Unemployed, Living In A Caravan — And Now, Winner Of A $165,000 Literary Prize

Mar 1, 2017

When Ali Cobby Eckermann received the email announcing she'd won one of the world's richest literary prizes, the unemployed Aboriginal poet says she had no idea what to think — though two thoughts weren't long in coming.

After she wrapped her head around the fact she'd just won a $165,000 Windham-Campbell Prize, Eckermann told The Guardian that she "pretty much just cried." The poet, who now lives in a caravan in South Australia with her elderly adoptive mother, added: "It's going to change my life completely."

And the other thought?

"I'm fascinated that they even knew about me," Eckermann remarked to The Sydney Morning Herald.

The author, who has published a novel in verse and a memoir in addition to her several poetry collections, is among eight writers to receive this year's Windham-Campbell Prize, which announced its selections this week. And it's possible that none of the eight winners will ever know who thought of them first; nominations for the prize are made confidentially and judged anonymously.

"The call that recipients receive from program director Michael Kelleher is the first time that they learn of their consideration," Mike Cummings writes for Yale News.

That process can lead to quite a shock — and occasionally, a case of mistaken identity. As the Guardian noted, 2016 winner Helen Garner found out about her prize by checking her junk mail folder, and even then suspected she was getting scammed.

There is no mistaking the esteem Windham-Campbell judges have for Eckermann, however.

"Through song and story," the judges write in their citation, "Ali Cobby Eckermann confronts the violent history of Australia's Stolen Generations and gives language to unspoken lineages of trauma and loss."

A woman of Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha heritage, Eckermann knows that trauma and loss personally as a member of the Stolen Generations, Aboriginal children who for decades were forcibly taken from their mothers by Australian governments and missionaries in order to assimilate them. As she wrote in her 2013 memoir Too Afraid to Cry, Eckermann was taken from her mother as a baby, just as her mother was taken from her own family.

Eckermann did not find her biological mother until she was in her 30s. "I remember the profoundness of finally finding someone that looked like me, you know," Eckermann told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last year, "because that's what family is: a reflection of each other."

Her situation was not rare: As many as a third of indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families from about 1910 to 1970, the Australian government says.

She tells the Guardian it feels as if the award is now "honouring my family's story, and the three generations of us that didn't grow up together."

She also hopes the big-money prize will open the door for a family reunion of sorts.

"My son and grandsons are returning from Western Australia soon," she tells the Morning Herald, "so it would be lovely to establish a place to enjoy my family and watch them grow, instead of spending all my time going to them."

Eckerman joins American Carolyn Forché as the first two poets to be recognized by the prize, which was established in 2013 using funds from writer Donald Windham and named partly for his lifelong partner, actor Sandy Campbell.

The six others to win this year's prizes are André Alexis and Erna Brodber for fiction, Ashleigh Young and Maya Jasanoff for nonfiction, and Marina Carr and Ike Holter for drama.

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