At the end of All That I Am the protagonist Ruth muses: ‘It is the hardest thing, to work out one’s weight and heft in the world, to whittle down all that I am and give it a value.’

This now seems remarkably apt for a work given a dazzling array of literary value. Anna Funder’s fictional debut has won several awards so far, including Book of the Year 2012 and Best Literary Novel at the Australian Book Industry Awards, the Barbara Jefferis Prize, as well as Indie Book of the Year 2012.

Last night, in a state now notoriously bereft of literary awards, All That I Am, published by Penguin, was awarded Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin at an event held at Queensland’s State Library.

Funder’s sprawling tale of remembrances of Nazi pre-war Germany won against five other shortlisted works: Tony Birch’s Blood (UQP); Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread (Allen & Unwin); Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light (Vintage); and Favel Parrett’s Past The Shallows (Hachette).

The female winner, and the fact that women made up over half the shortlist, is likely to help the Miles Franklin allay accusations of gender bias after it ran into controversy last year for its all-male shortlist, which culminated in the creation of the Stella Prize. Funder is now the tenth female recipient since the awards began in 1957.

Though there was little surprise in the decision – All That I Am was the bookies’ favourite to win, and has been a bestseller since it was published late last year – the Trust Company’s decision this year to ‘modernise’ the Miles Franklin criteria of ‘presenting Australian Life in any of its phases’ beyond geographical boundaries to encompass ‘mindset, language, history and values’ was seen to advantage Funder’s work – set as it is, overwhelmingly, in Europe.

So does it depict Australian life in any of its phases – and would it have won without the expansion of the selection critera?

When I considered All That I Am as a Miles Franklin Shortlisted novel in May, I wrote that the work does seem, initially, difficult to advocate:

Though the ‘now’ of the novel is the primary protagonist Ruth’s home in present-day Sydney, and Funder often writes the harbourside landscape of the city beautifully – ‘Out the window a rosella feasts from a flame tree, sneakers hang-dance on an electric wire. Behind them the earth folds into hills that slope down to kiss that harbour, lazy and alive’ – any moments of ‘nowness’ are almost always a narrative intrusion, as surprising and alarming to us as they are to Ruth, jolting us up out of her reveries and into the present with the often coarse language of Bev, Ruth’s caregiver.

Ruth describes herself as ‘a vessel of memory in a world of forgetting,’ but her memory, I argued, is the reality of the novel – far more real than her over-varnished Bondi Junction home, or the white hospital ward with its interchangeable nurses. Though Funder has many incisive observations about Australian life, one mostly wants to press the morphine button so Ruth can slip back into her recollections, and the work can return to its real story – pre-World War II and the fate of the ‘five-pointed constellation,’ Toller, Dora, Hans, Bertie and Ruth.

There was, therefore, the danger that Sydney functions merely as the light to the darkness of the Nazi era Ruth remembers, and that Sydney, or Australia, could indeed be interchangeable with anywhere else.

However, I concluded that that the work was relevant and depicted Australian life in aspects other than its setting in sparkly harbour side Sydney:

Funder’s title, All That I Am, is almost certainly taken from a famous W. H. Auden quote: ‘All that we are not stares back at all that we are.’ Auden himself makes a brief cameo in the novel, uttering the line while visiting Toller in a hotel room in New York. At the close of the book Ruth herself reworks the phrase in one of her own reflections: ‘it is the hardest thing, to work out one’s weight and heft in the world, to whittle down all that I am and give it a value.’ These fleeting lines are the only references to the title in the work, and yet it hums in the background of all that happens in the novel. 

Identity and exile – how we are shaped and made by our memories and experiences, is where the power of Funder’s work lies. Upon hearing that Hitler was stripping exiles of their qualifications, cancelling passports and blocking access to bank accounts, Ruth muses, ‘What happens to you if you are declared by the powers that be to no longer exist, but persist in doing so?’ This, essentially, is their experience of exile – continuing to live though made nonexistent by decree. It is both tragic and beautiful, characterised by a troubling sense of yearning for a home that no longer exists. It is this experience of dislocation and removal, the emigrant experience, rather than the occasional references to affluent Sydney, that makes this novel worthy of the prize.

This Australian emigrant experience was reflected in the Judges’ official statement: ‘The judges admired this ambitious novel that moves across continents and decades to remind us that experiences of exile and dislocation have long been part of Australian life.’

To reject Funder’s work on the basis that it doesn’t depict Australian life accurately, is, I think, to fix interpretations of what it is to be Australian to a very specific, and perhaps outdated mode. Without this broadening of the criteria, Miles Franklin winners might be confined only to those with ‘Australiana’ settings: outback, coastal town, or suburbia. The Trust Company’s decision to modernise the interpretation is, in my opinion, an exciting one and will result in interesting shortlists in the years to come. This is too unique a prize to fade, as Alex Miller warned, into irrelevance.

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