We are thrilled that Lisa Gorton, Joanne Burns, Fiona Wright and Yumna Kassab have been shortlisted in the 2020 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Gorton’s Empirical and Burns’ Apparently are shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry, while Wright’s book of essays, The World Was Whole, has been shortlisted for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction, and Kassab’s The House of Youssef for the Glenda Adams Award for New Writing.
Please see below for the judges’ comments.
Empirical’s first section focuses on Melbourne’s Royal Park, which has been ear-marked for a motorway. In mesmerising fashion, Gorton unfolds and re-folds the landscape with the repetition of minutiae. The long central poem combines memory fragments into a bricolage of historical observations, government utterances, and other reportage about the park. The book’s second section is a daring and ornate leap into the European worlds of ancient statuary, the Crystal Palace, and the creative lives of Coleridge and Rimbaud.
Empirical is an ambitious and accomplished work that gains cohesion through its concerns with perception, fragmentation, memory and place. Light is a central motif, falling on weeds or piles of rubble with the same equanimity as it does the walls of the Crystal Palace or a statue of the Venus de Milo. Gorton challenges us to question our hierarchy of perceptions and acknowledge that place could be ‘forever inventing a centre elsewhere’.
Joanne Burns is one of Australia’s leading poetic innovators. Her energised, animated poems synthesise often humorous, off-centre accounts of domestic and suburban life with an acutely modern sense of poetry, form, and image. In apparently, poem after poem dazzles with its wit—‘the room broods like an eternal hen’. The poet‘s masterly restraint helps build the satire, irony and psychological intensity of the work. Burns is a keen observer of human nature, and her perspicacity is matched by a wonderfully peculiar and uncanny appreciation for the power of poetic language.
In lines such as ‘I am not of the same stock cube as you’, Burns reenergises the sense that poetry can look sideways at reality, producing work that is both lyrically intuitive and liberating. apparently is a reverie that breathes fire into contemporary poetry ‘where [we] stand at the edge of the dream’.
In this collection, Fiona Wright explores what it means to feel at home in a series of essays that are both personal and universal in their scope. This is a book about illness and the ways in which being in hospital, in treatment and in therapy can feel like being unhomed. It is a book about travel and the ways a traveller clings to habit to make provisional homes. And finally The World was Whole is a book about the places in which we live and their frequent precarity, the sharehouses and suburbs that house our bodies and lives.
Wright is an essayist with a distinctive and intelligent voice. She draws surprising and original connections between the social and the self in each of these essays. There is little of the claustrophobia that sometimes dogs the personal essay, that most contemporary of forms, in this beautifully crafted collection. Wright’s sharp observations of her world work to interrogate received notions of the way we speak and think about bodies and place.
The House of Youssef is a collection of stories that take us deep into the intimate lives of characters who are much more complex than their suburban lives might appear. A woman smokes cigarettes and thinks of her missing sons while trawling through the TV guide. A divorcee shrugs off advice from her family, who tell her to find another man or stay out of the sun to protect her once-pale skin.
Set primarily among the Lebanese communities of western Sydney, these are stories of longing for things that can’t be articulated and of navigating familial and community relationships that can’t be escaped. Told in the stripped-back and intense style of Carver or Kafka, these stories do not waste a word. Every small gesture packs a punch and each detail carries the weight of a much larger life.