Joanna Murray-Smith, winner of the 2016 Mona Brand Award
Firstly I would like to thank the Mona Brand and her executors, the State Library of NSW and the judges for bestowing this award. Kim Williams has been hugely supportive of me in the past, sponsoring Switzerland at the STC and without whom that play might not have happened. It’s a huge thrill to be here. I’d also like to thank my husband Raymond, who is here this evening and who has championed me throughout my writing life. Thank you Ray. And congratulations to Jada and Billi for their prize and commendation.
It has taken me a very long time to realise that the rocket fuel for a writing life is the ego, which is prepared to go back into the boxing ring over and over and over again, stumbling punch-drunk towards the next idea, the next play, the next figment. The bruises help you learn. The blows are difficult to endure. But in the end, it’s not a choice. You do it reflexively because you have to do it. Whether or not you do it well or badly, optimism will go into battle every time with your vulnerability. And at the very last moment, when you are determined to abandon the creative life, the faith will deliver a knock-out blow to the doubt. ‘God, this is the one! This is the one!...” You find yourself back in front of the page… until next time.
It’s not a chosen life. So there is a little part of every writer, I think, that wonders if they deserve an accolade, since they are only doing what they have to do. That brutal moment when you see the work on stage and watch it with an audience always comes as a surprise: in the writing process you deliberately forget this moment will come and that amnesia is your only weapon in being revelatory and honest. You would never be that honest if you held this moment in your mind.
As the great journalist Janet Malcolm observed: "Poets and novelists and playwrights make themselves, against terrible resistances, give over what the rest of us keep safely locked within our hearts."
The writer, more than the critic or the commentator or the audience member, understands that their talent is a subjective thing, ephemeral, unreliable. It shifts from play to play, from matinee to evening performance, from scene to scene. Watching your own play is a 90 minute collage of every compliment and every rejection you’ve ever had, personal and professional. It’s an intense tally of everything you like and loathe about yourself. For every moment you thrill to the achievement, there is the whisper: There is always a better writer. And for playwrights in particular, there is always Chekhov, sitting on your shoulder saying in an attractive Russian accent: “Why are you bothering?”
Which is all to say that after decades of teaching yourself – which playwrights in this country have to do -- the affirmation of others is powerful and wonderful and transformative. It’s a mighty ignition to the next chapter of a writing life. It’s a safety deposit box of love and hope, to withdraw from in a life with very few other resources.
I’m hugely indebted to Mona Brand and her family. Reading about her life, I was astonished at the connections. Her father worked on the ship that serviced lighthouses – a ship I went on many times as a child who holidayed on an uninhabited island in Bass Strait. Mona’s left wing and journalistic past shared many aspects of my father and mothers’ own past.
(I’m so sad I can’t call my mother and say: “Did you know Mona Brand? Tell me about her!” She would have had all sorts of interesting insights, I’m sure and she would have been so thrilled by the prize.)
But perhaps that is where the similarities between Mona and I end. Mona was born in the early 1900s, a female playwright at a time when, astonishingly, the cultural landscape was dominated by the idea of the “male wunderkind”, a time when women were discounted from a mystery and majesty of creative genius. In those days, a young ferociously intelligent woman would never get an Artistic Directorship of a major company, though young men were hailed as “discoveries”. In those days, astonishingly, politicians were almost never seen at the theatre. The Attorney General and Federal Arts Minister might meet one of the few consistently produced international female playwrights and not know who they are whereas nowadays… Well… how could I possibly relate?…
This is, perhaps, a political award from a woman who lived a political life, but in a writer’s life there is really no separation between the personal and the professional –every experience, thought, emotion is grist to the mill. Every play is an expression of its creator, a fundamentally personal exposure. So I accept it as a deeply personal encouragement – and I should say, on every level it makes an enormous difference to me -- but perhaps Mona Brand would have liked it if I made a couple of political points.
More than any other kind of artist, playwrights live absolutely inside the world they transfigure for their art. We reflect our society, our nation, our times by immersing ourselves in it, physically, intellectually, philosophically and emotionally.
When our leaders, our politicians and our media look for opinion, or for flourishes of the imagination, or for creative reflections of time and place, they should be looking to the stage and the people who put populations of observations, ideas and human beings upon it. We are a pool of independent, untapped cultural and political minds whose imaginations can chart the past, reflect the present and lead us into the future: note us, listen to us, fund us, follow us, value us. The imagination is not an adjunct to life, it is at its heart. It’s not a sidebar to national identity, it is the soul of it. This award is a notable and wonderful acknowledgement of this and a guiding light to women writers.
Jada Alberts, winner of the 2016 Emerging Writers Award
I was so sad to learn that I couldn't be here to receive this award personally. This is such an honour. To receive this award in tribute of such an incredible writer, feels precious and affirmining and is undoubtedly the highlight of my career to date. Thank you. It means much more than I can say.
I come from a very long line of extraordinary women who taught me story, and taught me truth. Larrakia women. Yanyuwa women. They made something out of nothing so often, and with such little support and recognition. For that I owe them everything - my mother, Franchesca Cubillo and my grandmothers Cecelia Cubillo, Hilda Muir and Teresa Cubillo.
When I began to write professionally I wouldn't have made it through the work without the generosity and guidance of Katherine Box, Nicky Gluyas, Francesca Smith, Anne-Louise Sarks, and Jane Allen. Thank you for the encouragement, the opportunities, for seeing I was capable and teaching me. A huge thank you also to my writing agents, Charlie and Edwina and the biggest thank you of all to the State Library of New South Wales for this truly incredible honour.