A debut graphic novel documenting the stories of detainees inside Villawood immigration detention center has been named book of the year at the New South Wales premier’s literary awards, lauded by judges as “a labor of generosity” and “an unflinching critique of policy”.
Still Alive: Notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System by Safdar Ahmed took out the annual literary award’s top prize, worth $10,000, on Monday night, having also won the $20,000 multicultural category earlier in the evening. Put out by tiny Melbourne publisher Twelve Panels Press, Still Alive is going through a reprint after accruing significant critical acclaim.
Ahmed, an artist, and writer, first visited Villawood in 2011. Four years later, he won a Walkley award for his webcomic Villawood: Notes from an immigration detention center. While recording video and audio is not allowed in the detention center, he could take his pencils and sketchbooks in.
Speaking on Monday, Ahmed said it was “quite a surprise” to win the multicultural category before learning he had won book of the year.
“It is unusual for a comic or graphic novel to be nominated for a prize like this, so I wasn’t expecting even to be shortlisted; I am delighted,” he said.
“I think people are still quite unaware of how cruel and punishing Australia’s policies are against asylum seekers and refugees. I hope this book educates people.”
Ahmed said he would give his mother his prize money: “She supported me for many years. Creative work is a big struggle as the arts are so underfunded, but I have Crohn’s disease, a chronic illness that has made academic work quite difficult. Mum’s helped me for many years, so this is a way I can support her.”
The senior judge for the NSW premier’s Literary awards, Jane McCredie, said that this year’s judges had “grappled with 750 written works presenting a rich array of genres and styles which explore everything from the major themes of our times to the most intimate details of what it is to be human”.
The judges praised the shortlisted works for “provid[ing] considered and vociferous commentary about the challenges we must urgently address and reflect on as a multicultural nation” before naming Still Alive the overall winner “for its vision, ambition, and achievement”.
“Ahmed’s work is an example of brilliant storytelling created with and through community, labor of generosity, and love. It is an unflinching critique of policy and discourse that demonstrates the power of art,” the judges said.
Almost $300,000 was awarded to authors and writers across 12 categories. Author Tony Birch won the $40,000 Christina Stead prize for fiction for his story collection Dark as Last Night. In comparison, Kate Holden took out the $40,000 Douglas Stewart prize for nonfiction for The Winter Road: A Story of Legacy, Land and a Killing at Croppa Creek, a true crime book about the 2014 murder of an NSW environment officer.
Debut author Chloe Wilson won the $5,000 UTS Glenda Adams award for new writing with her story collection Hold Your Fire. And Anita Heiss won the biennial Indigenous writers’ category, worth $30,000, for her novel Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray, also nominated for this year’s Stella prize.
Nitram, the 2021 film about the Port Arthur massacre killer Martin Bryant, won the $30,000 Betty Roland prize for scriptwriting, with judges praising Shaun Grant’s script as “a masterclass in screenwriting … a script of international quality.”
The 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary award winners
Book of the year: Still Alive: Notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System by Safdar Ahmed (Twelve Panels Press)
Christina Stead prize for fiction: Dark as Last Night by Tony Birch (University of Queensland Press)
UTS Glenda Adams award for new writing: Hold Your Fire by Chloe Wilson (Scribner)
Douglas Stewart prize for nonfiction: The Winter Road: A Story of Legacy, Land and a Killing at Croppa Creek by Kate Holden (Black Inc. Books)
Kenneth Slessor prize for poetry: accelerations & inertias by Dan Disney (Vagabond Press)
Patricia Wrightson prize for children’s literature: My Brother Ben by Peter Carnavas (University of Queensland Press)
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Ethel Turner prize for young people’s literature: The Gaps by Leanne Hall (Text Publishing)
Nick Enright prize for playwriting: Orange Thrower by Kirsty Marillier (Griffin Theatre Company and National Theatre of Parramatta/Currency Press)
Betty Roland prize for scriptwriting: NITRAM by Shaun Grant (Good Thing Productions)
Multicultural NSW award: Still Alive: Notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System by Safdar Ahmed (Twelve Panels Press)
The biennial Indigenous Writers’ award: Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray: River of Dreams by Anita Heiss (Simon & Schuster Australia)
People’s choice award: The Shut-Ins by Katherine Brabon (Allen & Unwin)