Regional writers sidelined in Canberra-only book award

MEMBERS of the Canberra literary community have expressed alarm and dismay over the new requirements for nominations to the ACT Book of the Year award.

2014 ACT Book of the Year

As reported in “CityNews” recently, ACT Arts Minister Joy Burch announced on June 17 that nominations were open for the $10,000 award for a book published between January 1 and December 31, 2013, with a closing date of August 1. The controversial part of the announcement is the new requirement that the author must reside in the ACT, in apparent contradiction to the principle enunciated in artsACT’s arts policy framework of “embracing Canberra’s position as a regional centre and fostering opportunities for increased engagement with regional communities.”

A spokesperson for Minister Burch told “CityNews” this afternoon, “The decision to limit eligibility for the ACT Book of the Year Prize to ACT writers is based on the principle that ACT arts money should be spent on ACT artists.”

While it is argued that the ACT Government should fund ACT writers and no others, this constitutes a considerable change, as for a long time the award has followed local custom of treating nearby residents in places like Murrumbateman and Queanbeyan as Canberrans.

For the larger part, literary prizes in Australia are open to all Australian writers and such tight geographical strictures are not imposed. The ACT Poetry Prize has gone through various levels of openness, but at present the specifications read: “Nominees must be a resident of the ACT or, if not an ACT resident, must be able to strongly demonstrate an ACT-based arts practice at the request of artsACT.” There’s nothing like that for the book award.

Three local writers who have contacted “CityNews” today contend that the borders around Canberra are fluid and that many of our leading writers and artists in other fields who are happily claimed as Canberrans when they do brilliant things, technically reside outside the territory. Many such writers work in Canberra and take on responsibilities within arts organisations of the national capital.

Araluen author Jackie French said today, “If I can be ACT Children’s Week Ambassador, have my heart surgery in the ACT, write a weekly Canberra gardening column, read at the National Library for Read Around Australia Day and be asked at least twice a week to participate in a community activity in the ACT, I think I have paid my dues more surely than if I paid ACT rates. I suspect that many others that live in a 100 km radius have done the same. Does artsACT really want to proclaim that I am not a local author?”

And a side-note from a Queanbeyan resident committed to the arts in Canberra—the writer of this story has observed that Queanbeyan cemetery is packed with celebrated deceased Canberra writers – AD Hope comes to mind – a sure sign that we are all bound together.

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