• Aboriginal authors Tony Birch and Anita Heiss at the NSW Premier's Literary Awards. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Crowned a winner two years in a row, Tony Birch thanked musician Thelma Plum for reminding the world things look "better in Blak".
Rachael Knowles

17 May 2022 - 4:08 PM  UPDATED 17 May 2022 - 4:08 PM

Blak writers, Tony Birch and Anita Heiss have dazzled the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

This year the awards saw judges examine a record-breaking 746 entries across the 12 award categories.

Wiradjuri writer and academic Dr Anita Heiss took home the Indigenous Writers’ Prize and $30,000 of prize money for her work Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray: River of Dreams.

Opening her acceptance speech in Wiradjuri language, Dr Heiss acknowledged her Elders and spoke to the message of her work.

“It is a story for all Australians,” she said.

"I want all Australians to understand that wherever you walk on this land there is a First language and it’s not English.”

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray: River of Dreams, set on Wiradjuri Country, is a nineteenth-century drama/romance based on true events.

Wiradjuri language is not only featured on the cover but is woven throughout.

Caring for each other and being as one with Country form the ethical bedrock of this novel, and Heiss’ own love for her Wiradyuri people and Country shines through,” the judges concluded about Dr Heiss’ work. 

“The language and tone of Bila is not complex, but the author weaves the narration and dialogue together so that worlds of bilingual communication perfectly illustrate the complexity of the challenges that members of the Wiradyuri Nation overcome.” 

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Dr Heiss said she was “humbled” by the announcement on Twitter and expressed her thanks to those involved in the book’s creation and the awards.

“I was humbled being shortlisted with my peers, most of whom are my friends. Now I am overwhelmed with gratitude,” she wrote.

Aboriginal author and climate activist Tony Birch won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and $40,000 of prize money for his work Dark as Last Night.

In accepting his award, Birch thanked many including musician Thelma Plum for teaching “us that you always look better in Blak” and public libraries for their role in his journey

“I got my first library card 60years ago and without the public library I would not have become a writer and without the public library, many people would have never been able to access books,” he said.

“These are the institutions that we should treasure.”

In 2021 Birch won the Indigenous Writers’ Prize at NSW Premier’s Literary Award for his work The White Girl, a novel that was also shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Birch’s latest release is a collection of short stories that speaks to the lives of those marginalised and overlooked and showcases the power of human connection and love. The collection pulls together pieces published between 2018 and 2020 and many unpublished works from Birch.

Judge’s praised Birch for creating short stories that were as “realised and rich as novels”.

“Captivating as yarns, wearing their brilliance and compassion lightly, these stories take us somewhere deep. They rub at the seams and scars of contemporary life and carry us, along with their flawed but ultimately lovable characters, into bright hope, humour and appreciation,” they said.

“This work is audacious in its understatement and unassuming application of wit and wisdom. It signals a writer at the top of his game.”

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NSW Premier Dominic Perrottett congratulated all winners.

“I congratulate this year’s award winners and nominees whose work challenges us, entertains us, and opens our eyes to a diversity of perspectives on the Australian experience at a unique point in our history,” he said.

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