Diplomatic memoir becomes first non-fiction manuscript to win Hungerford

Jay Martin is the winner of the 2016 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award. The Fremantle resident won the award for her manuscript Learning Polish, a work of creative non-fiction about living as a diplomat’s wife in Poland.

Martin said the book starts with the nagging suspicion that there ‘just might be more’ to life than her comfortable existence in Canberra, and ends three years later in a Polish forest with the realisation that doing interesting things not only doesn’t make you happy, it doesn’t even make you interesting.

‘I wrote Learning Polish because I wanted the world to have the chance to know the amazing, crazy, infuriating country that I came to love that is Poland – where three things are certain: death, taxes, and that shop assistants won’t have change. That, and the gossip I collected on what really goes on in the inner circles of diplomatic life, was simply too good to waste,’ said Martin.

Martin said Learning Polish combined her travel adventures with tales of the many diplomatic wife duties she didn’t remember signing up for – duties that included traipsing through a snow-bound Poznan in search of Minister Penny Wong’s preferred blend of coffee, lunching with the president and prime minister of Poland and sorting through three decades of embassy filing.

‘When you find yourself in a country whose national anthem starts, “we’re not dead yet”, you can’t help but learn something about resilience. And until that works, there’s always vodka,’ said Martin.

‘At its heart, Learning Polish is a story about what it meant for me to find myself, an independent, professional woman, not only supported but defined by my husband’s job. I hope this will resonate with – and help – any woman who’s ever parked her career and found herself floundering, as well as those who’ve wondered, “what if?”’ said Martin.

Fremantle Press fiction publisher Georgia Richter said this was the first time a work of non-fiction had won the award since its inception in 1990.

‘The compelling thing about narrative non-fiction is that nobody can change the ending. And ultimately it’s what the writer does with a real-life story that matters. Learning Polish takes us on a wild ride from boggy fields to glamorous diplomat cocktail parties, and deep into rocky emotional terrain as a couple find their marriage falling apart,’ said Richter.

The winner was announced by Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt at Fremantle Arts Centre on Wednesday 2 November as part of the Fremantle Press 40 Year Anniversary celebrations. Mayor Pettitt praised the shortlisted contenders for their hard work, talent and determination.

‘The fact that all five writers shortlisted for the last Hungerford Award have secured publishing contracts shows how important this award is to fostering new talent,’ Mayor Pettitt said.

The shortlisted contenders for this year’s award were Catherine Gillard for The Incidental Nazi, Jodie Tesoriero for Barcarola, Tineke Van der Eecken for Traverse and David Thomas Henry Wright for Little Emperor Syndrome.

The Hungerford is given biennially to a full-length manuscript of fiction or creative non-fiction, by a Western Australian author previously unpublished in book form. It is sponsored by the City of Fremantle, Fremantle Press, Fremantle Library and The West Australian. The award is judged anonymously and this year’s judges were Delys Bird, Ron Blaber, Richard Rossiter and Fremantle Press publisher Georgia Richter. The winner receives $12,000 from the City of Fremantle plus a publishing contract with Fremantle Press. Learning Polish will be published in 2018.

Read an extract

MEDIA ENQUIRIES: Claire Miller, Marketing and Communications Manager, Fremantle Press, 0419 837 841, cmiller@fremantlepress.com.au


About the winner

Jay Martin is a Fremantle-based writer, social researcher, and ukulele player – one of which pays the bills. At 16, she opted for hitchhiking to north Queensland and backpacking around South-East Asia over finishing high school in Melbourne – a decision she was told would ruin her life that she has never regretted for a second. She lived in the UK, India, Vietnam and Japan before coming to Perth for ‘six months, maybe twelve’ – some 25 years ago. She spent a decade away in Canberra as a government social policy adviser. Someone in the Department of Foreign Affairs staffing section pulled ‘Warsaw’ out of their hat, and Jay was off with her newly minted diplomat husband to Poland – where the best and the worst days of her life followed over the next three years. While there, she worked as a freelance writer for Australian and European publications, volunteered for the Warsaw Uprising Museum, and came to understand snow and vodka – although never pickled herring. While initially having to be convinced to make the move from north of the river, she is now firmly ensconced in Fremantle with her husband and a Polish cat called Very.

Judges’ report

Learning Polish is a memoir about three years spent in Poland. The narrator is Janet, wife of the Australian diplomat Simon. Learning Polish is narrated with humour and insight, and explores how exhausting and bewildering it can be to try to overcome often incomprehensible cultural difference. Across three years, the burden of diplomatic duties and expectations corrodes the relationship between Janet and Simon, as each of them experiences two very different kinds of life in Poland. The question of what makes a marriage and whether it is better to save a partnership or save oneself drives the narrative tension. The depiction of the shortcomings and hidden treasures of the country in which Janet finds herself make for entertaining travel writing. Written with both warmth and unflinching honesty, Learning Polish is a window into the curses and blessings of the diplomatic life.

About T.A.G. Hungerford (1915–2011)

T.A.G. Hungerford was widely admired as a quintessential Western Australian writer and identity. His writing did much to define our sense of self and place in a rapidly changing world. His first collection of short stories was published in 1976 by Fremantle Press. Stories From Suburban Road, A Knockabout with a Slouch Hat and Red Rover All Over have all been major publishing successes. In 1987 T.A.G. Hungerford was made a member of the Order of Australia. In 2002 he was the recipient of the Patrick White Award and in 2004 he was declared a Western Australian State Living Treasure. He was proud to have the unique WA award for debut writers, the T.A.G. Hungerford Award, named for him. He was always a great supporter of new and emerging writers.

Past winners

1990 Brenda Walker, Crush

1991 Gail Jones, The House of Breathing

1993 Simone Lazaroo, The World Waiting to be Made

1995 Bruce Russell, Jacob’s Air

2000 Christopher Murray, A Whispering Fish

2002 Nathan Hobby, The Fur

2004 Donna Mazza, The Albanian

2006 Alice Nelson, The Last Sky

2008 Natasha Lester, What is Left Over, After

2010 Jacqueline Wright, Red Dirt Talking

2012 Robert Edeson, The Weaver Fish

2014 Madelaine Dickie, Troppo

Books discussed
Vodka and Apple Juice: Travels of an Undiplomatic Wife in Poland

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