Vogel's Literary Award for PhD candidate Kate Brabon

Earlier this week, Kate Brabon was announced as the winner of the 2016 Australian/Vogel's Literary Award. Her book, The Memory Artist, is published by Allen and Unwin. We chatted with Kate about how she came to write this award-winning novel and what this means for her as a writer and an aspiring academic.

Kate-BrabonKate Brabon seems genuinely delighted and surprised to have her first literary work recognised by such a prestigious prize. “I’ve always felt very strongly about the story and I’m moved and grateful that the judges saw something in my manuscript and had faith in it. It’s really life-changing,” Kate said. “Yesterday I saw the book in a shop in Sydney for the first time, and it was an incredible moment.”

Kate completed her Masters in History at Oxford, which involved writing an academic dissertation as part of her course. Her work centred on the history of Russian dissidents and what their life was like under Stalinist rule. So why does someone with a history of academic writing feel drawn to a more creative process?

“I’m still asking that question of myself, and think perhaps part of the answer is unanswerable,” Kate told us.

Despite the move across disciplines, historical trauma continued to be an important theme for Kate to explore in her writing, both in the creative component of her PhD and the exegetical component (an exegesis is an academic work that accompanies a creative work in an academic program).

“I wanted a way to represent something that has not happened to me but that affects me in its horror. For my [Masters] dissertation I read oral interviews with people who lived under Stalin’s rule, and I read a lot about the dissidents in the 1960s to early 1990s who fought so hard for truth, information, memory,” Kate explained.

'The Memory Artist' by Kate Brabo

‘The Memory Artist' by Kate Brabon, published by Allen and Unwin

The Memory Artist takes readers on a journey with its central character, Pasha Ivanov, across the sites of political and artistic struggle in recent Russian history. Pasha’s journey is triggered by the death of his mother, and Gorbachev’s promises of a new era of freedom. The themes of historical trauma reveal themselves through the character, and allowed Kate to explore her Masters research through Pasha’s experiences.

“The fiction I’ve written has all of my research behind it – for both the Masters and now the PhD at Monash – I’m still writing that knowledge, just in a different way.”

Kate explained that moving from academic to creative writing relied on exploring the work of other writers who work on similar themes, including Teju Cole, Varlam Shalamov, WG Sebald and Patrick Modiano. The result is a love for inter-disciplinary, genre-hopping literature that interrogates how we deal with historical trauma.

“The books I have read as part of my studies have been my greatest teachers,” she said. “I’ve really enjoyed the process of closely reading works I loved… and learning something of their craft as I did this. They are writers who feel uncertain about words – they are constantly interrogating the notion that we can ever really understand historical trauma, and in their (incredible) attempts at doing so, they are writing works that defy or ignore genre distinctions and are so unique and flexible in their form.”

For Kate, completing her Masters, timed well with the publication of her first short story, meant that she looked for opportunities to combine research with a love of literature.

“I approached Dr Ali Alizadeh, drawn to his work as a poet and novelist interested in similar themes and ideas to me, and he generously agreed to supervise me.” And the writing seemed to come quickly too: “I flew home to Melbourne in August 2013, officially enrolled in September, and began The Memory Artist that month.”

The Memory Artist fits into a practice-based research PhD program, which asks students to produce creative work and an academic thesis side by side.

Supervisor Ali Alizadeh explained that teaching creative writing in a research university provides important training to those who take on the program, providing a space for talented writers to work on their skills in an environment that approached creative writing with the same rigour that scientists might approach their research.

“We see creative writing as a form of research. Every work of literature is an investigation of the world. You could say that Kate’s novel is about memory, or about Russian History,” Ali said, which informs both the philosophy of teaching and supervision that he and Creative Writing colleagues at Monash take on, as well as the understanding of creative writing as research.

Writing as part of a PhD program also gives Kate something she has learned is integral to the writing process: “I’ve learnt that writing needs a lot time and by that I mean in fairly long, uninterrupted stretches. After two hours with my writing, my mind is in a very different situation than it is when I can only glance at the work for few minutes. That kind of slow, measured thinking time is crucial. That’s why the PhD is so valuable for me – I am given that time.”

Being at a university with a creative writing program comes with other perks too, including that of a built-in creative community. “I have a wonderful group of fellow PhD students who are now close friends,” Kate explained. “Writers are often happy to spend large amounts of time by themselves at their desks, but having fellow writers to meet up with regularly… gives you support.”

Monash’s links with the creative writing community in Melbourne also benefited Kate, who did her first public reading at the Emerging Writers’ Festival last year (Monash has a partnership with EWF) at an event organised by Nicholas Brasch at Swinburne which brought together creative writing students across Melbourne. “It was a nice event and a chance to read work to an audience.”

“I’m extremely proud of Kate,” Ali Alizadeh said of his student. “What’s really great about The Memory Artist is that Kate has written a novel that is an important contribution to Australian literature, it’s worldly and international.”

“This is a wonderful endorsement not just of Kate's outstanding work but also of our Creative Writing program and her supervisors, Ali Alizadeh and Marko Pavlyshyn,” said Rae Frances, Dean of the Faculty of Arts.

And what’s next?

“Another book, I hope. I’ve started the next work, another novel, and am enjoying the slow reading and thinking stage again. I’m working on my exegesis now and hope to finish that in the next few months, after which my PhD will be finished. I’m interested in an academic position as a creative writer – I think novelists have a lot to offer at universities: they can foster a space for new writers to create their work, they bring an interdisciplinary mind to the classroom and I think that innovation is important and timely. Plus their research brings novels and literature into the world, which is of such value in itself.”

Read an extract from The Memory Artist

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