DDebut writer Evelyn Araluen has won the Stella Prize, Australia’s literary prize for women and non-binary writers, for her Dropbear collection – making her the first poet to win the $60,000 prize in the first year poetry was allowed to participate.
The biggest impact this will have on her life, she says, is that she can now quit one of the part-time jobs she has in order to support her writing – meaning she won’t have any. only two. She’s only half kidding; the closures, cutbacks and cancellations of the past two years have made the already difficult task of earning a living as a writer (of any kind, let alone a poet) even more difficult than usual.
The desk where she edited Dropbear was the only piece of furniture in her entire apartment, aside from her bed. She had just moved to Melbourne when the first lockdowns began in 2020, preventing her and her partner from finding work in their new city. Additional furniture would have to wait a few months, when they could afford it.
“I was writing it when I was one paycheck away from total poverty,” Araluen says. While she’s both thrilled and grateful for the Stella Award, she’s adamant that “this can’t be the way we support the arts.” Better funding, for more writers, is essential.
Prior to this year, poetry was not eligible for the prize, excluding the work of an entire community of accomplished and exciting women and non-binary writers, many of them people of color. Araluen’s victory is a great moment for poetry and for the poet herself, who is highly respected in the field and widely regarded as one of Australia’s most innovative emerging writers. She hopes her win will encourage publishers to take risks and publish more poetry, breaking down some of the barriers to publishing that many poets face.
It’s unusual for a debut collection of poetry to be as anticipated as Dropbear, or to reach as many readers new to the form as it already has. But it’s a remarkable book: wildly inventive and wickedly funny, as engaging as it is fiercely intelligent. Many of the poems are reimaginings of kitschy Australiana and children’s books (Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and Blinky Bill both feature prominently), as well as Australian literary traditions and storytelling. Central to the subversive nature of the poems is the way they consciously situate themselves within tradition, while addressing and imagining an Indigenous reader.
“A lot of contemporary colonial writing fears that the Aboriginal writer will oppose it,” says Araluen, a descendant of the Bundjalung nation. “But even there, there’s not a strong sense of a Native reader in mind.” How many authors or publishers consider “what an Aboriginal reader might take away from the book,” or how it might “be understood and interpreted by them”? It is also an erasure, and an important one.
Dropbear is also deeply personal: there are poems about family and love, about the small steps needed to get by. There is an ‘Inevitable Pandemic Poem’, alongside poems about travel and home: Araluen hails from the country of Dharug in western Sydney, and his depictions of that landscape and what it means to they are striking and clear. They are poems, as Araluen writes, of “rage and reverie,” always together; poems that are concerned with our participation in the oppressive power structures of our politics, our literature, our world.
Araluen is already working on her next project, which she describes as “a fictocritical novel” about sexism and racism in 20th-century Australian publishing, which seeks to explore the impact of discrimination and prejudice on publishing. today. It’s a project that fits very well with the goals of the Stella Prize itself, so it seems appropriate that her prize helps Araluen research and write it. Writing fiction, she admits, “is terrifying”, but she intends to take her time – which victory makes possible.
But what Araluen finds most “breathtaking” about her win is that she joins a list of Stella recipients that includes Waanyi author Alexis Wright and her groundbreaking biography Tracker, a book which, according to Araluen, brought so many people who had never read about indigenous land rights into contact with new ideas. “I’ve heard so many people, unexpected people, say that reading Tracker has taught them so much, even changed their lives,” she says. Now, becoming a member of that bloodline herself “is just the craziest, craziest thing.”