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.

Jessica White, Hearing Maud (#BookReview)

Book coverHybrid memoir-biographies take many forms. For a start, some are weighted more to biography while others more to memoir. As I wrote in my post on Jessica White’s conversation with Inga Simpson, most of those I’ve read “have been mother-daughter stories, the biography being about the mother and the memoir, the daughter. White’s book is different. The biographical subject is Maud, the deaf daughter of the late nineteenth-early twentieth century writer Rosa Praed (1851-1935)”. However, Bill (The Australian Legend) responded in the comments that “I’m pretty sure Hearing Maud is another mother/ daughter memoir. On two levels”. In a sense he’s right.

I say “in a sense” because Maud is not White’s mother. However, two mother-daughter threads do run through the book, Maud and her author mother Rosa, and Jessica and her mother. But, unlike those more direct mother-daughter memoirs in which the daughter focuses on the mother’s story while also throwing some light on her own life, in White’s book the two mother-daughter stories work in some way as foils for each other, but, more significantly, the focus is on the two daughters’ lives. As with most memoirs – hybrid or otherwise – there is a larger intent behind Hearing Maud than simply telling the story of a life or lives. It involves exploring deafness.

As I reported in the conversation post, White talked about “coming out” as a deaf person. I wrote how “living in the country amongst a large extended family, she’d been, essentially, sheltered from fully experiencing her deafness”. This resulted in her growing up as “a hearing person” albeit a “bad” one! It wasn’t until she was in her 30s that she started to think about herself as deaf, and to understand its impact on her life, particularly in her longstanding sense of loneliness and isolation.

Before, however, you start suspecting that this is going to be another misery memoir, let me get to the book. It starts with a Prologue, in which White tells us how she lost most of her hearing around the age of four, due to meningitis (or, more accurately, the treatment for it.) She then says, and it is this idea that underpins her story:

My life came to be defined by what the ancient Greeks termed a pharmakon, that which is a poison and a cure.

She goes on to say that the way the pendulum swings, between these two, depends on the time and culture in which the deaf person lives. For Maud, deafness was “a bane”. It led to her being committed to an asylum at the age of 28 and being left there until she died 39 years later. For White, on the other hand, it led to her becoming a reader and then a writer, because these “assuaged my persistent loneliness and gave me a sense of purpose”. What White goes on to do in her book is provide a mini-history of attitudes to deafness and deaf people over the last century and a half, exploring the ways in which both personal (including family) circumstances and social attitudes and policies can deeply affect the course of a deaf person’s life. Of course, life is a lottery for all of us – we are all affected by time and place, family and culture – but for those with a disability, there are additional layers that further reduce their control over their outcomes. (Interestingly, probably because of when she was born, White doesn’t discuss the whole nomenclature issue. In the early 1980s, for example, it was not acceptable to call people “deaf”, they were “hearing impaired”.)

Now though, I want to talk a bit about the writing. Hearing Maud is White’s third book (I’ve reviewed her second, Entitlement), and it shows. It shows in the novelistic language that brings life to the story. It’s never overdone, but there are scattered images that beautifully convey her feelings, such as this comment after her first real conversation with another deaf person, when she was 32:

Once again I have the sense of something settling into place, like a bird alighting in a tree, its wings relaxing. When I say goodbye and walk back past the sandstone buildings to the bus stop by the lakes, my step is buoyant.

You can feel the emotional release, can’t you.

It also shows in the confident handling of the multiple storylines – hers, and Maud and her mother Rosa’s stories. The stories are told generally chronologically but are interwoven with each other, so we start with White’s childhood ending a little before this book is completed, and similarly we move through Maud’s life. However, there are some backwards movements when something in the life of one raises an issue in the life of another. It does require some concentration from the reader, but the segues are natural and clear. Describing her childhood, for example, White tells of the times she spent in the bush, and how “the solitude was a balm”, enabling her to daydream about the boy on whom she had a crush. This leads her directly to  Rosa Praed – “Whenever I read Rosa’s novels, I reconnect with this heady mix of romance and the bush” – and a discussion of Rosa’s focus on the bush in many of her novels. Similarly, a discussion of the importance of letter-writing to her – being an “unthreatening way … to make connections” – leads to an extended discussion of Maud’s letters, and from that to Maud’s education and the history of deaf education in Europe in the late nineteenth century. There’s a lot of information here, but it’s so well integrated into the narrative that you learn almost despite yourself!

Finally, White’s skill shows in her control of tone. This is not a dry non-fiction work, despite the amount of information it contains, but a story about real people. White’s tone balances the formal (grammatical sentences, endnotes, and so on) with the informal (first person voice, and expressions like “I imagine Maud walking to the museum”). She also conveys her passion for her subject, and sometimes her frustration and anger, but doesn’t let it flow over into diatribe. However, she’s very clear about her intention for the book, as she tells her sister:

‘I’m tired of being taken for granted. I want people to know how hard I’ve worked – and how hard most people with disabilities have to work – to get where I am. I want them to hear Maud’s voice [hearing Maud!] and to know that, although things are much better, deaf people are still expected to act like hearing people. I want them to see how difficult it still is, when it shouldn’t be…’

I hear you Jess, loud and clear!

Lisa (ANZ LitLovers) and Bill (The Australian Legend) have also reviewed this book.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeJessica White
Hearing Maud
Crawley: UWAP, 2019
ISBN: 9781760800383

Jessica White in conversation with Inga Simpson

Book coverHearing Maud, author Jessica White told us in her conversation with Inga Simpson two weekends ago, was 15 years in the making. This is something I already knew, because, as the result of our involvement in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I’ve met Jess and we’ve talked about this book. However, it was excellent to hear the more detailed story – and at its conclusion rather than partway through. Jess is clearly very happy to have it finally off her hands, but it’s also clear that the book was, and is, very important to her – as you shall see.

The participants

Simpson and White

Simpson (L) and White (R), Muse, 2 Nov 2019

Jessica White has written two novels A curious intimacy, which earned her a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist gong, and Entitlement (my review). She’s been listed for various prizes, and has had essays and short stories published in Australia’s best-known literary journals, including MeanjinSoutherlyOverlandIsland and Griffith Review. She is a lecturer/researcher at the University of Queensland.

Inga Simpson, whom I’ve still to review here (but I will), has written three novels, Mr Wigg, Nest and Where the trees were, the last two of which have been listed for or won prizes. Her latest book, Understory, is a memoir about her love of Australian nature, and especially trees.

The conversation

As Simpson advised at the beginning, the conversation was not a Michael-Parkinson-like hardball interview but more a conversation between friends which, apparently, they are. As a result, it had a warm, natural feel, while still addressing some important points and issues.

Hearing Maud, which I’ve just started reading, is one of those hybrid memoir-biographies that I’ve talked about recently. However, most of those have been mother-daughter stories, the biography being about the mother and the memoir, the daughter. White’s book is different. The biographical subject is Maud, the deaf daughter of the late nineteenth-early twentieth century writer Rosa Praed (1851-1935) (whom I read before blogging). White did not know or ever meet Maud so her knowledge has come from her research, which, Simpson said, is a strength of White’s.

White began by talking about the book’s genesis. It started with her PhD research into Rosa Praed, with whom White felt a connection, given they shared a rural, bush background and a love of romance! White was drawn to Praed’s “racy romances”, she said!

However, as she researched Praed, she discovered the existence of Maud, and the more she researched the more she realised what a “terrible life” Maud had had. So, she started writing a biography about Rosa and Maud. This was rejected by a publisher, but in rejecting it he suggested that she make the book “more about deafness”. To her credit, White was not put off. Having initially felt that deafness hadn’t challenged her, she started, as she continued to research Maud’s life, to recognise more about her own life as a deaf person – and then to perceive the intersections and divergences in their two lives.

Patricia Clarke, in her biography of Praed, Rosa! Rosa!, wrote that it was fortuitous for Maud to be born at a time when they were teaching deaf to speak, but White, now understanding more about deafness, saw it differently. It was a time of Social Darwinism – when the idea was to breed out disabilities – so the pressure to conform was strong. This was often, as it was in Maud’s case, counterproductive, if not disastrous. I will write more on this when I review the book, but essentially, a number of factors, including the breakup of Maud’s family and Rosa’s non-inclusive attitudes, resulted in her having a mental breakdown at 28 years old, and being committed to an asylum. She spent the next 39 years of her life there, that is, until she died!

The conversation spent some time on White’s own experiences as a deaf person. Simpson, being a writer, was particularly interested in language, so questioned White about words she’d used in different contexts to those Simpson was familiar with, such as, “coming out” (as a deaf person), “assimilation” (of deaf people into hearing culture), “mainstream” (of people with disabilities into abled-culture), and “colonialism” (of deaf culture and language by hearing culture.) Coming out as a deaf person was a slow process for White, not so much because she was resistant to the idea but because she hadn’t realised how much deafness had impacted her. Living in the country amongst a large extended family, she’d been, essentially, sheltered from fully experiencing her deafness. She was, she said, brought up as a hearing person, and just saw herself as “a bad hearing person”. That got a rueful laugh from the audience.

However, White was conscious through her teens and early twenties of a sense of isolation and loneliness. It was not until she was in her 30s that she started think about herself as deaf, and understand its impact on her life. She recognises, though, the paradox (“the poison and the cure” that she discusses in Hearing Maud) of her deafness, because she believes it has had, for her, negatives but also positives. She would not, she says, have become a writer if she hadn’t been deaf, and turned to reading at a young age.

Signing during the conversation

The conversation was signed.

The conversation, at this point, engaged in some of the history and politics of disability (and particularly deafness, of course): on government policy regarding educating deaf children, on the politics of whether to teach signing or not, on the notion (that is embedded in the cochlear implant development) of ”fixing” people. White argued that this medical model of disability opposes the cultural model, which, for example, allows deaf people to sign, to have have deaf friends, to, in fact, be deaf. White observed that signing is strongest in poorer countries where the medical model is not so developed/can’t be afforded! White is now interested in learning to sign, and is pleased that the book has opened pathways for her into deaf communities. She clearly hopes this will result in mutual benefit to them all.

White also explained how her deafness forced her to develop the ability to intensely focus – on faces and body language, for example – to find patterns and thus meaning. This need to attend to detail makes her a good scholar, she believes, albeit also exhausts her!

Returning to more literary topics, White addressed that tricky memoir issue regarding their potential to hurt others. White said that although she says some tough things, this was not an issue in her clearly close family, whom, she described, as over-sharers! Nonetheless, she did pare back some difficult things in her parents’ lives. She also said that the self in the book is her authentic self.

As for what’s next, White has other things planned – as indeed I know she does because, from my meetings with her, I know she has a mile-a-minute mind! One project is an ecobiography about the pioneering Western Australian botanist, Georgiana Molloy, in which she wants to show the importance of biodiversity. She defined ecobiography, as being about how ecology shapes who we are. I’m intrigued by the various ways the biography form is being explored, expanded, teased out in contemporary literature, so I look forward to White’s ecobiography take.

Q & A

There was a short Q&A, which I won’t share in full, but I did ask White why she’d decided to combine memoir and biography. She said that she wanted to tell Maud’s story, but that hers created a foil or mirror for that story, and in doing so, it enriched both stories.

Another questioner, commenting on deaf people having to conform to the speaking world, asked what the speaking world could do to make life easier for deaf people. White said that many people don’t understand the feeling of powerlessness that disability can bring. She hopes the book will help people see that there are different ways of being.

Jessica White in conversation with Inga Simpson
Muse (Food Wine Books)
Saturday 2 November, 4.30-5.30pm

Special Book and Event Giveaway for Jessica White’s Hearing Maud

Book coverRegular readers here will know that I very rarely do give-aways. However, when Jessica White, who is on the Australian Women Writers Challenge team with me and whose novel Entitlement I’ve reviewed, asked whether I’d be happy to do a giveaway for her latest book, Hearing Maud, and her conversation with Inga Simpson at Muse, how could I refuse? Of course, I couldn’t, and didn’t want to.

So, here’s the deal:

On Saturday 2nd November, from 4.30 – 5.30pm at the wonderful Muse Books and Cafe, Jessica will be in conversation with writer Inga Simpson about her hybrid memoir on deafness, Hearing Maud, which details Jessica’s experiences of deafness after losing most of her hearing at age four. It charts how, as she grew up, she was estranged from people and turned to reading and writing for solace, eventually establishing a career as a writer. Central to her narrative is the story of Maud Praed, the deaf daughter of 19th century Queensland expatriate novelist Rosa Praed. In researching Maud’s story, Jessica reached back into the history of the deaf and realised how, although her and Maud’s stories are a century apart, they both still struggled with the expectations that they be like hearing people.

Jessica is offering not one but TWO giveaways:

  • a copy of the book and a free ticket to this event; or,
  • a copy of the book

Please leave your name in the comments, noting which of these two draws you wish to go into, by midnight AEDST Tuesday 29th October.

The draw, using a random number generator, will be made on Wednesday 30th October:

  • The winner of the book and event will just need to turn up at the event as his/her name will be recorded at the door.
  • The winner of the book will need to email his/her address as requested in the announcement email.

Jessica and I look forward to hearing from you!

Jessica White, Entitlement (Review)

WhiteEntitlementVikingEntitlement is a powerful title for Australian author Jessica White’s second novel, but then White wanted to explore some powerful themes – though they are, unfortunately, somewhat belied by the rural romance/saga looking cover. The author bio at the front of the book tells us that White grew up on a property in northwest New South Wales and it becomes clear very early in the book that she knows whereof she speaks!

Of what does she speak, then, you are probably asking? Entitlement is set in contemporary times on a cattle property near a fictional place called Tumbin. The story starts with 29-year-old Cate McConville, now a practising GP, returning home because her parents wish to sell the property. She, with other family members, is a partner in the business, and all need to agree to the sale. But, Cate’s holding out – not because she loves farming and wants to return, but because her only sibling, her much-loved brother Eliot, had disappeared several years earlier and she wants him to have a home to return to. The farm – the land – also contains her memories of, and therefore her link to, him.

While the plot-line is established gradually, the first chapter sets the book’s tone and style. It tells us there’s tension between Cate and her parents; that memory is going to feature strongly in the telling; and that indigenous issues are likely to be part of the story. The book then progresses, introducing more and more characters over the next few chapters. Each chapter tends to be dedicated to one character, or a small group of characters, and usually involves flashbacks, as the character remembers something from, or reflects on, the past. White handles this well. There are many characters, but the present-flashback narrative style keeps them clear and in their place (if that makes sense). This style does risk becoming a little rigid, but White breaks it up every now and then with a chapter purely set in the present, or one that commences in the past.

Very early, as the characters are introduced, the themes start to become clear. The story is told within two main contexts – farming succession and indigenous connection to land. Over-riding all this is the notion of stolen and lost children. Local indigenous man, Mellor, has worked for a couple of decades for the McConvilles, as had his wife until she’d died of cancer. His extended family, particularly his two aunts, live with him on the edge of the property, and have experienced the stealing of their children. Cate’s father, Blake, is racist and dismissive of indigenous people and their rights, while her mother Leonora, by contrast, is on friendly relations with Mellor and his family.

Now, if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll have read some of my discussions of non-indigenous people writing about indigenous issues. It’s uneasy ground to walk on, but for White, with her farming background, the issues of stolen children and indigenous land rights are things she’s likely to have lived. I’m not surprised she wanted to explore it. Indeed, she wrote a comment on this blog nearly two years ago, saying that this novel:

raises the question of who, in contemporary Australia, is entitled to the land? I also tried to show, through the break up of a white family that was fighting over land, how Indigenous people have been affected by their dispossession. I don’t think it’s a question that can ever be answered, though I did aim for a (probably utopian) resolution at the end of the book.

She couldn’t do this, really, without creating indigenous characters and that means of course that she had to present (her understanding of) their attitudes. I think she’s handled this sensitively, but of course I’m non-indigenous. I did wonder if she’d stepped onto shakier ground when she drew comparisons between Cate’s mother’s loss with that of the stolen generation mothers. However, in her acknowledgements White thanks “Michael Aird and Sarah Martin for their conversations and resources on Indigenous culture and history”. She has not, it seems, walked this ground lightly. And she doesn’t leave it at country and stolen generation issues, but touches on other injustices, such as indigenous health and housing, and racist violence.

White is on safe ground when she discusses the land and farm from Cate’s point of view. I thoroughly enjoyed her descriptions of the landscape and farm life – little scenes of her father and uncle undertaking farm tasks, of Mellor tending to fences, or of Cate running through the land, for example. Here’s a description of an Australia Day picnic:

Flies and mosquitoes plucked at their skin. The scents of the bush were drawn out by the heat and bundled together like a sweet, loosely woven shawl. Kangaroos bounded away in alarm as they made their way up the hill. Crickets whirred, rising from the long grass, and cockatoos screeched.

Her characters, too, are real; they are imperfect, believable human beings. Cate’s inflexibility, her selfish unwillingness to understand the health issues forcing the need to sell, made me cross but the pain, the loss, driving her behaviour is believable. Her parents are presented as having a loving relationship, but not without its tensions and conflicts. And so on.

Entitlement is an engrossing and serious, though not a grim read. As White admits, she does try for a positive resolution, which could almost do the seriousness of the issues a disservice. However, the story is not completely neatly tidied up, presumably because she realised that her question – how do we handle conflicting relationships to this land so many of us call home – does not have a simple answer. It’s therefore important that both indigenous and non-indigenous writers put stories and ideas out there for us to think about. It can only help the discussion, don’t you think?

awwchallenge2015Jessica White
Melbourne: Viking, 2012
ISBN: 9780670075935

(Signed copy won in a blog giveaway)