Hannah Kent’s bestselling debut novel Burial Rites tells the story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Its evocative setting, rich historical detail and compelling characters have attracted praise around the world. It has been shortlisted for the 2014 Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing. Hannah is also co-founder and Publishing Director of Kill Your Darlings. As we continue our weekly Kill Your Darlings Stella Shortlist Book Club, Hannah spoke with KYD Deputy Online Editor Veronica Sullivan about Burial Rites, the Stella Prize, and the importance of women’s only writing prizes.
There’s been a phenomenal critical and commercial response to Burial Rites. Have you noticed anything about this response which is influenced or coloured by you being a woman? Does Burial Rites get categorised as a ‘women’s book’?
I think there comes a time when most female writers experience a response to their work that they know they wouldn’t have received had they been a man. For instance, occasionally men come up to me at events to say that their wife will read my book. I ask them why they won’t read it themselves. There’s still an underlying assumption that some books are ‘women’s books’ only – that they couldn’t be of interest to men.
How do you feel about that?
It’s worrisome, as it seems to point to a broader belief in the irrelevance of women’s narratives; that they are less worthy than those of men. Some people also assume that I’ve written this book as a feminist manifesto – that it’s stridently political in intent simply because the novel privileges a woman’s perspective. It’s frustrating, but I would rather people take issue with the novel than dismiss it altogether. Argument is better than silence in this regard. For the most part, however, men and women embrace the novel in the same spirit in which it was written.
Do you see parallels between what you have done for Agnes Magnúsdóttir in Burial Rites, bringing to life and giving voice to a woman whose story has been forgotten and repurposed by history; and the Stella’s work in shining a light on women writers whose books are often overlooked for review and awards? Is this something you feel is important?
It’s a good question, but I don’t actually feel that I have accomplished anything as significant as those behind the Stella. It’s true that Agnes Magnúsdóttir was frequently portrayed as an intrinsically wicked, two-dimensional stereotype, and that I have attempted to give her a voice in my efforts to counter this misrepresentation, but the Stella’s work is much more useful and far-reaching. The Stella Prize not only draws attention to women writers and positively impacts their careers, but it works to further legitimate the stories they tell. The prize is vital in this regard.
Have you already read any of your fellow shortlistees for this year’s Stella, and if so what are your thoughts on them?
I have all of them, and am desperately trying to find the time to read every single one. It’s a little difficult at the moment as I’m touring the UK and US, but I did recently finish Fiona McFarlane’s magnificent The Night Guest. Many booksellers here in England (where I am at the time of writing) have told me how much they enjoyed it, and have often given it a special mention when I ask for book recommendations. I feel a wonderful sense of pride when they do: Australian literature is accomplishing great things overseas.
What do you think about the diversity of the shortlist, with its mixture of fiction and nonfiction, and established and debut writers?
The diversity of the shortlist can only be a good thing. Diversity ensures more readers, more levels of interest, and a broader discussion of women’s writing than may otherwise be the case.
Did you follow the Stella Prize last year, in its inaugural year? How do you feel about being shortlisted for it this year?
I did follow the Stella Prize last year, and with great excitement and interest. To be shortlisted in its second year is a huge honour. I have so much admiration for my fellow shortlistees, and am very grateful to be in their company.
Does the Stella (and indeed, the UK’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, which you’ve just been shortlisted for) hold a different meaning to other prizes which are not gender-specific?
I think the Stella and the Bailey’s are some of the most exciting awards we currently have for literature. I feel that they draw attention to new or otherwise overlooked voices, and it is this, their implicit promise of discovery and celebration of what might have been missed, that makes them so gratifying. Many of the writers I love were discovered through following prizes for women’s writing.
Do you think we need women only writing prizes?
I do hope that one day we will no longer need gender-specific prizes. But while prejudice against women’s writing (and their consequent underrepresentation) continues to exist in some places, they are absolutely necessary.
What are you writing currently?
My next book will be set in Ireland, which is a place I’ve long been fascinated with, and will once again be based on true events. I had a little play with superstition in Burial Rites, but this novel will be more firmly centred on the subject. I’m very interested in the ways in which disempowered individuals have historically used superstitious belief to emancipate themselves and subjugate others. The novel I’m writing now, which is set in the 1820s, will hopefully allow me to explore this.