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Western Australian Premier's Book Awards - 2002 Judges' Report

Comments by the Judging Panel

For the 2002 awards, a total of 126 books and unpublished scripts were submitted. The judges considered these works in six categories: fiction, poetry, young adults, children's books, script, and non-fiction. With almost half of the entries each year falling in the non-fiction category, the wisdom of awarding two prizes for this section is again evident. As usual the various sections threw up works of extraordinary variety and levels of complexity, as they often do given the varied backgrounds of writers (from experienced and established scholars, poets and novelists to near novices) and the range of publishing houses (from private, individually financed outlets and small publishers to some of the largest in the world). Once again the judges had to balance absolute literary worth against a range of factors such as originality, contribution to a particular field, experimentation with form and the writer's own triumph over a range of adversities. The choice of the winning entries for any given category reflects any number of these attributes. This year the judges were struck by the high quality of books in the non-fiction section, many of which were both major contributions to scholarship and exceptionally readable. As in the past, the vibrancy of Western Australian literary output generally was once again evident in the many books. Regardless of the category for which they were submitted, a number of books stood out as works of quite exceptional literary merit.

Fiction Judge's Report

ashtonUnder a Tin-Grey Sari - Wayne Ashton
The playful, often light-hearted and sometimes mischievous tone of this delightful novel serve to underscore the complexity of relationships and social hierarchies under challenge in a changing society in Chittagong, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1967. This is a story of love and aspiration told with a deft touch by an author with a talent for using humour and wistfulness to explore the depths of human yearning. The narrator's Rushdie-like sense of magic realism helps create a rich tapestry of human emotions and actions even as the characters live in a chaotic, mystical world. Wayne Ashton's postcolonial narrative mimics colonial absurdities and then undercuts them with quiet, ironic force. He has re-created a world both with child-like wonder and a carefully nuanced sense of social responsibility. While the novel has a notional plot - the search by a young chef for his tandoor oven - this is a rollicking, lyrical tale of saga-like proportions. It is peopled with numerous larger-than-life characters, and it is through the clever device of the letter writer that their stories are revealed.

haySkins - Sarah Hay
This is an exceptional first novel with a compelling plot and memorable characters. It is a wonderful reconstruction of a shipwreck and its aftermath - not quite A Fringe of Leaves but evocatively written nevertheless with a strong feel for character and landscape. Sarah Hay skilfully combines an imaginative appreciation of the history of early settlement in Western Australia with the novelist's gift for bringing characters to life to tell a story of survival in the face of privation, threat and a sometimes hostile environment. The story of sisters Mary and Dorothea (with brother Jem and others) shipwrecked on Middle Island after Jansen's cutter the Mountaineer runs aground is handled with great control, with Dorothea's relationship with a little-known historical figure, the Afro-American sealer (and whaler) Black Jack Anderson, at the centre of the plot. The author shows a profound knowledge of and affection for the harsh landscape of Middle Island off the southern coast of WA, the setting for this story of sealing in 1835.

jonesBlack Mirror - Gail Jones
In this debut novel Gail Jones has produced an outstanding work of archival recovery and artistic re-creation set in Paris, London and the Western Australian Goldfields. The protagonist Anna Griffin progressively discovers her own identity as she researches the life of a fellow Australian and surrealist artist, Victoria Morrell, for a biography. These two emotional and intelligent women, Victoria and her biographer Anna, share an obvious background of place and the plot works to draw the various other links of their lives together through the language of both painting and the written word. Here is a complex, delicately layered work which explores the nature of love, art and the emotional forces that fashion the lives of her characters. Dazzling, rich in metaphor with prose often rendered with the cadence of verse, and demonstrating a superb mastery of art criticism as well, this novel is destined to become a major work by a Western Australian writer.

kershawThe Home Crowd - Graham Kershaw
Graham Kershaw's protagonist is caught between the seductive allure of sunny Perth and the bleak landscape of the English north of his birth. This is a stark rendering of a search for emotional identity and belonging, of a haunting dilemma of the migration experience arising out of the complex politics of living here and emotionally belonging elsewhere. The ensuing emotional conflict makes for a theme that touches the very depths of one's soul. The author uses a spare, almost blunt, style to build tension and drive his narrative to a resolution. The Home Crowd resonates with experiences common to many Australians who are re-discovering their connections to their 'homeland', and the importance of belonging.

Poetry Judge's Report

CHOATE-book---my-days-were-fauvethMy Days Were Fauve - Alec Choate
Alec Choate's seemingly effortless verse stands as a monument to a lifetime of dedication to poetry. It is fitting that he should tell the story of his life through poetry, the art and craft of which, in its range of moods and nuances, he has mastered to telling effect. Autobiographies in verse require engagement with the descriptive as well as the conversational, narrative as well as ideas, and, in English at any rate, are always written in the shadow of Wordsworth. My Days Were Fauve is informed by the conventions of autobiographical narrative in verse and its self-evident intertext; its great charm lies in the ease with which life and times are created unencumbered by the weight of tradition and written with quite remarkable clarity and poetic force. Alec Choate has written a long poem which is often tender, sometimes sad, but never despairing of life.

mateerLoanwords - John Mateer
John Mateer is an uncompromising poet, at once intensely lyrical and politically proactive - a tough binary to uphold for anyone but Mateer's talent lies in the manner in which he is able to combine the two. Loanwords is both a journey of understanding (why the world is what it is) and a meditation on the triumph of the human spirit. Here is an accomplished poet, a master of metaphor and the telling phrase, sometimes even a prophetic voice or the detached sage, the poet as social conscience as well as a voice in the wilderness. Exhibiting 'a poetic of anger' where necessary ('The Bombing', 'The Failure of Speech') and humour and compassion elsewhere ('The Frog-Memory'), Mateer's poems show an unusual facility with words and ideas.

tempertonGoing Feral - Barbara Temperton
'Feral cat, surrounded by angry birds,/has the deck stacked against her.' These are two representative lines from Barbara Temperton's title poem that signal, immediately, the forthright style of this poet. Temperton has produced a captivating collection of poems notable for their arresting imagery and a strong sense of place. The poet touches us with the intensity of her attachment as people and places are memorably recalled as 'explosion(s) of grief/ and feathers'. The collection engages the reader by virtue of its accessibility and the exhilarating sense of participation one gets in lines that give the impression of being written with quite effortless ease. Here is verse at once immediate and tender ('Christmas') and frighteningly prescient ('I remember Wittenoom'). Temperton writes with an unusual (but not too obvious or declared) mastery of her public and private worlds.

Young Adults Judge's Report

loeweFeeling the Heat - Pat Lowe
Award winning Pat Lowe has crafted an assured and accomplished novel. Nineteen-year-old Matthew Scott returns from years of living in Perth, to his boyhood home in the Kimberley in search of his childhood friend, Frances. In this coming-of-age story he not only finds his friend, but also matures psychologically and the Aboriginal wisdom he can draw from serves him well. On arrival in the coastal town, Matthew joins up, somewhat reluctantly, with Jeff Baxter, a character whose marriage has failed and who is grieving for his wife, his young family and his failed dreams. The stories of these two characters run parallel against the harsh and beautiful landscape of the Kimberley region. Station life, small town isolation and nurturing, Aboriginal culture, both traditional and suburban, all come within the purview of this story. The cultural values of Aboriginal and white peoples are cleverly juxtaposed. There is no neat, happy resolution here as not all characters gain what they want. This is real life and we are all the richer for having shared their journey.

murrayTev - Brendan Murray
Young Tevita Martin (Tev), of Tonga-Aussie parentage, is sent to spend the summer holidays with his maternal family in Tongatapu (Tonga). As he learns to interact with his extended family, there is ample scope for the novel to explore Tongan life style and culture. This tale takes us to one of our Pacific neighbours, a part of the world little known to most of us. While Tev finds a culture which is exotic and a people who are very welcoming, he realises that they too grapple with the same issues, questions and concerns as occupy the energies of us all. Tev experiences the death and burial of his grandfather, a damaging cyclone, the mysteries of ceremonial kava drinking, and a sensual awakening with his first love for his 'frangipani princess', Siale. Brendan Murray integrates the Tongan language into the text and provides the reader with a valuable glossary of Tongan words and phrases.

Children's Books Judge's Report

eatonNathan Nuttboard Hits the Beach - Anthony Eaton
Anthony Eaton has made a successful transition from writing for the Young Adult market to entertaining the younger reader. The story is the familiar one of a family tackling a camping holiday on the coast. As Nathan sets out with his parents and his older sister, his observations of family dynamics, his father's misplaced optimism, his mother's 'moods' and his sister's self-centredness reveal him to be a reliable and perceptive narrator. Strong, realistic dialogue carries the plot forward as Nathan finds new friends, learns to bodysurf and dispatches Wayne, the bully. Positive family models are realised with humour and sensitivity.

greenwoodThe Legend of Moondyne Joe - Mark Greenwood and Frané Lessac (ill.)
This work detailing the life of one of Western Australia's antiheroes, the bushranger Moondyne Joe, is told with directness and is beautifully illustrated by the immensely inventive Frané Lessac. The gouache paintings are a delight, the bright, strong colours and 'naïve' figures complementing perfectly the straightforward text. Mark Greenwood creates a narrative with pace, does not seek to judge his subject and conveys a great deal of factual information about the convict system in Western Australia, the way justice was dispensed and life generally in the early days of the colony. The glossary and the endpapers add to the appeal of this book and underscore the attention to detail in the publishing. The work is a strong testament to making our history fun and accessible to young people.

jorgensenIn Flanders Fields - Norman Jorgensen and Brian Harrison-Lever (ill.)
The straightforward text and representational illustrations in this superbly produced work, never belie the powerful, human story being told. The tale is set in the trenches of France during World War I. A young soldier uses the 'cover' of a white silk scarf received in his Christmas parcel to venture into no man's land to rescue a small robin caught in the barbed wire. A moment of truce is reached as the parallel worlds of the Allied and German trenches are revealed. The sepia drawings evoke the period as do the timeless, haunting faces of the young soldiers caught in their own hell. The story is told without sentimentality and its message is achingly clear. A fine interplay between text and illustration is achieved, with the pictures showing minute, authentic detail. The work is multi-layered and a young child could learn much with the sensitive assistance of an adult sharing the story.

parryHarry and Luke - Glyn Parry and Caroline Magerl (ill.)
Harry's bed develops feet and as he traverses the city he meets a new friend, Luke, out riding his elephant late at night. The two become great friends, go fishing together, camp out in the back yard, enjoy a family barbecue under the stars and go to the movies. This imaginative and inventive tale is about belonging, being part of a group, a family and its exploration of these ideas is handled with great sensitivity and fun. Harry's parents are a delight, so receptive of his wild musings, so ready to be a part of his adventures. The line drawings emphasise the joy in this work and their appeal to children is clear.

Script Judge's Report

Mavis Goes to Timor - Angela Chaplin, Katherine Thomson and Kavisha Mazzella
Here is a powerful theatrical statement of our time. Through drama and song, this play draws attention to the plight of the East Timorese and the alliance of compassion formed by East Timorese and Australian women to help the dispossessed and vulnerable. Undaunted perseverance typifies Mavis and her small band as their humanity reaches out to alleviate the suffering of the Timorese women devastated by long years of upheaval and war. The chorus works to underscore the collaborative nature of the relief plan. It is a clever device, where the songs serve to carry the story and to highlight the Timorese focus. The particular emphasis is the cost of war as it affects women facing the loss of husbands, fathers, brothers and children. The loss robs them of a strong workforce and plunges them into economic chaos. This is the stuff of which destitution and despair are made but the writers of this play broach them without a heavily didactic tone. What surfaces is redemption by the little things in life, by the strength of belief in oneself and in one's community.

The Shark Net - Ian David
This is a seamless translation to television of Robert Drewe's superbly structured book based on his youthful experiences in Perth. Ian David has captured the essence of the book in a sensitive and lively adaptation, without compromising its themes. He has brought to life, and at times even embellished through the immediacy of the dramatic text, a sleepy fifties and sixties Perth faced with the threat of a killer whose menacing presence changed forever the erstwhile serenity of this isolated metropolis. This is indeed a very strong adaptation that dramatises the behaviour of people living in a city racked by fear. Ian David's script retains the essential focus of the narrator, Robert Drewe, and successfully weaves, as in the original, the narrator's life with that of the murderer Eric Cook.

Bench - Hellie Turner
Hellie Turner has created an absorbing play in telling the stories of three damaged women's lives through their meetings at a park bench. This is moving and provocative theatre, tightly written yet widely suggestive of women's resilience in the face of emotional adversity. While the individual stories of the three protagonists are bleak, there is a poignancy about the situation where their aloneness draws them together. In the sharing of the bench and their 'dark secrets' there is a growing honesty between them which carries its own epiphany. While there is no real dramatic climax, the individual stories carry an inherent drama. There is a strong feminist agenda which reaches its ironic height in the final scene, with the women sitting naked on the bench.

Non-Fiction Judge's Report

berrymanSwan River Letters Volume I - Ian Berryman (ed.)
Here is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the founding and early history of the Swan River Colony. Ian Berryman has spent years seeking out and collecting correspondence in contemporary newspapers by settlers about the new colony. The letters offer a rare insight into how the 'Swan River Colony' was perceived by those who visited, or settled in, Western Australia during the 1830s. Detailing colonial life from the mundane (the price of shoes) to the extraordinary (first contact with local people), these letters reveal the difficult origins and establishment of a settler community. The result is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the Swan River colonists as letters home capture the travails of living in this at first alien antipodean world. By drawing these letters together, Berryman has compiled an important resource that will be used by generations of students of Western Australian history.

2002Mussolini - R. J. B. Bosworth
This is a major literary accomplishment, as well as an extraordinary biography of a perplexing and paradoxical personality and an internationally significant contribution to an understanding of Mussolini's role in history. It is a massive work of substance, of historical research and analysis, and yet is readily accessible to the lay reader. The work may well enter the lore of works that become a yardstick by which other biographies are measured. Drawing upon original sources, in both English and Italian, Bosworth's book is a triumph of scholarly research, humane endeavour, extraordinary commitment and passionate belief in the power of historical narratives. It is a hefty book that will nevertheless emerge as something of a bestseller among those interested in Fascism, the Second World War, and the dynamics of power. Its Western Australian author has already been acknowledged as making an immense contribution to the international debate on the meaning of Mussolini to twentieth-century politics.

brabazonDigital Hemlock - Tara Brabazon
This is a work of energy and conviction that raises critical questions about the condition and direction of Australian universities currently in the thrall of online teaching as an apparent panacea to the structural and pedagogical problems caused by a decade of cutbacks and under-funding. Tara Brabazon's vigorous and compelling arguments, based on experience and dedication to teaching, demand attention from anyone who is interested in higher education and its future. Written with passion, and always grounded in a clearly declared authorial position, this book is simultaneously a work of critical cultural studies and critical pedagogy. Brabazon has achieved something rather unusual: an academic book that reads like an urgent narrative about the consequences of a too facile adoption of digital culture. This is a book that anyone interested in online teaching and the future of education ought to read.

georgeVerticordia (Subtitled The Turner of Hearts) - Elizabeth A. (Berndt) George and Margaret Pieroni (ill.)
This beautiful book is a work of passion, excellence and community service. Hundreds of dedicated lovers of the species were involved over twenty years in the collection, identification and recording of specimens, many new and hitherto unrecorded, throughout Western Australia. The result is a comprehensive guide to this wildflower, superbly illustrated by Margaret Pieroni, and distinguished by its highly accessible layout, a comprehensive index and attention to botanic detail which facilitates recognition and identification by the amateur and professional alike. It is a work that succeeds in being immensely informative and aesthetically appealing.

jebbBlood, Sweat and Welfare - Mary Anne Jebb
This work stands as a model for contemporary Western Australian historical research and writing. Mary Anne Jebb has combined her extensive collection of oral history with detailed archival research to tell the story of the effects of pastoralism on Aborigines of the Kimberley region. The use of oral research, however, is firmly embedded in the analytical commentary, each reinforcing the other. As a consequence, here we have a major book that is also alive to the voices of the subjects who, collectively, constitute the informants of the author's research. Mary Anne Jebb has succeeded in writing a rare book, and one that would be seen by other writers as a touchstone for historical writing about the racial dynamics governing aspects of Western Australian pastoral life in the Kimberley from colonisation to the social dislocation of the 1970s.

nileThe Making of the Australian Literary Imagination - Richard Nile
The mode of production of the literary text is often rendered in a style accessible only to those familiar with a general understanding of the sociology of the text. Richard Nile is a cultural historian who understands the nature of text-production extremely well, but does not write about it for the specialist reader alone. Here is a work of scholarship that delves into Australian literature and publishing in the twentieth century and raises some intriguing possibilities or theories in a manner that is engaging, analytical and accessible. In the process, Nile has written an elegant book that tackles issues of national culture by bringing together the role of the writer and the place of the critic as both producer of and participant in that culture.  

pilkingtonUnder the Wintamarra Tree - Doris Pilkington/Nugi Garimara
After the successful Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence has come this moving autobiography of Doris Pilkington/ Nugi Garimara as an important addition to Western Australian Aboriginal literature. The story of the author and her family reflects the Aboriginal experience of the last century, from traditional society to settlements, pastoral stations and missions to contemporary life. Written in a style that combines aboriginal story-telling devices with Western understanding of the linear flow of narrative, this is a book that goes over a painful past with, understandably, enormous anxiety but not with acrimony or the imposition of guilt. It has a redemptive quality about it, as the act of writing is also seen as a mode of forgiveness and coming to terms with one's own traumatic past.