Cold Stone Soup is my new project and it represents a new challenge. A memoir about growing up in South Africa, it is my first attempt at narrative nonfiction. I want it to have a strong parallel theme that juxtaposes the disintegration of a family with the much larger disintegration of a country. I want it to be about place, how a person might come to terms with belonging in a new country, even when that country might initially be a little reluctant.
Cold Stone Soup is a project that is dear to my heart. I am an immigrant. Twenty-three years ago, I came to Australia. But I’m not a real migrant as I come from a pariah country – South Africa. I left because I no longer wanted to live there under apartheid. So I joined those who left the country they both despised and loved.
Once here, it seemed important to distance myself from my South Africanness. This made others comfortable but it also rendered me empty in my new land. Why was it necessary to put a space between myself and the growing up that inevitably shaped me? Why did I consider my past and my memories shameful?
When I came to Australia, I emptied myself out purposely. I did not like to say who I was. I married an Australian. I made Australian friends. I set aside my past.
And yet, I was who I was. My memories were still there and it has been no coincidence that every book I have written has returned to the theme of belonging and its darker collaborator, alienation.
Through the years, it has been a relief to explore these ideas fictionally. I did so in Bitterbloom, my first adult novel published in Australia. The reviews were generous and I particularly liked this one from a fellow countryman, Giles Hugo of the Hobart Mercury because he seemed to get it: “Stewart juxtaposes the two cultures with revealing irony. Her greatest strength is the degree to which she confronts the spectres of fear and blinkered survival in a state of war with itself … Bitterbloom made me understand some of my own conflicts about leaving my birthplace in search of security and peace. When they are old enough, this is one of the books I’ll give my children to help explain my periods of moody introspection.”
But I’ve been in this country long enough. I am Australian. My children are Australian.
Cold Stone Soup is an attempt to write my story – about where I came from, how my family and I were culpable. My story begins where I began – in ’50s, ’60s and ’70s apartheid South Africa. It is not an overly grim tale. I am trying to write within an ironic framework. The material does not however gloss over any cruelty – for those were terribly cruel times – or serve as an apology.
It tries to relentlessly compare my time with the times; the privilege of those like me set against others’ disenfranchisement. It attempts to weave a historic web that includes my parents’ voyages from their own homelands.
It is hung on a framework of political events and is informed by the Second World War and also the colonial environs of a white, English-speaking upbringing. It traces the breakdown of my family, a breakdown most certainly encouraged by a corrupt social order.
It shows how innocence is replaced by an awful knowledge and how, when that knowledge becomes overwhelming, the only choice is to leave. And it tries to show how leaving brings its own distress, loss of a collective consciousness and a lack of belonging. It is in fact a journey of self-discovery.
Most critically, I want it to be an immigrant’s story, one of many in this immigrant country and I want it to be as valid as any other story.
It has been hugely encouraging that from 560 entries into the 2010 Penguin Varuna Scholarship, Cold Stone Soup was one of 30 shortlisted and then one of three runners up.
As Varuna’s shortlisting committee pointed out, entrants were “particularly attracted to the opportunity of being supported through the manuscript development process. Developmental support is something that happens less frequently than it did a generation or two ago when publishing houses were able to spend time nurturing writers. Varuna aims to fill this gap. If we can enable writers, through programs such as this, to fully develop the potential of their manuscripts prior to submission, we believe publishers will take notice of more new voices.”
2010 PENGUIN VARUNA SCHOLARSHIP
We’re delighted to announce that the winner of the Penguin/Varuna scholarship is A Field Guide to Birding in Bad Weather by Naomi Bailey.
The quality of the applications was such that we are pleased to announce three runners up. They are:
Secret Grace by Gillian Britton
Cold Stone Soup by Alison Stewart
The Story of Being Here by Jane Dickenson
The three runners up receive 3 shorter consultations and one full manuscript reading from a Varuna writing consultant to assist them in progressing their work.
Penguin received a shortlist of 30. Their editors participated in a comprehensive reading process in three rounds, and came up with a very accomplished shortlist of four. Penguin publisher Ben Ball made the final decision. While all of the shortlisted submissions are of a high standard, Penguin feels that the winning entry, A Field Guide to Birding in Bad Weather, “has an intriguing premise and an absolutely convincing, consistent voice. The writing is assured and compelling, and we are looking forward to working with the author to make it the best novel it can be.”
Congratulations to Naomi, and the runners up, on your considerable achievement.