Born and raised in the northern beaches area of Sydney, Penny Van Toorn attended SCEGGS Redlands, then completed both a BA Hons in English and a Masters degree at the University of Sydney. She then won a scholarship to complete her PhD at the University of British Columbia (on Mennonite author Rudy Wiebe). She served as Assistant Professor in English at the University of British Columbia for a time, before returning to Sydney.
In 1993, she won an ARC Postdoctoral Fellowship at Sydney University. There, in collaboration with Elizabeth Webby, she won an additional ARC grant for research into early Indigenous cultures of writing, published as Writing Never Arrives Naked : Early Aboriginal Cultures of Writing in Australia. The work was shortlisted for, among other awards, the Victorian Premier's Award (Nettie Palmer Prize for Non-Fiction). Further ARC funding was obtained for a project on Indigenous writing in Queensland between the 1890s and the 1930s.
'In Writing Never Arrives Naked, Penny van Toorn engages our minds and hearts. In this academically innovative book she reveals the resourceful and often poignant ways that Indigenous Australians involved themselves in the colonisers' paper culture. The first Aboriginal readers were children stolen from the clans around Sydney Harbour. The first Aboriginal author was Bennelong – a stolen adult. From the early years of colonisation, Aboriginal people used written texts to negotiate a changing world, to challenge their oppressors, protect country and kin, and occasionally for economic gain. Van Toorn argues that Aboriginal people were curious about books and papers, and in time began to integrate letters of the alphabet into their graphic traditions. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Aboriginal people played key roles in translating the Bible, and made their political views known in community and regional newspapers. They also sent numerous letters and petitions to political figures, including Queen Victoria. Penny van Toorn challenges the established notion that the colonists' paper culture superseded Indigenous oral cultures. She argues that Indigenous communities developed their own cultures of reading and writing, which involved a complex interplay between their own social protocols and the practices of literacy introduced by the British. Many distinctive features of Aboriginal writing today were shaped by the cultural, socio-political and institutional conditions in which Aboriginal people were living in colonial times.' (Source: Publisher's website)