We live in a world where boundaries are being both contested and tightened, and certainly the Australian government’s policies and attitudes towards those who it considers “intruders” and the rising fear of “fifth column” terrorist militants, has certainly created a climate in Australia (and elsewhere) where human beings are becoming more suspicious of difference, of the Outsider. The Patrick White Literary Award this year has been given to an author and thinker who has made a vocation out of investigating this complex “Third Space.” Brian Castro was born in Hong Kong to Chinese, Portuguese and English parents, and was sent to Australia at age ten to attend boarding school, and has since been compelled to consistently confront and navigate the position of being “different” in a society that is primarily white and European, despite its claims to cultural and ethnic diversity.
But that position of liminality, and at times hostility and confusion, has been a rich place from which to write, and Castro—throughout his ten novels, two radio plays, two stage plays, five short stories and a collection of essays on writing and culture—has poetically and sensitively explored “questions of identity, race, lineage and hybridity” with a commitment to language being as important to the story as the narrative; exploring through his craft and stories the relationship of words to the fragile—and often fragmented—experience of being.
The Patrick White Literary Award is unusual in that it is not one to which an author or publisher can apply, but the Award recognizes, as Castro said, “a body of work rather than a single publication. It takes the larger view, and is not about long-lists, short-lists, betting-lists and gossip-lists.” This Award arguably moves against the current literary trend of celebrating—favoring?—youth culture and celebrity, and is a powerful gesture of validating and valuing longevity, maturity of craft, and time-tested voice. Castro was awarded the $AU 24,000 on November 7, and the panel included Professor David Carter, Associate Professor Debra Adelaide, and Dr Bernadette Brennan. The 2014 judging panel stated that Castro’s work shows a “continued willingness to take imaginative risks and be ‘blackly playful’.”
Castro’s novels include Shanghai Dancing (2003), The Garden Book (2005), The Bath Fugues (2009) and Street to Street (2012) (all Giramondo). His 2007 essay ‘Twice Born’ paid homage to Patrick White, and he has acknowledged a long-time connection with the Award’s Novel Laureate founder—according to Susan Wyndham (Literary Editor, Sydney Morning Herald), “when Castro won the Vogel Award for his first novel, Birds of Passage, in 1992 White was reported as having read every Vogel winner but omitted to mention Castro.” Castro, who is currently Chair of Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide, commented on this by adding, "Thus anonymity and lack of recognition played its role in Patrick's life as well as in my life and in the lives of all those who have won his prize.”
Castro’s stories involve migration, interior and outer journeys across hemispheres and time periods, and at times the language is disrupted, interrupting and fragmenting itself with almost Joycean overtones—or perhaps more along the lines of Beckett, as suggested by quote in the preface to The Bath Fugues. Incomplete sentences and half-thoughts rub against longer, more fluid prose; the images and voices shift from confessional to dream-like, intimate to brusque and abrasive. The writing itself suggests a search, an urgency, a grasping at straws in order to plait them into something meaningful — a rope by which to moor oneself, perhaps, in order to cease drifting and find a peaceful harbor. In The Bath Fugues Castro writes that:
“A novelist was nothing but a grafter, a hack, a grubber with prurient leanings and huge repressions … To publish a novel … was to make yourself suspicious. Unmediated personal expression in the face of disinterest. Nothing new there. Every kid was doing it, trying to become memorable in the age of forgetting.”
Possessing (and offering) not only a substantial, complex and critically acclaimed body of work, but with the Patrick White Literary Award to amplify Castro’s audience, this writer of many identities, many diverse selves, will be remembered—and certainly not as a “hack”, but as a true master of the craft.