Calibre Essay Prize 2008

Published : Sunday, February 03, 2008

The February issue of Australian Book Review announces the winners of the Calibre Essay Prize for 2008, and one of them is me. My essay “A Storm & a Teacup” shares this year’s prize with Rachel Robertson’s “Reaching One Thousand.” The prize, worth $10,000, is one of the most generous in the country for prose, and it is certainly the biggest prize the land for a short piece of nonfiction.

According to the judges—Kerryn Goldsworthy, Paul Hetherington and Peter Rose—the prize received one hundred and twenty seven entries this year. They longlisted eighteen “accross a range of essayistic genres, from the personal, the speculative and the journalistic to the political and the historical… Once the shortlist of six entries been established, two essays soon emerged as clear favourites. In the end, the judges agreed that each was a fitting winner of the Calibre Prize and that it would be unfair to separate them for the sake of singularity.”

Rachel Robertson’s essay is a sustained, intelligent and loving study of autism and its consequences for a child and his parents—Rachel and her partner and their child.

Mine concerns the weather and a book and how one leads a good life in warming world. The weather in question was the heavy rain that flooded Newcastle and other parts (including mine) of southeast Australia in June 2007; the book is a modern Zen classic, Okakura Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea. Dying to oneself—transcending, that is, one’s own biography as one, mostly too narrowly, construes it—and tuning one’s mind and life to the frequency of the natural order as it manifests where one lives: this is the idea at the centre of that small and quiet book. Reconciliation with the way things are and the way the world (including but stretching way beyond the social realm) runs where you are. And what I got to wondering (on paper) as rain fell and fell carried some people and some tankers and some cattle to kingdom come—what I contemplated in weather that broke a long drought but portended also the more violent meteorology of which, and in which, our futures will be made—was how one reconciles oneself with this intemperate new age natural order. What are one’s options and obligations—to family and place and country and calling—in the era of global warming?

But to tell you what an essay is about is not to tell you much about it. So get ABR and decide for yourself. Both essays are published in the February issue (2008).

I’ve been trying to write and trying to teach essays—this literature of fact—for a ten years or more, and so it’s a delight and an honour to have won the nation’s premier essay prize in its second year, at my second attempt. Indeed, the Calibre is not just one of Australia’s foremost literary prizes, and by far its leading essay prize; it is an essay prize of international standing.

I thank ABR and the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) for offering and supporting the prize; and I thank the judges for thinking so well of mine (and Rachel’s) this year.