• Jazz Money, Lisa Fuller, and Larissa Behrendt are all past winners of the David Unaipon Award, which recognises Indigenous literary excellence. (NITV)Source: NITV
Three Indigenous women speak about how winning the prestigious award has changed their lives, and why they think more unpublished writers should enter.
Bernadette Clarke

6 Apr 2021 - 11:54 AM  UPDATED 7 Apr 2021 - 8:14 AM

Jazz Money screamed in disbelief when she was told she had won last year's David Unaipon Award, having made her submission only two days before the deadline.

"I absolutely thought I wouldn't win, I didn't think poetry would stand a chance for some reason," laughs the artist and writer. 

Ms Money submitted her poems to a few publishers before she entered the David Unaipon Award, and says she was feeling quite downhearted after being met with silence. 

"Just before the Unaipon Award closed, I thought I'd submit (the poems), because I was hopeful I would get some feedback and my words would be read by someone I respect," she tells NITV News.

The annual award, only open to First Nations people, was established in 1988 by the University of Queensland Press (UQP) honouring Ngarrindjeri author David Unaipon (1872 - 1967), one of the earliest published Indigenous writers.

Past winners of the award have gone on to become renowned writers in the Australian literary canon. 

"I studied literature at Uni so I know about this award, I studied a lot of these writers. It looms quite big in my imagination so I just never thought I'd be someone who could win something so remarkable and something that's launched so many careers."

At just 29-years-old, Ms Money says the journey has been life-changing, and that she can't anticipate what will happen next.

The award helped Ms Money understand the creative industry, and gave her the opportunity to work alongside Ellen van Neerven who she calls a "literary hero" and now a friend.

"Now I focus solely on my writing and creative output. Once I started saying I was a writer and (I) have a book that's going to be made then I sort of (realised) I am a writer all of a sudden - that has been very humbling and very exciting, so that has totally changed my life."

Her book, a collection of poems entitled "How to make a basket", will be published in September. It revolves around concepts of place, memory, love and longing.

"Holistically one of the things that I'm really interested in (with) my writing is challenging narratives of the colony of Australia and thinking about the ways that we remember, and re-remember and redefine things... trying to inject a black framework of looking at things, a queer frame of looking at things and also just bringing heart a lot of the time."

Ms Money wants to encourage any First Nations person who has anything in the shape of a manuscript to submit their work, saying they never know what could happen.

"A lot of the time we have these ideas that our writing needs to fit in this sort of western structure of what is financially going to be viable, and it's sort of guided by all these capitalist interventions on the writing industry... I think our story-telling methods can be really exciting and fresh and new, and that's what makes them really beautiful for writers."

Wuilli Wuilli woman Lisa Fuller, a descendant of the Wakka Wakka and Gooreng Gooreng peoples, powered through 30,000 words in three days to get her manuscript finished in time to enter the David Unaipon Award.

"Getting shortlisted was like getting punched in the guts. Getting a phone call to say I've won, my mum took one look a my face and she started screaming and crying."

"I never thought in a million years it would win, but bugger me I did," she told NITV News. 

Ms Fuller says that winning the award in 2017 gave her the confidence boost she needed, but that it took her a while to come to terms with how she was now in the same line-up as renowned past-winners such as the late Doris Pilkington and Samuel Wagan Watson.

"It really encouraged me, I've finished two other manuscripts now. I've got my confidence up to submit myself elsewhere and actually push myself more with my writing. It's been the most amazing experience."

Her work originally named "Mood Pieces", now published as "Ghost Bird" is about two Aboriginal twins living in her hometown Eidsvold in south-east Queensland. When one sister goes missing, the other must break some serious cultural and social family taboos on her journey to find her. 

Ms Fuller has been met with some challenges along the way in the interpretation of her work, of which she is very protective.

"I kind of have to sit in this really weird space, because a lot of my readers are non-Indigenous and they're calling my book speculative fiction and I love speculative fiction, it's my favourite genre but I don't consider it that. My mob doesn't consider it speculative - this is real for us like angels and demons are real for Christians."

The book Ms Fuller has written has been described as a "love letter" to her own community. This connection is evident as Ms Fuller is brought to tears describing the moment she accepted the David Unaipon Award.

"Accepting that award, knowing that my nieces and nephews were watching at home, was really important to me. Just submit, chase your dreams, go after it.

"Just knowing that I had written something that they can read and see myself in - not just this deficit crap; yeah we're dirt poor, yeah we've got racism, yeah all this racism has happened but... we're very strong, we're survivors and we have a mad sense of humour.

"We're our own worst enemies when it comes to our own (work), I'm the biggest critic a bit my own writing. It took me a really long time. It's been one hell of a ride and I've loved every minute of it." 

Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman Larissa Behrendt, a distinguished professor at the University of Technology, won the David Unaipon Award in 2002.

Originally, Professor Behrendt only wrote to express how she was feeling on paper and to connect to her family's past, fictionalising elements as she didn't know her family's history in full.

In a very similar tale to Ms Money and Ms Fuller, Professor Behrendt submitted her work without thinking she would have a real shot at winning.

"I was in my car and I pulled over to take (the call) and I couldn't believe that I had won."

"I never really thought about myself in that way even though I loved writing and reading, it gave me confidence in what I could do." 

Professor Behrendt tells NITV News that at the time in the early 2000s, there weren't as many published Indigenous authors as there are now.

"One of the really great things is that over those years, the Unaipon has been the kind of award that has really fostered a growing number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers to think about themselves as authors and to aspire to get their works published."

In 2005, she went on to win the the Commonwealth Writers Prize award for best novel from South East Asia and the Pacific.

The novel, the first she had ever written, is called "Home" - a story she wrote after being infuriated by former prime minister John Howard's response to the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families.

In a personal reflection, Professor Behdrendt tearfully shared a profound moment she experienced before she departed for overseas, when her father took her to the place where her grandmother was living when she was taken away as a girl.

The opening of the book transports the reader to that moment, when Candice a young, city-based lawyer sets out on her first visit to ancestral Country, to the camp of the Eualeyai, where in 1918 her grandmother Garibooli was abducted.

"It was a really emotional moment. I had those connections back to my culture and I knew what a difference it had made for us to know those things, so those were things I felt really strongly about so that inspired the book."

She says that realising her potential in writing and story telling has been valuable in helping her career-wise.

"It's been incredibly important in terms of giving me a career in writing for film and television and then directing. It has opened doors that I have't expected and just shows there's not just one pathway when you do win an award like that."

Now Professor Behrendt is getting ready to launch her third book, titled "After Story" , which will also be published by UQP.

Inspired by her work with victims of crime and with families of people who have died in custody, the novel follows the journey of an Aboriginal mother and daughter who go overseas where their past follows them.

Winners of the David Unaipon Award are given prize money of $15, 000 as well as manuscript development and publication with University of Queensland Press (UQP).

The closing date for this year's applications is the 30th of April.


David Unaipon and the $50 note: the story behind the image
The opening credits of The Point with Stan Grant features a range of iconic images that reflect on the state of the nation. One of them is our fifty dollar note, which bears the portrait of David Unaipon.
David Unaipon and the $50 note: the story behind the image
The opening credits of The Point with Stan Grant features a range of iconic images that reflect on the state of the nation. One of them is our fifty dollar note, which bears the portrait of David Unaipon.