Re-reading Coonardoo



I reviewed Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo back in 2014 and stand by most of my comments. I’ve just finished re-reading it, and want to add some further thoughts.

It’s inevitable that literature is read in terms of its social relevance, praised or blamed for its handling of issues that matter to us as a society now. It’s one of the functions of literature, and it’s a significant one, but it shouldn’t be the only one. It’s a two-edged sword, of course. When Coonardoo was serialised in the The Bulletin in 1928, some readers wrote in angrily about the fact it depicted miscegenation between whites and Aboriginals. (This is an oft-repeated statement; if I get time I’d like to get behind it and see if these and other negative reactions are preserved in the archives anywhere – certainly not in KSP’s papers.) Later, Coonardoo was praised for its progressiveness in representing Aboriginal characters more fully. Continue reading

Sweet Country


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For my birthday, I watched Sweet Country. It’s a brilliant film: beautifully crafted shots, a clever plot working within the conventions of the thriller, and a superb evocation of 1920s outback Australia. It’s the story of an Aboriginal man, Sam Kelly, who shoots a white man in self-defence and goes on the run. At one point the townspeople are watching a travelling screening of the early silent film The Story of the Kelly Gang, and the parallel is a good one: in Sam Kelly, we have an outlaw we can unequivocally cheer on. The actor who plays him, Hamilton Morris, is brilliant. I love the fact that in 2018 we can finally have a film with a middle-aged Aboriginal hero, wise, quiet, and complicated and so alien to every cliche of Hollywood heroes. I also love this film for the way it made me experience the outback, the heat, the beauty, the harsh life. It made me glad to be Australian. It comes just as I’m re-reading Katharine Prichard’s Coonardoo, published the same time the film is set. The whole film feels like a contemporary reworking of Prichard’s outback ouevre from an Aboriginal perspective. For that and many other reasons I recommend it highly.

A generation X family chronicle: You Belong Here by Laurie Steed


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My friend Laurie Steed’s debut, You Belong Here, has just been published. It stretches from 1972 to 2015, beginning when two baby boomers fall in love and finishing with a poignant epilogue chapter from their first grandchild, but at its heart it’s a novel about Generation X, that forgotten generation that no-one seems to have talked about since the nineties. He-man toys in childhood, PJ Harvey on the stereo; reading it is a welcome respite from an internet world as the three Slater children – Alex, Emily, Jay – grow up on lolly bags at the deli, cricket and VHS at the end of the twentieth century. Continue reading

Biography workshop on 17 March 2018



 Biography is the art of human portrayal in words, and it is a noble and adventurous art.
– Leon Edel

My biography workshop at Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre is coming up fast. If you know anyone in Perth writing a biography, please let them know about it! I’d love to have a decent-sized group of biographers discuss our genre. The workshop is designed to be accessible for beginners but experienced biographers are welcome and should find much to appreciate as well as contributing their own wisdom.

Detective, Historian, Storyteller: The Arts of the Biographer
A biographer needs many hats – detective, unearthing sources that reveal a life more fully; historian, analysing and putting these sources into context; and storyteller, weaving it all into a compelling narrative. This workshop introduces these roles of the biographer and gives practical tips and exercises to help you develop your skills.

Saturday 17 March, 1:30pm – 4:30pm.
Cost: $38 for Members $48 for Non-Members
Venue: ECU Joondalup Campus, Edith Cowan House, Building 20, 270 Joondalup Drive, Joondalup WA
Register online

Download flyer for the Arts of Biographer workshopbiographer


Biography from a deep well: Martin Edmond’s Battarbee and Namatjira


One of Australia’s great biographers is a New Zealander. Long a resident of Australia, Martin Edmond’s new book, The Expatriates, is about four New Zealanders who made their mark in Europe. Before that, he tackled the most Australian of subjects in his 2014 dual biography on two great Northern Territory painters, Rex Battarbee and Albert Namatjira. Continue reading

The death of Billy Graham


So, Billy Graham is dead at ninety-nine. He lived long enough to see the movement he once led, American evangelicalism, become monstrous, complicit in the election of Donald Trump. There was a time when the distinction between fundamentalism and evangelicalism was meaningful. Billy Graham was distrusted by fundamentalists because he was willing to work with all kinds of Christians. Evangelicals shared fundamentalists’ high view of the Bible but they weren’t separatists. They were willing to engage with the world and with theological liberals, to make their case rather than to bunker down in solipsism. They weren’t politically partisan. (There are still many moderate or progressive evangelicals, and even more in Australia, but their quiet witness is not loud enough.) Continue reading

‘1940 handwritten diary / unknown female / New York’



handwritten diary

Photo: 1940 Handwritten Diary, taken by 6cats4sandi, Ebay

I stumbled upon a diary for sale on Ebay, described like this:

This is the 1940 diary of an unknown female. There are 127 days of entries. It looks like there might be enough information inside to possibly research and find out who the author might be.There are also a couple of newspaper clippings inside.The diary is in good condition,considering its age,with only a few pages darkened from age,and the clippings.

It wasn’t the only handwritten diary for sale, but the bidding for this one was more intense than others. It ended up selling for US202.50. Was it the mystery of the diarist’s identity that brought out more bidders? The quantity of entries? Or interest in that year and place?  Continue reading

Biographers’ Forum on Facebook


Image: Atelier Seidel, Archive of photographic images in the loft of the house.

Biographers are vastly outnumbered by novelists, poets, and probably playwrights. We need to stick together more. I’ve started a new Facebook group called Biographers’ Forum – ‘The art, the joys, and the woes of biography. A place for those writing researched biographies to converse and share resources, tips, reviews, stories, and news.’ It is already trans-Pacific with its first two members, Laura and me. Michelle and Janine and other biographers who read this blog – if you’re on Facebook it would be great to have you there! And for everyone else, if you know any biographers, please do invite them.

Missing the archives


Cataloguing a biography of Charles Spurgeon in my librarian job, I noticed this convolutedly-worded confession in the preface. The book is a comprehensive biography of 700 pages in two columns (such a strange layout) described by one reviewer as an ‘immense and monumental portrait’, yet the author did not manage to get to the major archives for his subject at all. I take this as a consolation for my lack of recent access to Katharine’s papers in Canberra; yet it seems an unforgivable hole in a biography.

In the first two years, I made four trips to Canberra and two to Melbourne. But still I fret over the archives, over the fact I may not make it again anytime soon and the thought of all the things I’ve missed. (I didn’t copy as much of the material beyond 1919, where the project was initially finishing.)

Not being able to get to Canberra has made me find work arounds. My university library has procured me copies of papers I have location numbers for. (I am waiting anxiously for them to tell me I’ve asked for too many!) Right here in Perth I recently stumbled across the boxes of material gathered by a previous PhD student attempting a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. It had some significant material I’d not copied and I’m so grateful for her foresight and generosity in leaving them to future scholars. I’ve gone back more carefully over the photographs I took from the archive and found whole folders I didn’t realise I had. And I’ve reached the Western Australian years and found many things at the State Library of WA, even an eyewitness account of Katharine’s death.

I’ve learned about an important paradox in writing a biography anyway: the hunger for archives is in tension with the readers’ patience. The biographer will usually have more material than the reader wants to read.

A biographical dilemma: trying to sell a trilogy, or not


‘Just one thing to make clear,’ she said, ‘I’d be astonished if any agent or publisher thought it was a good idea to write a trilogy on Katharine Susannah Prichard.’

I was hoping for something more like: I would be astonished if any agent or publisher turned down this manuscript. But I hired my editor for a manuscript assessment because of her frank and fearless advice and industry insight. I was glad to hear she considered it well written, but what stood out for her was my premise that the early life of KSP was worth an entire book. Did I provide some startling justification for this later in the manuscript? Did I have a better example of a similar undertaking other than Judith Wright? No and no. Continue reading