National Biography Award Winners, 2020

I’ve not posted on many awards this year, but have decided to post on the 2020 National Biography Award, partly because I attended events last year involving each of the winners.

This Award was endowed in 1996 by Geoffrey Cains, and supported for many years by Michael Crouch, who died in 2018. It is now being supported by the Nelson Meers Foundation whose key objective is “to foster innovative artistic and cultural expression, and to encourage greater engagement with the diversity, complexity and richness of our cultural sector”. They increased the prize money for the shortlisted authors, and created a new prize to commemorate Michael Crouch, all of which started last year. The current prizes are:

  • $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 2020 was announced on 9 July and comprised:

  • Chloe Higgins’ The girls: A memoir of family, grief and sexuality
  • Jacqueline Kent’s Beyond words: A year with Kenneth Cook (Lisa’s review)
  • Russell McGregor’s Idling in green places: A life of Alec Chisholm
  • Patrick Mullins’ Tiberius with a telephone: The life and stories of William McMahon
  • Amra Pajalić’s Things nobody knows but me
  • Jessica White’s Hearing Maud (my review)

These were chosen from 89 entries, which, explained judge Margy Burn, ranged across classic biography, autobiography, intimate life writing and affectionate memoir. The subjects she said were equally diverse. The shortlist contains two biographies (those by McGregor and Mullins) and four works that are more autobiographical/personal life-writing in nature. This was similar to last year’s shortlist, and suggests a change – a loosening up – in our expectation and appreciation of biography and autobiography. Jessica White’s engaging Hearing Maud, for example, is what I’d call a hybrid biography-memoir.

This year’s judges were:

  • 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; a foundation judge for the Kibble and Dobbie awards for life writing by a woman author and a National Biography Award judge in 2019.
  • MarkMcKenna: one of Australia’s leading historians, who has written several award-winning books, including From the edge: Australia’s Lost HistoriesAn eye for eternity: The life of Manning Clark, and Looking for Blackfellas’ Point: An Australian history of place.
  • Richard White: retired Associate Professor in Australian history from the University of Sydney in 2013, who has written or edited many books including Inventing AustraliaThe Oxford book of Australian travel writingOn holidays: A history of getting away in Australia, Symbols of Australia; has judged the Premier’s Literary Awards and other history prizes, and been involved in Australian history associations and journals.

2020 Winners

Book coverThe overall winner, announced last night, 28 August, is Patrick Mullins’ Tiberius with a telephone: The life and stories of William McMahon. I attended and posted on a panel at the 2019 Canberra Writers Festival which included Patrick Mullins. He explained that he’d done his PhD in political biography at the University of Canberra in 2014, but hadn’t written one. He looked around and Billy McMahon, he said, “was there for the taking” (with “good reason” he added!) Researching McMahon, he became intrigued by the disconnect between the reputation (the derision) and the reality (twenty plus years covering all major portfolios as well as prime minister.) In his acceptance speech for the Award, Mullins quoted historian Tom Griffiths who says that the great virtue of history is its willingness to acknowledge complexity – and McMahon, and his legacy, surely make for one complex history! The judges wrote:

Mullins’ biography demonstrates a command and surety of voice which sustains the reader’s interest. Political biography can be tedious reading. The author’s study of the genre, impressive research and masterful use of McMahon’s unpublished autobiography does much to recover McMahon’s achievements, despite his manifest flaws. This outstanding book shows there is still a place for classic biography.

Book coverThe winner of the Michael Crouch Award for a Debut Work was Jessica White’s Hearing Maud, which I have reviewed here (see link above). In her acceptance speech, White talked about how no-one listened to Maud (daughter of Australian novelist Rosa Praed) while she was alive, and that in paralleling Maud’s experience of profound deafness with her own, a century later, she wanted to show that little had changed in terms of discrimination and “the expectations that we hide our deafness.” I attended and posted on a conversation with Jessica White on this book last year. The judges wrote:

The writing, unsentimental and unobtrusive, beautifully evokes White’s life: a sunny Australian farm childhood, miserable London winters, the challenges of her journey to understand Maud. There are shrewd insights into the history of deafness and its treatments, the ideological battles between signing and oralism and sign language’s relationship to the emergence of the telegraph and the fad of automatic writing. But we are also left with a sense of exhaustion: how gruellingly hard it is to be deaf, an often invisible disability in a hearing world. This is simultaneously a contribution to the history of nineteenth-century women’s lives, a revelatory study of deafness, and a fine work of Australian life writing.

You can listen to the awards announcement, with comments from judge Margy Burn and the two winners, on YouTube:

Congratulations to the winners and, of course, the shortlisted authors. A great achievement.

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.

Monday musings on Australian literature: National Biography Award

I have mentioned the National Biography Award before, but have never dedicated a post to it. Since this Monday musings coincides with the announcement of the 2014 award, I thought it would be a good time to write a little about this award.

The National Biography Award was initially endowed by Geoffrey Cains, with support a little later by Michael Crouch, and is managed by the State Library of NSW. Its aim, says its website, is “to encourage the highest standards of writing in the fields of biography and autobiography, and to promote public interest in these genres”.  As of 2013, the winner receives $25,000, with each shortlisted book receiving $1,000. I like the fact that more and more awards are providing a monetary prize for the shortlisted works. Associated with the award, since 2003, has been an annual lecture on the subject of life-writing. The list of lectures, and papers if available, can be found on the State Library of NSW’s website.

The shortlist for 2014 was:

  • Alison Alexander, The ambitions of Jane Franklin

    Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

    Alison Alexander’s The ambitions of Jane Franklin (Allen & Unwin). This one intrigues me as Lady Jane Franklin, about whom I’ve written before, was one of those amazing 19th century woman who came to my attention through contemporary novels, including Richard Flanagan’s Wanting and Andrea Barrett’s The voyage of the Narwhal, and a book of poetry titled Jane, Lady Franklin by Tasmanian Adrienne Eberhard. The biography is subtitled, Victorian lady adventurer. I don’t know Alexander, but she is apparently a Tasmanian historian.

  • Steve Bisley’s Stillways: A memoir (HarperCollins Publishers). Steve Bisley is an Australian actor and this book, the website says, is “a classic memoir of an Australian childhood in the sixties”. That in itself gives it some appeal to me.
  • Janet Butler’s Kitty’s war (University of Queensland Press). This one is on my TBR. It is based on the war diaries of World War 1 army nurse Sister Kit McNaughton. In 2013 it won the NSW Premier’s Prize for Australia. Butler works in the History department at La Trobe University.
  • John Cantwell & Greg Bearup’s Exit Wounds: One Australian’s War on Terror (Melbourne University Publishing). Cantwell was a Major-General in the army who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ended up with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He has written this with Walkley Award winning journalist, Greg Bearup.
  • Sheila Fitzpatrick’s A Spy in the Archives (Melbourne University Publishing). Historian Sheila Fitzpatrick lived in the Russia during the Cold War, while researching for her doctoral thesis. She apparently felt at home in Russia, but, as a foreigner, was always seen by Soviet authorities as potentially a spy. The book explores this part of her life. Fitzpatrick is regarded as an expert in the field of Soviet/modern Russian history.
  • Gideon Haigh’s On Warne (Penguin Australia). Australians will know immediately the subject of this biography, the flamboyant, controversial but highly-talented cricketer Shane Warne. Gideon Haigh is a journalist who has written several well-regarded and award-winning books on sport, media and the automotive industry (among other topics).

All books I’d willingly read … though Alexander’s and Butler’s would be my top priority.

And the winner is: Alison Alexander’s The ambitions of Jane Franklin! Now I really do want to read this book … It was a little tricky to find who won via a normal Google search several hours after the announcement, so I turned to Twitter and there it was (of course). Will it be reported on Australian television news tonight? I wonder!

Anyhow, once I knew the winner, I was able to search on that and found a Sydney Morning Herald article which quotes chair of the judging panel (and a previous winner), Jacqueline Kent, as praising the book for its detailed portrayal of a “highly intelligent, vital and strong-minded woman” She said that “This is a biography that drew on a huge amount of research but is also very light on its feet”. Apparently Franklin, according to the Herald, had left behind “8 million words in journals and correspondence”. Alexander is reported as saying that the biography would have been impossible without a “Find” key to search documents. Isn’t modern technology grand – though the “find” function can’t completely replace in-depth reading during which you can find all those wonderful serendipitous details that make research such fun.