Young women and first-time authors dominate the shortlist of this year’s Stella Prize, the literary prize dedicated to celebrating women’s achievements.
The prize, now in its third year, involves a longlist of 12 novels, short story collections or non-fiction books, which is then reduced to a shortlist of 6.
The six shortlisted authors, announced today, are Maxine Beneba Clarke, Emily Bitton, Ellen Van Neervan, Sophie Lagune, Jean London and Christine Keneally.
Most of the shortlisted authors are much younger than one might expect – and than in previous years – and half of them are debut authors.
Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ellen Van Neervan and Emily Bitton have all been shortlisted for their very first novel or collection. Van Neervan, the youngest shortlisted author, is only 25.
These debut authors were chosen for the shortlist over favourites from well-established authors. Helen Garner’s This House of Grief, for example, was included in the longlist but not selected for the shortlist.
All shortlisted authors will receive a $2,000 prize. The Stella Prize itself is worth $50,000.
The Stella Prize was founded in 2013 by executive director Aviva Tuffield and a small team of co-founders. Tuffield was inspired to create the prize as a result of the persistent gender bias she witnessed during her career in publishing and editing.
She grew tired of seeing all-male shortlists for the most prestigious prizes, so she decided to create a prize just for women writers.
“I just wanted to do something to actually change some of the structural issues that I’d witnessed for so many years. I was ready to put some of my energy into that side of my industry,” Tuffield told Women’s Agenda.
Tuffield said the shortlist this year reflects the diversity the Stella Prize aims to promote.
‘We are thrilled with the strength and diversity of the 2015 Stella Prize shortlist. These six remarkable books explore themes of identity, family, displacement and belonging, with distinctly Australian resonances,” she said.
“Three of the books are debut works, which speaks to the talent of Australian women writers, even those just beginning their careers as authors. We are immensely grateful for the determination and rigour of our judging panel, who selected these six excellent, original and engaging books.”
The prize’s judging panel – also dominated by women – includes journalist Caroline Baum, writer and lecturer Tony Birch, writer Kerryn Goldsworthy, singer-songwriter Sarah Blasko and author Melissa Lucashenko.
This year’s shortlist includes work in a variety of forms and dealing with a vast range of issues. Clarke’s Foreign Soil is a collection of stories about displacement; a collection the judges described as “profoundly political”. Bitto’s novel The Strays, according to the Stella judges, deals with “friendship, memory, ambition, and family life”.
Keneally’s The Invisible History of Race is a non-fiction work about the power of DNA and geneology. Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep is also a novel about refugees fleeing war in Europe, and is described as “a story of exile, transition, and resilience”. Van Neervan’s Heat and Light is a collection of short stories that combines realism with myth and fantasy. “Van Neerven writes with the confidence, maturity, and subtlety of someone twice her age, and with startling originality,” the judges said.
The winner of the $50,000 Stella Prize will be announced in Melbourne on April 21.