This graphic novel won NSW’s biggest book prize – now’s the time to read it

A sleeper graphic novel from a tiny Melbourne publisher detailing the psychological toll of Australia’s system of mandatory and indefinite detention has won book of the year in NSW’s richest and most prestigious literary prize.

Safdar Ahmed’s Still Alive: Notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System also took out the Multicultural NSW Award ($20,000) at this year’s NSW Premier’s Literary Awards announced at the State Library of NSW Monday night.

Other major winners included Tony Birch, who was awarded the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction ($40,000) for his short story collection Dark as Last Night.

Ahmed’s graphic novel’s modest run has sold out twice with Twelve Panels Press hitting the button on its third reprint for only the second book it has ever published.

Ahmed said he hoped his novel would contribute to a change in public attitudes to offshore and onshore detention. It’s a piece of bizarre and macabre theatre, he said.

Still Life is dedicated to Ahmed’s friend , who in 2013 died of a heart attack at age 26 while detained in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre.

The Sydney-based artist met Jafari while visiting the detention centre with the Refugee Art Project.

He was under terrible stress while in detention and being detained indefinitely, and he had no idea when he was going to be released and was treated very much like a criminal, Ahmed said.

In general people in indefinite detention are psychologically damaged. Despite their experience fleeing their country, or a third country, they often come to Australia with a sense of hope and optimism and indefinite detention destroys that hope and depression sets in after a few months when they realise they are all locked up with no justification. They have committed no crime coming to Australia in search of protection.

Shaun Grant’s screenplay for Nitram, , won the Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting ($30,000). People’s choice was The Shut Ins by Katherine Brabon.

Senior judge Jane McCredie said the quality and inventiveness of Australian writing had never been more impressive.

Our judges grappled with 750 written works presenting a rich array of genres and styles which explore everything from the major themes of our times to the most intimate details of what it is to be human.

Ahmed’s graphic novel had stood out as an example of brilliant storytelling created with and through community, a labour of generosity, and love, the judges said.

It is an unflinching critique of policy and discourse that demonstrates the power of art.

Still Alive took up to six years to write after Ahmed’s publishers offered him a contract to turn his 2015 Walkley Award-winning webcomic into a long-form graphic novel.

They were very patient with me, the book took five or six years, Ahmed said. For years I was saying, ‘Just give me another year’, I felt guilty that I had this contract, and they were waiting, so hopefully this will repay their patience.

Co-publisher Erica Wagner said the novel had been sold into the US and France.

Ahmed has done an incredible job bringing together these real stories lucidly and sensitively, Wagner said. When you read it, you have to ask, ‘As a country, is this what we want done? ’.

The winners of the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards are:

Book of the year ($10,000)
Still Alive: Notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System by Safdar Ahmed

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction ($40,000)
Dark as Last Night by Tony Birch

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing ($5000)
Hold Your Fire by Chloe Wilson

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction ($40,000)
The Winter Road: A Story of Legacy, Land and a Killing at Croppa Creek by Kate Holden

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry ($30,000)
Accelerations & Inertias by Dan Disney

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature ($30,000)
My Brother Ben by Peter Carnavas

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature ($30,000)
The Gaps by Leanne Hall

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting ($30,000)
Orange Thrower by Kirsty Marillier

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting ($30,000)
Nitram by Shaun Grant

Multicultural NSW Award ($20,000)
Still Alive: Notes From Australia’s Immigration Detention System by Safdar Ahmed

Indigenous Writers’ Prize – biennial award ($30,000)
Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray: River of Dreams by Anita Heiss

People’s Choice Award
The Shut Ins by Katherine Brabon

The Booklist is a weekly newsletter for book lovers from books editor Jason Steger. .

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