From South Sudan to the Miles Franklin shortlist: one migrant’s story

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When Kgshak Akec came to Australia as a six-year-old in 2003, she could speak only Arabic. Her South Sudanese family settled in the multicultural Sydney suburb of Auburn, where many of her fellow primary-school students were also Arabic speaking and helped her negotiate a new world.

Of course, she quickly learned to speak and write in English – “it’s better than my Arabic these days” – and 20 years later her first novel, Hopeless Kingdom, has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award, the most significant fiction-writing prize in Australia.

Kgshak Akec says moving from Auburn to Geelong was a real culture shock.Credit: Joe Armao

The other books on the list are: Limberlost, Robbie Arnott; Cold Enough for Snow, Jessica Au; Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, Shankari Chandran; The Lovers, Yumna Kassab; and Iris, Fiona Kelly McGregor. All the shortlisted authors receive $5000. Arnott and McGregor are both previous winners of the Age fiction book of the year award.

The judges said Hopeless Kingdom was “a novel of national significance which gives voice to silent memories of migration and ultimately transforms the Australian literary landscape”.

Akec said it was heavily inspired by her own journey of migration. It follows the experiences of six-year-old Akita and her mother, Taresai, as they leave Sudan for Cairo and then Australia, and touches on trauma, racism, and love.

“As I was writing Hopeless Kingdom, Akita became a character of her own and she was no longer a mirror reflection of me,” she said. “The same thing happened with the mother [character], Taresai, no longer my mother but a woman who embodies so many African Australian women.”

Shortlisted books for the 2023 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

But leaving Auburn for Geelong in 2006 was “harder than moving from Egypt to Australia because of the culture shock,” said Akec.

“We were the only African family in the community and the first African family to attend my primary school.

“I was nine at the time, so it was the first time I really recognised that we were the other. And the kids treated us like we were the other,” she said.

“You either ended up in a position where all the kids wanted to be friends with you because you look different, which is what happened to my oldest brother and my younger sister because they were so much cooler than I was. I had not a cool bone in my body and so that attracted a lot of being left out and being bullied.”

But at high school, everybody wanted to be her friend because “all of a sudden being black was cool”.

Akec, who works with Somebody’s Daughter Theatre, completed a degree in media and communications but really wanted to write. She has written short stories, but Hopeless Kingdom was her first serious manuscript. She entered and won the Dorothy Hewitt unpublished manuscript award.

“The first draft was 80-90,000 words. Once I finished that I felt the weight of it very heavily in my heart and in my soul and I had this burning feeling that I needed to get it out there,” she said. “For the first time, I put my work out under my real name.”

When Akec moved to Australia, her parents told her it was the place where she was going to grow up and be part of a community. She recognised the significance of the family’s move. But one of the things that inspired her to write Hopeless Kingdom was leaving the country for the first time 17 years after arriving as a child.

“I don’t think I was prepared for all the things that it was going to bring up, being away from a place that I didn’t realise was home until I left,” she said.

She was galvanised by her travels and the feelings that emerged, and as the country went into full lockdown she found she had the opportunity to write. She finished Hopeless Kingdom in two months. Now she has just over a month to discover if she’s won the Miles.

The Miles Franklin award will be announced on July 25.

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