Jennifer Down wins 2022 Miles Franklin award for Bodies of Light | Miles Franklin literary award 2022

Jennifer Down missed the call telling her she’d won the Miles Franklin. She was in a hotel room on a Zoom call for work, and rang back later with no idea of ​​the news waiting for her. “I was quite speechless,” she tells Guardian Australia. “I was so shocked.” We get that a lot, the chair told her dryly.


Bodies of Light is the Melbourne writer’s second novel. Her debut and subsequent short story collection saw her named best young Australian novelist by the Sydney Morning Herald in 2017 and 2018, and she’s been awarded several fellowships. But the 31-year-old is still processing the “immeasurable impact” of the $60,000 prize – one of the country’s richest literary awards – on her writing life. It goes deeper than book sales and overseas readers, though both are now likely.

“It’s the gold sticker thing,” she says. “At a silly level, it feels like an oddly grown-up thing to happen.”

This novel is intensely unsilly, selected widely as one of last year’s best books, and critically lauded as Down coming into her own. In announcing their shortlistthe Miles Franklin judges praised it for its “ethical precision” and an “astonishing voice”.

It follows the harrowing life of Maggie, who, taken into out-of-home and residential care aged five and subjected to an almost unbearable sequence of abuses and disappointments, reinvents herself again and again. “A remarkably empathic book” with “a wealth of lapidary detail”, the critic Declan Fry wrote in his review for the Guardian; “a meditation on what it means to experience this vulnerability” – in which Down affords Maggie both dignity and resilience. This, Fry noted, “solicits the kind of emotional investment that novels like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life or Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain lobbied for.”

Both those books also deal with the bubbles and blooms of trauma; both are notoriously hard-going. All – including Bodies of Light, despite Down’s rueful observation that “the perfect novel should be, like, no longer than 200 pages” – are long. Down, sometimes direct, sometimes drawing her most upsetting lines through inference, pulls no punches. Yet she’s also doing something gentler. “I am uncomfortable with the idea of ​​work that capitalises on somebody’s suffering in order to make an aesthetic point,” she says. “But I also accept that it’s a really fine line to walk.”

The goal, for her, is “writing as a kind of witnessing, not writing to mine the depths of somebody else’s horror… done effectively, it’s quite breathtaking.”

Down’s parents are welfare workers; the themes that made their way into this novel were “literally dinner-table conversation”. Discussing how invisible those issues seemed – and still seem – elsewhere in society animates her with frustration. “I remember when Four Corners exposed the Don Dale detention centre,” she says. “The worst thing was almost how surprised people were. And then we just kind of forget about it, collectively. And it’s still going on.”

Down has emphasized that the experiences in her novel are not her own. She spent hours with parliament reports, Senate inquiries, care leaver testimony, police transcripts: research that, though she is quick to minimise her own discomfort in the scheme of things, must leave a mark. “Spending all of your free time reading about various ways in which the state has failed some of its most vulnerable young people, you start to feel a bit miserable and cynical,” she acknowledges. But the flipside comes when readers, with personal knowledge of the systems she’s written about, tell her the novel reflects something true.

As an author, Down is content for people to simply find Bodies of Light to be a good story. “But if I was allowed to have one lofty ambition, it would be that people recognise that it’s a relatively faithful representation of some of what goes on,” she says. “That even though parts are set into the 70s and 80s, a lot of the problems of the system, systemic failures and episodes of abuse, they’re not historic. These institutional failures are still being perpetrated. And the more we talk about it, the better. You have to keep shining that little light on it. Otherwise it’s too easy to look away.”

The Miles Franklin goes to a novel “of the highest literary merit [that] presents Australian life in any of its phases. Down says she’s still untangling the concept of “Australian literature” from the colonial project, and that the country’s overwhelmingly white, middle-class arts and publishing industries generally have “a long way to go”, chronic defunding notwithstanding.

“I think there’s more room at the table,” she says. “I want to see more writers with disabilities writing about lived experience; I want to see more young writers; I want to see more writers who don’t have a tertiary education.”

This year’s shortlist and longlist, she believes – including the first self-published author in the prize’s history – “speak to the breadth and depth of storytelling emerging in Australia at the moment… It feels cool to be part of that cohort.”

In the studio she rents to write in, surrounded by “paper ephemera” – old photos, notes, maps – that might find its way into her work, Down is working on another novel. “Which just makes me feel a bit sick to say,” she says. “I do have a sense of, if I don’t strike while the iron is hot, it’s going to dribble out my ear or something.”

  • Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down is published by Text

  • This article was amended on 20 July 2022, to correct a reference to the Miles Franklin prize being Australia’s richest literary award.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button