Sarah Krasnostein likes to cite Diane Arbus, her favorite photographer, who once said you don’t choose the image, the image chooses you. So when she met Sandra Pankhurst it was like being “gently clobbered”.
The Melbourne writer was at a conference for forensic support services in her other role of legal researcher, and Pankhurst was there touting for work for her cleaning business, which specializes in mopping up after murders, suicides and extreme domestic disasters.
“I saw her sitting at this card table,” Krasnostein said, “and she looked so striking and beautiful, and her business is something I’d never thought of. On top of everything, she’s tethered to this oxygen mask. I wasn’t wearing my writer’s hat and I just thought, I need to know this person.”
What she learnt when the two sat down to talk was that Pankhurst had been born a boy, had been consistently beaten by her adoptive father, had been a sex worker, a drag queen, a wife, a husband, a father, had undergone gender-reassignment surgery and had become a successful businesswoman.
Pankhurst became the subject of Krasnostein’s first book, The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay & Disaster, which has won the $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature, the richest writing prize in Australia. She also won the $25,000 non-fiction prize in the Victorian Premier’s Awards, which were presented on Thursday evening by Daniel Andrews.
Krasnostein said she had been nervous when she gave Pankhurst The Trauma Cleaner to read. “She is very proud of it, loving the experience of seeing that these stories that she has held apart for so long can be shared in public and she doesn’t lose clients and she doesn’t lose friends.”
She said what she had learnt from writing about Pankhurst was about human connection; that she could look at her own problems, present and future, with a new-found strength. “It’s not a great secret, but we’re only as strong as those around us holding us, supporting us.”
Melanie Cheng, who 18 months ago won the Victorian Premier’s unpublished manuscript award, continued the successful trajectory of previous winners such as Jane Harper, Graeme Simsion and Maxine Beneba Clark by winning the fiction prize for her acclaimed short-story collection, Australia Day.
The drama prize went to Michele Lee for Rice; Bella Li won the poetry prize for Argosy; Demet Divaroren the writing for young adults prize for Living on Hope Street. The category winners along with last year’s unpublished manuscript award winner, Christian White’s The Nowhere Child, were considered for the Victorian Prize. Alison Evans won the $2000 people’s choice award for the queer sci-fi young adult novel Ida. Unusually, all the winners live in Victoria.
Many of the winning books directly or indirectly considered the question of identity in today’s Australia. Cheng said it was something that she was by default interested in, as she was of mixed cultural background and had spent half her life in Hong Kong. “I wrote these stories as standalones but as I put them together and tried to see if there was a unifying theme, one of them was identity.”
Divaroren – whose novel is set on a suburban street and features people who have come here from a variety of places –said identity was organic and changed with experience.
Her book was “absolutely about identity; it’s about connection, about hope”.
“We are all reliant on each other,” she said. “In Australia we are so diverse and it’s really that diversity that does bind us.”