Monday musings on Australian literature: National Biography Award, 2019

It’s been five years since I posted on the National Biography Award. Given that, and the fact that some changes have been made since last year, I figured it was worth reminding you (and me) of it.

First, a recap: The National Biography Award was endowed in 1996 by Geoffrey Cains, and supported for many years by Michael Crouch. Its aims were “to encourage the highest standards of writing in the fields of biography and autobiography, and to promote public interest in these genres”. From 2013 to 2018, the prize was $25,000 for the winner, and $1,000 for the shortlisted authors.

However, Michael Crouch died in 2018, bringing about some changes, as the website explains. It is now being supported by the Nelson Meers Foundation whose key objective is, they say, “to foster innovative artistic and cultural expression, and to encourage greater engagement with the diversity, complexity and richness of our cultural sector”. Hence their taking on this Award. This change has resulted in an increase in prize money for the shortlisted authors, and a new prize to commemorate Michael Crouch. The new arrangement, starting in 2019, is:

  • $25,000 for the winner
  • $2,000 for each of six shortlisted authors
  • $5,000 Michael Crouch Award for a first published biography by an Australian writer

The shortlist for 2019 was:

  • Behrouz Boochani’s No friend by the mountains: Writings from Manus Prison (Memoir) (Bill’s The Australian Legend’s review): If you are Australian and haven’t heard of this book yet, you have probably been RipVanWinkling it, but for non-Australians, Boochani is a Kurdish asylum-seeker who has been detained on Manus Island for over six years. This is his story, and one I have written about before.
  • Danielle Clode’s The wasp and the orchid: The remarkable life of Australian naturalist Edith Coleman (Biography) (Theresa Smith’s review): Reclaiming the story of a once well-known but then forgotten early twentieth century Australian naturalist, this book seems to be one of those hybrid biography-memoirs as the author herself, a scientist, is also present in the book.
  • Sarah Krasnostein, The trauma cleanerSarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay & disaster (Biography) (my review): This book is about as well known in Australia as Boochani’s is; it’s a beautifully structured, moving story, about transgender woman Sandra Pankhurst’s life and her current occupation as a trauma cleaner.
  • Rozanna Lilley’s Do oysters get bored? A curious life (Memoir) (Amy Walters’ post on Capital Letters, and my post on a festival conversation with Lilley): A complex memoir exploring Lilley’s life with her autistic son, her caring for her father with dementia, and her own experience of the trauma of sexual abuse while living with her bohemian parents, Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley.
  • Rick Morton’s One hundred years of dirt (Memoir): A memoir about multigenerational trauma, about which the judges wrote “Not since George Orwell has the grinding, humiliating, life-sapping horror of working-class deprivation and inequality been better portrayed”.
  • Sofija Stefanovic’s Miss Ex-Yugoslavia: a coming of age memoir (Memoir) (Lisa’s ANZLitLovers’ review): The story of a complex migration, which saw Sofija moving from a comfortable childhood in Belgrade to an unsettled life in Melbourne after the collapse of socialist Yugoslavia, but then returning to Serbia, only to come back to Australia when war hit the region.

So, only two biographies and four memoirs, which is a bit of a shame I think, albeit I enjoy good memoirs. However, from my research and from what I’ve read myself, each book here offers something special in content and/or in the approach taken, which expands our understanding of the forms within which they are written, and which is what you’d expect from a shortlist.

The judges for 2019 were:

  • Dr Georgina Arnott: Research Associate at Monash University on Australian history projects; author of The unknown Judith Wright which was shortlisted for the National Biography Award in 2017; and a judge also in 2018.
  • Margy Burn: librarian who has been responsible for Australian special collections at the National Library of Australia, and other state and university libraries; served on working parties for the Australian Dictionary of Biography; and a foundation judge for the Kibble and Dobbie awards for life writing by a woman author.
  • Professor Iain McCalman: author of several books; former President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities; and currently co-director and co-founder of the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney.

2019 Winners

Behrouz Boochani, No friend but the mountainsThe overall winner, announced last Monday, 12 August, is Behrouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains. The judges said that:

This is compelling storytelling in the samisdat tradition, written in Farsi as a series of text messages sent to his translator and collaborator Omid Tofighian. Collaboration has made this book, which demonstrates how innovative, experimental and creative the work of translation can be.

The winner of the inaugural Michael Crouch Award for a Debut Work was Sofija Stefanovic’s Miss Ex-Yugoslavia, which judges described as “finely observed and ambitious”, a “thoughtful and tender addition to the genre of migration stories”.

For the non-Australians, in particular, I’d love to know about any specifically biography awards in your countries … but am of course happy to hear from anyone.

33 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: National Biography Award, 2019

  1. You’ve upset my routines. I like getting and reading MM last thing on a Monday. But thanks for the link. I think from what I’ve read these were a remarkable batch of memoirs and perhaps that is why they have dominated this year. Pity, I would have liked there to be room for Elizabeth Macarthur which was an excellent ‘conventional’ biography.

    • I upset my routines too, Bill! I meant to schedule it for 23:00 but entree 11:00 instead! It was already 15:00 so when I hit schedule it posted and I didn’t notice until Lisa retweeted it! Wah! The first person I thought of was you!

      Yes, I agree re Elizabeth Macarthur – I would like to have seen more “straight” biographies too, as I said. But, these do sound interesting.

  2. Well, I’m delighted to hear that Miss Yugoslavia won the debut award. I’m not a great fan of memoir in general but I thought hers was excellent. (And thanks for the mention).
    However I do like to see biographies get more attention: I believe that they tend not to be especially well-remunerated, considering that they often involve years of research and writing.
    BTW I have Georgina Arnott’s bio on my TBR. I bought it a couple of years ago after I heard her speak at the Williamstown Lit Fest. (I didn’t get to that this year, because I went to Bloomsday instead).

  3. It is really a neat idea to dedicate an award to biographies. The fact that biographies and memories are being written in innovative styles is also a positive and interesting development.

    No Friend by the Mountains sounds both innovative and very important. I may give it a read soon.

  4. We still have the James Tait Memorial prize for biography which must have been around for decades. There was a big vogue for literary biography in the UK between about the 1970s through to the 90s with biographers like Michael Holroyd and Claire Tomalin and Richard Holmes scoring big successes. Perhaps the best subjects were used up and a reaction against the form took place (Martin Amis: “What’s so great about literary biography?”

    • Ah yes, Ian, I had heard of that . And you’re right, there was too, here, during that period, and perhaps into the early 2000s. “Perhaps the best subjects were used up!” Probably some truth in that, but in a couple of decades probably some more are appearing! As for Martin Amis, perhaps he’s nervous about his own?

      • I wonder if bios in general will dry up because ephemeral digital records won’t be available to biographers. No letters, diaries, maybe not other kinds of writing in draft form (e.g. politicians’ speeches etc). Not to mention privacy legislation locking everything up, e.g. census records of where people lived and so on.

  5. Just like many of our other awards have biography or non-fiction sections, the rest of the world has similar lists, but I’m not sure if I know of any other dedicated biography/memoir award anywhere else.
    I love it. Like the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize, they’re shortlists I usually want to/plan to or already have read every single book listed. Sadly, I’ve read none of the above, but have 2 on my TBR pile and have been eyeing off the rest for months.

    • Yes, that’s as far as I knew too Brona – some other non-fiction/biography sections.

      I have Boochani on my TBR pile, and Lisa speaks highly of Stefanovic, which sounds excellent.

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