Birds, Climate and Australian History: Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2015

Last night, in a garden party ceremony on the lawns of Parliament House, winners of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards were announced in the categories of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama and writing for young adults. There was also a People’s Choice Award and an overall winner: the $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature, Australia’s richest single literary award.

The category winners of the Victorian Premiers' Literary Awards 2015, with Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley and Premier Daniel Andrews. From left to right, back row to front: Claire Zorn, Alan Atkinson, Premier Daniel Andrews, Creative Minister Martin Foley, Jill Jones, Tim Low, Rohan Wilson and Angus Cerini.

The category winners of the Victorian Premiers' Literary Awards 2015, with Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley and Premier Daniel Andrews. From left to right, back row to front: Claire Zorn, Alan Atkinson, Premier Daniel Andrews, Creative Minister Martin Foley, Jill Jones, Tim Low, Rohan Wilson and Angus Cerini.

‘We’re home to more writers than any other city in Australia, so it’s only fitting that we have the best literary awards,’ said Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley.

Premier Daniel Andrews quoted Joan Didion: ‘We write to find out what we’re thinking, what we’re looking at, what we see and what it means. What we want and what we fear.’ With this in mind, he concluded, the shortlisted works reflect ‘our state, our city and our people – the dreams that we share widely and the fears that we harbour quietly’.

People's Choice winner Tim Low with Premier Daniel Andrews.

People's Choice winner Tim Low with Premier Daniel Andrews.

Tim Low won the first award – the People’s Choice, voted via the Wheeler Centre website by readers around Victoria – for his book, Where Song Began, which locates Australia as the source of the world’s songbirds, and tells the story of their evolution and what it might say about Australia’s landscape and character.

‘We’re people, so we’re inherently more interested in other people than we are in anything else,’ said Tim in his acceptance speech. ‘So it’s tough for a book about birds to compete with books about people, particularly at a time when Australians are increasingly urbanised and spend most of their time looking at screens and gadgets. For a bird book to be popular, it means there’s a lot of yearning out there for nature. I’m trying to connect people with nature, so I’m really pleased about that.’

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction went to Rohan Wilson for his second novel, To Name Those Lost, a tale of revenge and hopeless (almost comic) tragedy set in Tasmania’s violent past. ‘I’m glad it wasn’t a Liberal Premier I was required to shake hands with,’ he joked as he took the stage, following his handshake with Premier Daniel Andrews. He thanked his publishers for ‘taking a chance on what was a pretty risky book’.

Premier Daniel Andrews with Alan Atkinson, winner of the Victorian Prize for Literature.

Premier Daniel Andrews with Alan Atkinson, winner of the Victorian Prize for Literature.

Alan Atkinson won the Prize for Non-Fiction for The Europeans in Australia Volume Three: Nation, the third and final instalment in his landmark history of Australia, told from the point of view of settlers from Europe. The judges called it ‘as significant in its way as Manning Clark’s History of Australia’. He also won the overall Victorian Prize for Literature.

‘It’s very nice this being a Premier’s Prize,’ said Atkinson, accepting the Non-Fiction Prize. ‘The book has a lot to say about distinctive cultures in different colonies and states and the way in which that variety was drawn together to establish a nation with federation. The colonies were all the same in some ways – all Australian, of course – in order to be integrated, but also very different. This country was never, in that sense, a ‘team’. The main purpose of a team is to beat other teams. This country was, and still is, a commonwealth. And that very word commonwealth is so rich and multi-layered and subtle, as opposed to a team.’

Aunty Joy Murphy starts the ceremony by delivering a Welcome to Country.

Aunty Joy Murphy starts the ceremony by delivering a Welcome to Country.

‘Shit. Now I can eat,’ were Angus Cerini’s first words on learning he’d won the Prize for Drama for his one-man play, Resplendence, which explores masculinity in a contemporary society dominated by men, and how that’s reflected in the base human instincts of sex, drugs and weaponry. He referred to the other two playwrights on the shortlist (coincidentally, a husband and wife), Daniel Keene and Alison Croggon, as ‘heroes of mine’ – he said that they had even been, not too long ago, his neighbours. ‘Some of the earliest plays I saw as a young theatre-maker at uni were some really profound Daniel Keene plays in warehouses in Fitzroy. Those two are theatre royalty in this city, and this country, so it’s a great thrill.’

Jill Jones won the Prize for Poetry for The Beautiful Anxiety, a reflexive and playful collection that explores the interconnectedness of life amid the environmental and cultural turmoil of the 21st century. She quoted poet John Ashbery as saying, at a Melbourne Writers Festival in the 1990s, that ‘there are only three things in poetry: love, death and the weather’, concluding that her own book is about those three things. ‘Particularly the weather, of course. We know that things are pretty dire, and despite what you might hear from certain people in Canberra, there is a problem. The weather and climate are pretty important. And we have lots of scientific research about it, but it’s also, I think, time to think poetically.’

Claire Zorn, winner of the Prize for Young Adult Writing, with Premier Daniel Andrews.

Claire Zorn, winner of the Prize for Young Adult Writing, with Premier Daniel Andrews.

Claire Zorn won the Prize for Young Adult Writing for The Protected, a beautifully written, deeply felt novel about grief, adolescence and family. She said she was especially pleased to be accepting the prize for the novel, as it was in a slush pile two years ago – and ‘was nearly thrown out’.

All photographs by Matt Deller.

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