The Queensland Literary Awards paid homage to Blak literature with an array of First Nations women taking home awards.

Announced on Thursday at the Queensland State Library, renowned Badtjala artist Dr Fiona Foley was awarded the 2021 Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance for her book Biting the Clouds: A Badtjala perspective on the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897.

Dr Fiona Foley’s Biting the Clouds: A Badtjala perspective on the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897. Published by University of Queensland Press. Photo Supplied.

Dr Foley took home the $25,000 prize for the work which the judges described as an “original and creative exploration … of the devastation wrought upon Queensland’s Badtjala people at the end of the 19th century”.

“The little-known story of how Badtjala workers were paid in opium is inventively told in dialogue between her art and text, reclaiming the story for her own people and for the wider Australian community.”

Dr Foley also received the State Library inaugural 2020 Monica Clare Research Fellow.

Yuwaalaraay storyteller Nardi Simpson took home the University of Queensland Fiction Book Award for her work Song of the Crocodile.

Nardi Simpson’s Song of the Crocodile. Published by Hachette Australia. Photo Supplied

Simpson’s debut novel, Song of the Crocodile was long-listed for the Miles Franklin, the Stella Prize and the Australian Book of the Year for Literary Fiction Book of the Year. The novel was also the product of Simpson’s 2018 black&write! Fellowship with the State Library.

Gunai poet, painter and playwright Kirli Saunders was awarded the Children’s Book Award for Bindi.

Bindi, illustrated by Dub Leffler, was the 2021 Australian Book Industry Award (ABIA) Small Publishers’ Children’s Book of the Year and was shortlisted for the 2021 Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards for Young Readers, and the Australian Book Design Awards Best Designed Children’s Fiction Book, among others.

The book is the product of the 2019 Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards Daisy Utemorrah Award.

Kirli Saunders’ Bindi. Published by Magabala Books. Photo Supplied.

Saunders, speaking on Bindi, said the work was “really important” to her as it speaks to caring for Country whilst exploring the realities of climate change.

“It’s a book that I’m really proud of that I created with community and for community. I’m stoked that it is being celebrated,” she said.

With much of the country stuck in lockdowns, Saunders hopes that Bindi can offer a connection to Country for young ones in the hard times.

“I do hope that this work got people outside in a time where we can’t be there,” she said

“That’s the power of a good book, to transport and to offer a softening when things are hard. And things are hard now for our communities.”

Currently off Country herself, Saunders has been on Yawuru Lands constructing a sequel.

“There was such a beautiful flow with Bindi when I created this work and it was such a visceral response to what I was witnessing within the environment,” she said.

“I’m coming home next week and am very excited to be on Country, to be home and walking the tracks in that book.  

“I’m excited to continue shaping a story that thinks about caring for Country, and climate but think about water this time – think about how we care for our waterways.”

Sitting alongside Dr Foley and Simpson, Saunders’ acknowledged the role of said women in her own journey.

“I am a huge fan of both of theirs, and all of the women particularly in the Blak literary world. I get to be who I am because of who they are,” she said.

“There’s this rich path that we’re creating for young women coming through, I’m so grateful to learn from them so many others that have paved the path for us.

“There is so much power in Blak publishing, and so much power in us telling, holding and sharing our stories.”

Saunders thanked her community, her publisher Magabala Books, and the Queensland Literary Awards.

Barkindji woman Allanah Hunt took out the Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award alongside Ellen Wengert.

“These awards highlight the exceptional work from home grown talent being produced and my congratulations goes out to all of tonight’s winners,” said Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.

“The transportive power of a beautifully written book cannot be underestimated in times of uncertainty … We hope this year’s finalists and winners inspire readers to expand their view of the world through wonderful storytelling,” said State Librarian and CEO Vicki McDonald AM.

The awards, managed by the State Library of Queensland in collaboration with partners, shared over $230,000 of prize money across 11 categories.

By Rachael Knowles