Carrie Tiffany wins first-ever Stella Prize

The first ever Stella Prize for a work by an Australian woman writer was awarded last night, to Carrie Tiffany for her novel Mateship with Birds.

Carrie Tiffany: 'The Stella is important because it helps to address the imbalance in attention given to the writing of male and female authors in Australia.'

Carrie Tiffany: 'The Stella is important because it helps to address the imbalance in attention given to the writing of male and female authors in Australia.'

In a surprise - and very generous - move, Tiffany announced that she had given back $10,000 of her $50,000 prize money to be distributed among her fellow authors on the shortlist. (Despite, she said, having ‘heavy creditors’.)

‘This is selfish too,’ she said. ‘Because when you give writers money, you’re actually giving them time. And if I can hasten a little the next books from these women, well why wouldn’t I?’

Tiffany told the crowd that the event was special for her in many ways; two of the women on the shortlist had been instrumental in making her career happen.

Her first novel Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living had been ‘rejected by every publisher in Australia’ before it won the inaugural Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2003 - it was subsequently published by Picador, and became an international success.

‘I later learned there was one judge, a woman who literally beat the other judges into submission,’ Tiffany recalled. ‘That woman was Cate Kennedy.’

Once published, that novel was launched by a ‘dear friend’, a writer who had agreed to launch the book ‘only if she liked it, which is how it should be’. She did like the book, and gave a warm speech that Tiffany has often looked back to for comfort over the years. That woman was Michelle de Kretser.

Helen Garner: ‘Every girl who writes needs a bucket of cash’

Helen Garner was the guest speaker for the evening, before the prize was announced. As is her way, she gave an unexpected - and generous, and insightful - talk; instead of celebrating the concept of prizes, she talked about the ‘terrible anxieties’ they provoke in the potential contenders and their ‘bizarre effect … on people’s idea of their own worth’.

She also spoke of ‘the undeniable fact that every girl who writes needs a bucket of cash to be thrown over her at least once in a lifetime so she can soldier on, and even to make her feel for a while that it’s been worth the torture’.

Garner said she would steer clear of explicitly defending the existence of a prize for women’s writing. But she did talk about the need for its existence, referencing a former writer-husband who told her ‘women can’t be artists’ and gender issues to do with cover design.

‘How wonderful it would be if one day, such a prize no longer had any use. If doctors and lawyers no longer said to me, 'Nice to meet you Helen, my wife’s read all your books.’ If designers no longer reflexively put a vase of flowers on the front of a woman’s book, even a book that is about hypodermics and vomiting and rage.'

‘We know in our hearts that women can write, can be artists,’ she said. ‘But we’re so easily disheartened and sabotaged, even by ourselves.’

‘Every book on the shortlist was a genuine contender’

Kerryn Goldsworthy, chair of the judging panel, said that the prize received almost 200 entries.

‘Not only was it difficult picking a winner, but it was extremely difficult picking a shortlist,’ she said. It was difficult picking a long list. In fact, by the time we got down to the last 25 books, we were really struggling. And it just got harder as it went along.

‘Every book on the shortlist was a genuine contender for the award. They are all original, they are all excellent, they are all engaging.’

But she reserved special praise for the winner, Mateship with Birds, for its ‘beautiful writing, humour, meticulous craftsmanship, inventive structure, and broad and generous point of view’.

Carrie Tiffany: ‘The Stella is important because of the times’

‘The Stella is important because it fetes and honours the work of Australian women writers,’ said Carrie Tiffany, while accepting the award. ‘When I sit down to write, there is an anchor that keeps me in place, and that anchor is all of the books that I have read. And on my desk just this morning, there were books by Christina Stead, Judith Wright, Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley, Shirley Hazzard, Beverly Farmer, Alexis Wright, Drusilla Modjeska, Helen Garner. My sentences would not have been possible without the sentences of these women, and the others I have read and continue to read.’

‘The Stella is important because it helps to address the imbalance in attention given to the writing of male and female authors in Australia. I think also the Stella is important because of the times that we live in. To write, and to take the work of reading and writing seriously, you must spend a great deal of time alone in a room. You must take yourself away from being looked at.’

‘And yet the pressure for women, I think young women in particular, is to be constantly available for a kind of sexualised visual consumption. To be preened and styled, tanned and exercised, toxically enhanced. The pressure for this has never been greater. For a woman to spend time alone in a room, to look rather than be looked at, means rejecting some of this pressure. It means doing something with your mind rather than your body.’

‘And I hope the Stella can demonstrate to young women that this too has its rewards.’

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