December 10, 2014
Richard Flanagan donates book prize winnings to charity
by Nick Davies
In October, Australian author Richard Flanagan was named the winner of the Man Booker Prize for fiction—recently expanded to include any novel written in English, beyond the former restriction that it be published in the UK. Earlier this week, he also won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction in Australia, for the same novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, an honor he shares with joint winner Steven Carroll (for A World of Other People).
In his speech accepting the Prime Minister’s award (transcribed by The Guardian), Flanagan announced that he would be donating the AUD$40,000 prize to charity, to wit, the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which provides books and literacy programs to Australia’s indigenous peoples.
He points out that the purpose of the prize money with prestigious literary awards like the Prime Minister’s and the Booker is that struggling writers, who on average earn less than $11,000 in Australia, can establish some security and continue to work as writers. Having won the Booker—and the attendant £50,000—Flanagan calls himself “unexpectedly lucky” and not in need of a second windfall to keep his career afloat.
In his speech, he explains that the idea for The Narrow Road… came from his family’s experiences of hardship, and that he’d rather use his winnings to help others:
The origins of this novel lie in my late father’s experience as a Japanese prisoner of war. The lesson that my father took from the prisoner of war camps and imparted to me was that the measure of any civilised society was its willingness to look after its weakest. In the camps the officers were levied, their money used to buy food and medicines for the sick.
Money is like shit, my father used to say. Pile it up and it stinks. Spread it around and you can grow things.
My book only exists because in that hellish place long ago the strong helped the weak. These were concrete acts that became for me, growing up, symbols of what a good society might be. Of what our Australia is.
Flanagan attributes his success, in part, to “the power of literacy to change lives,” with the personal example of his own grandparents being illiterate, and the huge impact that “two generations of free state education and literacy” has had on his career. In a statement about Flanagan’s donation on the ILF’s website, executive director Karen Williams says that “the Foundation was deeply honoured to receive such a generous donation,” and that it “will go to ensure literacy programs in remote communities across Australia in 2015.”
It’s an unequivocally generous gesture by Flanagan, but one certainly hopes that he made his acceptance speech after his co-winner Carroll, sparing him the embarrassment of having to follow Flanagan and awkwardly not make any large-scale charitable donations.
Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.