National Biography Award Shortlist 2018

The National Biography Award presents the best works of personal lives in Australia. It showcases true Australia and those who have made this country so unique and dynamic.

The shortlisted titles are

Songs of a War Boy (Deng Thiak Adut with Ben Mckelvey, Hachette) – At six years old, his mother was told she had to give him up to fight. At the age most Australian children are starting school, Deng was conscripted into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. He began a harsh, relentless military training that saw this young boy trained to use an AK-47 and sent into battle. He lost the right to be a child. He lost the right to learn. The things Deng saw over those years will stay with him forever. He suffered from cholera, malaria and numerous other debilitating illnesses but still he had to fight. A child soldier is expected to kill or be killed and Deng almost died a number of times. He survived being shot in the back. The desperation and loneliness was overwhelming. He thought he was all alone. But Deng was rescued from war by his brother John. Hidden in the back of a truck, he was smuggled out of Sudan and into Kenya. Here he lived in refugee camps until he was befriended by an Australian couple. With their help and the support of the UN, Deng Adut came to Australia as a refugee. Despite physical injuries and mental trauma he grabbed the chance to make a new life. He worked in a local service station and learnt English watching The Wiggles. He taught himself to read and started studying at TAFE. In 2005 he enrolled in a Bachelor of Law at Western Sydney University. He became the first person in his family to graduate from university. This is an inspiring story of a man who has overcome deadly adversity to become a lawyer and committed worker for the disenfranchised, helping refugees in Western Sydney. It is an important reminder of the power of compassion and the benefit to us all when we open our doors and our hearts to fleeing war, persecution and trauma.

Paul Keating: The Big-Picture Leader (Troy Bramston, Scribe) – Drawing on around 15 hours of new interviews with Keating, coupled with access to his extensive personal files, this book tells the story of a political warrior’s rise to power, from the outer suburbs of Sydney through Young Labor and into parliament at just 25 years of age, serving as a minister in the last days of the Whitlam government; his path-breaking term as treasurer in the 1980s; his four-year prime ministership from 1991 to 1996; and his passions and interests since. Bramston has interviewed more than 100 people who know and worked with Keating, including his family, parliamentary colleagues, advisers, party officials, union leaders, public servants, and journalists. This includes interviews with Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Doug Anthony, Bill Hayden, Andrew Peacock, Ian Sinclair, John Hewson, Alexander Downer, Peter Costello, Kim Beazley, Simon Crean, Cheryl Kernot, and Bob Carr. Bramston has secured access to Labor archives, and he also documents key debates in once-secret cabinet papers, reveals caucus minutes for the first time, draws on the unpublished diaries of Neal Blewett and Bob Carr, discloses meeting records from the archives of US presidents George H W Bush and Bill Clinton, talks to former British prime minister Tony Blair, and shares his new discoveries from the personal files of Whitlam, Hayden, Hawke, and Howard. Paul Keating saw political leadership as the combination of courage and imagination, a belief that powered his public career and helps explain his extraordinary triumphs and crushing lows. Keating blazed a trail of reform with a vision for Australia’s future that still attracts ardent admirers and the staunchest critics. This book chronicles, analyses, and interprets Keating’s life, and draws lessons for a Labor Party and a country still reluctant to fully embrace his legacy.

A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work (Bernadette Brennan, Text) – Helen Garner is one of Australia’s most important and most admired writers. She is revered for her fearless honesty in the pursuit of her craft. But Garner also courts controversy, not least because she refuses to be constrained by the rules of literary form. She has never been afraid to write herself into her nonfiction, and many of her own experiences help to shape her fiction. But who is the ‘I’ in Helen Garner’s work? Bernadette Brennan’s A Writing Life is the first full-length study of Garner’s forty years of work, a literary portrait that maps all of her books against the different stages of her life. Brennan has had access to previously unavailable papers in Garner’s archive, and she provides a lively and rigorous reading of the books, journals and correspondence of one of Australia’s most beloved women of letters.

The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (Judith Brett, Text) – This insightful and accessible new biography of Alfred Deakin, Australia’s second prime minister, shines fresh light on one of the nation’s most significant figures. It brings out from behind the image of a worthy, bearded father of federation the gifted, passionate and intriguing man whose contributions continue to shape the contours of Australian politics. The acclaimed political scientist Judith Brett scrutinises both Deakin’s public life and his inner life. Deakin’s private papers reveal a solitary, religious character who found distasteful much of the business of politics, with its unabashed self-interest, double-dealing, and mediocre intellectual levels. And yet politics is where Deakin chose to do his life’s work. Destined to become a classic of biography, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin is a masterly portrait of a complex man who was instrumental in creating modern Australia.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia (Joan Healy, Monash University Publishing) –  Writing for Raksmey tells of the lives of six families who fled the aftermath of the Cambodian killing fields, were held in a crowded refugee camp at the border of their country, and then sent back to a nation still at war. The past is not spoken about but the struggles are not over and the sons and daughters of those who once were refugees sense mystery in their legacy and know it is important to them. Joan Healy lived and worked with these refugees for many years. In response to a young man who said he `needed to know everything’, she has told a story of his troubled homeland, retrieved from the fading pages of her journals and letters. The saga of this quarter century is witness to both a determination to survive and human goodness that was never quenched. Joan Healy’s personal, learned, eye-witness account is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand Cambodia.

The Boy Behind the Curtain (Tim Winton, Penguin) – The remarkable true stories in The Boy Behind the Curtain reveal an intimate and rare view of Tim Winton’s imagination at work and play.  A chronicler of sudden turnings, brutal revelations and tender sideswipes, Tim Winton has always been in the business of trouble. In his novels chaos waits in the wings and ordinary people are ambushed by events and emotions beyond their control. But as these extraordinarily powerful memoirs show, the abrupt and the headlong are old familiars to the author himself, for in many ways his has been a life shaped by havoc.  In The Boy Behind the Curtain Winton reflects on the accidents, traumatic and serendipitous, that have influenced his view of life and fuelled his distinctive artistic vision. On the unexpected links between car crashes and religious faith, between surfing and writing, and how going to the wrong movie at the age of eight opened him up to a life of the imagination. And in essays on class, fundamentalism, asylum seekers, guns and the natural world he reveals not only the incidents and concerns that have made him the much-loved writer he is, but some of what unites the life and the work.

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