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Alexis Wright is the winner of the 2024 Stella Prize, making history as the first writer to win twice. In this interview, she speaks to Kill Your Darlings about her winning novel, Praiseworthy, why she writes big books with big ideas and how her publisher stopped her from putting down her pen for good.

Images: Supplied.

Congratulations on winning the Stella Prize—again! How do you feel about this record-setting win for Praiseworthy?

I feel a lot of things. Last year was a really strong year for literature in the country. For me, it was an honour to be on the longlist, and then on the shortlist, with many other good books.

I never expected this would happen. I don’t write for prizes. My books take a long time to write—there are a lot of things that go into thinking about those books and trying to understand how to do it. But it’s amazing. It’s unbelievable to think that Praiseworthy now sits besides Tracker—I started those two books at the same time—and the list of prestigious titles that have won the Stella Prize.

In your acknowledgments, you call Giramondo the ‘finest publisher in the world’. What does it mean to you to work with a publishing house that takes chances on ambitious and experimental literary fiction like yours?

I’ll admit I’d be very down and out if we didn’t have a publisher like Giramondo. Ivor Indyk took on Carpentaria when no other publisher in the country wanted to publish it because it was so different, and it was so completely about an Aboriginal situation, Aboriginal characters and written by an Aboriginal woman. But Ivor took Carpentaria on, and I’m so very grateful that he did. He did ask me some hard questions about the way I wrote the book, and I answered his questions the best I could. I just thought, Ivor’s just got to make his publishing house work and get some money in from the publication of his books. (Laughs.) I thought I’d never hear from him again because it was too big a risk, given other publishers didn’t want to publish it. But I did hear back from him, and he said he would be really happy to publish it. And Carpentaria did quite well for itself. I got very busy with it when it started to win prizes, the Miles Franklin and a number of other literary awards at that time. And it’s still doing its job —the book is studied all over the world, taught and translated. It’s had a really long journey.

I’d be very down and out if we didn’t have a publisher like Giramondo.

If Carpentaria hadn’t been published by Ivor, I thought I could do two things. I could either press a delete button on my computer with the manuscript, just get rid of it, not have it in my mind anymore. I have to get on. I don’t like sitting on something forever, particularly when it’s not doing what it has to do. Or I could archive it with the Carpentaria Land Council, which is my council in the Gulf of Carpentaria. It would have been the end of my writing career, I think. I’ve done four books with Giramondo now, and it’s good to have a publisher like that, someone who really cares about your work and helps your career in the way that I’ve certainly been helped.

Praiseworthy is a big book with big ideas. How did the seed of the story first take hold of you?

As I said, I started working on Praiseworthy at the same time as I started working on Tracker. I didn’t realise at the time what a big book Tracker was becoming, but I felt at the start that I wanted to keep my own writing going, the kind of fiction work I was trying to develop, and I couldn’t afford to let it lapse.

When I first started to write, right back in the beginning, I made a decision that I would always try to challenge myself. So I was not going to do the same book twice. Once one book is finished, and a lot of work has been put into that, the next book will be trying to understand better how I can develop a work of literature. With Praiseworthy, I wanted to try to capture the times that we’re living in. There are big issues that we’re dealing with right now, like global warming, like the challenges that are facing the Aboriginal community here in Australia. I always intended for Praiseworthy to be a big book, and you just hope the book is the right scale for the times we are living in.

What draws you to the novel? Why this form?

I want to explore in this form because it gives you a lot of independence—to explore ideas and things that you think about and ask questions about. I don’t like to be put in anyone else’s box. This was a decision I also made very early when I started writing literature, that I’m not going to think about anyone’s expectations, particularly not the expectations of Australian literature at the time. Or even literature across the world. I read very widely, writers from all different countries, trying to figure out how I could write but also how I could write in an Aboriginal way—the things that we believe in, what we think, how we see the world. And to bring all those concerns into the writing because these are the realities.

Right back in the beginning, I made a decision that I would always try to challenge myself.

People talk about writing novels: What does your house look like? What’s in the house? The furniture, the curtains and whatnot. Well, the Aboriginal house is Country, and it’s a big landscape. It’s full of stories, big and ancient stories. So, trying to bring in the idea of the All Times into the literature that I’m trying to produce, that lexicon was something that was very important from the very beginning of trying to write.

The story offers a piercing commentary on climate change, land rights, the Intervention. Why is it important for you to explore these issues in fiction?

My consciousness was formed a long time ago on this, from early childhood, with people like my grandmother who had a big influence on my life. From the age of three, I jumped the fence and would go to my grandmother’s down the road. She was a just remarkable woman, very wise, and in a cultural way. It informed her understanding of everything around her. I went with her everywhere, in the bush, and all she wanted was to come back to her traditional home in the Gulf of Carpentaria. We all know that story, of people being removed. The whole story of the colonisation of this country. So that informs what I believe in now and what I do.

I’ve had the very great privilege of working with some of the best senior Aboriginal people we’ve had throughout my life—the very best people I’ve met—and you learn from people like that. We’re living in unprecedented times here, and we’ve been doing that ever since the colonisation of this country. But now we’re dealing with the unprecedented events of global warming—they affect us too. In our communities, they can’t afford electricity, run an air conditioner or even a fan, and the climate is getting warmer. It’s getting really hot and quite unbearable. Those basic things that people need like running water and decent roads, decent education, all those things. That’s all in the background, and what I do with my writing now is try to grow a literature that stands up and is true to where we are as people now.

How do you go about developing a book of this scale?

It took some time. But it’s good to take time when writing a book, so it gives you more time to really think about what you’re doing, and try to do it in the best way possible. To produce a work that’s going to stand up and is not going to fall over. I want them to last a long time. While I do have fun when I’m writing, I’m very serious about it. I challenge myself, I argue with myself all the time. For instance, I knew this book had to be different, and I needed to find a different way of finding the tone of the book, the rhythm of the book. I thought about what we say in the Gulf—we say, we are all one heartbeat. And so I ask myself, what is the heartbeat? What does that heartbeat sound like? And what does the heartbeat of Country sound like?

I do a lot of research. Research is a part of my literature. I have a very curious mind about a lot of things. I come from a background where we’ve been working for our rights for a very long time, and that includes the Intervention, the Referendum, and before that land rights, Native Title and justice in many forms that haven’t been been recognised here in this country. Those are the realities. The realities are also the world that we live in, and it’s about being in it, understanding it.

How do you sustain creativity over the life of the project?

There are a lot of things that sustain the creative process. I try to bring in the enjoyment as well, the humour. I’ve grown up with all this humour in the Aboriginal world. We carry great burdens, and also great responsibility to Country, but we also know how to carry it lightly in some ways, to keep ourselves going, to keep our spirit up, and we have to keep our spirit up to deal with another day.

While I do have fun when I’m writing, I’m very serious about it.

I also bring in the joyous things about the world we live in. The small things. The book is full of things that are really and truly beautiful—for example, moths, and trying to understand the movement of these creatures. The cover of Praiseworthy is actually taken from the book, it’s swarming yellow butterflies in migration. In turn, it’s to understand these other things around us, what they mean, what their spirit is—the book is also about those things as well, and the joy of trying to understand these things. And donkeys and beetles… (Laughs.) They are all important, they’re just as important as we are. We know that we’re all interconnected and interrelated. They’re important and I wanted to bring all that importance into the book, as well as the humour.

In 2022, you finished your term as the Boisbouvier Chair at the University of Melbourne, a role dedicated to inspiring people about the value of Australian literature. How do you see the local literary landscape?

We’ve come a long way. We’ve got really remarkable writers—there are so many. I can’t keep up now with the amount of writing that’s going on and all the young new voices that are coming on board. It’s an amazing thing to watch that growth because way back we would say, Aboriginal art is really recognised across the world but not our literature. That’s not the issue now, our literature is being recognised globally. And it will become even more so in the future. It’s a new and exciting and different form of literature that the world is looking at.

What are you up to next?

Praiseworthy has kept me busy all year. I’m exhausted. (Laughs.) It’s been picked up by very good publishers—in the UK, in New York… As we speak, they’re translating Praiseworthy into Italian. I couldn’t even imagine the work that would be involved in trying to translate that book.

I do want to get onto my next books, which I’ve being doing research on for some years now. I’m eager to start. One is a a non-fiction book, and quite a bit of work has been done. It’s a book about Murrandoo Yanner, a Gangalidda elder. He’s a very important leader in our homelands in the Gulf of Carpentaria. He’s impressive. Everything that comes out of his mouth is impressive. So I can’t wait to finish it. I hope to go up to the Gulf to do more work on it, and also start on a new work of fiction as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed for concision and clarity.

Praiseworthy is out now via Giramondo.