HomeDiversityDisabilityNorma K Hemming Award fail

Norma K Hemming Award fail

Norma K Hemming in costume in 1956About the Award

The Norma K. Hemming Award marks excellence in the exploration of themes of race, gender, sexuality, class and disability:

  • in the form of science fiction and fantasy or related artwork or media.
  • produced either in Australia or by Australian citizens.
  • first published, released or presented in the calendar year preceding the year in which the award is given.

The Australian Science Fiction Foundation (ASFF) launched this major new award at Aussiecon 4, the 68th World Science Fiction Convention held in Melbourne on 2–6 September 2010.

The Award will not necessarily be given annually, and a selection will only be made if there is a work that meets an appropriate standard of excellence.

Norma K Hemming Award fail

The shortlisted works for 2014 are here. I’m not saying these works aren’t worthy. But judges overlooked a very important novel.

Jo Spurrier, an author with experience of disability, wrote a book, Black Sun Light My Way, sequel to Winter Be My Shield. I interviewed Jo about her first novel; we discussed the sociological groups in her trilogy and disability.

Judges shortlisted Winter Be My Shield for the Norma K Hemming Award in 2013. It didn’t win because that year the award was given to Kate Forsyth for Bitter Greens and Margo Lanagan for Sea Hearts.

Both of the winning books are worthy novels but neither should have pipped Winter for the prize. The winning authors are highly respected. At the time Kate worked towards her PhD. People called Margo “the Queen of Fantasy” for all her awards. But neither novel incorporated ALL the issues upon which this award allegedly focuses: race, gender, sexuality, class and disability.

All the shiny categories

Winter Be My Shield incorporated ALL THE THINGS. These are

  • race:  races at war and people who are racially prejudiced
  • gender: women subjugated in a patriarchal society and women living in an egalitarian polygamous society (based on a real Siberian tribe, people!)
  • sexuality: gay people (although admittedly minor characters but they do not fall into the ‘comedic camp’ trope) and, of course, polygamous and monogamous people.
  •  class: aristocrats, slaves and freedom fighters with class struggles and conflict
  • disability: Isidro is tortured, acquiring a permanent disability: one arm is rendered useless and painful.
Disability in Winter Be My Shield and Black Sun Light My Way

In Jo Spurrier’s books Isidro learns to cope with his disability. He is neither magically healed nor shunted out of sight. Instead he continues as a central character. I was furious at the end of reading Winter because I was sure Isidro, now disabled, was to be sent off-stage so to speak. I was wrong.

Jo Spurrier has a disability and wanted to write a character with a disability. THIS IS SO AWESOME.

This also explains why she doesn’t make the all-too-common mistake of having someone shot and injured and carrying on, climbing down a cliff-face with a broken wrist. Or fighting or shooting with a bullet in their shoulder or – my personal fave from Arrow – get shot in the biceps then flex those biceps.

Bigotry in publishing

Society shunts people with disability aside. My mentor from one of the Big Five publishing houses (think happy tap dancing) told me that I won’t ever get a job in the publishing industry because of my disability. She said my only hope for employment – with my 3 degrees and working my butt off here at Dark Matter – is for an admin assistant position in the public service under an equity scheme. As if ANYONE wants a vision impaired person: my mentor, without any understanding of what my disability really is and how capable I am, without any medical assessment, decided I cannot copy edit and I cannot work, therefore I should go somewhere else and be a burden somewhere else. And she refused to mentor me.

Capable people with disabilities are sorely needed in literature and pop culture so people stop treating us like trash.

Here we are in 2014, with an award that is supposed to recognise novels of excellence incorporating issues of race, gender, sexuality, class and disability.

Here we have a work of excellence that incorporates every single one of the above issues and does so excellently.

And what work is missing from the shortlist?

The one by the author with a disability whose excellent, well-written work published by HarperVoyager ticks all the boxes.

Why? Let’s ask the judges

The Norma K Hemming Award is a judged award. The judges are Russell Blackford, Sarah Endacott, Rob Gerrand and Tess Williams.

On Linkedin, Russell Blackford describes himself as a “Writer, philosopher, and critic.” He’s a straight white male whose current employer is listed as “University of Newcastle, Journal of Evolution and Technology, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies”.

I’m not sure if I know Sarah Endacott personally; knowing the science fiction community in Melbourne it’s a fairly safe bet she’s white. She’s listed as a freelance editor with employers “edit or die, Victorian Department of Health, University of Wollongong”.

Rob Gerrand is another white male; his profile says “Specialist in corporate governance, and in reputation and change management, author.” Employer: “Trackatronics Pty Ltd, The Dax Centre, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health”.

Tess Williams‘s Linkedin profile is limited, saying only “postdoctoral Fellow at The University of Western Australia” but her photo on Facebook shows she’s white.

So we have a panel of judges all from one particular class. Two of the judges are highly privileged: middle-class white males. I am very interested to hear if any of them have a disability or are LGBTQIA.


Why are white academics judging minority representation written by (mostly) nondisabled straight white middle class authors?

Why do they judge an award intended to recognize vulnerable minorities? Not-privileged people? Two middle class women, at least one of whom is white, were on the panel. But it’d be better if the panel consisted of disabled, PoC, not Christian (Muslim maybe?), and INTERSECTIONAL people for excellent representation ON THE PANEL.

Update on 19 June 2023: the Norma K Hemming Award ceased after the 2020 awards. Apparently the judges burnt out. They didn’t hand on the project. Would have been lovely if they’d appointed minority judges to judge minority representation in science fiction and fantasy.

Post updated to replace images, pander to SEO and – I admit – to polish my rant a teeny bit.

Norma K Hemming Award: it might be a hydra or a tree, not sure

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.



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