This poet couldn’t speak English. Now they’ve won the PM’s literary award
16th November 2023

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Gavin Yuan Gao didn’t speak a word of English when they arrived on their own in Brisbane to go to high school. It was an emotionally challenging time for the 14-year-old from Beijing. But now Gao’s first collection of poetry, At the Altar of Touch, has won a Prime Minister’s Literary Award.

The awards, which were presented by arts minister Tony Burke at the National Library in Canberra, are each worth $80,000 tax-free and given in six categories. The other winners were: Jessica Au, Cold Enough for Snow (fiction); Sam Vincent, My Father and Other Animals (non-fiction); Shannyn Palmer, Unmaking Angas Downs (Australian history); The Greatest Thing, Sarah Winifred Searle (young-adult literature), and Jasmine Seymour, Open Your Heart to Country (children’s literature). The judges said the winners were “a spectacular testament to the breadth of the Australian literary landscape, and the strength of Australian writing”.

PM’s Literary Award winners (from left): Jessica Au, Shannyn Palmer, Sam Vincent, Gavin Yuan Gao, Jasmine Seymour and Sarah Winifred Searle.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Earlier this year the Albanese government shifted responsibility for the awards to Creative Australia as part of its National Cultural Policy and away from the direct involvement of government, following criticism of the awards for being too Sydney-centric, poorly organised and for having too many judges associated with News Corp.

Gao’s poems – lyrical, personal, expressive, moving – consider such subjects as queer identity, the death of their mother, dyslexia, Chinese culture, day and night, and love. The poet is completing a master’s in creative writing at the University of Texas in Austin and arrived back in Australia on Thursday morning.

“I started writing when I was very young and I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to writing,” they said. “I had that idea from a very early age, but the kind of educational system in China wasn’t conducive to that kind of creativity.

“I started memorising ancient Chinese poems from a very early age, hundreds of them, but what really drew me to English was older English poetry; there is a kind of cadence to it that reminds me of the rhythm that I heard as child from ancient Chinese poetry. I think I’ve been trying to replicate that.”

Their poems also touch on being abused with racial slurs during Covid, racism and being bullied because of their sexuality. “I went to an evangelical Christian school so it was very much a fundamentalist environment. I experienced way more brainwashing in Australia than in China, which is kind of ironic.”

Jessica Au began the year by winning the richest writing prize in the country, the $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature for Cold Enough for Snow, her acclaimed novella about a woman visiting Japan with her mother, the first time they have travelled together as adults. It is written in pristine prose that can seem in contrast to the ambiguity of some of the stories the mother tells.

“It has been an incredible year, but to some extent I’m probably waiting for it to die down a bit before I go back to writing,” Au said. “I’m a very slow writer – there were 10 years or so between Cargo (her first novel) and this one. As to what comes next, I’m going to think about things, let things brew, but I’m not going to force it.”

Jasmine Seymour, who won a PM’s award for children’s literature in 2020, said Open Your Heart to Country, which is written both in Dharug, the original language of the Sydney Basin, and English, was a picture book about language revitalisation and how for Indigenous people who have not had access to it learning their language “really brings you home”. That it was recognised in the awards had taken her breath away, she said.

The Dharug woman, who has a master’s degree in Indigenous languages education, said there was a lot of research being done. “We’re working with community and linguists and people who have worked on it before to bring back communicated language.”

With her vibrant, colourful illustrations she wanted to evoke the feeling of the past peeking through to the present: “Culture and knowledge is never lost, it is there waiting for you. The discourse that Aboriginal people are disconnected from their culture in Australia is just so sad – and it’s not true.”

Sarah Winifred Searle’s winning young-adult graphic novel is a fictionalised coming-of-age memoir:

Searle, who comes from Kennebunk, Maine and has lived in Perth for nearly eight years, said some of the issues were tough to depict: “There were things we felt but didn’t have the language for. It starts in 2002 when I was 15 and in year 10. We didn’t have terms like non-binary and if you felt uncomfortable with how your body felt and how the world treated it, there weren’t many options.“

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