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Anna Funder – Miles Franklin Acceptance Speech
9 / 08 / 2012
In this edition of Culture Club, we reproduce author Anna Funder’s acceptance speech upon winning Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, for her debut novel All that I am. Anna Funder was not able to accept the $50,000 Miles Franklin Award in person, so instead she provided a pre-recorded video speech transcribed here:
This is a huge honour. I am more grateful than I can properly say. I thank Miles Franklin for scrimping and saving, and for having the generous vision to endow this prize. I thank the Trust, and the judges. I thank my publisher at Penguin, Ben Ball, and Meredith Rose, Anyez Lindop and Gabrielle Coyne there for their passionate support of this book. I thank my agent Sarah Chalfant, whose strength and loyalty and commitment to literature are a plumbline to truth for me. So much so, that when I think about Sarah, I write better.
Most of all I thank my husband Craig Allchin. For the five years I worked on this book he never let on any doubt. He never asked me whether I had any plans — in the near or far future — to earn any money. He seemed mysteriously to know when to sympathise with my so-called problems, facing what I thought of as a huge mountain, and when to roll his eyes at me and tell me it was a molehill and I should just get over it, and get on with it. Like any big prize, at some level there is no way you can deserve such luck.
Goethe said, long before Germany’s catastrophic 20th century, that ‘Nations, like human beings, are unaware of the workings of their inner nature, and ultimately we are surprised, even astounded at what emerges.’
It is up to writers of all kinds to examine the inner workings of the nation, and of the human beings in it.
When you read a book, if it is good enough you think, ‘But I thought that! That is my experience’, even when it is patently not—it’s the experience of a girl growing up in Brindabella, or of Johnno in Brisbane, of a woman who will throw herself under a train in 19th century Russia. Or it’s a gutsy Australian at the League of Nations, or a noble, hardscrabble horse-farming family in New South Wales, or of brave children in makeshift, jigsaw families in Melbourne and Tasmania.
This fusing of mind and soul with strangers is what fiction, the art form that is most personal and most interior, permits us. Fiction helps us understand what it might be like to be another. It makes us understand that we are different. And also, that we are the same.
This faculty of empathy is the essence of our humanity. Like any faculty, it needs exercise. Without writers, our inner lives, as well as the inner life of the nation, would remain opaque to us. Our sense of selves would be flabby, or shriveled, our society fractured and shallow, vulnerable to manufactured fears and noisy jingoisms of every stripe.
I seem to have made my life’s work so far in examining places where writers were banned. It didn’t go well for them — not for the writers, and not for the places.
The Miles Franklin recognises fiction. Only fiction allows a writer to step into someone else’s consciousness and represent it; only fiction allows itself metaphors of the large and small kind — something is something else, so we see it more clearly, a story is about one thing, but stands for so much else. Abolishing writers’ awards is a cost-cutting measure, but also a step towards the unscrutinised exercise of power.
Prizes like this one are important to writers, but they are not necessary: we would keep writing without them, as writers do in many countries where they are banned. But prizes are very important to the nation. They show that free speech is alive and unbeholden to government, or media barons. And they provide signposts as to quality when it can be hard, in a bewildering topography of culture – high and low, in print and on-screen and in the fractured online world – to sort the enlightening and soul-feeding from the 50 Shades of momentarily gratifying.
Tonight we celebrate fiction. We celebrate our joy and wonder at the inner workings of our nation, and ourselves. We celebrate by holding our mirror – all our disparate mirrors – up to this world; to its beauties, its mysteries, its cruelties:
To babies who besott us and one-armed bandits who fleece us;
To fat mining magnates and fleet-footed Opposition leaders;
To floor-crossers and cross-dressers;
To re-tried dingoes;
To photographers and pornographers;
To streetpeople and shockjocks;
To footballers and fading, fork-tongued feminists;
To stolen children and newly discovered planets;
To Pygmy people and human mules;
To cloud-seeding, to coke-snorting racehorses;
To islands drowning and children being born;
To being left, to being found;
To stopping time.
Writing is work of ingenious empathy. It is work of compassion as holy as any. We can’t afford not to have it.
I wish I were there with you. Have a wonderful evening. Take notes.
Author and feminist Stella Miles Franklin (My Brilliant Career, 1901) bequested the Miles Franklin Literary Award be given to “the novel of the year judged to be of the highest literary merit and ‘which must present Australian Life in any of its phases'”.
Anna Funder’s award is significant in that she is only the tenth woman to have ever received the annual prize since its inception in 1957. Of those ten, two are multiple prize recipients – Thea Astley has won it four times, and Jessica Anderson twice – meaning the prize has been awarded to women on 14 occasions in total over more than half a century. Shocking? Yep. Scandalous? You bet. Worthy of developing a stand-alone Australian women’s prize for literature? Tick, tick, and tick.
Thanks to a group of dedicated women writers, that’s exactly what’s about to happen with the creation of the Stella Prize, which aims to launch in 2013 (for more information check out their website, or if in Melbourne, come to the Stella Prize Trivia Night at the Melbourne Writers Festival on 31 August).