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Five first-time nominees – including a debut novelist – are among the six authors shortlisted for the 2023 Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s highest literary honour.

The six books up for the $60,000 prize are Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow, Robbie Arnott’s Limberlost, Yumna Kassab’s The Lovers, Fiona Kelly McGregor’s Iris, Shankari Chandran’s Chai Time at the Cinnamon Gardens, and Kgshak Akec’s Hopeless Kingdom.

First awarded in 1957, the Miles Franklin is given to a novel “of the highest literary merit which presents Australian life in any of its phases”

Debut novelist Kgshak Akec’s Hopeless Kingdom is the story of a mother and daughter’s relationship as their family migrates from Africa to Australia. “I’m beside myself and very excited to see what happens in the future,” Akec told reporters.

No one can complain that the 2023 list of hopefuls consists of the same old names: Akec has made the cut alongside four other first-time nominees.

Each author receives $5000 with the winner of the $60,000 prize to be announced on July 25.

The tale of Hopeless Kingdom is grounded in Akec’s own experiences of her family leaving South Sudan for Egypt when she was three, arriving in Australia on a humanitarian visa in 2003 with her six siblings.

Akec’s earliest memories are of Egypt, which she knew was not her home, and the author speaks of feeling that she was born displaced.

“When we came to Australia I understood in every fibre of my being as a six-year-old, that this was our home forever,” she said.

But being the first African-Australians at Akec’s primary school in Geelong made things more complicated – no one else looked like her family – and it wasn’t until her twenties that she recognised herself as Australian.

Now there’s every chance Akec could win the country’s most prestigious literary prize – awarded for stories of Australian life in all its phases.

Akec wrote Hopeless Kingdom during the pandemic lockdowns in 2020, starting at 7 am before work, and some days writing until midnight, fuelled by Tim Tam biscuits and her mother’s green chicken curries.

She realised it could take years to get anyone from the publishing industry to read the manuscript and prepared herself to wait.

Akec didn’t need to – the novel won the 2021 Dorothy Hewett Award, which came with a book deal.

Stories like Hopeless Kingdom are rare in Australia because the African migrant experience is relatively new here, Akec said.

“It opens up the door to understanding what it’s like for migrant families settling into Australia, but it also looks at things that are very simple, very human,” she said.

The judges described it as a novel of national significance that “transforms the Australian literary landscape”.

Robbie Arnott is the only author who has been previously nominated, for his 2020 book The Rain Heron, an ecological fable about a shape-shifting bird. His latest novel Limberlost shares his previous work’s mythic overtones, following a 15-year-old boy over one summer in midcentury Tasmania.

A similar meditative quality permeates Jessica Au’s Cold Enough For Snow, which won both the $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature and the $25,000 Fiction category at the Victorian Premier’s literary awards earlier this year and was the inaugural winner of the Novel prize, which guarantees publication in the UK, Ireland, US, Australia and New Zealand. Au’s novella is a sparse, wintry tale of a mother and daughter’s brief visit to Japan, on a trip in which the daughter attempts to connect with her mother, with whom she has a fragile relationship.

Fiona Kelly McGregor has been nominated for her fourth book Iris, a historical novel set in 1930s Sydney. Longlisted for the Stella prize, it follows the real-life figure Iris Webber, a lifelong miscreant and petty criminal. The novel “rehabilitates a once notorious denizen of the lower order,” the judges wrote, “admiring of the intelligence required for her to survive there”. Western Sydney author Yumna Kassab is nominated for her third novel, The Lovers, which mirrors the cadences of folklore to explore a couple’s relationship, which has been challenged by cultural and class barriers.

And rounding out the shortlist is Shankari Chandran’s third novel Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, following a diverse group of elderly Australians who live in a nursing home. Interspersed with flashbacks to the Sri Lankan civil war, Chandran’s novel deals with the “unaddressed trauma of the past”, said judges. “It treads carefully on contested historical claims, reminding us that horrors forgotten are horrors bound to be repeated.”

This year’s Miles Franklin judging panel is chaired by Richard Neville, the Mitchell Librarian at the State Library of New South Wales and also features literary critics Bernadette Brennan and James Ley, literary scholar Mridula Nath Chakraborty and author and editor Elfie Shiosaki.

The 2023 Miles Franklin shortlist

Hopeless Kingdom by Kgshak Akec (UWA Publishing)

Limberlost by Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing)

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au (Giramondo Publishing)

Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens by Shankari Chandran (Ultimo Press)

The Lovers by Yumna Kassab (Ultimo Press)

Iris by Fiona Kelly McGregor (Pan Macmillan Australia)