Last night, amid a packed room at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, Carrie Tiffany was awarded the inaugural Stella Prize for her novel Mateship with Birds.
I felt incredibly privileged to be invited to the awards and to stand there amongst so many talented, influential, bookish people – somehow juggling champagne glass, clutch bag and iphone as I live-tweeted the event.
Someone described standing in that room to me last night as “like being on a packed tram,” a particularly apt Melbourne phrase. Zora from Meanjin had a betting pool going, with Lanagan and de Kretser among the favourites. I never heard the odds on Mateship with Birds but Chloe Wilson left $115 richer.
If you were following along on the lively #stellaprize hashtag last night, you already know now about Tiffany’s gracious, inclusive and humble speech, her invitation for all the other nominated authors to join her on stage. You know of her incredibly generous offer to donate $10,000 of her $50,000 prize money to be split amongst the shortlisted authors – Courtney Collins, Michelle de Kretser, Lisa Jacobson, Cate Kennedy, and Margo Lanagan – because “for a writer, money buys time and if I can hasten their work, why wouldn’t I?”
The homepages of my favourite sites have been filled all morning with reports and stats from the awards, but I wanted to give a sense here of the night as someone lucky enough to have been in the room.
In her funny, honest speech Helen Garner spoke of the way “prizes are rather like wills, they provoke in people the most appalling behaviour,” and in my time attending awards nights, I’ve felt rooms go cold with envy or old grudges as an author takes to the stage. What was wonderful about the Stella Prize was the warmth in that long, light filled space in the Centre for Contemporary Art. Tiffany was the winner, yet there was a sense in which everyone there, including the shortlisted authors, were simply excited to be a part of and support this wonderful new thing they had created.
Tiffany said of her decision to redistribute some of the prize money among the shortlisted authors, “I’ve experienced tremendous generosity and support from women in Australian publishing and literature; it’s a way of honouring the many rather than the few.’’ This was the overwhelming experience of being at the awards – female writers and authors supporting one another.
It led me to reflect on the supportive group of female writers I know and who were all with me last night, drinking and chatting and tweeting — in particular Angela Meyer, Lisa Dempster, and Estelle Tang who have all inspired and been mentors to me when I was starting out.
“I’m sure there’s some people wanting me to justify the existence of a women’s prize” Garner said, but the prize is past having to justify its existence. It would be nice if we never had to have the Stella in the first place, and it’s a strange thing indeed when a prize’s ultimate goal is happy obsolescence. But for last night, at least, it was wonderful to see highlighted so publicly the wealth of talent, and incredible inclusiveness, of our female writers.