’Political Resistance, By Way of Literary Prizes’, by Alexandra Dane

Rarely does the announcement of a literary prize (and state government literary prize, at that) radiate so far beyond the tight-knit Australian literary field. But last week it did. The New York Times, CNN, the BBC and France 24, along with almost every news outlet in Australia, turned their attention to the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award ceremony where the Minister for Creative Industries, Martin Foley, announced (and mispronounced) that Behrouz Boochani had won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (VPLA) for Non-Fiction (worth $25,000) and the overall Victorian Prize for Literature—Australia’s richest literary prize—worth $100, 000, for his book No Friend But the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison (Picador, 2018), translated by Omid Tofighian.

The power of this announcement was best captured by Boochani himself:

It did not take long for questions surrounding the prize’s eligibility requirements to surface. Like many Australian literary awards, entry guidelines for the VPLAs stipulate that the prize is open to Australian citizens or permanent residents. Behrouz Boochani is neither an Australian citizen nor a permanent resident. And the unavoidable truth that sits at the core of Boochani’s text, the reason why this game-changing title exists, and the justification the Australian government employ to ensure his continued exile, is that Behrouz Boochani is an Iranian-Kurdish journalist and asylum seeker detained on Manus Island for six years and counting. But despite Boochani’s forced statelessness, No Friend But the Mountains is a uniquely Australian text and exists as a direct result of our democratically elected government and our nation-wide contempt for the ‘other’. This is quintessential contemporary Australian non-fiction.

Michael Williams, Director of The Wheeler Centre, and the non-fiction judging panel (made up of Dennis Altman, Fatima Measham, Sonia Nair, Bhakthi Puvanenthiran and Jordy Silverstein) made the decision that, in this instance, the prize entry requirement that eligible authors be Australian citizens or permanent residents should be ignored. The Walkley Awards and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, prizes that presumably operate with the same latitude as the VPLAs, decided to maintain the citizen/permanent resident requirement. Williams and The Wheeler Centre set the rules so, presumably, they can also change the rules.

Why should this text be ruled ineligible when the question of Behrouz’s residency status is the product of Australian government policy? Yet there appear to be some detractors who can’t help pointing to the rules.

When the powerful feel threatened, they cling to the guidelines and laws that legitimise their position. Those that occupy the positions of power within the literary field have the luxury of defining the parameters of understanding when it comes to slippery notions of merit and value. Changing the eligibility requirements to make space for No Friend But the Mountains renders the reliable conservatism of Australian literary prize-giving practice, all of a sudden, uncertain. Literary prize eligibility requirements help to construct notions of literary value and to maintain ideas around which authors are broadly understood to be ‘prize winners.’

Literary prize entry requirements function in two distinct ways. First, they limit the number of entrants to a particular prize. Administering and judging a literary prize is an arduous task and limiting (for example, by only judging novels, or works written in a particular language) the number of entries a prize receives is an efficiency measure that is often worth observing. However, beyond operational efficiencies, the eligibility requirements for a cultural prize project the values that the prize aims to uphold. For example, neither the Miles Franklin Literary Award nor the Prime Minister’s Literary Award deem self-published works eligible. The Stella Prize excludes poetry and plays. And almost every major literary prize in the Australian publishing landscape costs a publisher between $50 and $100 per entry, placing some prizes beyond the reach of small and independent publishers. The rules that govern the eligibility of certain books and certain authors for individual prizes serve to establish a particular kind of literary power and prestige in the publishing field, and the rigidity of these guidelines makes it difficult to transform or evolve conservative field-wide beliefs around what has literary value. The list of past winners of various non-fiction Premier’s Literary Awards winners abound with biographies of prominent white Australians (Manning Clark, Malcolm Fraser, Stella Miles Franklin and the Boyds) and the history of white Australia. Taking the opportunity to shift the eligibility requirements for a book like No Friend But the Mountains, and an author like Behrouz Boochani, can begin to shift the field-wide, limited conception of what constitutes prize-winning writing.

Beyond the fatuous debate of whether Boochani is eligible for VPLA, this event gave rise to questions around the role of literary prizes in the contemporary field, the exchange of symbolic capital between prize and author, and the utility of literary prizes as platforms for broader social debates.

Political sponsorship of literary prizes is a particular feature of the Australian literary field. The Premier’s Literary Awards establishes an explicit tie between the accumulation of symbolic capital within the field of cultural production and the accumulation of cultural capital within the political field. In The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards and the Circulation of Value, Professor James English asserts that ‘award ceremonies are rituals of symbolic exchange, requiring all participants to acknowledge and show respect for the conventions attendant upon the giving and receiving of gifts’. Despite the fact that the relative political independence of the VPLAs is established through The Wheeler Centre administration and the independently-appointed judging panels, symbolic rewards circulate to the winning author and translate as elevated cultural capital for Victorian State government and the Minister for Creative Industries. Writing on this exchange in 1997, Susan Lever observed that ‘the governments making the award (or, at least, the individual politicians associated with that government) do so because they wish to appear cultivated and civilized’. Considering the subject of No Friend But the Mountains and the imprisonment of Boochani, the exchange of symbolic capital between the Victorian Premier, the Minister for Creative Industries, and Boochani himself is worth examining.

Why should a government minister, who belongs to a party that describe their support for offshore processing of asylum seekers as ‘absolute’ and silenced debate on this policy at the 2018 Victorian State Labor Conference, have the opportunity to bask in the refracted cultural rewards from a man who writes from the indefinite detention their Federal colleagues established and uphold? The hypocrisy of this exchange, however, should not undermine the importance of No Friend But the Mountains winning Australia’s richest literary award. It should remind us that, it is within this circuit of symbolic capital, the judging panel decided to lend their cultural clout to a ‘demanding work of significant achievement’ and the continued mistreatment of asylum seekers at the hands of the Australian government.

‘This proves that words still have the power to challenge inhumane systems and structures...this award is a victory, it is a victory not only for us but for literature and art and above all it is a victory for humanity’, says Boochani. His acceptance speech is an enduring reminder to those who seek to debate the appropriateness of shifting the prize’s eligibility requirements, or to those who find discomfort in the duplicity of a government celebrating an author to whom they continue to deny personhood, that literary prizes (and the media attention they garner) can bring what is actually important into sharp relief. The history of contemporary literary prizes is accented by winning authors harnessing their captive global audience, and rising symbolic stocks, to highlight political and social injustices.

In his 1972 Booker Prize acceptance speech, John Berger announced that he would be donating half of the £5000 prize money to the British Black Panthers. Berger called out the Booker Group (the prize’s founding corporate sponsor) for their exploitation of indentured workers in Guyana saying: ‘The London-based Black Panther movement has arisen out of the bones of what Bookers and other companies have created in the Caribbean; I want to share this prize with the Black Panther movement because they resist both as black people and workers the further exploitation of the oppressed’. Closer to home, in 2014 Richard Flanagan donated his $40,000 Prime Minister’s Literary Award prize money for The Narrow Road to the Deep North to the Indigenous Literacy Fund, stating: ‘Money is like shit...pile it up and it stinks. Spread it around and you can grow things’. And while Flanagan was not quite as explicit as Berger in denouncing the prize he was receiving, many saw his donation to the Indigenous Literacy Fund as a both a philanthropic and a political act against the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, at the time.

Donating prize money is not, however, the only act of political resistance that resonates beyond the concentrated literary field. Upon winning the Miles Franklin Literary Award for The Life to Come, Michelle De Kretser denounced the Australian government’s asylum seeker policy and, standing in front of hundreds on the Melbourne Writers Festival stage, read aloud a list of names of the asylum seekers who had died on Manus Island over the past five years. The public profile of major literary awards like the Booker Prize, Miles Franklin Literary Award and the VPLAs act as a platform for the circulation of not just literary texts and symbolic capital, but also ideas of justice, humanity and equality.

In the words of Behrouz Boochani: ‘I believe that literature has the potential to make change and challenge structures of power.’

The 2019 VPLAs simultaneously brought to light the rigid nature and the transformative possibilities of the literary prize. By looking beyond the bureaucratic function of the eligibility guidelines, the prize seized upon the opportunity to both reward an original, challenging and imaginative piece of writing, and draw global attention to the inhumane circumstances of its creation.

Dr Alexandra Dane researches contemporary book cultures, focussing on the relationship between gender, literary consecration and the influence of formal and informal literary networks.