Thank you, dear colleagues in the world of words, writing and publishing, and all the guests here tonight to celebrate the remarkable Stella Prize.
I first want to pay my deepest respects to my fellow nominees and their magnificent books:
Cory Taylor, Dying: A Memoir
Georgia Blain, Between a Wolf and a Dog
Maxine Beneba Clarke, The Hate Race
Catherine de Saint Phalle, Poum and Alexandre
Emily Maguire, An Isolated Incident
We all understand what it has taken for each of us to find ourselves here. Two of us died in the midst of our work as writers: Georgia Blain and Cory Taylor. I acknowledge the extraordinary commitment of the living and the dead – and the courage you have each shown in your lives and your words.
I think it’s hard to feel success as a woman and possibly even harder if you are an Australian woman. With success comes a perception of power. And power in women is something we have yet to wholeheartedly welcome and embrace in Australia.
Fresh in our psyche is what happens to successful women who claim power. Beyond Julia Gillard, we have seen it in other prominent female leaders, observers and thinkers.
Some of us have wonderful men who delight in our success, and do all they can to support us. Others do not. Some men are intimidated and resentful when women step into their magnificence. Being a successful woman is not an easy path.
So what has it taken to find myself here? I am sure lots of you are thinking, ‘Who on earth is Heather Rose?’ I can remember writing a poem at age six. It was about a rabbit that was shot and died. And then a terrible thing happened. I read the poem aloud to my father and he said, ‘You’re going to be a great writer.’
For years and years I was devastated by the intergalactic divide that existed between my own writing and that of the great writers. I wrote my first novel at twenty-one and was crushed by how bad it was. The challenge seemed too great to overcome. I began another novel. But my writing turned out a bit like my knitting. The yarn was good; the colour was nice; I had the right needles. But the product was tight and lumpy and misshapen. My main character just ended up being hopelessly depressed.
Then I moved back to Tasmania. And that very first night, a sentence came drifting in on the sea air. It said: ‘My brother Ambrose is a tiger hunter.’
Three years later that manuscript found its way to literary agent Gaby Naher and a little while later it was published. It may have had kind reviews, but of course I only remember the one unkind review.
I started another novel. This one took me six years and totally surprised me by winning a crime fiction award even though all the judges agreed it was the least like a crime novel of any they had read.
Once I received a royalty cheque for it for 57 cents. It came in a sixty-cent envelope.
My third novel began when I was in a state of utter exhaustion, twelve weeks into life with a new baby. Although it was produced in a beautiful hardback, complete with ribbon, it is still the novel that has sold the least. Yet its handful of fans are the most ardent.
About then Danielle Wood invited me for a cup of tea and so began our children’s series that we write together under the pen-name Angelica Banks.
Through all this writing there were three children, the normal demands of family life, a business to run, commitments I made to community and sport. I wrote mostly at nights. I wrote when I could get an hour or two on the weekends. Sometimes I’d escape for a weekend, and for several years I escaped for a week or two of uninterrupted bliss at Varuna – the writers’ house in the Blue Mountains.
One day I was wandering the National Gallery of Victoria right next door to our event tonight. A photo – and the interpretation beside it – caught my eye. It was about an artist called Marina Abramovic. So began a novel about endurance that took me eleven years to write.
Chiefly I had to learn to be a better writer. I also had to learn about art and film composing, architecture and the history of the Baltic Peninsula. I had to learn about Marina Abramovic and New York. I listened to a lot Bach for cello when I wasn’t listening to movie scores.
And now I am here. Forty-six years after that poem about a rabbit that was shot and died, I am here with a book about a self-harming Serbian and a man at the dark hour of his marriage.
The manuscript was rejected by three or four publishers here in Australia and more in the US. But my agent Gaby Naher refused to lose hope and sent it to Jane Palfreyman at Allen & Unwin. And here it is.
I like to think of it as overnight success.
Somewhere in trying to cross the cosmic divide that lay between being a six-year-old poet and a great writer, I stopped worrying about that. I accepted that I would never write like Faulkner or Eliot or Zola or Morrison or Murakami. I couldn’t write like Carey or Garner or Witting or Astley or White or Winton.
I want nothing more than to continue to write, but nothing is more difficult for me than writing.
In a world where, I believe, the pen is still mightier than the AK-47, it remains, no matter the challenges, our task to tell our stories. To reflect the human experience. To find what is common and what is uncommon. To explore the past, be with the present, to imagine the future. Whether that is in fiction or nonfiction is immaterial. It’s the work that speaks that matters. And if we do not foster our creativity when we hear it calling – whether in our children or as adults – then the world is poorer for it.
Winning this year’s Stella Prize means I have been financially rewarded for my work. But, even more than the incredible prize money, is the sense of encouragement and acknowledgement that will stay with me for all of my days.
I want to share this sense of success with my family and friends who have walked this long writing road beside me, and all the brilliant writers and mentors who have inspired me, educated me and awakened me.
To my children Alex, Byron and Belle – you are the best stories I have ever created. To my community in Tasmania who have shared the journey of all my books with me – thank you.
Jane Palfreyman and the wonderful team at Allen & Unwin, and my beloved agent who has been with me from the start, Gaby Naher: thank you, thank you.
David Walsh, creator of the Museum of Old and New Art – MONA – in Hobart gave me a studio beside his library that proved vital in the fruition of this book. And Marina Abramovic did what she does best: she trusted me with my version of her story with unflinching grace and courage.
To the Stella Prize judges: that you have bestowed your trust in The Museum of Modern Love is utterly remarkable to me, but I am honoured and touched and utterly thrilled.
In closing I want to reflect on the women who banded together to create this Prize in 2013, and the Stella ambassadors, patrons and supporters whose generosity brings such recognition to the writing of Australian women each year. I have no doubt that this single, bold, generous and audacious prize will yet be pivotal.
Encouraging and applauding the success of women might become an elegant and subversive act of cultural freedom. An act that with unflinching determination we use to redefine our social landscape and realise our human potential. So that women and men in all their endeavours – in the arts, business, sport, health, education, politics, trades, media, sciences and domestic life – are equally respected, equally safe, equally heard and equally celebrated.
What the judges said ....
THE FULL JUDGES’ REPORT: The 2017 Stella Prize Judges’ Report on the
winning book, The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose
The Museum of Modern Love is an exceptional novel that reimagines Marina
Abramovic’s 2010 performance of ‘The Artist is Present’, in which she silently
encountered individual members of a larger audience of viewers while seated
in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The performance
itself was an intensely compelling exhibition of the power of silence and
vision, and Heather Rose develops a suite of intersecting characters, all
visitors to the performance, all subject to their own daily routines, to the
possibilities of conversation and restitution, to hope and bereavement, to a
need for internal guidance and meaning.
The novel is grounded in the everyday lives of a rich and compelling cast of
characters, but it also transmutes the intensity and significance of
Abramovic’s work into the medium of literature, where people move, in their
thoughts, conversations and memories, between everyday life and art, as the
modest confrontation of the artist’s gaze in her performance stimulates each
character’s individual confrontation with questions that lie at the heart of
their own lives. This novel is an unusual and remarkable achievement, a
meditation on the social, spiritual and artistic importance of seeing and being
seen, and listening for voices from the present and past that may or may not
be easy to hear.
It is rare to encounter a novel with such powerful characterisation, such a
deep understanding of the consequences of personal and national history,
such affection for a city and the people who are drawn to it, and such
dazzling and subtle explorations of the importance of art in everyday life.