Journalist Jess Hill has won the $50,000 Stella Prize for writing by Australian women for See What You Made Me Do (Black Inc), her study of domestic abuse in Australia.
Louise Swinn, chair of the Stella Prize judging panel, said Hill’s book “meticulously dismantle[s] all of the lazy old lies we associate with domestic abuse” by means of “forensic investigation and highlighting personal stories”.
It is the first journalistic work to win in the prize’s eight-year history, but the third non-fiction winner in a row.
Previous Stella Prize winners
- Vicki Laveau-Harvie for The Erratics (2019)
- Alexis Wright for Tracker (2018)
- Heather Rose for The Museum of Modern Love (2017)
- Charlotte Wood for The Natural Way of Things (2016)
- Emily Bitto for The Strays (2015)
- Clare Wright for The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (2014)
- Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds (2013)
Hill’s book won against a shortlist of works including The Weekend, by previous Stella Prize winner Charlotte Wood (The Natural Way of Things) and award-season favourites The Yield by Tara June Winch (shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards) and There Was Still Love by Favel Parrett (winner of the 2020 Indie Book Awards for Book of the Year and Fiction).
Read our Stella Prize shortlist reading guide
The prize was awarded on Tuesday night at a digital-only ceremony hosted by the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas, which was live-streamed because of the COVID-19 shutdown measures.
Hill, a journalist and freelance writer, told the ABC the $50,000 prize money was both overwhelming and welcome.
Like many others in the arts, she has experienced an ‘overnight’ loss of income as shutdown measures affected her patchwork of teaching, speaking gigs and other opportunities.
Her win is timely for another reason: Hill argues in her book that domestic abuse must be addressed as a public health issue.
“It’s not something politicians can do on their own — it requires collaboration and community involvement,” she said.
“It’s about recognising an urgent need and acting on it, even when there is a certain mystery and lack of knowledge to how it might play out.”
She compared this directly to the COVID-19 health crisis: “If we don’t do anything, we will have a societal breakdown — that’s the argument [for the current coronavirus responses]. But we do have a societal breakdown with domestic abuse — it’s like this invisible point from which destruction echoes out, and we don’t understand just how far it echoes out.”
Family and domestic violence support services:
Hill’s book leads up to policy arguments, exploring models where domestic abuse is dealt with well and providing analysis of shortcomings in the current budgets, systems and even philosophies in place for dealing with abuse.
It does so by building up story after story of individual lives and particular moments, both of those who were abused and of the perpetrators.
These stories — of “terror, horror, difficulty and courage and resilience, the impulse to protect and to survive”, as Hill describes them — are what give the books its authority.
But Hill makes sure these stories aren’t simply shocking: they “illustrate everyday horrors”, she argues, but they also work to shake the reader — as they shook her — out of old certainties.
Presumptions are tested again and again; not just “But why doesn’t she just leave?” but also, “Oh, it’s just about power and control”.
Collecting, absorbing and reworking these stories was not, Hill admitted, an easy thing to do.
She spent four years working on the book, and years before that specialising in domestic abuse cases (for the ABC among others), winning two Walkley Awards for her work.
She admitted to having an angry phase at one point in her writing, where she felt readers had to “eat their vegies” and confront every worthwhile and difficult story and statistic she could find.
And then she realised that compassion for the stories, for the real people involved, for the process and for the readers themselves, would allow more visibility, more nuance, and more hope for possible solutions.
In her acceptance speech, Hill said Indigenous communities had much wisdom to offer when it came to finding these solutions.
“When I was researching this book, time and again the most holistic and effective responses to domestic abuse came from Indigenous individuals and communities,” Hill said.
“The traditional wisdom we have in this country is key to fixing so much of what is wrong with our failing systems.”
See What You Made Me Do is soon to be published in the USA and UK — with significant revisions for each country — and Hill is working on adapting the book into a three-part series for SBS.
See What You Made Me Do is out now through Black Inc.