Monday musings on Australian literature: David Unaipon Award

David Unaipon (Courtesy State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia. Public Domain)

David Unaipon (Courtesy State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia. Public Domain)

I’ve mentioned the David Unaipon Award several times in passing but have never devoted a post specifically to it. Today seemed to be a good time to do it, as it would mean I’ve bookended this year’s NAIDOC week with Monday Musings posts devoted to indigenous literature.

Just to recap, David Unaipon is credited as the first indigenous author to be published, with a commissioned book on Aboriginal Legends in the early 1920s. He is featured on Australia’s $50 note. To commemorate him, the David Unaipon Award for unpublished Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders was established in 1988, and has had a rather chequered career. In 1999, it became part of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. When those awards were abolished in 2012 by new Premier Campbell Newman, it was carried over to the new Queensland Literary Awards.

I have read and reviewed several past winners on this blog: Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light (2013), Jeanine Leane’s Purple Threads (2010), Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing (2008), and Tara June Winch’s Swallow the Air  (2004, originally titled Dust on Waterglass). 

But this is only a start. The list of winners, from the first award made in 1989, represents a useful list for anyone looking for works by indigenous authors to read. Here are a few writers that I’m keen to follow up:

  • Samuel Wagan Watson, a poet, who won in 1999 with Of Muse, Meandering and Midnight. According to the New South Wales Writers’ Centre this work is “a collection of moments: snatches of life in urban Brisbane, glimpses into childhood recollections”. Watson is a well-known raconteur, and during NAIDOC Week last week, I heard him recite a very entertaining, gently subversive poem “A message to my publisher”. It reminded me that I need to keep him high in my TBR list, either this book or one of his later ones.
  • Larissa Berendt, a writer, lawyer and academic, who won in 2002 with her novel Home. This novel also won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel in the south-east Asian/South Pacific region. It explores the complex notion of “home” for people for whom home has become a fraught notion: they’ve been dispossessed, stolen, or separated for a variety of reasons from their roots and significant connections. Her second novel, Legacy, won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Prize for Indigenous Writing in 2010. She is frequently recommended to me, and so is also high on my TBR list.
  • Gayle Kennedy, a writer who won in 2006 with her “road trip” novel Me, Antman and Fleabag. It was also shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and Deadly Award. She was featured in a Guest Post on the Australian Women Writers Challenge last week so, rather than add my own words here, I’ll just point you to there! Fair enough? (There’s an added incentive for visiting that post. If you read and review a work by an indigenous Australian in July you can go in the draw to win a copy of Me, Antman and Fleabag.)
  • Dylan Coleman, a more recent winner of the award, winning in 2011 with Mazin’ Grace. It was also shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and longlisted for the 2013 Stella Prize. Like Marie Munkara’s Every secret thing, its subject is mission life, a significant part of indigenous Australian experience and a story that needs to be told.

These are just four from a much longer list. I have no idea how many of these books are still in print, but hopefully most if not all are available in libraries. I wonder?

22 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: David Unaipon Award

  1. Great post, Sue:)
    Tell me, do you happen to know how the responsibility for this award was eventually sorted out after the abolition of the Qld Premier’s Literary Awards? There was some kind of stoush over it, because (as I recall it) while the QPLA administered the award it was actually funded by some other body (was it UQP?) who were quite rightly very indignant about having their award abolished without any consultation.
    Because indigenous writing is dear to my heart and I am always interested in this award, I sent off $100 earmarked for it to the Qld Literary Awards that was set up in the wake of the abolition, but although the cheque was banked, it was never acknowledged, and all my enquiries came to nothing … so although it’s water well under the bridge by now, I do occasionally wonder what became of it.

    • My understanding Lisa is that it went to the Queensland Literary Awards … It was awarded by them in 2012, 2013, and 2014. I think you’re right about UQP being involved in its establishment as it existed before the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards.

      Oh, and thanks for the comment!

        • You are right Lisa. From what I’ve seen they are the best at supporting indigenous writers of the general, ie not specifically indigenous, presses aren’t they.

        • Yes, I would say so too. Magabala Books has a good indigenous list as well, but from what I’ve seen they do more genre fiction whereas UQP has published some very fine memoirs. (They both do lovely children’s books by indigenous authors as well). Wakefield Press in SA also have an excellent list featuring indigenous art and artists, and they’ve also published some gorgeous books about indigenous artefacts and history from the SA museum. They’re the main ones that I know of.

        • Thanks Lisa. Yes, they are the main ones I was thinking of too. Others are more case-by-case from what I’ve seen. Like Giramondo I think has done Alexis Wright, and so on.

        • Hi Sue and Lisa,

          The Unpublished Indigenous Writer – David Unaipon Award is still part of the Queensland Literary Awards, which are now administered by State Library of Queensland. This particular award category is sponsored by the Copyright Agency Inc. Cultural Fund, as well as UQP who provide manuscript development and publication. We were pleased this year to see a reinvestment by the Queensland Government in the Queensland Literary Awards, which has allowed us to double the prize money on all award categories, so this year’s David Unaipon award recipient will receive $10,000 in prize money.

          You can find out more about QLA here

        • Thanks Steph. I understood it was continuing, but am glad to have your full explanation of the situation. I had heard that the new Government there had decided to support the awards again. Sense has prevailed.

        • Thanks for the clarification, Steph. It sounds like the award is safe from the shifting winds of political interference, at least for as long as CAL survives!

  2. Gayle Kennedy was briefly my student. She was in my Form IV class (nowadays Year 10) at Hay War Memorial High School – and the most beautiful writer in the class – before a scholarship took her away to Sydney’s Queenwood Girls High for her final two years. We have been in touch throughout her life – and while my wife and I were in Japan she came on a wheel-chair accompanied visit – made a huge splash among our our friends there! An amazing woman!

    • Thanks Jim … I bet she did. I’ve heard her on the radio and she was articulate, thoughtful and entertaining. What a hard life with the polio, particularly in those circumstances.

  3. What a great award and way to shine a spotlight on indigenous writers. The Berendt book, Home, sounds really interesting. Do you have plans to read it?

  4. I really enjoyed reading this especially after being in Broome. I just wrote a little blog post on my visit to Magabala Books. There is not enough written about Indigenous authors and poet. Thanks for this! 🙂

  5. Run, don’t walk, to the bookshop for a copy of Gayle Kennedy’s book. Stop at the chemist’s on the way home for some bandages to wrap your ribs. They’re going to ache from all the laughing you’ll do while you read it.

  6. Pingback: Not Just Black and White, by Lesley Williams and Tammy Williams | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  7. Can you please tell me what happens to manuscripts that are not successful when sent in relation to the David Uniapon Literary Award. Are they kept or housed somewhere or are they destroyed? I have been told that unsuccessful entries would be put in the Library at Brisbane University. is this correct? Please advise.

    • Hi Louise, I’m afraid I can’t answer this as I’m just a blogger reporting on things like these awards. Your best bet would be to contact the Queensland Literary Award people which, I think is now managed by the State Library of Queensland. you could try this email address:

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