Emily Bitto Wins Stella Prize, Promises Part Of Winnings To Wilderness Society

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Emily Bitto has been awarded the $50,000 Stella Prize for her debut novel The Strays.

Bitto’s novel was inspired by the Australian avante-garde of the 1930s and tracks the life of Lily, who is drawn to a community attempting to escape the conservatism of the era.

“I was particularly drawn to 1930s and 1940s Australia because of the stark divide between the mainstream values of the time and the lifestyle and values of the avant-garde art world,” Bitto wrote in Guardian Australia, after being nominated for the prize.

“There were very serious consequences back then for making the “wrong” kind of art: obscenity trials were rife, and artists were being shut out of galleries and academies if they chose to embrace modernism rather than replicate the sedate landscape painting that characterised the Australian tradition.”

Now in its third year, the Stella Prize is designed to encourage a greater focus on the writing of Australian women.

Speaking on Radio National, Stella Prize chair Louise Swinn described the 2015 winner as “a cracking debut”.

Swinn said along with the prize money, Bitto would now tour the country to help promote the book.

“She’s a young Melbourne writer and bar owner. She’s amazing, she’s going from strength to strength,” Swinn said.

“I’m pretty sure we’re going to hear Emily Bitto’s name a bit more as she goes on.”

Bitto, a self-described “armchair activist”, said she would donate a portion of her winnings to the Wilderness Society.

When the Stella Prize was first envisaged in 2011, just 10 women had ever won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in its 54 year history.

In the same year 70 per cent of the books reviewed in The Weekend Australian’s books pages were written by men.

Data collected by the Stella Prize team in 2013 showed almost all Australian outlets publishing literary reviews skewed heavily towards male authors.

According to the Stella Prize’s website: “this trend is evident across all the major prizes. In general, women have won the fiction division of the various state Premier’s Literary Awards about a third of the time, even though fiction is an area that women are associated with as writers; the statistics for nonfiction are even worse.”

“The book sales change dramatically after the announcement of the Stella Prize, which is one of our major goals,” Swinn said.

Last year’s winner, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright, examined the role of women in the Eureka Stockade.

Like Wright, Bitto's own work has grappled with the exclusion of women in the arts and culture.

Max Chalmers

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.

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