WA author Kim Scott is on a roll with a novel about the early first harmonious encounters between his Nyoongar people and European settlers in the South West.
Scott’s third book That Deadman Dance has been announced as a Miles Franklin Award contender just two weeks after he became the first Aboriginal to win the regional Commonwealth Writers Prize.
The Coolbellup writer said the acknowledgments were very reassuring after the isolation of working on the book for nearly five years. “I have very, very few readers over that process so you wait to get it published to see what the reaction is,” he said.
Set on WA’s south coast in the early 1880s, That Deadman Dance is one of nine in the running for the $50,000 Miles Franklin prize, which Scott won in 2000 with his second novel Benang. He was the first Aboriginal writer to do so.
The book explores the first contact between Aboriginal people and the early settlers around Albany through the eyes of a young Nyoongar man named Bobby Wabalanginy. Things begin optimistically but relationships deteriorate as white settlement develops.
The title refers to a Nyoongar dance based on a military drill by explorer Matthew Flinders’ marines and recorded 100 years later by the anthropologist Daisy Bates
“This story is looking at a time when Nyoongars were in a position of power and how we conducted ourselves in our inclusiveness and readiness to accommodate new immigrants,” Scott said.
Scott, 54, works at Curtin University, where he applies the healing stories of the past in the field of indigenous health.
Inspired by fragments of history, That Deadman Dance pondered what might have been and what still might be in black-white relations, he said.
“If you are a historian who relies only on the archives, it tends to give you a negative and demoralising story.
"There are some fragments that suggest something else so you try to embellish that and draw the possibilities out of those and hope that there is a voice there and perspective that hasn’t been lost.”
The Miles Franklin panel called Scott’s book a big-hearted, moving and richly rewarding portrait of Australia’s earliest days.
Family and childhood and young adulthood, rural Australia and early colonial encounters are themes in this year’s long-list which includes When Colts Ran, by former Miles Franklin winner Roger McDonald and two debut novels, Rocks in the Belly by Jon Bauer and The Legacy by Kirsten Tranter.
Another prospect is The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta, whose novel Looking for Alibrandi was adapted as a film in 2000. The other listed books are The Mary Smokes Boys by Patrick Holland; The Good Daughter by Honey Brown; Time’s Long Ruin by Stephen Orr and Bereft by Chris Womersley.
After being judged best book in South-East Asia and the Pacific region, That Deadman Dance also is competing for the overall $16,000 Commonwealth Writers Prize to be announced on May 21.
The Miles Franklin shortlist will be announced on April 21 and the winner on June 22.
Two other WA writers are in contention for honours at the NSW Premier’s Awards, the oldest and most lucrative State-run awards in Australia.
Stephen Daisley’s debut novel Traitor has been shortlisted for both the $40,000 Christina Stead Prize for fiction and the $5000 UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing. Daisley and two other first-time novelists Lisa Lang and Kristen Thornell are up against literary heavyweights Peter Carey and Alex Miller for the coveted Christina Stead Prize.
Brenda Walker’s Reading By Moonlight: How Books Saved a Life is shortlisted for the $40,000 Douglas Stewart Prize for non-fiction.
Prizes totalling $315,000 across several categories will be presented at the Sydney Opera House on May 16 as the first celebratory event of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.