Debut writer Evelyn Araluen has won the Stella prize, Australia’s literary award for women and non-binary writers, for her collection Dropbear – making her the first poet to win the $60,000 award in the first year poetry was allowed to enter.
The biggest impact this will have on her life, she says, is that she can now drop one of the part-time jobs she works in order to support her writing – which means that she will only have two. She is only half-joking; the lockdowns, cutbacks and cancellations of the past two years have made the already-difficult task of making a living as a writer (of any kind, let alone a poet) even more challenging than usual.
The desk where she edited Dropbear was the only piece of furniture in her entire flat, aside from her bed. She had just moved to Melbourne when the first lockdowns began in 2020, making it impossible for her and her partner to find work in their new city. Additional furniture would have to wait a few months, when they could afford it.
“I was writing it while I was one paycheck away from complete poverty,” Araluen says. While she is both thrilled and grateful for the Stella prize, she is adamant that “this cannot be the way we sustain the arts”. Better funding, for more writers, is essential.
Before this year, poetry was not eligible for the award, ruling out work from a whole community of accomplished and exciting women and non-binary writers, many of them people of colour. Araluen’s win is a big moment for poetry, and for the poet herself, who is greatly respected within the field and widely considered one of Australia’s most innovative emerging writers. She hopes that her win will encourage publishers to take a risk and publish more poetry, breaking down some of the barriers to publication that many poets face.
It is unusual for a debut collection of poetry to be as hotly anticipated as Dropbear was, or for it to reach as many readers new to the form as it already has. But it is a remarkable book: wildly inventive and wickedly funny, as engaging as it is fiercely intelligent. Many of the poems are reimaginings of kitschy Australiana and children’s books (Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and Blinky Bill both feature prominently), as well as Australian literary traditions and accounts of history. Central to the poems’ subversive nature is the way they consciously situate themselves within tradition, while also addressing and imagining an Aboriginal reader.
“A lot of contemporary settler writing has an anxiety about the Aboriginal writer speaking against it,” says Araluen, a descendant of the Bundjalung nation. “But even in that there isn’t a strong sense of thinking about an Aboriginal reader.” How many authors or publishers consider “what an Aboriginal reader might take from the book”, or how it might “be understood and interpreted by them”? This too is an erasure, and an important one.
Dropbear is also deeply personal: there are poems about family and love, about the small and necessary measures for getting by. There’s an “Inevitable Pandemic Poem”, alongside poems about travel and home: Araluen is from Dharug country, in western Sydney, and her depictions of this landscape and what it holds for her are startling and sharp. These are poems, as Araluen writes, of “rage and dreaming”, always together; poems that are interested in our participation in the oppressive power structures of our politics, our literature, our world. Araluen is already working on her next project, which she describes as “a fictocritical novel” about sexism and racism in 20th-century Australian publishing, which seeks to explore how discrimination and bias impacts publishing today. It is a project that is very much in keeping with the aims of the Stella prize itself, so it seems fitting that its prize money will help Araluen conduct her research and write it. Writing fiction, she admits, “is terrifying”, but she intends to take her time – which winning makes possible. (Guardian)