2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize Longlist: Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas

HNSA, in partnerships with ARA Group, recently announced the eight talented authors, and their outstanding novels, selected in the 2020 longlist for the inaugural ARA Historical Novel Prize. Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas was one of the novels featured in the longlist. In the video below (available via the HNSA Youtube channel), we chat with Christos about what historical fiction means to him and he reads a powerful excerpt from his novel. Subscribe to hear more book readings from the longlist authors in the coming weeks.

Visceral and immersive, Damascus delivers a flesh and blood Paul of Tarsus, placing him within his historical period, a time of slavery and violence when Christianity was a minor sect in a pagan world. ~ Linda Funnell

Why do you think historical fiction is important?

“I am someone who loves the academic discipline of history, and I also love reading the work of historians. What good historic fiction can do is offer a reader an understanding of the emotional life of people in the past. The best historical fiction doesn’t pretend that the past is a mirror of our present day: we should find ourselves astonished and perplexed by an age that isn’t ours. But within this astonishment we might also be able to glean some of the universals of human experience; and also what we owe to the past: what we may need to relinquish and what we may need to still honour.”

“Historical fiction also offers the opportunity to tell the stories of people and classes that have been silenced in official histories. In my novel, Damascus, which is about the origin of the Christian faith, very early on in my research it became clear that women were fundamental to these beginnings, as were the contributions of slaves. But women and slaves have for a long time been excised from the official history of the Christian Churches. By the twin guides of imagination and research, a writer can try and give a voice to those who have been traditionally silenced.”

What does being longlisted mean to you? 

“Being longlisted for this prize is a great honour. I mean that with the utmost sincerity. As someone who does cherish and respect the work of historians it is a gift that people whose vocation and discipline is history have acknowledged my work. I think this is a great compliment for any writer.”

Why did you enter the inaugural ARA Historical Novel Prize?

“When my publishers contacted me about entering the ARA Historical Novel Prize I immediately said yes. I was nervous – anxiety and self-doubt are a writer’s constant companions – but I was curious of the judgement of people whose speciality is history. Again, the nomination is a gift for me.”

Why do you think awards like this are important?

“Awards are important because they are a means of making public the work and efforts of writers. I am proud to be part of this list of nominations. For many of us our first introduction to history comes from reading historical fiction. I know this was definitely true in my case as a young reader. There’s always an element of distance a writer has to keep from the allure of the “glittering prizes”. I do honestly believe that writing is not a competition. Yet in a world of so much dizzying information a prize such as this can, for a moment, shine a light on the good work many writers are doing, often work that doesn’t get the attention or scrutiny that it deserves.”

About Christos Tsiolkas

Christos Tsiolkas is the author of six novels, including Loaded, which was made into the feature film Head-On, The Jesus Man and Dead Europe, which won the 2006 Age Fiction Prize and the 2006 Melbourne Best Writing Award, as well as being made into a feature film. His fourth novel, the international bestseller The Slap, won Overall Best Book in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2009, was shortlisted for the 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award, longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize and won the Australian Literary Society Gold, as well as the 2009 Australian Booksellers Association and Australian Book Industry Awards Books of the Year. Christos’s fifth novel Barracuda was shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal and the inaugural Voss Literary Prize. The Slap and Barracuda were both adapted into celebrated television series. Christos’s acclaimed collection of short stories, Merciless Gods, was published in 2014 and his critical literary study On Patrick White came out in 2018. He is also a playwright, essayist and screen writer. He lives in Melbourne. For more information, visit Christos’ website.

About Damascus

Christos Tsiolkas’ stunning new novel Damascus is a work of soaring ambition and achievement, of immense power and epic scope, taking as its subject nothing less than events surrounding the birth and establishment of the Christian church. Based around the gospels and letters of St Paul, and focusing on characters one and two generations on from the death of Christ, as well as Paul (Saul) himself, Damascus nevertheless explores the themes that have always obsessed Tsiolkas as a writer: class, religion, masculinity, patriarchy, colonisation, exile; the ways in which nations, societies, communities, families and individuals are united and divided – it’s all here, the contemporary and urgent questions, perennial concerns made vivid and visceral.

In Damascus, Tsiolkas has written a masterpiece of imagination and transformation: an historical novel of immense power and an unflinching dissection of doubt and faith, tyranny and revolution, and cruelty and sacrifice.

Buy your copy of Damascus.

The ARA Historical Novel Prize shortlist will be announced on Wednesday, 28 October, with the prize winner to be announced by both video broadcast and live stream in Sydney on the evening of Tuesday, 10 November 2020.

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