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Monday musings on Australian literature: National Biography Award, 2019

August 19, 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 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2019 15:42

    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.

    • August 19, 2019 16:57

      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. August 19, 2019 15:46

    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).

    • August 19, 2019 17:02

      Thanks Lisa – and for the RT telling me this had posted. Haha!

      I’m interesting in Miss Yugoslavia – particularly because you, a non-memoir lover (!), liked it, but also because of the subject matter, as I worked with a woman damaged by the Yugoslav wars. She has now retired and gone back.

      I look forward to seeing your review of Arnott’s book.

      • August 19, 2019 17:32

        I have so many literary bios to read! I always love them when I read them, but I get distracted by other things…

        • August 19, 2019 17:40

          Yes, I know, same. So many are so long aren’t they – like Marr.

        • August 19, 2019 18:17

          His is *definitely* the longest LitBio I’ve got. Political bios can be longer: I’ve got Jenny Hocking’s 2-vol bio of Whitlam, and Rudd’s 2-vol autobiography. I should get round to reading them too…

        • August 19, 2019 18:20

          Lisa. Was going to gotcha but Marr and Roe almost exactly the same length – 700pp

        • August 19, 2019 18:53

          Just so long … I find it hard to find extended reading time so this sort of length is really a challenge.

        • August 19, 2019 18:53

          I could never be a Fantasy novel reader!!

        • August 19, 2019 18:29

          Oh yes, political ones are long too. I haven’t read many of those – though did read, many years ago, Blanche’s one on Hawke! I really should read the bio of Billy Hughes written by Mr Gums’ grandfather! I have that here too!

        • August 19, 2019 19:12

          Oh that is a guilt trip! (Mind you, I haven’t read The Spouse’s grandfather’s book about Commonwealth railways, so I can’t talk…)

        • August 19, 2019 20:00

          Billy Hughes is possibly more interesting than Commonwealth railways so I think you have a bigger excuse.

        • August 19, 2019 19:05

          x-Mrs L and I once got into an SF series of 4 books of 1,000 pp each. Forget it’s name now (She’ll remember) but it was rivetting – it started out as WW1 historical fiction but gradually became clear we were inhabiting computer simulations.

        • August 19, 2019 19:50

          I was going to say Sci Fi as well! I can imagine being riveted, but can imagine committing to it myself.

        • August 19, 2019 19:19

          I got as far as opening my father’s turgid tome on The Inspectors. And he probably owned your (Lisa’s) grandfather-in-law’s book, which means I might now.

        • August 19, 2019 19:36

          Well, someone’s got to write it, I suppose. He wrote one about horses too, but I haven’t read that either…

        • August 19, 2019 19:59

          I’m so glad I’m not alone in being dilatory in reading the work of kin!

  3. August 19, 2019 16:11

    All these literary awards … If only one had been a literary writer !

  4. August 19, 2019 21:59

    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.

  5. ian darling permalink
    August 19, 2019 22:34

    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?”

    • August 20, 2019 08:24

      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?

      • August 20, 2019 09:20

        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.

        • August 20, 2019 16:22

          Good point Lisa. My guess is where there’s a will there’s a way, but it must surely change the process and the outcome? I’m sure it’s being discussed by both librarians/archivists and biographers.

        • August 20, 2019 17:54

          Lisa! A rather grim picture you’re painting here – all the more so because of its plausibility when you put it this way.

        • August 20, 2019 18:30

          It sure is Theresa – and is something that has been being discussed by the professionals involved for a long time. They started collected electronic records, but of course so many of them aren’t kept, are ephemeral.

        • August 20, 2019 18:43

          I know, it’s a worry…

  6. August 20, 2019 17:51

    Thanks for the mention!

  7. August 27, 2019 18:18

    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.

    • August 27, 2019 22:45

      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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