National Biography Award Talk & Podcast

National Biography Award Talk   –    2010

30 November 2010, Mitchell Library

Podcasts available:

Hilary McPhee, writer and former publisher, presents the 2010 National Biography Award lecture.

In recent years she has been living in Jordan and Italy writing a book and articles about the region. Here she discusses biography in both Australia and the Middle East.

Click to view the video

There was a time when some of us feared that literary biography and autobiography were endangered species, that they were being drowned out by the memoirs of 26 year old sportspersons whose lives, or so they seemed to me, had barely begun, but whose books sold in astonishingly large quantities. Publishers were convinced they were on to something and they were.  Celebrity publishing was born.

In the mid nineties, this National Biography Award was created, with the admirable intention of encouraging the highest standards of writing in a genre that was rapidly expanding. And looking at the list of past winners and the shortlists of the last few of years, one cannot but be struck by the range and the originality of the works that have been published since then.

Ideas for books don’t arise because an award exists, of course, and publishers don’t make publishing decisions in the hope of them – but awards like this are a crucial form of acknowledgement to everyone involved that there is some kind of best practice, a standard for research and writing that all the other myriad forms of life writing, the bio-pics and documentary making and collaborating across art forms, can learn from and utilize.

We in Australia seem addicted to them, but they are starting to pour forth everywhere in all kinds of media. President Obama has just appointed someone called a videographer to document life in the White House and his rather fine autobiographies will surely feed that process.

Jill Rowe’s splendid and wonderfully comprehensive biography of Stella Miles Franklin, on this years’ shortlist, is a reminder, if we need one, of the power of awards to map and eventually shape the culture – as I believe this one is already doing.

In an academic climate where writing time is at a premium, the message that historical and literary research work is significant can get very muted. Conveying to authors that such research is worth persevering with – often over many years, is worth doing.

The awards in recent years have celebrated a number of highly original works that have taken the form in directions it has never before been taken. I think especially of Evelyn Juers’ A House of Exile , Barry Hill’s Broken Song, Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, Jacob Rosenberg’s ­East of Time, and this year’s winner, of course, Brian Matthews’ Manning Clark, A Life.

Australian writing from life has come a long way. Back in the days when I was a baby editor, books like these would never have happened.

I find it useful to remember the rather low base we’ve come from in this country.

In fact, we encouraged the writing of very few memoirs or autobiographies or substantial biographies until the 1980s. The odd diplomat and headmaster, politicians without spin doctors to plead their case, reminiscences of bush life, mainly by women, most very gentle, if not genteel, and Miles Franklin and Allan Marshall apart, none cut very deep into the culture.

We imported a lot of mainly British biographies and memoirs and published a few rather stodgy, conventionally written works in hardcovers for the library market – of iconic figures – explorers, heroes, aviators.

Those subjects who were still alive were published somewhat dutifully, or so it seemed to me. The old and the distinguished, almost all men, liked to set the chronology of their public lives and thoughts and deeds firmly within the history of their times – their voices were reserved, their revelations for public scrutiny suitably seemly. This befitted the hero’s journey into the dark. The books were perhaps a form of eulogy, epitaph and last judgment rolled into one. Maybe because they imagined themselves dead, they wanted no one to speak ill of them.

By the eighties, some publishers were trying to commission and suggest, but it wasn’t easy. The sorts of people that might have a book in them were the least inclined to write one. You were expected to do them the courtesy of waiting until they thought of it themselves, or risk the huffy response I’m far too young, I’m not finished yet.

So you waited, and usually something watery and disappointing was delivered too late.

I recall family members sometimes bringing in exercise books filled with the grandparents copperplate handwriting giving glimpses of extraordinary childhoods ‘up bush’, or in homes for wayward girls. There were packets of love-letters from young men who went to war, but almost inevitably most were fragments of memories that were fading fast. Bert Facey’s A Fortunate Life was a spectacular exception, of course, and fortunate indeed to have found its way to a publishing house prepared to give it the skilled editing it needed.

Tonight, because I am in the Friends Room of the splendid Mitchell Library, talking to people who can be assumed to be interested in biographical writing, it seemed like a fine opportunity to talk a little about some of my time away from here when I was writing a complex biography.

Talking about the book at all is hemmed around by stop signs and no-go areas – most of them in my head, some of them the normal restraints of confidentiality and privacy, some of them might sound a little paranoid to you, like an episode from Spooks, but I was in a world of security concerns, where emails are vetted regularly, at least for keywords, where computer files sometimes seemed to come and go – and formal communications are always coded and oblique.

A few years ago, I was solicited for the task of writing a biography of a well known public figure in Amman – a man greatly respected all over the Arab world and in Europe. He is not at all well known in Australia, which is a pity because we could do with his insights, but it does make talking about the project slightly easier. I don’t need to name him but will try to ensure he gets a copy of this paper. He doesn’t ‘do’ emails, his staff do. And it’s a world of multiple agendas.


I doubt if many of the books on this year’s shortlist would have emerged during this period. Or if they had their authors would have certainly been asked to make major changes, to tone down the intimacy, to leave themselves out of it, to make a clear distinction between the public and the private life.

This year’s winning biographer, Brian Matthews, was writing Louisa in the eighties – I think MPG published it in 1987 – an utterly original portrait/life/biography of Louisa Lawson, mother of Henry – no one quite knew what to call it then.

It too would not have been published in an earlier era because it needed the post-modernity of its times – which it then transcended.

Brian invented a useful device he called ‘the biographer’s alter ego’ – who was permitted to make lots of interventions. This is one of my favourites because it contains something I believe is fundamental to the contemporary biographical method:

‘ Fiction’s bridge’, says the biographer’s alter ego ‘is the route to the imagined past… the antidote for paucity of fact and information. Let us at least take a look at fiction’s bridge – its sturdy deceptive structure. Perhaps even nip across?  To the opposite bank ….’

Manning Clark, A life does not need to use fiction’s bridge. Brian had no paucity of fact or information. He also had Manning’s generous family who understood the restraints and the freedoms a biographer requires to produce such a book. He had access to what must have seemed like an over-abundance of riches – fine archival collections, copious private papers and the diaries where Manning vented and fretted and revealed his insecurities almost daily,  as well as the six volumes of the great theatrical histories through which the life, or the part of a life he, the biographer, deemed the most revealing, could be revealed.

Australian life writing has not only come a long way. It is also being noticed more often by the rest of the literary world, at least partly now because it is developing its own forms and writers are finding ways to engage with the creative space that is usually reserved for fiction.

This used to be an impediment to overseas publication. I well recall the slightly embarrassed alarm that greeted Louisa, then a few years later Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy, a portrait of her mother through the thread of history and memory and imagination, then her fine Stravinsky’s Lunch. ‘Wonderful books’, we were told by agents and publishers, but ‘impossible to publish outside Australia’ – not just because of their subject matter but because they were too unconventional, breaking too many rules and protocols, frightening the horses.

Recently, I came across a German literary website which made the point that Evelyn Juers’ House of Exile, which uses ‘fiction’s bridge to the imagined past’ to great effect, could not have been first published in Germany – not because of the use she made of facts or the history revealed – but because of the unconventional craft of the work itself.  Something similar was said, I believe, about Anna Funder’s Stasiland. Only an Australian could have done it.

I spend a good deal of time these days pondering such cross-cultural mysteries. Perhaps our writers are braver, perhaps our literary tradition isn’t so daunting, perhaps it shook itself free of the old world to go it alone some time ago. Perhaps Arthur Phillips’ diagnosis of the cursed cultural cringe in 1950 was heard and understood by our best writers in a place where, to quote Phillips, ‘the ghosts are not sitting in on the tête-à-tête between the Australian reader and the writer interrupting in the wrong accent.’

They have not only made their own spaces here but an increasing number now feel free to connect deeply with other cultures, not just as literary tourism of which we saw a good deal a decade or so ago – exotic settings with the mysterious other given bit parts – and often seriously wrong-footing it.

Whatever is happening, there is a richness and that was not there before – which excited me and helped me get my bearings back when I returned to Australia feeling somewhat disconnected after a long absence.

(Wordlines is a little anthology of new writing I put together then, of writing which seemed to me to be international, engaged with the world in fresh ways.)

The impulse to explore individual experience, to enter imaginatively into other people’s lives, runs deep in literature and art. It is behind the huge outpouring of life story happening today in all media, in most cultures. It is perhaps the only way we can start to understand the enigma of being human, to enter other people’s realities and allow them the room to be different from ourselves.


Tonight, because I am in the Friends Room of the splendid Mitchell Library, talking to people who can be assumed to be interested in biographical writing, it seemed like a fine opportunity to talk a little about some of my time away from here when I was writing a complex biography.

Talking about the book at all is hemmed around by stop signs and no-go areas – most of them in my head, some of them the normal restraints of confidentiality and privacy, some of them might sound a little paranoid to you, like an episode from Spooks, but I was in a world of security concerns, where emails are vetted regularly, at least for keywords, where computer files sometimes seemed to come and go – and formal communications are always coded and oblique.

A few years ago, I was solicited for the task of writing a biography of a well known public figure in Amman – a man greatly respected all over the Arab world and in Europe. He is not at all well known in Australia, which is a pity because we could do with his insights, but it does make talking about the project slightly easier. I don’t need to name him but will try to ensure he gets a copy of this paper. He doesn’t ‘do’ emails, his staff do. And it’s a world of multiple agendas.

The reason I was asked to consider the commission I did not discover until later and I won’t go into now except to say I was surprised to be approached with an invitation to visit Amman at the end of 2005.

This was a time when I needed a distraction. My mother had just died, most of my family were travelling, and my life was under-going one of its periodic seismic shifts. I had begun working on another project in a medical library in Melbourne and in the fabulous Wellcome Collection in London when I was contacted. I was about to go to India. But I took myself off to the British Library and read everything I could find.

The Times had had their correspondents on the spot from before the fall of the Ottomans, during the carving up of the region by the British and the French, the contested creation of Israel, the displacement of the Palestinians, and the Arab-Israeli wars of the seventies. The coverage was substantial, the perspective colonial, the tone often condescending and slightly mocking of the Arabs.

The public figure I was to meet had written a number of books himself in English and Arabic – several about Palestinian self-determination – two thirds of Jordan’s population is Palestinian – several interpreting Islam for the West. The books intrigued me.  There was a big brain behind them but nothing remotely personal. Interviews and photo opportunities had obviously been kept to a minimum. This was not a man seeking to trade on his celebrity.

My curiosity was well and truly wetted. I am not a ghost writer nor was one wanted.  Writing a real book that dug deep, based on interviews and research, was what was on offer.

The questions I should have been asking myself were niggling at the back of my skull – and they weren’t the ones I got used to later especially from the English – Why you? Why an Australian?

But I did try to resist at the very beginning. I had a project I was engrossed with. I would be a long way from home for long periods.

But this was a region that had always fascinated me and that I had travelled widely in as a young woman. By late in 2005, the war in Iraq, which shares a border with Jordan, had escalated. We were part of the Coalition of the Willing,  WMDs, of course, had failed to materialise, and my regular column in The Age had been given to a military strategist. Like many people here, I was feeling out of joint.

So I agreed to change planes at Dubai and fly north to Amman for a few days to meet the family and let the formidable subject of the proposed book meet me. Only much later did I learn how thorough the vetting process was for those allowed into Amman without a visa and under the protection of Security.

A few weeks earlier, Amman had just suffered its first Al-Qaeda masterminded suicide bombings of three international hotels. 57 local people were killed and hundreds injured, many of them members of a wedding party. Armed guards were still everywhere in the streets and at the entrance to my hotel.

I was immediately captivated by the project – and charmed by the warmth of my welcome – and the lovely old house with the parquet floors and the beautiful rugs and the open fires – it was winter and very cold.

Amman 2006

Of course, I asked lots of sensible questions about how this piece of life writing might be approached, how shared authorship might work, how it would be resourced, who I would help me access archives, who would transcribe the tapes and so on.

We spoke of international politics and the region, the history of the house with its bullet holes from the days when it was under siege from the PLO, and a little about Australia.

There was a funny story about a police horse in St Kilda Rd in the 1970s, and Gareth Evans had visited recently as President of the International Crisis Group.

Prime Minister Howard was not held in high regard in this part of the world. The people rescued by the Tampa had been Iraqis. Jordan was already trying to cope with many thousands of displaced people coming across its border.

After lunch and an inspection of the overflowing and up-to-date private library which would be put at my disposal, I was given a tour of Amman – accompanied by a phalanx of armed guards in separate SUVs, that screamed to a halt whenever the car I was being driven in stopped in the old quarter with its narrow streets and steep alleys. This happened often. People tapped on the window when the driver was recognised. He knew their names and their family’s stories. Clearly he was much loved.

I was shown his sacred sites: the house he was born in, the café where he and his friends used to meet in Old Downtown, his mother’s garden with its high wall. The contrast between modern Amman with its huge shopping malls and mansions with three and four car garages could not have been greater.

For the next few days I was provided with a driver and shown some of the sights of Jordan – to the Roman city of Jerrash, Mount Nebo where Moses died and from where Bethlehem in the West Bank can be seen in the distance. And at night, the lights of Jerusalem, 45 miles from Amman, an easy horse ride in the old days when the Al Asqa Mosque was regularly attended.

I climbed over the Roman Citadel above Amman, walked alongside the depleted Jordan river, I was shown struggling orange farms watered by hand on one side of the valley while on the Israeli side great irrigation plants were producing an abundance of everything. Finally, veiled and very nervous, I was introduced to one of the imams in the vast and beautiful King Hussein Mosque in old Downtown.

Needless to say, I was on board.

A biography covering four generations was to be constructed from interviews and conversations, set against the backdrop of Bedouin culture, Transjordian history and the labyrinthine politics of the Arab world as it emerged from its colonial past and began the slow process of modernisation and institution building.

Why ever did I think I could do this? But then why would I not?  It was right up my alley. All it needed was imagination, research, a brilliant structure and a huge amount of work. That’s all.

We began work a few months later when I had read everything I could find. There was very little written in English that was from an Arab perspective or that did not signal an identity handed them from the West. There was only one very conservative and careful history of Jordan published years earlier. Albert Hourani’s History of the Arab Peoples (1991) was a brilliant general history. And the only book I could find about Jordanian food and culture had been written by Cecil Hourani, his brother.

So began this most extraordinary project. I was contracted, set up in a writing room in a glorious garden, and rapidly became completely engrossed by the complexities of the task and the story that unfolded.  Most days there was a taped conversation in the garden, where we couldn’t be overheard or bugged, pausing whenever fighter planes flew low overhead from a nearby airfield.

I was told story after story of great deeds and noble aims, of nation building and governance. There were tales of perfidy and corruption, of betrayal and forgiveness – electrifying, moving – and also gratifying. I felt I was trusted, my questions taken seriously and my judgement respected. There were many confidences I would never betray but  sometimes I felt the biographer’s pang when, what I regarded as some of the best bits, were withdrawn. We’d better save that one for my dotage, I’d be told occasionally and out they’d go.

This was the point when I could and maybe should have pulled out but instead we plunged on in conversations about history and the politics of the region and Arab culture – and slowly the book changed its focus.

I had access to experts, to politicians who had been involved in building literacy levels and village schools, to soldiers who were there,  to friends and colleagues who wanted to see the book happen. People were frank and generous with their time. But their stories sometimes conflicted or contradicted each other – or were simple eulogies to a great man.

There is not a strong tradition anywhere in the Arab world of biography, autobiography and memoir as we know them. Hagiographies are common, resources are scarce, archives are destroyed or left to moulder in basements in cardboard boxes, official photographs look much the same and the new National Museum is more like a propaganda palace.

The record is contested and contradictory about the most basic events. There are many silences. Even today families are reluctant to reveal which side they were on in the great upheavals of the 1970s when the PLO was based in Amman and the monarchy was under threat.

By 1970, Amman had become a military town and a capital under siege. It was estimated that there were 101,000 fedayeen in Jordan, 25,000 of them full-time. There were curfews, soldiers on the streets shooting at mosques and barricading the compounds of the rich. Planes were blown up on the tarmac at Dawson’s Field and Arafat eventually left for Egypt – in the boot of someone’s car, or so I heard.

I even met the woman whose car it was said to have been and she was happy to tell me a good deal about the whole event – but never for the record. I met young people who had not thought to ask their parents whether they fought for the PLO or for the King. There has been no oral history of this time. (I even fantasised for a moment about making one happen.)

The tribes are immensely powerful, families are divided by the West Bank and across the irrational borders into Syria and Lebanon. All have their own versions of history.

After a time you start to recognize recurring themes and the rhythms of story-telling. Car boot smuggling was one, hiding in caves, blowing up railway lines, being run off the road – stories are related with great flourishes and rhythms and links to the desert of harra (lava) which extends over Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The land is beloved and familiar at least to the older generation who walked it and read it and knew its every rock and plant – and now mourn the encroachment of the new housing estates and shopping malls.


After more than a year and a half of taping, reading, writing and restructuring, I had a final draft we were both happy with. A number of specialist readers had fact-checked. Translation and publication in Arabic and English had been arranged by me. The footnotes were being tweaked and the bibliography prepared.

I should have expected what happened next because it happens to biographers everywhere.  But in this case the details are still obscure. I can guess but am not sure. The crunch came right at the end when those who had encouraged me started wanting subtle but significant changes.

This is a world of tafdil, of preferential treatment, and wasta, knowing the right people, of grace and favour, of multiple agendas, of face. Eventually, it became clear the book was to be watered down and I very sadly let it go.

My questions about its fate – on email to staff – have been ignored for more than a year now. This may mean one or more of many things.  They aren’t game to answer me, or that they don’t know, or that they have been told not to talk about it. Quite possibly, they have other things on their mind – and they don’t notice my carefully phrased question nestling there between greetings and condolences, enquiries about their families and their work.

More than likely the rather mysterious project ‘Miss Hilary’ was engaged in and could never explain properly because I’d been told not to, is still in the box in the locked cupboard where I neatly laid it – my three printed out copies, my many hours of audio tapes and the contract with the publisher who was standing by.

What I had failed to do in my initial discussions was identify the complex power relations among families and friends with elaborate connections to each other and the upper echelons of government and commerce.

I had no clause in my letter of agreement about who had final say over the text. It didn’t occur to me, I am rather astonished now to admit. So keen was I to sign up. So in the end the precious book may have been felt to rock too many boats at a time where much was changing.

Maybe one day, something abbreviated will emerge with lots of lovely photos of modern day Jordan with captions written by someone else, a gift book to be presented to visiting dignitaries, perhaps. Kevin Rudd, now foreign minister, on a visit to Amman might bring one home.

Jordan Valley

On my computer sits nearly 100,000 words, rather good words, though I say it myself, which I dip into every now and then to re-enter the world they conjure up and remind myself of the calibre and complexity of the man I was writing through and about.

In a way publication doesn’t matter. I had privileged access to a remarkable person, who was and is a tireless worker for peace in the region, for understanding between religions, who gave me an insight into Arab culture and literature I never would have had otherwise. The experience of having to think myself into another world through someone else’s reality was invaluable, it changed my life.

Here is a little passage that might give you a sense of the man and the book. It comes very near the end, part of a reflection on the parlous state of the Arab world where the rich are usually hardhearted and the poor, especially the young, are increasingly desperate.

Change can only be driven by a belief that the meek shall inherit the Earth. If we are waiting for the strong to defeat their enemies and then, and only then, turning swords into plough shares, then we are talking about engineering the future of humanity not to conform with God’s image, but to conform with our own.

‘If the callous divide is allowed to further worsen, the world will face the longest struggle of all with temporary outbreaks of peace or truce while people rearm and produce their militant slogans.

In the end, is it only about the ‘survival of the fittest’? But who defines who the ‘fittest’ are? Is this not a racial supremacist view? Why now is the ‘clash of civilisations’ levelled only at Muslims?’

Why indeed?


These days, I go back and forth to the Middle East working as best I can with people who are setting up little centres for story. The telling of testimonial narratives, consoling and celebratory, now commonplace in our western mass media to the point, I sometimes think, of weakening their impact, still has a long way to go and much to contribute to strengthening damaged cultures in that part of the world. But they cannot anymore be collected like cultural artefacts to embellish the literature of other places.

Writers I got to know during this time tell me there is a real sense of a literary and publishing culture that is re-emerging, but one that comes from within and is not beholden to the West.

Two friends have recently written important books. Hanan Al-Shaykh has written a biography of her mother, an illiterate Lebanese woman who in 1934 aged 9 was betrothed then married to her brother–in–law, eighteen years her senior. Kamila fell in love with a young man in her village and managed to conduct an affair with him, helped by sympathetic neighbours and members of his family.

She eventually managed to engineer her own divorce and remarriage, which meant relinquishing the right to live with her children (one of whom was Hanan). Kamila broke every rule and survived into old age when she finally persuaded her daughter, by this time an established novelist widely read throughout the Arab world, to tell her dramatic story, all the more powerful because it is drawn from life and shatters the usual simplistic and stereotyped portrait the West has come to expect of Muslim women.

The other book was published last year, a highly complex literary biography of an artist, Ali al Jabri, who was murdered in 2002 – based on his notebooks and diaries and caches of drawings and photographs that surfaced after his death in Egypt, plus extensive interviews with his family and friends. The book is remarkable for many reasons not least because it tackles so many taboos head on.

Ali al Jabri was a member of one of the Arab world’s most distinguished families. He was killed because he was homosexual and an artist in a world where homosexuality is haram. The publication of Amal Ghandour’s About a Man called Ali would not so long ago have been considered both shaming and dangerous, but instead it has been welcomed, even celebrated. Things are changing fast.


I read and reviewed some of the Australian books on this year’s shortlist while I was still living overseas and recovering from my ‘disappeared biography’. And I must admit I felt a pang of envy  –  at the fact of them, at the wealth of archival material available to their authors, and the freedom we enjoy here to say whatever it is needs saying – especially in accents all our own.

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