Q&A: Melanie Cheng and the Deborah Cass Prize

Submissions for the Deborah Cass Prize are due in three weeks! We had a brief chat to Melanie Cheng, runner-up for the inaugural Deborah Cass Prize, and current member of the organising committee, about its importance, how it’s helped her, and how it can help other writers from migrant backgrounds.

Give us a little bit of background on the prize, who it’s for, and why it’s so important.

The prize was established in 2015 in memory of the late Deborah Cass. Deborah was the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants and a prize-winning professor of International Law. After receiving a diagnosis of cancer, Deborah left her academic career to focus on creative writing. She had a number of short fiction pieces published, but was unable to realise her dream of completing a novel.

The prize is run in partnership with Writers Victoria, and awards $3000 to a writer from a migrant background whose work reflects at least in part on the migrant experience. It provides a year-long mentorship from an established writer and introduction to a mainstream publisher. The winning excerpt will also be considered for publication in Mascara Literary Review.

The award aims to address the under-representation of migrant voices in the Australian publishing scene. In recent years we have seen the emergence of important and exceptional writers like Christos Tsiolkas, Alice Pung, Maxine Beneba Clarke and Benjamin Law. This has been a wonderful development and we are a better society for it. Unfortunately, the media demand these prominent and published few be the spokespeople for a broad and heterogeneous group, which is an impossible task. What we really need is a multiplicity of perspectives and stories. The Deborah Cass Prize is one small step along the path to achieving this goal.

You were shortlisted for the prize in 2015. What impact did that have on your work?

As any emerging writer knows, being shortlisted for a prize is a great source of validation. It’s that little nudge to keep going on what can be an arduous and lonely journey. The Deborah Cass Prize gave me this and more. The team behind the Deborah Cass Prize is a group of wonderful and enthusiastic people and the prize-giving ceremony was a particularly special event. As a result of my shortlisting I got to hear Christos Tsiolkas read an excerpt from my story on the radio and I got to meet and chat with Alice Pung. I have become friends with fellow shortlistees and the inaugural winner, Moreno Giovannoni, whose book will be published next year. Having now published my own book and having this year joined the prize committee, I feel that life has come full circle. I take great pride in contributing in some small way to the discovery of the next Australian migrant writer.

I know that in the past, this prize has been for Victorian writers only, but I’m really glad it’s gone national this year. What sort of impact do you think this will have?

It always seemed contradictory to be championing diverse Australian talent while limiting entries to residents of Victoria. The committee is committed to extending our reach to all migrant communities, especially the newer migrant communities who may not yet be members of writer organisations and libraries. This is a work in progress, but the first step is to open it up—it just makes sense to go national.

How important is it for people who are of non-migrant backgrounds to support the prize?

The recent census tells us that almost 50% of Australians are first or second generation Australians. This is who we are. But it is not reflected on our bookshelves. It will be to the benefit of us all if we read outside our lived experience. It will enrich our lives. It will help us understand our neighbours. It will make us better and more empathetic people.

What advice do you have for those who might be considering submitting their work? (Especially for those who might be a little nervous about submitting?)

Forget nerves. Ask yourself, what have you got to lose? Deborah’s life was tragically cut short before she fulfilled her dream of publishing a novel. Time is precious, don’t take it for granted. Get to it. The deadline is the 16th October.


More information about the prize can be found here. Details on how to donate to the prize are located here.

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