#WeNeedDiverseBooksAU: Interview with Ambelin Kwaymullina

*This interview is part of a series of reviews #weneeddiversebooksAU. It is one of several interviews with authors who offer diverse YA perspectives.

Ambelin Kwaymullina is the author of the series The Tribe. The most recent book, the third in this series: The Foretelling of Georgie Spider, is out now.     1437111679819

Do you approach your books with an awareness of where you as an author stand politically? How does this influence the way you write?

I don’t consider myself to be particularly political – in fact, I spent almost a decade working for the government and have the deep seated political cynicism common to many former public servants. But I can’t escape politics for two reasons. The first is that part of being Indigenous is that the personal becomes political, or at least becomes interpreted as such. For example, for me the statement that two generations of my family were removed as part of the Stolen Generations is a personal one – but there will be those who will interpret this as some kind of political assertion and want to debate with me on that basis. The second reason I cannot escape politics is because I have a strong commitment to social justice. I think it is impossible not to when it is your own people who suffer the effects of injustice. I was born into a fight that began long before my birth and that, sadly, is likely to continue long after I am gone: the fight for a just world. And so the stories I tell will perhaps always consider larger questions about right and wrong and the spaces in between.

From a cultural perspective, what elements are most important to you to get across as readers?

What’s most important to me is accuracy – and in trying to accurately represent my culture I face some challenges. One of them is that I am writing in English, and while I don’t speak my language, my worldview is an Indigenous one. And English is a poor fit for conveying Indigenous perspectives, for two reasons. Firstly, English has an entire vocabulary of denigration of Indigenous peoples and cultures that has been built up over hundreds of years of colonisation. Secondly, English reflects a particular worldview that is often far removed from those of Indigenous people. Compared to Indigenous languages, English lacks verbs (Indigenous cultures are process-focused and therefore have a greater number of words for things in process); English forces me to write in a linear framework (English has a past, present and future tense; many Indigenous languages have only a present tense because generally Indigenous cultures do not have a concept of linear time); English is inclined to use the singular where Indigenous peoples would use the plural (because Indigenous cultures are pluralist); and finally, English is restrictive in its use of ‘he’ and ‘she’ (from an Indigenous perspective, pretty much everything is animate and therefore pretty much everything is a ‘he’ or ‘she’, not an ‘it’).

The other challenge I face in accurately representing my culture is the vast amount of misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples and cultures which has occurred throughout the colonial project and which continues to the present day. This means that non-Indigenous people can read and interpret my words – and indeed the words of any Indigenous person – in a false context informed by inaccurate and/or prejudiced representations of who Indigenous peoples are.

So, as a writer, I am extraordinarily aware of context and choose my words with enormous care.

Given the perceived ‘lack’ (although of course part of this is just that they’re not being promoted as heavily or widely) of diverse voices in YA literature, did you feel pressure to represent a particular narrative?

Not so much pressure – but I do believe I have a responsibility, because I have had some opportunities to speak. And in speaking, I owe something to the silenced voices of my ancestors. I also owe something to the voices that are still being silenced, the ones being denied any opportunity (whether they are Indigenous or not). This means I have an obligation to speak out against intolerance, and I try to know enough about the issues affecting all marginalised groups that I don’t miss instances of prejudice or ignorance, or let a micro-aggression go past me. Because these things can be missed; they can come clothed in fancy words; and when they form part of an underlying body of assumptions about how things work, they can be almost invisible unless you’re looking for them.

My responsibility also means that I cannot always act to my own commercial advantage. I recently turned down a film offer for the Tribe series. It was a good offer from an Australian company and I liked the people who made it; I think they would have made a good film. But I had to sign over the remake rights which meant that in the event that a US company wanted to remake the Aussie film, I had no way to prevent them replacing all the diverse people in my book – including my Indigenous protagonist – with Caucasians. Nor would I have had any control over how the Indigenous culture in the book was represented. It was of course highly unlikely that any US company would have any interest in remaking the film. But unlikely is not the same as impossible and I had to consider whether I could live with the result if it did happen and all diversity was removed from my book. My conclusion was that I couldn’t.

What stereotypes have you faced as a ‘diverse author’?

I think Indigenous authors and artists alike still struggle with stereotypes about what an Indigenous story is (or what an Indigenous picture looks like). Too many people still cling to essentialist notions of Indigenous identity (that we must be one thing and to the extent that we are not we are not really ‘Indigenous’). Too many people want our narratives to fit their expectations of who they think we should be. And this extends far beyond literature into everyday existence. People I have never met before assume they know many things about me, because they transfer everything they think they know about Indigenous people onto my shoulders (and then get angry with me when I fail to meet their expectations). And it is so frustrating and disempowering, and makes being a writer – already a hard task – that much harder. And like probably every other diverse writer on the face of the planet, I want a world where all voices have equal opportunity to be heard – and all voices are heard equally. I wish we were closer to it than we are.

How would you suggest reviewers approach culturally diverse work to ensure the kind of critical discourse that drives excellence, without being disparaging to those emerging voices that we need, or being culturally insensitive of different types of storytelling?

I think this is a difficult one and we’re in the infancy of developing this kind of discourse. Author Malindo Lo, one of the founders of the US We Need Diverse Books campaign, has written an extended post about some of the issues in reviewing diverse books and I’d recommend any reviewer read that post. I’ve also written about reviews in the course of a post on what literary/review publications can do to support Indigenous books. Beyond that, I’ve talked about this issue before in other places and I’ll try to capture what I’ve said here:

  • I don’t believe any non-Indigenous reviewer should be reviewing books by how culturally ‘authentic’ the books are – how would they know, and who are they to judge? (I’ve previously written of this in the course of an article that can be found here)
  • When reviewing diverse books I’d suggest that knowledge of the Western literary canon can be unhelpful since Indigenous peoples (and other diverse peoples) have been largely excluded from that canon or represented in ways that are inaccurate or racist. Instead, I think it would be great if reviewers developed an understanding of the Indigenous literary canon – which is to say, the many published narratives by Indigenous people and the cultures, histories and knowledges that shape the words;
  • I’de also like to see reviewers have a more nuanced grasp of the often subversive ways in which Indigenous peoples use English and Western forms to tell Indigenous stories (I’ve previously written of some of the difficulties that Indigenous writers can encounter using Western forms here).

Finally, I’d like to reviewers to give space and attention to insider narratives (the ones written or co-written by Indigenous people rather than the ones written about us). Time and time again I have people asking me for recommendations about Indigenous books, and time and time again they are astonished when I start rattling off the names of authors who they never knew existed. We have an extraordinary range of Indigenous narratives in Australia, most of them published by Indigenous publishers – and I wish more people knew about the stories that are out there.

What books would you recommend to readers looking for diversity on their shelves?

First, I’d suggest people think about what kind of books they like to read – what genre are they into? Then go find the books by diverse authors in that genre. Readers are always hungry for more books and never more so than in the genre closes to our hearts (for me it’s speculative fiction and detective novels). And I promise you there are stories out there in the genre you love that you never knew existed.

[Thanks so much Ambelin for taking the time to give such thoughtful responses to these questions.

I have a number of authors from a variety of backgrounds answering the same questions, so stay tuned for further interviews in this series.]

Review: ‘Becoming Kirrali Lewis’ by Jane Harrison

kirrali lewis*This review is part of a series of reviews #weneeddiversebooksAU

**Teachers notes for this title are available here.

Here I was: Kirrali Lewis. Through a pair of ornate wrought-iron gates was one of the oldest universities in the country. Our paths had just intersected. It was the 10th of March 1985 and I, little black duck, was about to step through those gates to embark on a law degree.

It’s 1985 and Kirrali Lewis, little black duck from a white adoptive family, is just starting university. She’s worked hard to get to where she is, and she doesn’t want any handouts – particularly not those given to her because she’s Aboriginal. From day one, Kirrali shuns the Aboriginal cooperative, draws a line between herself and race politics and anything that could be seen as a handout. Kirrali’s attitude is that it’s hard work and and determination that are responsible for success, not privilege (or lack thereof). But uni is an eye-opening experience for Kirrali, in more ways than one.

This excellent first novel tackles some complex themes. Kirrali’s position in the politics of her race and generation (whether she likes it or not), makes for a fascinating narrative perspective. Alongside the obvious challenges that Kirrali faces – developing her sense of identity, discovering her culture and her place in it, tracing her ancestry – the book also looks at issues facing single mothers, mixed race relationships and the different ways privilege manifests itself.

Kirrali is the kind of character who protects herself with a mask of cool detachment. Despite having been the subject of racist bullying – an interaction with a girl in high school who confidently tells her that ‘black people come from Africa. And they should go back there.’ leaves Kirrali ashamed of her own truth – Kirrali can’t see how her ancestry should define her. Her self-imposed isolation at the beginning of the novel works well to put some distance between the reader and the narrative. Instead of being unable to see beyond the character’s emotions, Kirrali’s emotional detachment gives the reader space to consider the complicated politics surrounding her. Of course, as the narrative continues, Kirrali’s perspectives shift and she becomes more emotionally open, and the reader is right there with her.

This book challenges stereotypes and preconceived notions on all levels, because Jane Harrison has written fantastic characters who push the boundaries. Kirrali’s adoptive parents are frequently mentioned as having tried to encourage Kirrali to connect with her history. The dreadlocked guy from the Aboriginal Coop becomes Kirk, a fierce political supporter, but also an emotionally complex friend who supports Kirrali from the get go, despite her initial attitudes towards him. Kirrali’s best friend Martina could have been a happy-go-lucky airhead, but in fact offers strong counterpoints to Kirrali’s fears and judgements. Kirrali’s mother too, who in fact takes half the narrative, is unexpected in a number of ways.

Despite being a book that is very aware of the politics surrounding it – as Kirk says to Kirrali the first time they meet ‘Looked in the mirror lately, girl? You gotta be interested in politics.’ – Becoming Kirrali Lewis isn’t self conscious, and it doesn’t pander to existing political narratives. Instead the politics exist within the story, which is deeply personal. Kirrali’s flaws, her insecurities, fears, ignorances and desires are so familiar, so there is never any danger of her being reduced to a stereotyped representation of the Aboriginal experience (as if, as Ambelin Kwaymullina writes in this piece there were only one experience). Books shouldn’t be added to collections purely to increase diversity, but excellent titles that are also diverse and challenging should be sought out and displayed prominently. Becoming Kirrali Lewis is certainly one of these.

Review: ‘The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf’ and ‘The Disappearance of Ember Crow’ by Ambelin Kwaymullina

ashala wolf disappearance of ember crow








*This review is part of a series of reviews #weneeddiversebooksAU

**Teachers notes for this title are available here.

The bulk of the references in this review are to The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf to avoid spoilers from The Disappearance of Ember Crow. The third book in the series The Foretelling of Georgie Spider comes out September 2015.

One of the things I loved most when I first read The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf some years ago, that still struck me on my recent reread, was its ability to surprise. Without giving too much away, the premise and the plot twists are clever and unexpected and this is just as true for The Disappearance of Ember Crow.

Kwaymullina’s books are clearly influenced by her own history, ideas and experiences, but her writing rebels against being A Lesson. This is real diversity – where readers can see writers and characters from diverse backgrounds in all stories, not only playing the part of The Indigenous Character.  I remember hearing Ellen van Neerven talk about the freedom that writing speculative, or non-traditional fiction gives to Indigenous authors, and I wonder if these ideas are connected. Speculative fiction removes politically charged themes from the ‘now’, giving them space to breath in another place, pushing characters beyond their Single Story, and allowing readers to discuss them without feeling the need to attack or defend.

Ashala Wolf is the leader of the Tribe, a group of young runaways with ‘abilities’. In this post-apocalyptic world where the Balance (‘the inherent harmony between all life’) is maintained by a set of Accords, ‘other’ is not defined by race or religion, but by whether or not someone has an ability. Ashala’s is Sleepwalking – in a dream state she is able to shift the reality around her. Her younger sister Cassie was a Firestarter, killed as a child when a group of Enforcers came to escort her to a Detention centre, the mandatory home for people with abilities. Ashala and her friend Georgie run away, escaping to the Firstwood where they build a refuge for themselves and others like them. But the Tribe will never be safe until they are no longer the target for humanities fear.

Ashala has a lot in common with Obernewtyn‘s Elspeth. Strong willed, independent, protective. A born leader. She is introduced at her most vulnerable, when she is being led away to interrogation. She believes that she is alone, and afraid of betraying the members of her Tribe. She is a character who carries the isolation of being a leader with her, although she values her friendships dearly. Ashala is descended from the Serpent, one of several earth spirits who appear in the series (in The Disappearance of Ember Crow we meet the First Cat). She is a rich and complex character whose journey connects her as much to her past as to her present. As she explores her own relationship to the world before the Reckoning, the reader can see the connections between this future and their present. What would it take to take us there?

You genuinely believe we’re outside the natural order? That you can treat us however you like without causing disharmony. because we’re not part of the Balance in the first place?

Ashala asks this of Connor as he leads her to be interrogated, but it’s a question I can imagine being applicable to many political figures at present. Without trying to, there are strong links between this fictional future and the present. As Ashala challenges her captor, the fanatic Neville Rose, she says

‘You don’t care enough, and you don’t care the same […] the same as you would about one of your own […] If some ordinary kid had died in the way Cassie did, there would have been an outcry and an investigation. There wasn’t though, not for a girl killed during an assessment. You set us apart, and you tell yourself it’s for the good of the Balance.’

I was reminded immediately of Tony Birch’s article ‘Who Gives a Fuck About White Society Anymore? A Response to the Redfern Riot’

Hickey’s name will be remembered in the wider community as little more than an archived news item. Meanwhile young Indigenous people will continue to die as a result of violence, most of them in the shadows of Australia’s psyche. Some of these children will die within their own communities, others alienated and alone. And unless they are able to provide a photo opportunity to accompany a briefly documented statistic they will die anonymously. They will not be forgotten by the wider community, as they will have never been remembered. But we must remember these young people, and in life not death. White Australia also needs to discover its memory of its own history of violence.

Perhaps it is in fiction that we can look for ways to shape a future where we are better.


Review: ‘Heat and Light’ by Ellen van Neerven

heat and light

*This review was developed at the Stella Prize/ DWF critics masterclass with Jo Case and Melinda Harvey.

**This review is part of a series of reviews #weneeddiversebooksAU

It is the uniqueness of structure and voice that makes Heat and Light stand out. The stories in this debut collection by Ellen van Neerven are not entirely stand-alone, nor are they entirely connected. The book is divided into three distinct parts. Similar themes echo through each, but ultimately they function quite independently.

Given the number of different characters in the book, it is impressive that each has a distinctly individual voice. In other interviews, van Neerven has mentioned that some of the characters have been in her head for a while. Some of the stories have had earlier publications. S&J, a piece about two girls trying to define themselves beyond their skin colour, sexuality and friendship, was first published in the prestigious McSweeney’s Quarterly, alongside short story heavyweights Tony Birch, Tara June Wing and Melissa Lucashenko.

The time that has been taken to piece together these characters and stories is evident, as Heat and Light doesn’t show any uncertainty – there is no echo of ‘debut novelist’ in its pages. Her characters carry the necessary spark to make them spring to life, and each demands attention from the reader. Each voice is given the opportunity to share stories that are uncomfortable, confronting, tender, familial, searching.

Publishers are hesitant when it comes to publishing short story collections. This tide is now turning. In the same year that Ellen van Neerven won the David Unaipon Award for an Unpublished Indigenous Author (and the subsequent publication of her novel by UQP), Maxine Beneba Clarke won the Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript for her debut short story collection, Foreign Soil. Both books went on to be longlisted for the 2015 Stella Prize, where they joined another collection Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey. Perhaps many of the important cultural and social conversations that we are currently having with literature are best had through the short story form. Or perhaps, in our time-poor society, we are turning more to short stories as a way of accessing literature.

It is impossible to drive a single narrative through all three parts of the book and trying to force one would warp the ease of the stories. The parts could easily be read independently, although there are structural and thematic similarities between Heat and Light that unite the two. In terms of cohesion, it is Water that sits further apart, with even the title pointing to its exclusion. It is a wonderful piece to read, a speculation on Australia’s future that draws parallels between the errors of an overzealous new President’s attempts to make amends and the historical treatment of Australia’s Indigenous population. However it feels slightly jarring between the other two collections, differing both in the speculative setting and the length.

If there are links between all three parts of the book they are thematic ones. Themes of love (familiar and romantic), displacement, gender and country are present throughout, explored in ways that beg the following questions.What are our responsibilities to each other as Australians? As humans? As family? As lovers? Are we ever able to mend what has been broken? These questions echo through each of the stories, including the first, where a young Amy Kresinger discovers the truth about who her grandmother is.

I found Pearl lying on the ground a long way from the lake. She had called me there with her whistle. She looked half-dead.

            The jealous part of me could have kept going but I helped her. I felt a bunch of guilt that I hadn’t done anything. And I had been one of those who had talked about her at school, and after I finished school, I had helped in outcasting her. She had come here to the town for a fresh start and she hadn’t got it. I got her up and walked her to the lookout where I know she stayed for a time.

Heat and Light is an extraordinary debut that sets a high benchmark for whatever topic van Neerven sets her sights on next.

Teachers notes will be available soon on the Stella Prize website.

The book can be purchased here.


The #weneeddiversebooks campaign was established in the US in 2014 in response to the lack of diversity in youth literature at the time. In 2015, when Bad Feminist author Roxanne Gay visited Australia, she said that one of the questions she asked when she first arrived was ‘are there any black people here?’ It’s not surprising the she would ask this, given the lack of Indigenous faces we see on Australian screens, or in the media, and in Australian books. Despite Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures being one of ACARA’s cross-curriculum priorities, at first glance at least, it would appear that books by Aboriginal authors are hard to come by.

In fact they aren’t. YA author Ambelin Kwaymullina (The Tribe) is passionate about this. In fact, she has written several articles on the need for Indigenous literature in the classroom, most recently for the Wheeler Centre which can be found here. She says

The briefest glance at the catalogue of Aboriginal publishers in Australia (IAD Press, Magabala Books, and Aboriginal Studies Press) is enough to show that there is an extraordinary range of Indigenous voices across every genre, and there’s plenty of Indigenous writers being published by other publishers too. Indigenous voices are speaking. They are just too often not being heard. So silence does not always exist to be filled; sometimes it should be interrogated.

I spoke to Ambelin recently at the Reading Matters conference hosted by the Centre for Youth Literature in Victoria. I’ve spoken to her before and would love to speak to her again. Among other things, she is absolutely unwilling to skirt around issues that she believes needs to be addressed. In a society where so many issues are treated to Australia’s famous ‘look away’ treatment, it’s refreshing to be challenged – it’s the only way to steer us away from the easy option.

So I came away from our conversation asking myself what I could do. And the most obvious thing I could think of was to read, and review as many books by Aboriginal authors that I could get my hands on. I’ll be doing that, and posting my progress on the blog, and on twitter using #weneeddiversebooksAU. Where possible I’ll link or add teachers notes, links to buy the books, author interviews and anything else that is relevant. I’m open to recommendations and would love people to get involved in the discussion, share books they’ve read, or experiences they’ve had in the classroom on these topics*.

*I reserve the right to refuse any comments that are offensive or irrelevant.

I’ll be getting my lists from the YA booklists at Magabala books and IAD Press and wherever else I can source titles from.

Personal History – reviewing ‘The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie’

resized_9781743317020_224_297_FitSquareAll has been quiet on the blog front for a while. I’ve been making some big decisions (leaving nutrition for full time writing and hopefully a creative writing masters), and thinking a lot about the ways that I can push myself to write, read and review better. Plus I’ve been hard at work on the Stella Prize Schools Program which launches in September.

A number of things that I’ve read of late and some of the things I’ve been involved in, have spurred me to think about owning our personal narrative. I don’t think I do that enough, and for quite a long time now I’ve felt a disconnect between the way I see myself, and moments of my life. I struggle sometimes to feel as though I have the ‘right’ to my own story. I’d like to blog about that more, or perhaps turn it into some kind of article once the thoughts have percolated for a bit longer, but in the meantime, I thought I’d touch on personal history and bring the blog up to date with a lovely little book that I’ve just finished.

It’s The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie by Kirsty Murray. It’s a timeslip book, that would fit nicely on a shelf alongside books like Angel Creek by Sally Rippin or When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. In it, Lucy McKenzie is sent to stay with her Great Aunt ‘Big’ over christmas, while her father works. Her mother has flown to Paris to sit with Lucy’s sister Claire, a talented singer who has been put into an induced coma after a serious fall. Lucy is dreading spending christmas alone with her Aunt, a prickly and independent old woman who lives by herself in Avendale, an old house on the river. In Big’s house is a room where a landscape is painted on each of the four walls. Autumn, Summer, Winter, Spring. It is in this room that Lucy first feels the ripples of magic and discovers that she can step through the walls and into Avendale’s past.

This is an emotive book, as Lucy feels keenly her separation from her family as well as the painful sense of being the ‘normal’ one, the youngest in a family full of talent. Next to Big as well, she is awkward and shy. Big is a talented painter, larger than life, frank, honest. She thinks nothing of rinsing the dishes in the outdoor toilet and feels that Lucy should be more assertive. When Lucy steps through the wall she is bolder, braver and happier. She becomes close friends with April, the incorrigible Jimmy, and the steadfast Tom. Her unique knowledge of the future makes her the hero more than once, but each time she leaves, her sudden disappearance and prolonged absence make her more and more of a mystery to the others. For Lucy, leaving makes her anxious. In the present, she is faced with questions. Like what happens to Tom, who is never mentioned by Big, although she must have known him? And why does Jimmy marry Lucy’s own grandmother, even though Lucy can see that April is in love with him? Lucy is determined to save the past, but as she becomes more invested in Avendale’s history, she becomes more invested in its present too, and without even noticing, she starts to find a place where she belongs.

I love books like this. It seems that they are/this is not so obsessed with romantic love. I can hardly talk. My own WIP is about love. My masters proposal focusses on love. I’m obsessed with love, how we fall in and out of it, and the power it holds over us. And yet I remember a time when I wasn’t. I remember climbing hay bales and falling asleep next to the two daughters of our family friends in the lumpy, wooden bed in the draughty spare room in their grandmothers house. I also remember feeling ill-fitting. I remember seeing people, not just sisters although them as well, who fit together with such ease and wondering at why I felt so out of place. The feeling carried through primary school, high school and uni, and in some ways my skin remembers the awkwardness now. But I also remember that it was in books just like this one, with characters like Lucy McKenzie that I finally felt that I had found a place. If not a place for me exactly, at least a place that I could call my own.

This book will be familiar to many. It represents suburban Australia in Lucy, in her longings for home and for the life that she recognises. But it also reflects the outback. The blistering heat of bushfire seasons, the sprawling standalone homesteads and the smell of the river. Lucy is an important character, because she is familiar and her struggles will resonate with the books intended audience.These young readers, many of whom will be starting to face shifting friendships, changing priorities and increased as well as feelings of awkwardness, loneliness and anxiety, will relate strongly to Lucy, and will enjoy watching her journey of self discovery which begins in the past, and sends echoes through to her present. This is a lovely book, yes, but as well as that, is one which through its mirroring of these familiar struggles, has the potential to act as a compass as readers navigate through their own childhoods, giving them confidence to face the challenges that they may be presented with in adolescence.


The Stella Prize

claire-wrightI’ve been lucky enough recently to join The Stella Prize to help them set up their school’s program. I’m so excited to be working with the amazing women who initiated this prize to address the gender bias in Australian literary prizes.

I’ve had quite a few people ask me about the prize since I started working on this project, so I decided that it would be worth putting up a bit of info here. Kerryn Goldsworthy beautifully summed up the prize when she discussed her role as a judge in this year’s award.

The Stella Prize was born in a spirit of protest and resistance. It took shape early in 2011, when a literary event in Melbourne to mark International Women’s Day featured a panel discussion about the under-representation of women in literary pages and magazines, as well as in the shortlists and winners of literary prizes. The women involved in this event decided that it was time to do something. In 2009, five of Australia’s leading women writers—Debra Adelaide, Amanda Lohrey, Joan London, Kate Grenville and Helen Garner—had published excellent novels that were eligible for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia’s most sought- after literary prize and one of its richest. None of them even made the longlist, and the shortlist consisted exclusively of novels by men. And unbeknown to the women on the discussion panel that day, the 2011 Miles Franklin shortlist that would be announced a month or so later would again be an all-male lineup.

The Stella Prize is not the first Australian Literary Prize for women, but it is the only one to have been established by women pushing for change rather than as a result of a bequest. Miles Franklin was the pen-name of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin—feminist, nationalist and author of the Australian classic My Brilliant Career. Like many of her female contemporaries, she knew that using a male pseudonym would give her writing a better chance of being published and read. Naming the award the Stella Prize was a way of honouring Franklin and of restoring her given name; that “Stella” means “star” was icing on the cake.

The UK’s well-established and prestigious Orange Prize—now the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction— provided a model, and with the help of donors and sponsors and some broad support from the literary community, the prize was first awarded in 2013 to Carrie Tiffany for her novel Mateship with Birds….(read the full article here)

I’m hoping at some stage to post some reviews up here of the books that I’ve read for this project. I’m only sad that I didn’t get to them earlier, despite having heard wonderful things from the beginning. It has been an amazing list of books to be working through – I don’t envy the judges what must have been a hard decision indeed. I’ve linked to the long lists and shortlists from the 2013 and 2014 prizes below. If you’re looking for something to read, I urge you to sink your teeth into a few of these. Covering a huge range of themes and writing styles, spanning both fiction and non-fiction, these books have excellent storytelling in common and are an impressive representation of Australian talent. And if you read any, come back tell me what you think. Or better yet, head over to the Australian Women’s Writing challenge and write a review!

2013 longlist                                                                                                                                  2013 shortlist                                                                                                                                                       2014 longlist                                                                                                                               2014 shortlist 



Blog Tour! Free books! “Bird” by Crystal Chan

Chan_BirdBird (John) was five when he flew off the top of the cliff. Flew all the way to the bottom. The day he died his Grandpa stopped talking. The day he died, Jewel was born.

Jewel has grown up in the shadow of her brother’s death. Each birthday is thick with his absence. Until her twelfth birthday, when Jewel meets another boy called John. He talks about planets and space and makes her feel like she can tell him secrets that she’s only ever shared with her rocks. But her Grandpa thinks that John is a duppy and spits at his feet, and even Jewel knows that there’s something that John isn’t telling her, she just isn’t sure what it is.

I feel very lucky to have been asked to review this book as a part of Crystal Chan‘s blog tour. It’s a very special first book, and is fitting that author Martine Murray has given the cover quote, as she has a similar frankness to her characters, a similar wisdom.

This is a book that finds the perfect balance of heaviness and light. It is rich with culture and colour and longing. Jewel longs to be noticed, her mother longs for her son and Grandpa longs to make up for being responsible for the death of his beloved Bird. It’s a book about wanting something more, wanting to eek more from life than just surviving. Jewel wants to be a geologist, but her mother wants her to be something more, something safer, something normal. The overprotectiveness of a mother who has lost one child is understandable, even to Jewel, but just once she wants to be heard not from behind the veil of tragedy that hangs over her family. Jewel’s father is overprotective too, but as a Jamaican, his protection comes in the form of plants, rituals and totems designed to keep the evil spirits, the duppies away from his family.

This exploration of not fitting in because of colour or culture is mirrored in John, the dark skinned boy of a white, rich family. He resents them because they’re a daily reminder that he’s got no links to his birth family who gave him up. In Jewel he finds someone who understands him. She understands what it’s like to be different, and to have people take one look at you and assume that you don’t belong. She understands his obsession with space, and can match his facts about planets with her own about the rocks and the earth. They are companion stars, moving in each others’ atmosphere.

But while I love the relationship that develops between Jewel and John, my favourite character, and my favourite development in the book is Grandpa and his relationship with Jewel. Grandpa starts as a two dimensional angry old man, silenced by his grief and superstitions. But Jewel knows that there was more to him once. Before Bird flew. ‘Pooba’, who gave his grandson a nickname that encouraged him to fly. A smiling Grandpa, with his arm around Granny. Little by little Grandpa becomes more than his silence and rage. Discovering him is one of the many lovely character mysteries to this book and there are some beautiful moments as he starts to become more than a name or a silent, angry figure to Jewel and starts becoming a person with history and joy and music and pain. It’s extraordinary watching Jewel

Chan2 I(Stacy Jaffe)uncover the mysteries of her family within this old man, and watching her find a place where her soul feels at home.

Words are what we use to tell a story, but it’s the silences that make it special. Crystal Chan uses both to perfection. Her story is one that is captivating to read- it’s rich, colourful, tragically happy and wonderful and the words that she uses to tell it are clean and precise. They are punctuated with perfect silences, lifting this story beyond the everyday and making it fly.


Thanks to Text Publishing I have a copy of “Bird” to giveaway to an Australian reader. Just tell me in the comments why you’d like to read it and I’ll announce the winner in the next couple of weeks.

You can read the rest of Crystal’s journey through the blogosphere at the sites below

Extract on Gobblefunked

Review & Guest Post at VeganYANerds

Review at whY.A.not?

12 Curly Questions on Kids’ Book Review

Review at Diva Booknerd

Review at YA Midnight Reads

Review at inkcrush

Review & Q&A at ALPHAReader

A good start


2014 is so far off to a good start, book-wise, blog-wise and life-wise.

After a chaotic, fulfilling, wonderful 2013 I’m looking forward to another jam packed year. There will be more travelling, a wedding and I hope more time for writing too (or at the very least if not more time then more actual writing).

Technically the first book I read this year was the new Barry Jonsberg – Pandora Jones, for review in an upcoming edition of Bookseller&Publisher (it is very very good indeed). However, the first two on my goodreads list are these, by Laini Taylor.

Anyone who knows me will know that I’m wilfully stubborn and have a tendency to do the exact opposite of things that are suggested to me, just because. I received a copy of Daughters of Smoke and Bone some time ago now for review, and it dutifully went on my to read pile. And was then overshadowed by newer books (plus I was a bit sick of the whole fallen angel schtick). And then someone told me that I simply had to read it because it was amazing, so I of course, did nothing of the sort.

Until last week, when for no particular reason I actually got a stool and dug through the books in my wardrobe for this particular title, because a little niggling voice told me that I really should read it, and actually I had been going through a bit of a fantasy series phase so what was the harm in it really anyway?

Two days later I’d finished both Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight and was absolutely desperate for the third. It’s due in a few months I think, so that’s not an incredibly long time to wait.

To write this series off as ‘one of those fallen angel books’ does it a real disservice. In fact, although it does have fallen angels (and non-fallen ones) by the carload, the story is primarily about Karou, not a fallen angel, but a chimaera  – raised and surrounded by demons. Karou is a most excellent female lead, with her blue hair and independence, while her best friend Zuzana (described by Karou as the ‘rabid fairy’) is tiny, ferocious and loyal. These two are The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo of fantasy. Unlike the swathe of other fallen angel type romances, the women in this series are strong, independent and entirely capable of standing on their own two feet. That’s not to say that there isn’t romance. There is. Lots of it. But it’s made all the more wonderful by the equality, by the fact that it is the male characters who worship the ground on which these wonderful women tread.

This strength adds complexity to the story itself as well. Without wanting to give too much away, there is a time (several times) when Karou’s loyalties are tested and she is torn between the love of her heart and the love of her people. Her decisions are rich and complex, and when she turns her back on her lover it doesn’t come across as merely a plot device to create tension, but as an authentic and heartbreaking choice. Offering a sweet contrast to Karou’s struggles with love is the easy and tender romance between Zuzana and violinist Mik. They may not quite be the focus of the story that Karou and angel Akiva are, but they are no less important, and readers will follow their story with just as much eagerness (so much so that a novella has been written about their first date)

With a backdrop of Prague and Marrakech and a surprisingly loveable cast of beastly characters, there is an ‘otherness’ to these books that is irresistible. We are introduced to the chimaera in Karou’s sketchbooks, where she chronicles her life as a messenger and tooth collector for the mysterious Brimstone. Brimstone might be a demon, but there is something grandfatherly about him, despite his horns. Similarly there is something maternal about Issa, the snake headed female bodied woman. It is these warm familial qualities that play on our expectations of characters in this genre and what makes this series such a unique standout amid so many.

Review – Zac and Mia – A J Betts



As I’m sure you all know, each year Text Publishing awards the Text Prize for young adult and children’s fiction. You can read more about that here.

This prize, now in it’s sixth year, is awarded to unpublished manuscripts and has thus far unearthed the following titles.

2008 – Richard NewsomeThe Billionaire’s Curse 

2009 – Leanne Hall – This Is Shyness

2010 – Jane Higgins – The Bridge

2011 – Myke Bartlett – Fire In the Sea

2012 – AJ Betts – Zac and Mia

and recently announced 2013 – Diana Sweeney – The Minnow, which will be published in 2014.

Zac and Mia, published yesterday, is a book about bravery. Not clean, gleaming, heroic bravery, but a kind of snotty, enduring, isolated bravery found in hospital rooms, in late nights, in long drives and in making the best of every good moment – knowing that they’re going to be tempered with some pretty crap ones. It’s also about love.

I’ve heard this described as ‘sicklit’ which I think perfectly sums up this new genre (when did cancer become a whole genre??) of books about teenage cancer sufferer/survivors. There are already some great names in there – John Green for one with The Fault in Our Stars. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again here, that the best of these are by authors (such as Green, and now AJ Betts) who aren’t afraid to write it real. Authors who aren’t afraid to make their characters real (sometimes obnoxious, sometimes hilarious, sometimes devastating) teenagers. They’re not heroes just because they got sick. In fact there’s a great scene in Zac and Mia where Zac receives an award that he feels is undeserved and only awarded out of sympathy. It’s a wonderfully truthful and awkward moment which is the perfect catalyst for his subsequent rage.

Mia storms into the book nothing but rage. Our first introduction to her is her rage pounding through the walls into Zac’s hospital room. It’s her rage that pulls him from his sickness and into the present. It’s her rage that contrasts everything, shining a blinding light on the unfair, the underprepared, the unfinished. Zac knows that her chance is better, that she’s one of the lucky ones. But Mia doesn’t feel lucky, she feels alone, broken. And then Zac taps on the wall of her hospital room. He says ‘trust me’.

The relationship that grows between these two is beautiful. There’s a great balance of highs and lows in the book. Sickness is woven into each part of the narrative, and its interesting to see how the different character react to their own sickness, and to the sickness in each other. It’s interesting to see so many views on life, on living. It’s interesting, in so many ways, and it’s wrapped in a fragile love story between two characters who in all honesty would probably have never given each other the time of day if not for that single tap on a thin hospital wall.

But the wind steals the words from my lips and tosses them away. I’m glad they’re gone. AJ Betts writes with an enviable ease. There is a perfect balance between country and city, sick and health, fear and bravery on each page and in every interaction. None of the characters are wasted, and in reality it feels as though we are invited into a much larger world than the page count might suggest. As you might expect from a genre named ‘sicklit’, there’s a reasonable dose of tragedy, and of unfairness. There’s plenty of hope though and more importantly plenty of chances and choices.

I think you have to be brave to write a book like this. To write it without overt, condescending sympathy. And to be brave enough to write the moments that are funny, or grotty, or filled with rage, alongside those that are brave and heroic. It’s a book that is well deserving of a prize, and is likely to win many more.

***GIVEAWAY – Thanks to Text Publishing, I’ve got a copy of Zac and Mia to giveaway to a First Impressions reader. If you’d like to win* simply post a comment below telling me why you’d like this to be the next book on your reading list.

*Winners must be from Australia or New Zealand, although of course I welcome comments from anywhere on the blog! I’ll pick a winner within 7 days and will then get details and a postal address.