Three first-time authors who published their novels in one of the most difficult years for all writers let alone those with debut books have been chosen as Best Young Australian Novelists in the Herald and Age awards. Vivian Pham, Jessie Tu and K.M. (Kate) Kruimink were picked for their distinctive novels The Coconut Children, A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing and A Treacherous Country respectively.
The awards, established by former Herald literary editor Susan Wyndham, were first presented in 1997. They are open to writers aged 35 and younger at the time of their book’s publication.
Thanks to the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, Pham, as overall winner, will receive a prize of $8000, while Tu and Kruimink will each receive $1000. The awards were judged by novelists Peggy Frew and Pip Smith, and me. All the entries were impressive.
Vivian Pham is now adapting her first novel for the stage and it has been optioned for a television version.Credit:Louie Douvis
“The books overwhelmingly tackled two common themes: learning to be comfortable with the self in a world that would prefer people conform to others’ ideas of identity, and the human relationship with a haunting or vanishing environment,” the judges said. “There was a strong contingent from Tasmanian authors this year, and several excellent young-adult titles, which managed to explore identity with intimacy and nuance.
“We were unanimous in selecting the three stand-out titles: all three novels were written from the live wire: they felt fresh, unflinchingly honest, and comfortable in their own voices.“
Pham started writing her novel when she was in year 11 and it was published when she was still only 19. She is now adapting it for a stage production at the Belvoir Theatre and it has been optioned by Ben Lawrence, director of Hearts and Bones, for a small-screen version.
The Coconut Children is set in the world of Vietnamese Australians living in Cabramatta in the 1990s and tells the story of 16-year-old Sonny and her growing friendship with her childhood friend and neighbour, Vince, a tough teenager who has just been released from two years in juvenile detention. Their lives are haunted by the trauma that their parents endured while they lived in Vietnam and later escaped the country.
The judges said her novel pulsed with life and vivid language. “Pham electrifies Cabramatta of the 1990s. Mangoes drip off trees in backyard jungles, the playgrounds have been abandoned by the council, the apartments are crumbling and the streets are singing with excitement at the return of Vince, the charismatic neighbourhood tough guy.
“Pham’s non-judgmental portraits of parents living with trauma and children struggling to comprehend their parents’ choices is nuanced and wise; work one would expect from a writer far beyond Pham’s very young years. Each of us eagerly await the future development of this remarkable new voice and firework of a talent.
Pham says she set the novel in the ’90s partly because that was when Cabramatta was experiencing a lot of drug abuse and gang violence issues, but also to get distance.
“I am Vietnamese Australian and I am writing about Vietnamese Australians and I think people take for granted how authentic the story is and maybe they’ll think that I’m totally telling the truth, the only truth about what it means to be a Vietnamese Australian. I wanted there to be distance between me and the characters I was writing about and the stories I was writing about.“
Jessie Tu mined her experience of the classical music world for her novel.Credit:Steven Siewert
Tu migrated from Taiwan with her family when she was five and has had a career as a classical violinist, the profession of her protagonist, Jena Lin, in her acclaimed novel. She now writes for Women’s Agenda, an online news site for women, and reviews regularly for this masthead.
The judges said Tu’s novel was set inside the rarefied world of elite classical music where Jena is attempting to resurrect a career that began with her being a child prodigy. She is also actively sexually promiscuous.
“From these two worlds and from Jena’s place between them Tu, with unswerving clarity, draws out many unsettling and compelling questions regarding race, talent, performance, perfectionism, agency and worth. A provocative book, skilfully written, that burns with an uncompromising power.”
Kate Kruimink creates a stand-out voice in her first novel.Credit:Matthew Herbstritt
Kruimink’s novel set in the 1840s won last year’s $20,000 Vogel Award and tells the story of Gabriel Fox’s mission to Tasmania to deliver a letter to a mysterious woman named Marianne Maginn who was transported there as a child. Along the way he has his recalcitrant horse stolen, travels with a French-speaking “cannibal” and gets caught up in a number of escapades culminating in drama at a shore-based whaling station.
The judges said Kruimink delivered a stand-out voice – eccentric, funny and deceptively endearing. “While the research behind the writing is evident, it is handled with a lightness of touch, and the language itself is truly impressive, ornate, yet controlled and deft. The reader cannot help hoping desperately for loveable, hapless Gabriel Fox to fulfil his bumbling mission and for the tenderness of his heart to be rewarded.
“Like Gabriel – who, despite his many abject misadventures in a wet, dark and cold Van Diemen’s Land maintains a delightful buoyancy and sweetness of spirit – this is a book that works its crooked charm to lasting effect.“
All three writers will appear at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on May 1 to discuss their novels. This project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.
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