Last Saturday, Tim Winton won the non-fiction category of the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature, which was accompanied by $15,000 prize money. Before Winton had even seen the money, he declared he would donate it to the Protect Ningaloo campaign.
This isn’t the first time Winton has done so: in 2001, he donated the $25,000 prize money from the WA Premier’s Prize for his novel Dirt Music to the campaign, which aims to protect the coral reef from inappropriate development and create a sustainable future for what is now a World Heritage listed site.
Winton was awarded the Literature Non-Fiction prize for his collection of essays The Boy Behind the Curtain, a remarkable blend of personal essay and memoir that allows readers into the personal life of one of Australia’s most reclusive writers. One essay in particular, ‘The Battle For Ningaloo Reef,’ promotes an optimistic view of the reef’s future, despite the long road activists have travelled to fight for its preservation.
Ningaloo reef is located on the north western region of Western Australia and takes its name from the Aboriginal Wajarri language, meaning ‘deepwater’ or ‘high land jutting into the sea.’ It was only classified as a World Heritage site in 2011. Before that, in the early 2000s, a massive conservation controversy was inflamed by plans to construct a resort near a known breeding ground for loggerhead turtles.
In accepting the award, Winton said: ‘It’s nearly 20 years since we went into battle for one of the world’s last great wild places, but as we know the price of victory is eternal vigilance and I’m sorry to say that Ningaloo and its breeding ground and nursery, Exmouth Gulf, face new threats, this time from the fossil fuel industry. Locals, scientists and community groups are resisting a push for industrialisation in the area and I’d like to support them. So I’m grateful for the affirmation my little book has received, and I thank the organisers and judges of the award. I’m glad to be able to put this money to good use, to repay a little of the inspiration I’ve had from this very special part of the world, by donating this prize money to Protect Ningaloo.’
In many ways, Tim Winton is Australia’s reluctant literary hero. By following his career, including noted absences from author panels during writing festivals, it is obvious that he dislikes attention and prefers instead to live and write in solitude, close to nature. Not that he is alone in funnelling his literary achievements into activism. Indeed, he is tapping into a longer tradition of Australian writers, a notoriously underpaid and under-funded minority, who have acted philanthropically. After winning the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2014 for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan famously donated the entire $40,000 prize money to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. On the same night, Bob Graham, who won the Children’s Fiction Award for Silver Buttons, said he was giving $10,000 to the asylum seeker resource centre in Melbourne.
In her 2016 Stella Prize acceptance speech for The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Woods said: ‘As you also know, some recent winners of various literary prizes have also shown extraordinary individual generosity in publicly donating portions of their prize money to crucially important social causes – a move I admire and absolutely respect. But tonight I will not be following in those footsteps. I’m going to keep this prize money. Not just because it will afford me the only thing every writer really wants, time and mental space to work, but because I want to stake a claim for literature as an essential social benefit, in and of itself. I would like all writers – especially those here tonight and most especially women, who so often put their need to make art behind the needs of others – to remember what I rediscovered on that bleak day I mentioned earlier: that to create art is itself an act of enlargement, of enrichment and affirmation.’
Tim Winton’s latest book The Shepherd’s Hut is due for release on 12 March.