Sydney author Charlotte Wood won the $50,000 Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing this week for her provocative and harrowing book, “The Natural Way of Things”.
Her dystopian novel follows the travails of a group of women sent to a concentration camp in the Australian outback who come to realise they have one thing in common – they all had inappropriate sexual relationships with high-profile men in politics, religion, sport and entertainment.
It is a brutal tale with little redemption, yet challenging and in parts satirical for what it has to say about society and contemporary attitudes.
Wood delivered an equally powerful speech in accepting the prize on Tuesday night, confessing that at times she felt like giving up on the book.
At one stage, she wrote an email to friends expressing her frustration, but also outlining the reasons she kept going.
Her advice is an inspiration to anyone pursuing what they believe in. Here’s what Wood wrote to her friends, including why she writes:
Not going so well this week, after all. Somehow swamped again with the futility of this work, trying to find the point of writing a dark, bleak book about girls imprisoned and trapped and reviled.
Yesterday I couldn’t see how I was not just adding yet more ugliness to the world. But I have just bucked myself up a little bit, by writing a list of reasons to keep going. Here’s what I came up with.
Reasons to write:
• To make something beautiful.
Beauty does not have to mean prettiness, but can emerge from the scope of one’s imagination, the precision of one’s words, the steadiness and honesty of one’s gaze.
• To make something truthful.
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’
• To make use of what you have and who you are.
Even a limited talent brings an obligation to explore it, develop it, exercise it, be grateful for it.
• To make, at all.
To create is to defy emptiness. It is generous, it affirms. To make is to add to the world, not subtract from it. It enlarges, does not diminish.
• Because as Iris Murdoch said, paying attention is a moral act.
To write truthfully is to honour the luck and the intricate detail of being alive.
Those five points became signposts directing her to finish the book, Wood explained, going on to say:
I returned to that email for comfort often through the writing of my novel, but it came back to me again this week because I think perhaps those are also reasons to read, and I want to say something about literature as a force for good in this embattled world of ours.
It often feels to me that we have entered a new dark age – an age in which science is rejected in favour of greed and superstition, in which our planet is in desperate need of rescue; an age in which bigotry and religion are inseparable, and presidential candidates promise to punish women for controlling their own bodies.
I feel that in the midst of this gloom we need art more than ever.
Art is a candle flame in the darkness: it urges us to imagine and inhabit lives other than our own, to be more thoughtful, to feel more deeply, to challenge what we think we already know.
Art declares that we contain multitudes, that more than one thing can be true at once.
And it gives us a breathing space – a space in which we can listen more than talk, where we can attentively question our own beliefs, a place to find stillness in a chaotic world.
I hope that my novel has provided some of those things: provocation, yes, but also beauty and stillness.
You can read Charlotte Wood’s full acceptance speech here.