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Non-Fiction (2008-)
Subcategory of Prime Minister's Literary Awards
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Latest Winners / Recipients

Year: 2021

winner y separately published work icon The Stranger Artist : Life at the Edge of the Kimberley Painting Quentin Sprague , South Yarra : Hardie Grant Books , 2019 19761992 2019 single work biography

'At a hinge-point in his life, artist and ex-gallerist Tony Oliver travelled to the East Kimberley, where he plunged into the crosscurrents and eddies of the Aboriginal art world. He would stay for almost a decade, working alongside a group of senior Gija artists, including acclaimed figures Paddy Bedford and Freddie Timms, to establish Jirrawun Arts, briefly one of the country’s most successful and controversial Aboriginal painting collectives.

'The Stranger Artist follows Oliver’s journey and the deep relationships he formed, an experience that forever altered his life’s trajectory. His story will draw readers close to what he came to know of Kimberley life: the immersion of culture and spirituality in the everyday, the importance of Law, the deep and abiding connection to country, and the humour and tragedy that pervade the Aboriginal world.

'Evocative and absorbing in equal measure, The Stranger Artist tells not only of the connections that can be formed through the sharing of mutual interests and experiences, but of what it takes to live between cultures.'

Source: Publisher's blurb.

Year: 2020

joint winner y separately published work icon Songspirals : Sharing Women's Wisdom of Country through Songlines Gay'wu Group of Women , Crows Nest : Allen and Unwin , 2019 16562500 2019 single work prose

'A rare opportunity to connect with the living tradition of women's songlines, as recounted by Yolngu women from far north Australia.

'We want you to come with us on our journey, our journey of songspirals. Songspirals are the essence of people in this land, the essence of every clan. We belong to the land and it belongs to us. We sing to the land, sing about the land. We are that land. It sings to us.'

'Aboriginal Australian cultures are the longest living cultures on earth and at the heart of Aboriginal cultures is song. These ancient narratives of landscape have often been described as a means of navigating across vast distances without a map, but they are much, much more than this. Songspirals are sung by Aboriginal people to awaken Country, to make and remake the life-giving connections between people and place. Songspirals are radically different ways of understanding the relationship people can have with the landscape.

'For Yolngu people from North East Arnhem Land, women and men play different roles in bringing songlines to life, yet the vast majority of what has been published is about men's place in songlines. Songspirals is a rare opportunity for outsiders to experience Aboriginal women's role in crying the songlines in a very authentic and direct form.'

Source: Publisher's blurb.

joint winner Christina Thompson for Sea People: The puzzle of Polynesia

Year: 2019

winner y separately published work icon Half the Perfect World : Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955–1964 Paul Genoni , Tanya Dalziell , Clayton : Monash University Publishing , 2018 14983146 2018 multi chapter work biography

''Their years in the Aegean may have been half perfect at best, but it was on Hydra that they connected to a place, a lifestyle and a community that allowed them to live and express themselves intensely, and as they wished. They refused to believe their dreams were an illusion, or that boldness, ambition and a leap-of-faith might not allow them to reach beyond the constraints of their birthright'.

'Half the Perfect World tells the story of the post-war international artist community that formed on the Greek island of Hydra. Most famously, it included renowned singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and his partner Marianne Ihlen, as well as many other artists and writers including the Australian literary couple, Charmian Clift and George Johnston, who fostered this fabled colony.

'Drawing on many previously unseen letters, manuscripts and diaries, and richly illustrated by the eyewitness photographs of LIFE magazine photo-journalist James Burke, Half the Perfect World reveals the private lives and relationships of the Hydra expatriates. It charts the promise of a creative life that drew many of them to the island, and documents the fracturing of the community as it came under pressure from personal ambitions and wider social changes. For all the unrealised youthful ambitions, internal strife and personal tragedy that attends this story, the authors nonetheless find that the example of these writers, dreamers and drifters continues to resonate and inspire.' (Publication summary)

Year: 2017

winner y separately published work icon Quicksilver Nicolas Rothwell , Melbourne : Text Publishing , 2016 9798117 2016 single work prose travel

'Quicksilver begins on a quiet day in contemplation of a lizard deep in the heart of the outback but quickly moves to the Russia of Tolstoy and Gorky, and on to other lands and times, bringing into play universal questions about the essential nature of the human condition.'

'Rothwell’s chief subject is always the inland: the mystic Kurangara cult that flourished in the Kimberley; the story of the Western Desert artists, their works and their eventual fate; the tracks across the wilderness of Colonel Warburton and George Grey; the bush dreams and intuitions of D. H. Lawrence and the landscape word-portraits by the great biographer of nature Eric Rolls.'

'In Quicksilver Rothwell masterfully takes us in search of the sacred through place and time, in an enchanting reverie of calm wondering.' (Source: Text Publishing website)

Year: 2015

joint winner y separately published work icon John Olsen : An Artist's Life Darleen Bungey , Sydney : ABC Books , 2014 8070118 2014 single work biography

'This landmark biography by Darleen Bungey, the author of the celebrated biography of Arthur Boyd, graphically depicts the forces that drove John Olsen to become one of the country's greatest artists. An exhilarating book, both trenchant and tender, it strips away the veneer of showmanship and fame to show the substance of a painter driven by a need to depict his country's landscape as Australians had never seen it before.

'Given access to his uncensored diaries and drawing on years of extensive interviews with both Olsen and those who have known him best, she explores his passionate life and follows his navigation though the friendships, rivalries and politics of the Australian art world. How did a shy, stuttering boy from Newcastle, neglected by his alcoholic father, come to paint the great mural Salute to Five Bells at the Sydney Opera House?

'This biography follows that journey - through Olsen's early experiences in the bush, particularly a formative period at Yass (a time previously unrecorded), to years of cleaning jobs to pay his way through art school, to a milestone time spent in France and Spain - and traces his constant travels and relocations within Australia, including his epic journeys into the outback and to Kati thanda-Lake Eyre.

'From a child who was never taken to an art gallery, who learnt how to draw from comics, we come to see the famous artist in the black beret, the writer and poet, the engaging public speaker, the bon vivant - whose life has been defined by an absolute need to paint.' (Publication summary)

joint winner y separately published work icon Wild Bleak Bohemia : Marcus Clarke, Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall - A Documentary Michael Wilding , North Melbourne : Australian Scholarly Publishing , 2014 8265498 2014 single work biography

'Meticulously using contemporary newspaper reports, court records, published memoirs, private letters and diaries, Michael Wilding tells the story of three troubled geniuses of Australian writing and their world of poetry and poverty, alcohol and opiates, horse-racing and theatre, journalism and publishing. Gordon shot himself, unable to pay the printer of his poems; Kendall ended up in a mental hospital after forging a cheque, and Clarke died bankrupt for a second time.' (Publication summary)

Works About this Award

New Take on an Old Colonial Tale Wins an Unexpected Prize Susan Wyndham , 2010 single work column
— Appears in: The Sydney Morning Herald , 9 November 2010; (p. 3)
Susan Wyndham reports on the 2010 Prime Minister's Literary Award winner for Non-Fiction. The prize went to Grace Karskens for The Colony: A History of Early Sydney. (Note: this title is not included on AustLit as it falls outside AustLit's selection criteria.)
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