Jennifer Down wins 2022 Miles Franklin Award for Body of Light | Miles Franklin Literary Prize 2022
Jennifer Down missed the call telling her she had won the Miles Franklin. She was in a hotel room on a Zoom call for work, and later called back with no idea what news awaited her. “I was pretty speechless,” she told Guardian Australia. “I was so shocked.” We often understand that, the president told him curtly.
Bodies of Light is the Melbourne-based writer’s second novel. Her debut and collection of short stories earned her being named Australia’s Best Young Novelist by the Sydney Morning Herald in 2017 and 2018, and she has received several awards. But the 31-year-old is still processing the “immeasurable impact” the $60,000 prize – the country’s richest literary prize, alongside the Stella – on her life as a writer. This goes further than book sales and foreign readers, although both are now likely.
“It’s the gold sticker thing,” she said. “On a silly level, this sounds like a weirdly grown-up thing happening.”
This novel is intensely silly, widely selected as one of the best books of the last year and critically acclaimed as Down comes into its own. Announcing their shortlist, the Miles Franklin judges praised her for her “ethical precision” and “astonishing voice.”
It follows the harrowing life of Maggie, who, taken into care at the age of five and subjected to an almost unbearable streak of abuse and disappointment, reinvents herself again and again. “A remarkably empathetic book” with “a wealth of pithy detail”, wrote reviewer Declan Fry in his review for the Guardian; “a meditation on what it means to experience this vulnerability” – in which Down offers Maggie both dignity and resilience. This, Fry noted, “demands the kind of emotional investment that novels like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life or Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain pressed for.”
These two books also deal with bubbles and blooms of trauma; both are notoriously harsh. All of them – including Bodies of Light, despite Down’s unfortunate observation that “the perfect novel should be no longer than 200 pages” – are long. Down, sometimes direct, sometimes drawing its most upsetting lines by inference, pulls no punches. Yet she also does something sweeter. “I’m uncomfortable with the idea of work that capitalizes on someone’s suffering to make an aesthetic point,” she says. “But I also accept that it’s a very nice line to follow.”
The goal, for her, is “to write as a kind of testimony, not to write to mine the depths of someone else’s horror…done effectively, it’s pretty mind-blowing.”
Down’s parents are social workers; the themes that made their way into this novel were “literally dinner table conversation”. Discussing how these issues seemed – and still seem – invisible elsewhere in society fills him with frustration. “I remember when Four Corners exposed the Don Dale detention center,” she says. “The worst thing is almost how surprised people were. And then we kind of forget about it, collectively. And it still continues. »
Down pointed out that the experiences in his novel are not his own. She’s spent hours with House reports, Senate investigations, testimonies from care leavers, police transcripts: research that, while she’s quick to downplay her own unease with the scheme of things, must leave a trace. “Spending all your free time reading about the various ways the state has let down some of its most vulnerable young people, you start to feel a little miserable and cynical,” she acknowledges. But the flip side comes when readers, personally knowing the systems she wrote about, tell her that the novel reflects something real.
As an author, Down is content that people simply find Bodies of Light to be a good story. “But if I were allowed to have a lofty ambition, it would be for people to recognize that this is a relatively accurate representation of some of what’s going on,” she says. “That even though some games are set in the 70s and 80s, many of the system problems, systemic failures and episodes of abuse, they are not historical. These institutional failures are still perpetrated. And the more we talk about it, the better. You got to keep shining that little light on it. Otherwise, it’s too easy to look away.
The Miles Franklin goes to a novel “of the highest literary value [that] presents Australian life in each of its phases”. Down says she is still untangling the concept of ‘Australian literature’ from the colonial project, and that the country’s mostly white middle-class arts and publishing industries generally have ‘a long way to go’ , despite chronic funding.
“I think there’s more room at the table,” she said. “I want to see more writers with disabilities write about lived experience; I want to see more young writers; I want to see more writers who haven’t gone to college.
According to her, this year’s shortlist and longlist – including the first self-published author in the history of the award – “declares the breadth and depth of emerging storytelling in Australia at this time…C It’s cool to be part of this cohort”.
In the studio she rents to write, surrounded by “paper ephemera” – old photos, notes, maps – that could find their way into her work, Down is working on another novel. “Which just makes me a little sick to say,” she said. “I feel like if I don’t strike while the iron is hot, it’s going to leak out of my ear or something.”