AustLit logo


image of person or book cover 8354963128821569672.jpg
National Biography Award (1996-)
Subcategory of Awards Australian Awards
The material on this page is available to AustLit subscribers. If you are a subscriber or are from a subscribing organisation, please log in to gain full access. To explore options for subscribing to this unique teaching, research, and publishing resource for Australian culture and storytelling, please contact us or find out more.


The National Biography Award was established in 1996 to encourage the highest standards of writing biography and autobiography and to promote public interest in these genres.

The award is administered and presented by the State Library of New South Wales on behalf of the award's benefactors, Dr Geoffrey Cains and Mr Michael Crouch AO.

The winner of the National Biography Award receives prize money for a published work of biographical or autobiographical writing. Shortlisted authors also receive a sum of money.

Source: Sighted: 29/11/2013.


  • For a published work of biographical or autobiographical writing, the winner of the National Biography Award receives $20,000 in prize money. The National Biography Award was established in 1996 to encourage the highest standards of writing biography and autobiography and to promote public interest in these genres. The National Biography Award is administered and presented by the State Library of New South Wales on behalf of the award's benefactors, Dr Geoffrey Cains and Mr Michael Crouch AO.
  • No awards were given in the following years: 1997, 1999, 2001.

Latest Winners / Recipients (also see subcategories)19971754

Year: 2023

winner y separately published work icon My Tongue Is My Own : A Life of Gwen Harwood Ann-Marie Priest , Carlton : Black Inc. , 2022 23813031 2022 single work biography

'A masterful portrait of a major Australian writer, her incandescent poetry and her battles to be heard in a male-dominated literary establishment.

'The first biography of Gwen Harwood (1920-1995), one of Australia's most significant and distinctive poets.

'Harwood is renowned for her brilliance, but loved for her humour, rebellion and mischief. A public figure by the end of her life, she was always deeply protective of her privacy, and even now, some twenty-six years after her death, little is known of the experiences that gave rise to her extraordinary poems. This book follows Harwood from her childhood in 1920s Brisbane to her final years in Hobart in the 1990s. It traces how a lively, sardonic and determined young woman built a career in the conservative 1950s, blasting her way into the patriarchal strongholds of Australian poetry.

'Harwood refused to be bound by convention, 'liberating' herself, to use her word, before women's lib existed. Yet she also struggled for much of her life to combine marriage and motherhood with her creative ambitions. In this sense, she is a twentieth-century everywoman. She is also a unique and powerful presence in Australian literary history, a poet who challenged orthodoxies and spoke in a remarkable range of voices.

'This illuminating, moving biography reveals a deeply passionate figure both at odds with her time and deeply of it, and reclaims and celebrates this important Australian writer.' (Publication summary)

Year: 2022

winner y separately published work icon Leaping into Waterfalls : The Enigmatic Gillian Mears Bernadette Brennan , Crows Nest : Allen and Unwin , 2021 22584811 2021 single work biography

'Leaping into Waterfalls explores the rich, tumultuous life of Gillian Mears, one of Australia's most significant writers of the last forty years.

'Gillian Mears appeared to many to be a shy woman from Grafton, but her lived and imaginative lives were rich with adventure, risk and often transgressive passion. In her award-winning and acclaimed novels and short stories, Mears wrote fearlessly of the dark undercurrents of country and family life, always probing the depths and complexity of human desire.

'Mears' sensuality and sexuality were the driving forces of her life and writing. As an adult, she was plagued by ill health yet remained steadfast in her quest to be independent and free; while recovering from open-heart surgery, she traversed the country alone in a de-commissioned ambulance. By her midforties, multiple sclerosis had confined her to a wheelchair. Undaunted, she continued to write and publish until her death five years later in 2016.

'Mears amassed an extensive collection of diaries, letters, manuscripts, photographs, recordings and ephemera, and deposited it with the Mitchell Library. She was a prolific correspondent with significant figures of the cultural landscape-Gerald Murnane, David Malouf, Tim Winton, Elizabeth Jolley, Helen Garner, Drusilla Modjeska, Kate Grenville and Marr Grounds. This meticulous and moving biography reads Mears' life and work within that broader cultural community to celebrate her truly extraordinary achievements and adventures.' (Publication summary)

Year: 2021

winner y separately published work icon Truganini : Journey through the Apocalypse Cassandra Pybus , Crows Nest : Allen and Unwin , 2020 18268689 2020 single work biography

'Cassandra Pybus' ancestors told a story of an old Aboriginal woman who would wander across their farm on Bruny Island, just off the coast of south-east Tasmania, throughout the 1850s and 1860s. As a child, Cassandra didn't know this woman was Truganini, and that she was walking over the country of her clan, the Nuenonne, of whom she was the last.

'The name of Truganini is vaguely familiar to most Australians as 'the last of her race'. She has become an international icon for a monumental tragedy: the extinction of the original people of Tasmania within her lifetime. For nearly seven decades, she lived through a psychological and cultural shift more extreme than most human imaginations could conjure. She is a hugely significant figure in Australian history and we should know about how she lived, not simply that she died. Her life was much more than a regrettable tragedy.

'Cassandra has examined the original eyewitness records to write an extraordinary account of this lively, intelligent, sensual young woman’s life. Both inspiring and heart-wrenching, Truganini's story is now told in full for the first time.'

Source: Publisher's blurb.

Year: 2020

winner y separately published work icon Tiberius with a Telephone : The Life and Stories of William McMahon Patrick Mullins , Melbourne : Scribe , 2018 13911959 2018 single work biography

'The oddly compelling story of a man regarded as Australia’s worst prime minister.

'William McMahon was a significant, if widely derided and disliked, figure in Australian politics in the second half of the twentieth century. This biography tells the story of his life, his career, and his doomed attempts to recast views of his much-maligned time as Australia’s prime minister.

'In office, McMahon worked furiously to enact an agenda that grappled with the profound changes reshaping Australia. He withdrew combat forces from Vietnam, legislated for Commonwealth government involvement in childcare, established the first Department of the Environment, and accelerated the timetable for the independence of Papua New Guinea. But his failures would overshadow his successes, and by the time of the 1972 election McMahon would lead a divided, tired, and rancorous party to defeat.

'A man whose life was coloured by tragedy, comedy, persistence, courage, farce, and failure, McMahon’s story has never been told at length. Tiberius with a Telephone fills that gap, using deep archival research and extensive interviews with McMahon’s contemporaries and colleagues. It is a tour de force — an authoritative, compelling, and colourful account of a unique politician and a vital period in Australia’s history.'

Source: Publisher's blurb.

Year: 2019

winner y separately published work icon No Friend but the Mountains : Writing From Manus Prison No Friend but the Mountains : The True Story of an Illegally Imprisoned Refugee Behrouz Boochani , Omid Tofighian (translator), Sydney : Pan Macmillan Australia , 2018 14342605 2018 selected work prose

'Where have I come from? From the land of rivers, the land of waterfalls, the land of ancient chants, the land of mountains...

'Since 2013, Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani has been held in the Manus Island offshore processing centre.

'People would run to the mountains to escape the warplanes and found asylum within their chestnut forests...

'This book is the result. Laboriously tapped out on a mobile phone and translated from the Farsi. It is a voice of witness, an act of survival. A lyric first-hand account. A cry of resistance. A vivid portrait through five years of incarceration and exile.

'Do Kurds have any friends other than the mountains? '  (Publication summary)

Works About this Award

UnAuthorised : Commissions, Omissions and Unpublished Books Tom D. C. Roberts , 2018 single work column
— Appears in: Sydney PEN Magazine , November 2018; (p. 29-34)

'Tom D.C. Roberts, winner of last year’s National Biography Award for Before Rupert: Keith Murdoch and the Birth of a Dynasty, delivered this year’s National Biography Award Lecture.'  (Introduction)

Tim Winton, Helen Garner, Paul Keating, Deng Adut : The Stories behind the Year's Best Biographies Tim Winton , Deng Adut , Bernadette Brennan , Joan Healy , Judith Brett , Troy Bramston , 2018 single work column
— Appears in: The Guardian Australia , 12 July 2018;

'Six authors nominated for the National Biography awards reveal what most surprised them about their subjects.' (Publication abstract)

Brenda Niall Wins the National Biography Prize for Mannix Susan Wyndham , 2016 single work column
— Appears in: Brisbane Times , 8 August 2016;
'In researching her biography of Daniel Mannix, the Archbishop of Melbourne for 46 years, Brenda Niall was surprised to find how liberal his views were on most issues: he opposed World War I conscription, capital and corporal punishment, and the White Australia policy; supported the church reforms of Vatican II; and called for more openness in teaching children about sex. ...'
Brenda Niall's Life of Archbishop Mannix Wins Australia's Oldest Literary Prize Jason Steger , 2016 single work column
— Appears in: Brisbane Times , 6 July 2016;
'Among the first things Brenda Niall read about the novelist Martin Boyd, one of her early biographical subjects, was that in 1928 he had been the inaugural winner of the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal for his novel The Montforts. It was published under the pseudonym Martin Mills because Boyd had based the book on his mother's family. Winning the medal revealed his real identity. ...'