Melissa Lucashenko has won the Miles Franklin Literary Award for Too Much Lip – praised by the judges as “a novel of celebratory defiance”.
The Brisbane-based writer accepted the award at a ceremony in Sydney on Tuesday night, cementing a string of acclaim for the book that includes being shortlisted for the Stella Prize, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and the Australian Book Industry Awards.
This year’s Miles Franklin shortlist featured two-time Miles Franklin award-winner Rodney Hall and three-time shortlisted author Gail Jones, as well as first-time nominees Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Gregory Day and Jennifer Mills.
Lucashenko is the third Indigenous Australian writer to win the $60,000 Miles Franklin, following Kim Scott (who shared the prize in 2000 for Benang, and won again in 2011 with That Deadman Dance) and Alexis Wright (who won the award in 2007, for Carpentaria).
She told the ABC her first response to learning of her win was “Bugger me dead!” – followed by shocked silence.
In a statement made after the news had sunk in, she said: “It’s kind of terrifying. I only recently realised that I could be doing so much more in my writing – and now this goes and happens. I have no idea what to do next, other than keep plugging away at my civilising mission to mainstream Australia.”
Bearing witness to the lives of Aboriginal women
With Too Much Lip, Lucashenko, a woman of Goorie/Bundjalung and European heritage, set out to write “a really hard-nosed book”.
Her previous novel Mullumbimby had been longlisted for the Miles Franklin and was “a critical success”.
“I thought it meant I must have sold out in some way, not telling the hard-hitting stories,” Lucashenko recalls.
“[So] I thought, I’ll write a book absolutely everyone will have a problem with.”
“I started off wanting to shine a light and bear witness to the Aboriginal underclass, and to lives of Aboriginal women in particular.”
She does this through the story of the Salter family, coming together in the fictional town of Durongo as their grandfather is dying.
The main character, Kerry, is the granddaughter coming back home after a long time away. Her mother, Pretty Mary, is there too, along with a successful brother known as Black Superman and another brother, Ken, who is ready to explode.
Too Much Lip is tough, unflinching, warm and funny. As much as it is centred around a funeral and loss, it’s also a story of family and land and history. Violence simmers through the Salter family in this story, especially in the figure of Ken, but so does raucous laughter.
“I wanted to write a really funny book that took trauma seriously,” says Lucashenko.
In this, she cites the influence of writers like Gamilaroi woman Vivienne Cleven (Bitin’ Back), New Zealand writer Keri Hulme (The Bone People) and American writer Louise Erdrich (The Round House).
As she wrote her novel, full of hard-hitting stories, she says “the book grew, and as I grew in the writing of it, I realised it had to be a book about the redemption of Ken”.
Conversations with crows
Among the striking images in Too Much Lip are Kerry, the protagonist, roaring into the story on a stolen motorbike; and a conversation she has with a bunch of crows who speak Bundjalung.
“The crows haven’t been colonised nearly as much as the humans have,” Lucashenko points out.
“People think British colonisation happened in 1788 as a kind of uniform event in the same way all over the country and in the same way to everyone. But all Aboriginal people experienced colonisation at different times and in slightly different ways, and the country experienced colonisation in different ways as well.”
This magical or fabulist element of the novel, and others like it, take place in a matter-of-fact way – partly because this encounter was drawn from the author’s experience.
Lucashenko recounts to the ABC an incident involving a cow, in a paddock. Unsure whether it was alive or dead, she went to check, wondering what to do about this huge animal on the brink of death, and found herself under the scrutiny of some talkative crows – “on the phone lines overhead having a good yack about it. And it stayed with me very strongly”.
She knew she needed to include these dark birds, as well as a mob of wallaby on a hill, and sharks with things to say, along with the story of these people she knew so well.
What does her family think of this close-to-the-bone story?
“I’ve had everything from rave reviews to muted approval,” says Lucashenko.
She says that she’s “still waiting for someone to hit me over the head on a moonless night”.
“It’s not going to be for everyone, that’s for sure.”
For now, however, she will have to get used to the praise that accompanies the Miles Franklin – an award that, as she says, even “people who don’t care about books and writing have heard of”.
The prize money doesn’t hurt, either: “Well, I might be able to buy back a bit of the ancestral land, which would be nice.”
Too Much Lip is published by UQP