It is no surprise that a dystopian novel about climate change has won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. There were three among the six shortlisted books. But the winner, Merlinda Bobis, and her novel Locust Girl: A Lovesong, have had less attention until now than James Bradley’s Clade and Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us, which both use the disappearance of the honeybee as a central symbol.
Philippine-born Bobis, who lives in Canberra, came to Australia as a student 25 years ago, taught creative writing at Wollongong University for 20 years, and is the author of novels, stories, poetry and radio dramas in English, Filipino and her native language, Bicol.
Locust Girl grew out of her concern for the people and nature in both her countries, which has led her to work with the International Water Project, leading a community in the Philippines to tell stories about the dying river that supplies their water.
“We think there is a border between us and the non-human world,” she says. “We think of water only as a resource, but we’re looking at how to teach people to care for water, and how to help students reimagine water.”
Thinking about climate change, poverty, terrorism, globalisation, she says, “I wondered how I could write about all this and make a big issue come alive in a small story, so that even a child could understand.”
She decided in 2004 to write about a child’s hardship and dislocation, in a nameless country. At first the visual story suggested a screenplay, but after doing a two-book deal with a US publisher she wrote it as a novel.
“One can think of dryness in the post-apocalyptic setting as the dryness of the human heart consumed by us versus the other,” she says.
As the judges say: “Bobis’ story sounds loudly not only in today’s Australia, but also throughout an environmentally and politically disrupted world where repression and violence are rife, and where huge numbers of the otherwise lost leave their homes to undertake dangerous journeys in the search for life.
“There were many fine and stylistically accomplished works among this year’s entries, but the distinctiveness, sweep and visual power of this short novel set it apart.”
Bobis says her books begin as dreams, or nightmares, and they consume her psychologically and physically.
“This began in Australia in the 1990s,” she says. “I came as a student on a scholarship to do a doctorate, and I would wake up screaming. [I dreamt] there was always a man in the house.
“When I went to the Philippines to research my second novel about child prostitution, I had a bad back. My physiotherapist asked me, ‘Do you debrief? You need it.'”
As the best-known Australian writer from the Philippines, she says, “One of the greatest things about coming here is that you hear so many other voices and world views, so your own world view becomes layered. I’m very grateful for this.”
Even now, after her fourth novel, she says, “I’m used to rejections, so this win is very helpful.”
(Sydney Morning Herald)