Alexis Wright's unconventional biography wins the Stella Prize
When Tracker Tilmouth died from heart and cancer complications in 2015 at the age of 62, longtime family friend Alexis Wright was part way through a project to write a memoir of the Aboriginal visionary.
A figure bigger than life itself, irreverent, quick-witted, loved and hated in equal measure, he was someone who enjoyed the highest influence in Australia and would bombard leaders, white and black, with his ideas of how to develop a sustainable Aboriginal economy to safeguard the future of Indigenous culture. This, he called, his vision splendid.
Tracker's life seemed an impossible story to tell, almost too big to be contained in a single book but Wright pushed on because she felt Australia needed to hear what Tracker had to say. ''It is important. It involves the future of Aboriginal people and our culture.''
Tracker didn't leave a trail of paperwork, his ideas were squirrelled away inside other people's heads and research, as Wright wrote in the introduction to Tracker, which on Thursday was named the winner of the 2018 Stella Prize.
The Miles Franklin Prize winner's unconventional approach to biography produced what the Stella judges described as a majestic and remarkable work of collaborative storytelling. Wright spoke to Tracker and those who knew him to create a weaving portrait of the Eastern Arrernte man, a member of the Stolen Generations and one-time director of the Central Land Council.
''It is one man’s story told by many voices, almost operatic in scale,'' judges said. ''With a tight narrative structure, compelling real-life characters, the book sings with insight and Tracker’s characteristic humour. Wright has crafted an epic that is a truly rewarding read.
"This biography is unique in the history of Australian letters and it artfully fulfils all the Stella Prize’s criteria: it is excellent, engaging and original. We invite all readers to immerse themselves in a history, a landscape, a time and a story that is heartbreaking, poignant and humorous.''
Tracker was selected from a shortlist that featured Shokoofeh Azar's The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, Claire G. Coleman's Terra Nullius, Michelle de Kretser's, The Life to Come, Krissy Kneen's An Uncertain Grace and Mirandi Riwoe's The Fish Girl. Open to non-fiction and fiction works, the $50,000 Stella Prize celebrates Australian women’s contribution to literature.
Wright, the Boisbouvier chair in Australian literature at the University of Melbourne, recalls meeting Tracker for the first time in the 1980s. ''He was like no one else.''
One night he almost rolled the car he was driving with her in the front seat. They were arguing about values on the way to Tennant Creek and it got heated. The only break in the argument came when he saw a Taipan snake on the road and hit the brakes.
Wright says she had received wonderful feedback from readers but was shocked when she learnt she had won the Stella Prize. Tracker would have had a ''good chuckle''.
"He would be up on stage and he'd have had many copies of the book in his suitcase to give out everywhere,'' she said.
Would he have been happy with the book produced? ''I think so'' Wright said pausing. ''First volume.''