The ARA Prize: Rewarding and Recognizing Historical Novelists

WRITTEN BY ELISABETH STORRS

2020 will long be remembered for the impact of COVID-19, which no doubt will be woven into historical fiction in the future. The Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA) also made its own little piece of history this year with the inauguration of the ARA Historical Novel Prize.

The award is the realisation of a shared vision of the HNSA with the ARA Group and its founder, Edward Federman. Edward is a true philanthropist with a long-standing involvement in fostering the arts in Australia. Through the ARA Group, he was a generous partner of the HNSA’s 2017 and 2019 conferences. Together, our organisations have placed historical fiction onto the Australian and New Zealand (ANZ) literary calendar by designing a prize to distinguish our historical novelists in a class of their own. Most extraordinary of all, Edward doubled the initial prize money of $30k to $60,000 mid-way through the contest in recognition of the difficulties faced by writers during the pandemic. The increase in funding places the ARA Historical Novel Prize among the top five richest literary prizes in the region. The overall prize winner received $50,000, with an additional $5,000 awarded to each of the remaining two shortlisted authors.

The response was overwhelming, with 185 novels submitted under the definition of historical fiction set by the Historical Novel Society. The contest was ably administered by another HNSA partner, the New England Writers’ Centre. Entries ranged from children’s and young adult fiction to historical romance, family sagas, historical fantasy, historical mysteries, parallel narratives and literary fiction. Books were submitted from multinational publishers, independents, small presses, agents and self-publishers in either paperback or digital format.

The judging process was fiendishly challenging, with books assessed on the criteria of excellence in writing, depth of historical research, and reader appeal. Our judges were Linda Funnell (Chair), co-editor of the Newtown Review of Books and publishing professional; Paula Morris, historical novelist, academic and founder of the Academy of New Zealand Literature; Kirsty Murray, historical novelist and Creative Fellow of the State Library of Victoria; and Colin Falconer, best-selling author of over two dozen historical novels. The books not only explored the histories of Australia and New Zealand but also tales from China, Ireland, the Soviet Union, France, England, the United States, New Guinea, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Greece and South America. Many, many fine novels were submitted.

Ranging from earliest Christian times through to the Second World War, the eight longlisted novels tell stories that resonate with audiences all over the world. The books reveal the true diversity of the genre with its innate ability to illuminate new interpretations of history, and transport readers into an authentic and compelling re-imagining of the past. Significantly the longlist demonstrates the value of historical fiction in highlighting ‘erased’ history, and capturing the voices of those who’ve been silenced.

This element was displayed in the winning novel, Stone Sky Gold Mountain (University of Queensland Press) by Mirandi Riwoe. In immediate and poignant prose, the novel recreates the experiences of Chinese siblings, Ying and Lai Yue, struggling to survive on Far North Queensland’s goldfields in 1877. The harshness of the environment is vividly recreated, contrasting the hopes and dreams of the protagonists with the realities of violence and hunger. The novel’s intimate exploration of its characters is juxtaposed against an epic depiction of different cultures thrown together in social and economic turmoil. The book explores big questions of identity, racism, colonialism and gender—all of which are relevant today. Riwoe sees the novel as important in highlighting the Australian-Chinese colonial experience, expressing a desire “to depict those who have been elided or even ignored historically, such as women and the culturally diverse, and perhaps shift stubborn perceptions.”

The two winning shortlisted books also explored 19th-century Australian history with different portraits of the country’s past. In Master of My Fate (Penguin Books Australia), debut author, Sienna Brown, tells a coming-of-age survival story of a Jamaican slave transported to New South Wales in the 1830s as a convict. The novel is an eloquent story of determination and hope. Brown was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and grew up in Canada, but it wasn’t until she moved to Sydney that she discovered William Buchanan’s story and was captivated by how it intersected with her own cultural background. She believes Buchanan’s tale needed to be told and goes “a long way to establishing that Australia’s beginnings were truly more multicultural than many people realise, or would like to admit.”

Shepherd (Text Publishing) by Catherine Jinks is a powerful evocation of violence and cruelty in rural New South Wales during the 1840s. Told in the unsentimental voice of a young poacher transported for life, Jinks crafts a riveting adult historical thriller where a ruthless killer seeks revenge in an ancient land. Taut and compelling, Shepherd is imbued with a depth of understanding of the natural world, and powerfully evokes, with unstoppable momentum, the brutality of desperate men. Jinks sees historical fiction as being a “gateway drug” to entice readers to learn more about history as she believes “we have to value what used to be because it informs what is happening now.”

Tara June Winch’s The Yield (Penguin Books Australia) is also set in Australia. A parallel narrative, the book interweaves the contemporary story of August, an Aboriginal woman, with that of an 18thcentury German missionary, as well as the quest of her dead grandfather, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi, to pass on the language of his people through a dictionary. Bringing together indigenous Australian history, the Wiradjuri language, the tragedy of dispossession and its consequences, the novel is a powerful elegy for what has been lost and a testament to the strength of what survives. Winch has won the three most prestigious Australian literary prizes this year, including the Miles Franklin, but sees awards like the ARA Historical Novel Prize as important to flag a genre that can be buried by the commercial world of contemporary fiction. “It’s an exciting prize to be part of for that reason, to see what great stories of the past have been reimagined and unearthed.”

Other pockets of history were explored in the longlist. In Damascus (Allen & Unwin) Christos Tsiolkas delivers a flesh and blood Paul of Tarsus placing him within his historical period—a time of slavery and violence when Christianity was a minor sect in a pagan world. Based around the gospels and letters of St Paul, the novel is an unflinching dissection of doubt and faith, tyranny and revolution, and cruelty and sacrifice. The book challenges readers with themes of class, religion, masculinity, patriarchy, colonisation and exile. Concerned that women and slaves have been excised from the official history of the Christian Churches, Tsiolkas believes “by the twin guides of imagination and research, a writer can try and give a voice to those who have been traditionally silenced.”

Another novel which gives voice to the repressed is Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words (Affirm Press). Set at the time of women’s suffrage movement in England, the novel features a girl determined to ensure words and meanings related to women’s experiences are not lost. In her character’s observations, and later role in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, the author elegantly demonstrates the unconscious biases in how language is codified. Williams considers historical fiction is an accessible way for readers to learn alternative narratives given “history has so often been written by the victors, and so often written by men, there is a lot missing.”

The Electric Hotel (Allen & Unwin) by Dominic Smith explores the nascent days of cinema. From the Lumière brothers’ first demonstrations of moving pictures in Paris to early American movie houses in Fort Lee, New Jersey— America’s first movie town— to the battlefields of Belgium in the First World War, this is a prodigiously researched journey through the birth of cinema and one man’s doomed obsession with his muse. Smith considers historical fiction gives us a sense of the lives that came before us and allows us “to empathise with our ancestors, and understand the forces that shaped the present.”

Another debut historical novelist placed in the contest is Nigel Featherstone with Bodies of Men (Hachette Australia). Set during and after the Western Desert campaign in the Second World War, the book explores both the outward courage and the inner struggle of two gay soldiers. This is a tender and beautifully written love story that challenges ideas about fathers and sons, masculinity and war. Featherstone sees being longlisted as a real ‘shot in the arm’ and considers the ARA Historical Novel Prize to be a terrific initiative which represents “an opportunity to be part of the broader conversation about historical fiction and to recognise all the writers and readers that love the genre.”

Spreading the word about the inauguration of the prize during COVID posed its own challenges. This led the HNSA Prize Committee to delve into producing virtual announcements to publicise the longlist, shortlist and winner. Illustrated excerpts were read by the authors via Youtube with relevant graphics and music. You can view these on the www.hnsa.org.au website. 1

The committee comprised Elisabeth Storrs, Sophie Masson, Diane Murray, Sally Wood and Greg Johnston. The task we set ourselves was at times overwhelming but we are all immensely proud of being able to grab the attention of the ANZ publishing industry and historical novelists. The ARA Historical Novel Prize is a true celebration of the genre, and a real opportunity to foster it on a grander scale. As the Chair of the judges, Linda Funnell, remarked: “It does, indeed, feel we are in a golden age for historical fiction.”

REFERENCES

  1.  The presentation of the prize is also on YouTube: https://hnsa.org.au/mirandi-riwoes-stone-sky-gold-mountain-wins-the-inaugural-ara-historical-novel-prize

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the ‘A Tale of Ancient Rome’ series. She co-founded Historical Novel Society Australasia and is the program director for its conferences. She is also one of ‘The History Girls’.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 95 (February 2021)


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