Birch, whose novel is set in the 1960s and focuses on the government’s forced removal of Indigenous children, said he felt honoured to be on the shortlist.
Booksellers and publishers have reported a surge in demand for books by Indigenous Australians, including Birch’s and Winch’s shortlisted novels, amid the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the globe.
“I think it is vital that people are reading more Indigenous writers. It can’t be a bad thing when you consider that Aboriginal writers of previous generations had such a struggle and were often not given recognition,” Birch said. “I hope that because people are reading more of our work now they visit the back catalogue of writers who were neglected and really set the ground for us.”
Birch will in two weeks finish a research fellowship at Victoria University and for the first time will be able to write full-time. His next novel will tell the story of a young teenage boy who is homeless in Melbourne.
Winch, a Wiradjuri writer who lives in Paris, said she cried at last year’s ceremony when writer Melissa Lucashenko became the third Indigenous Australian writer to win the Miles Franklin Award.
“It’s validating because it is our little Booker. It’s always been an exciting list to read and is beginning to reflect the true Australian narrative following a year when Mohammed Ahmad was the first Arab Australian writer listed,” Winch, who won three prizes at the recent NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, said.
Despite increased interest in her book, Winch said she thought The Yield, which is about Indigenous language and storytelling, could be speaking to an “echo chamber” and that action would always speak louder than words.
“Literature has its voice in enlightenment, but it isn’t going to save anyone from the fire outside,” she said. “Books won’t change racism, injustice, over-policing and ongoing police brutality, nor will it prop a cell door open.”
The judges are the State Library of NSW’s Mitchell Librarian Richard Neville, journalist Murray Waldren, academic Dr Melinda Harvey, bookseller Lindy Jones and author and critic Dr Bernadette Brennan.
“The books on this year’s shortlist, diverse in form and tone, all explore the effects of trauma. From familial stories of neglect and abuse to the national story of racial and cultural dispossession, these novels demonstrate powerfully how past trauma continues to inform the present,” Mr Neville said.
The winner will be announced on July 16.
Melanie Kembrey is Spectrum Deputy Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald.