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Author Alexis Wright wins Stella Prize for Praiseworthy

Liz Hobday -

It wouldn't do Australians any harm to give their brains a workout by reading big books, author Alexis Wright says.

"People are happy to go to the gym and have a good physical workout, it won't do any harm to have a good workout of your mind as well," she told AAP.

At more than 700 pages, Wright's latest novel Praiseworthy is a big book in more than one sense with the New York Times describing it as "the most ambitious and accomplished Australian novel of this century".

It's now won the $60,000 Stella Prize for Australian women's writing, beating 227 other entries and making Wright the first author to win the award twice.

"Readers will be buoyed by Praiseworthy's aesthetic and technical quality, and winded by the tempestuous pace of Wright's political satire," said the judging panel, which was unanimous in awarding the prize to Wright.

Her sprawling tale is about the inhabitants of a small town that has been enveloped in a cloud of haze - both a sign from Aboriginal ancestors and a manifestation of ecological catastrophe.

The characters' responses to the situation are rich in allegory and vary from comical to tragic: one hatches a plan to replace Qantas with a national carrier of pack animals - Australia's five million feral donkeys.

Another dreams of being white and powerful, and a third, tellingly named Aboriginal Sovereignty, becomes suicidal.

Praiseworthy is set around the time of the Howard government's 2007 intervention, in which army troops were deployed to communities in the Northern Territory, and it was published in the months before the 2023 Voice to Parliament referendum was voted down.

Wright, from the Waanyi people of the south of the Gulf of Carpentaria, "wasn't all that disappointed" by the result and even thought the 'no' vote could have been higher.

"We went for the most minimalist thing and even that was not accepted by the great majority of the country," she said.

Wright long ago pledged to challenge herself in whatever she wrote, and her ambition has been building for years, in three previous novels including the Miles-Franklin winning Carpentaria, and works of non-fiction such as her previous Stella winner, Tracker.

She began writing the novel about a decade ago, and penned much of it while working as the Boisbouvier Chair in Australian Literature at the University of Melbourne.

It required many starts and restarts, as Wright attempted to evoke the slow pulse of central and northern Australia, and her publisher Giramondo waited for the manuscript.

Her intention was no less than to capture the scale of the era and its immense difficulties, challenging readers' inattention and attempting to supplant it with deep understanding.

"We need to think about what's happening in this world and not to just Aboriginal people, but what's happening in terms of climate change and other big issues," Wright said.

"As the main character in the book, Widespread asks, what's plan A or plan B? Is there any plan at all?"

Liz Hobday - AAP

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