The Frozen Sea

Michelle de Kretser on breaking Kevin Rudd's heart

Peter Rose Tuesday, 20 August 2013
Published in ABR Arts

There was a real sense of occasion at the State Library of Queensland on 15 August when Tony Burke (Minister for the Arts and for Immigration, Multicultural Affairs, and Citizenship) – representing Kevin Rudd – announced the winners of the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. Well there might be, when $600,000 of public funds are at stake (the six winners receive $80,000; the shortlisted authors receive $5000). The fact that the winners didn’t know in advance added a further frisson.

Tony Burke spoke feelingly about the value of literature and daily necessity of poetry. Laudably, he managed to do so without reference to creative capital or economic outcomes. Then the minister ended the suspense for the nominees in Children’s Fiction (Libby Gleeson was the winner, for Red [Allen & Unwin]; Young Adult Fiction (Bruce Pascoe, Fog a Dox [Magabala Books]); Australian History (Ross McMullin, Farewell, Dear People [Scribe]); Non-fiction (George Megalogenis, The Australian Moment [Penguin]); and Poetry (John Kinsella, Jam Tree Gully [W.W. Norton & Co.]). Given that Mr Kinsella, who, for ecological reasons, will not fly, had spent five days on trains crossing the country to attend the function, the prize seemed doubly deserved.

Michelle-de-KretserMichelle de Kretser.Fiction came last, and Michelle de Kretser – author of Questions of Travel (Allen & Unwin), which has already won the Miles Franklin Literary Award – was a popular and not unexpected choice.

Michelle de Kretser began by thanking Prime Minister Rudd. ‘I know I speak on behalf of all Australian writers when I say how very grateful I am to Mr Rudd for his vision and generosity in establishing [the] awards and continuing to support them’. Then, in a short, charged, dignified speech, she provided the deeper surprise of the evening when she went on to address the politics surrounding asylum seekers. Here (with Ms de Kretser’s permission) is an extract:

I’m equally confident that I speak on behalf of millions of Australians when I condemn the cynicism and cruelty of Mr Rudd’s policy on asylum seekers. Mr Rudd’s heart wasn’t always frozen against those he once called ‘vulnerable strangers’. How disappointing that he set aside that compassion and chose to pursue this callous and shameful policy.
Mr Rudd has given me a wonderfully generous prize today. And I have given him a book. It doesn’t seem like much of an exchange, does it? But I believe in the power of literature to bring about changes in human hearts. And when I write, always at the back of my mind, is what Kafka said: A book must be the axe to break the frozen sea within. And so, optimistically, foolishly, immodestly, I hope that Mr Rudd might one day read my book. If he does, I hope it makes him smile. I hope it makes him think. And I hope it breaks his heart.

ABR has attended many prize ceremonies, but none quite like this one.

Published in ABR Arts
Peter Rose

Peter Rose

Peter Rose is the Editor and CEO of Australian Book Review. His books include a family memoir, Rose Boys (2001), which won the National Biography Award in 2003. He has published two novels and six poetry collections, most recently The Subject of Feeling (UWA Publishing, 2015).

Comments (1)

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    Yes, it was a quite stunning moment! And a source of great exhilaration to those of us who, like Michelle de Kretser, consider the current Australian policies in relation to asylum seekers -- from both sides of politics -- to be, in de Kretser's words, 'callous and shameful'.

    Wednesday, 21 August 2013 15:57 posted by Susan Magarey

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