'A book for our times': Alexis Wright's Praiseworthy wins the 2024 Stella Prize

by Missing Perspectives
Friday 3 May 2024

Alexis Wright, a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria and an award-winning author, has (casually) won the Stella Prize for the second time with her acclaimed "canon-crushing" novel Praiseworthy.

If you're yet to grab a copy of Praiseworthy, you may have read Alexis' previous works: Carpentaria, and The Swan Book. She has also published three works of non-fiction: Take Power, an oral history of the Central Land Council; Grog War, a study of alcohol abuse in the Northern Territory; and Tracker, an award-winning collective memoir of Aboriginal leader, Tracker Tilmouth.

Stella has described Praiseworthy as an “epic set in the north of Australia, told with the richness of language and scale of imagery for which Alexis Wright has become renowned. In a small town dominated by a haze cloud, which heralds both an ecological catastrophe and a gathering of the ancestors, a crazed visionary seeks out donkeys as the solution to the global climate crisis and the economic dependency of the Aboriginal people.” Stella says "This is a novel which pushes allegory and language to its limits, a cry of outrage against oppression and disadvantage, and a fable for the end of days."

What is it like winning the Stella Prize for the second time - after Tracker won in 2018? "It's unbelievable really," Wright says. "It's been an extremely strong year for women's literature in the country. I was very pleased and it was a great honour to be on the long list, and then on the short list. It's unbelievable that Praiseworthy joins Tracker [as a Stella Prize winner]. What is so incredible is that I started both these books at the same time.

"It's been an extremely strong year for women's literature in the country. I was very pleased and it was a great honour to be on the long list, and then on the short list." 

- Alexis Wright

Wright reflects on the importance of having prizes such as Stella, that put Australian women’s literature on the global map. "The Stella Prize has really created a lot of interest in literature in Australia - especially with the enormous work that the Stella team does to promote and publicise the books on the long list and the shortlist and the winner of the prize. It creates enormous interest in literature in the country," she says.

"It also [Stella Prize] lifts the literature and importance of literature in the country,  and in doing that, creates a buzz and excitement that extends across the world. We’re seeing recognition for works of Australian literature overseas. There is incredible work for Australian female writers, and the level of the literature being produced now - exciting forms and content. And we should be applauding that."

According to Wright, winning awards like Stella "means a lot to Aboriginal people in the country. It encourages more writing - and gives a lot of writers the confidence to work in their own sphere - bringing out their own ideas and style, and thinking and beliefs into literature."

Wright says that Praiseworthy should've been written on a different chord - aligned with the concept of a heartbeat. "We talk about where I come from that 'we're all from the one heartbeat,' and I thought 'what was that heartbeat? It's the heartbeat of the country. You hear that in the music from the didgeridoo, which is made from the ground in this Country. Same with clapsticks, and women singing in ceremonies. It's a slow beat. It's that musicality, tone and rhythm that I used to write the book - and I listened to it while writing.

In terms of what Wright wants people to take away from this incredible piece of literature, she says "climate change and the survival of the ancient culture." "Particularly what global warming might mean for people who become homeless and landless. And if we don't do anything to stop global warming. It's hard  to think about - but this is what writing needs to be doing. Praiseworthy joins a global conversation around the world, where writers are looking and understanding how to respond to them in stories."

She says that she wants people to be more 'literature literate.' "The more people who read big books like this [Praiseworthy], the better their understanding will become, because of the amount of effort required," she says. "We should be developing a literature literate world. The world is changing and there are wars happening. We need to be thinking about these things. The world is changing quickly."