Interview: Melissa Lucashenko – 2022 Stella Prize Judge (Chair)

An interview with award-winning Bundjalung author and 2022 Stella Prize Chair of Judges, Melissa Lucashenko.

Melissa Lucashenko

What excites you about Chairing the 2022 Judging Panel and awarding the 10th Stella Prize winner?

I’m interested in working with a bunch of really smart readers and critics and dissecting what women and non-binrary writers are doing at the moment. Liberal Western democracy is under great challenge – rightly so in some ways  – and public intellectuals need to take that challenge very, very seriously. I am keen to see what Australian literature is doing in response to BLM, to the pandemic, to the war on women, and growing marginalising of and attacks on the poor. How is artistic discourse being shaped by these movements and how are writers talking back to the powerful? In an era where we have seen literal fascism take root in the US and Europe and arguably in parts of Australian life, how are our writers imagining a future?

What do you look for in a great book?

I look for a unique take on life, a curious and intelligent eye. Flair with language, a sense of humour, and surprising insights into the human condition of us all as social and political creatures. I also look for courage, and for readability. 

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

As a writer it’s always encouraging to be short-or-longlisted for prizes. Overall Stella has helped me maintain focus on women’s voices in my work, which is not really a problem. I think just as importantly its helped me to continue valuing women’s and non-binary responses to my work over the predictable and sometimes silly response of what I’ll loosely term the cis white patriarchy, and its handmaidens.

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

I’ve been reading a lot of historical material and mid-20th century fiction. Much of that writing is by Anglo men. Casting my mind back a couple of years I very much enjoyed Thea Astley’s A Kindness Cup. It’s a startling and difficult novel, technically difficult I mean, examining an historical massacre in central Queensland. Very sharp, extremely well executed writing, and powerful stuff for a novel published in 1974. 

2022 will be the first year that poetry collections are eligible for the prize. Who are some of your favourite poets, and do you have a particular poem or collection you often return to?

I’m a huge fan of Natalie Harkin, Ali Cobby Eckermann and Joy Harjo. I’ve learned a great deal from Judith Wright, Ellen van Neerven, Gil Scott-Heron, Tony Birch, June Jordan and Romaine Moreton. But there are literally hundreds of poets I draw on.

“Flair with language, a sense of humour, and surprising insights into the human condition of us all as social and political creatures. I also look for courage, and for readability.”

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

Avid Reader in Brisbane is my home away from home. I do some of my writing there and the Avid crew are just bloody legends. They give real meaning to the words ‘writing community.’

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

I walk in the bush, I do a little bit of rainforest regeneration north of Lismore. I’m trying to learn to cook better. I’ve just mastered stir fried gai lan and black bean chicken. Simple things like that, and trying to keep my nephews in line, because being out of line can easily be fatal for young Aboriginal males in Australia. Supporting younger writers and questioning capitalist ecocide. I’m also working on my fitness – I can now walk for two hours, which makes me very happy.

What are you working on currently?

I have been researching a novel of colonial Brisbane since 2019. I had the idea for this book twenty years ago. It’s the story of a young Yugambeh (Gold Coast) man who comes to Brisbane for ceremony in 1855, gets stuck in the township which is only fifteen years out of convictism. He falls in love, and the story is of he and his lover negotiating a world in massive flux, alongside the sympathetic early colonist Tom Petrie, who was part of the Aboriginal world then. Expect laughter, tears, and a very surprising picture of life in 19th century Queensland.

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