recommend? 

So, so many. Anwen Crawford, Nardi Simpson, Sarah Krasonstein, Amanda Lohrey, Melissa Manning. The fan-letter worthy Krissy Kneen. The trapped fire of Helen Garner’s final diary! But the book I can’t shake is Rebecca Giggs’ Fathoms (which the Stella panel so rightly shortlisted in 2021). To tackle a subject as immense as the whale – a creature that’s not just physically enormous, but the grandest of our metaphors – and somehow manage to match it; I’m still in awe. It’s a wretched irony that the climate crisis is producing a golden age of nature writing, but Giggs is one of the best.

Why is it so important in literature to find characters that are familiar? Why is it important to find characters that are unfamiliar?

It would have meant a lot to me to find someone who looked like me on a front cover or in the pages of a book. It would have gone a long way to making me feel that I belonged, that I was as interesting as everyone else, and that I had a story to tell.

But I benefited greatly from reading about a wide range of characters, and in fact sought out books about people very different from myself. As a youngster, I was hungry to find out about the full range of human experience, and I was particularly interested to read about characters who experienced setbacks or disadvantages I hadn’t experienced myself. I really feel as if this helped me develop compassion and empathy.

 

“The books I love most trust me to find my own way through the moral murk. I want to be left with questions, to have my certainties shaken.”

2023 will be the second year that poetry collections are eligible for the Stella Prize. Who are some of your favourite poets, and do you have a particular poem or collection you often return to?

I use poetry in my writing classes as prompts – pocket guides in how to see the world differently – so the poets I spend the most time with are those who seem to know how to find a way into the hearts of aspiring writers: Joy Harjo, Lucille Clifton, Naomi Shihab Nye, Nikki Giovanni, Pablo Neruda, Maggie Smith (not to be confused with the actor). Mary Oliver is a perennial favourite, with her fierce gentleness and unshakeable wonder. She knows how to pay attention. But there’s a line from a Margaret Atwood poem that echoes in my dreams (and nightmares). “You dangle on the leash of your own longing; your need grows teeth”.

What’s your favourite independent bookstore, and what do you love most about it?

Avid Reader in Brisbane. Like all of the best bookshops, Avid isn’t a store, it’s the hub of a creative community. A heartbeat. Month-to-month their events calendar would rival a writers festival program, and most of them are streamed online. I spent the first year of the pandemic in my parents’ shed in regional WA, living out of a suitcase, and indefinitely separated from my partner due to Covid border restrictions. The sense of literary connection that Avid fostered was a firefly spark of light in the isolated, pandemic dark.

When you’re not writing or reading books, how do you spend your spare time?

Listening to books, printmaking, and tending to a menagerie of weird little critters.

Beejay Silcox is an essayist and literary critic. Her literary criticism and cultural commentary regularly appears in national arts publications, and is increasingly finding an international audience, including in the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian and The New York Times. Her award-winning short stories have been published at home and abroad, and have been selected for a number of Australian anthologies.

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