A university writing centre and an academic research grant gave the indigenous writer Alexis Wright the space and time to write Tracker, a prize-winning book with an innovative and particularly indigenous perspective on biography.
Ms Wright was a distinguished fellow at Western Sydney University when she wrote the quasi-biography about the legendary Aboriginal visionary, thinker and activist Leigh Bruce “Tracker” Tilmouth.
She was based at the university’s Writing and Society Research Centre, which has fostered a number of Australian fiction and nonfiction writers, and is also home to Giramondo Publishing, the imprint that published Tracker, a substantial and multi-layered book that runs to nearly 600 pages.
As well has her position at the centre, Ms Wright had also been awarded an Australian Research Council Indigenous Discovery Project grant relating to indigenous storytelling.
All this recognition paid off earlier this month, when Ms Wright won the prestigious Stella Prize, worth $50,000, for the “collective memoir”, which replicates the Aboriginal storytelling tradition on the page, interleaving interviews with all the main players in Tracker Tilmouth’s life and forgoing the author’s voice.
Ivor Indyk, who established the Writing and Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney in 2007, and who founded Giramondo Publishing, described the Stella Prize as a coup: “I don’t think an ARC grant has ever had an outcome quite like this — the winning of one of Australia’s most prestigious literary prizes,” he said.
Ms Wright deliberately avoided the classic rules of biography, Professor Indyk added. Her tenure at the centre began in 2008, and she began to work on Tracker in 2013, interviewing most of the characters face-to-face and using their interviews seemingly almost verbatim, with their exclamations left in the text.
“In Aboriginal storytelling, the story is not told by one person, it’s told by many people,” Professor Indyk said. “We know that from the songlines; many people contribute to the story. So that’s what she was hoping to achieve in Tracker. The structure is kaleidoscopic in many ways, people telling the same story but from different angles. Sometimes the facts are different. Sometimes there’s repetition, but with a small variation, an addition that wasn’t there before. That was the idea, to capture the interaction of these many perspectives”.
Some readers may have found Ms Wright’s earlier novels Carpentaria (which won the Miles Franklin Award in 2007) and The Swan Book very difficult initially, he said. “With Tracker, it’s immediately accessible,” he noted. “There’s no difficulty in reading it. It might strain your patience a bit, but it won’t strain your understanding.”
Ms Wright left the WSU Writing and Society Research Centre late last year, after a long and productive time there, and she has now been appointed to the Boisbouvier chair in Australian literature at the University of Melbourne.
Professor Indyk said Melbourne University regarded the professorship very seriously and it was thrilled to have her in a position previously occupied by the well-known novelist Richard Flanagan. Jointly funded by the State Library of Victoria and a private bequest, the position carries a full professorial salary.
Ms Wright will continue to write, and contribute to the life of the university by giving the occasional public lecture, and working with students in an advisory or supervisory capacity.
Her work will continue to be published by Giramondo, which Professor Indyk said had published a number of prize-winning Australian authors.
They include the poet and essayist Fiona Wright, who won the $30,000 Nita B. Kibble award for Australian women writers in 2016; Lisa Gorton, who shared the $80,000 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction in 2016, and Gerald Murnane, who has been touted in some quarters as a potential Nobel prize winner.
At the Stella Prize ceremony in Sydney, the audience honoured Alexis Wright with a standing ovation, Professor Indyk said, adding: “Which I’ve never seen before and I don’t think I’ll ever see again at a literary ceremony.
“She’s held with enormous affection — not just respect, but affection — in Australian literary circles”.