Calibre Essay Prize
When ABR reported on the outcome of the 2020 Calibre Essay Prize (won by Yves Rees) in the June–July 2020 issue, we noted a certain elephant in the room. Covid-19, though spreading and mutating, hadn’t been diagnosed when entries closed in January 2020. ‘Next year,’ we predicted, ‘the balance will be upset by something called the pandemic.’ And so it has proved. Among the record field were many essays devoted to the myriad international threats posed by coronavirus.
The climate crisis and endless threats to the environmental continue to exercise Calibristas (as past winner David Hansen has dubbed them). The summer of bushfires that transformed our landscape in 2019–20 figured in dozens of entries. And then, of course, came the almighty explosion on 4 August 2020 that devastated Beirut and shook a nation already teetering on the brink of social and economic collapse.
Theodore Ell, who was living in Beirut at the time, is the winner of the fifteenth Calibre Essay Prize. His essay, ‘Façades of Lebanon’ – reportage at its most visceral – is an attempt to interpret the scale of the disaster and to see its effects in human terms.
The judges – historians Sheila Fitzpatrick and Billy Griffiths, and Peter Rose, Editor of ABR – chose ‘Façades of Lebanon’ from a field of 638 entries from twenty-eight different countries. Here are their comments on Theodore Ell’s essay:
‘Façades of Lebanon’ is a gripping piece of reportage and a powerful meditation on the bonds of community in a time of turmoil and upheaval. It builds slowly, ominously, from the eerie quiet of Beirut during lockdown towards the catastrophic port explosion. The author positions himself as an outsider: a detached observer of crisis and conflict. Yet that façade of detachment is vividly shattered by the end of the essay.
Theodore Ell is an editor, translator, and author of A Voice in the Fire (2015). After working in public service and foreign policy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, he accompanied his wife in 2018 on a diplomatic posting to Lebanon. His poetry and translations have been published in Australia, Lebanon, Italy, and the United Kingdom. He is an honorary lecturer in literature at the Australian National University.
On learning of his win, Theodore commented:
I am astonished to receive this honour. This turn of events and the joy it has brought were inconceivable when the Beirut explosion struck ... I thank the prize judges for their decision and ABR for its wonderful support. I dedicate the award of this prize to my wife and to our friends from the Lebanon years, for all that we went through together.
Placed second in the competition was Anita Punton’s essay ‘May Day’, a poignant memoir about piecing together her Olympic gymnast father’s life after his death. ‘May Day’ will appear in a later issue.
Here are the eight other shortlisted essays:
- ‘Max Dupain’s dilemmas’ by Helen Ennis
- ‘The Grey Margins of Grief’ by Kerry Greer
- ‘Aria from the Last Act’ by Meredith Jelbart
- ‘“Never ceded or extinguished”: The Australian Sovereignty Debates’ by David Kearns
- ‘Dugongesque’ by Krissy Kneen
- ‘The Way Ahead’ by Judy Rowley
- ‘Remembering the KKK Fifty Years Later’ by Morgan Smith
- ‘Leavings’ by Jessica L. Wilkinson
The judges’ full report is available online.
The Calibre Essay Prize is one of the world’s leading awards for an original essay. We thank ABR Patrons Colin Golvan AM, QC, Peter McLennan, and Mary-Ruth Sindrey for supporting Calibre. We look forward to presenting it for a sixteenth time in 2022 – even if hell freezes over.
Anders Villani is the fourth ABR Rising Star, following Sarah Walker, Alex Tighe, and Declan Fry.
Anders – a PhD Candidate in Creative Writing at Monash University – began writing for ABR in late 2020, soon after taking part in an ABR publishing masterclass at Monash. He holds an MFA from the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program, where he received the Delbanco Prize for poetry. His first full-length collection, Aril Wire, was released in 2018 by Five Islands Press.
The Rising Stars program – which is funded by the ABR Patrons – is intended to encourage younger writers and critics whose early contributions to ABR have made a deep impression.
Peter Rose commented:
I really can’t think of another young contributor who has made such a distinctive contribution during his first ten months with the magazine – as a poet, a reviewer, and now as co-commissioner of ABR’s poetry. It’s a tremendous vindication of what we set out to achieve in the publishing masterclasses – and a happy extension of our partnership with Monash University.
On being named the 2021 Rising Star, Anders Villani commented:
What began as an ABR masterclass at Monash University has bloomed into perhaps the most enriching partnership yet in my artistic and intellectual life – and now this extraordinary accolade. Poetry has been at the heart of my involvement with the magazine: as a reviewer; as a creative contributor; and, most recently, as assistant poetry editor. In each of these capacities, I have witnessed and benefited from ABR’s invaluable ongoing commitment to poetry in Australia. In a precarious cultural landscape, ABR offers a beacon, as it has for generations. That it has not only survived the pandemic but grown stronger is a testament to its resilience and importance. I could not have wished for a better platform for doing what I love.
Vale Kate Jennings (1948–2021)
Kate Jennings – poet, novelist, essayist, memoirist, anthologist – has died, aged seventy-two. Unusually, her first publication was an anthology – one of the most influential ever published in this country. Mother, I’m Rooted was a collection of contemporary Australian women’s poetry. That year – 1975 – she also published her first poetry collection (there were two in all): Come to Me My Melancholy Baby. Four years later, she moved to New York, where she died on 1 May.
Jennings also published two novels, the most recent one being Moral Hazard (2002), which won the NSW Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in 2003. Reviewing it in our May 2002 issue, Delia Falconer wrote: ‘Jennings has combined the most boysily political of subjects – economics – with the most personal of narratives – the illness and death of a partner – producing a strange, sharp, original book.’
Our new Rising Star is ubiquitous. Anders Villani has just co-edited (with Jessica Phillips and ABR contributor Georgia White) the 2021 edition of Verge, Monash University’s creative writing journal (Monash University Publishing, $19.95 pb, 86 pp).
At a time when so many people have been stranded overseas or have had to pay a king’s ransom to return to Australia, the presiding theme for this issue – Home – is very apposite.
As the editors note in their foreword, the pandemic’s ‘alternation of the rhythms by which we live … carries with it a kind of latitude: a rare opportunity to take stock of experiences we have been too enveloped and swept along by to fully apprehend’.
The submissions, ranging from poetry and prose, capture the diasporic experience of alienation, settler–Indigenous relations, and the moral economy of queuing.