So, I heard today that Peter Fitzpatrick’s book The Two Frank Thrings won the National Biography Award. Of course, I’d figured out I wasn’t winning it as the Award presentation was in Sydney this morning, and last week there was no suggestion that I fly over there from Perth. (In any case, my book was always a real long shot to win it.) I’d kind of hoped that Robert Drewe would win so that I could casually drop into conversations here in WA the phrase “Robert Drewe and I…” – he being a bit of a WA literary hero. I haven’t read Fitzpatrick’s book but it sounds terrific and fun, too. When you think how much research goes into a biography like this, I reckon he deserves the Award.
It’s really great to be shortlisted for an Award of this nature. Something like getting a great review from a critic you admire combined with a big hug! And I like the way the press release announcing the winner also had the Judges’ comments on all the shortlisted books. Here’s what they said about my book:
“Rachel Robertson’s gracefully written memoir about life as the mother of a child with
autism is a deeply moving, compelling narrative from a perceptive writer. Robertson’s
son, ‘Ben’, is one of an estimated 230 000 Australians with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
She writes of Ben’s life but her relationship with her son is bound up with her own past
and so this memoir is, in many ways, a relational biography: the lives of ‘Ben’ and
Rachel. Reaching One Thousand combines several elements: analysis of the latest
pedagogy about autism; discussion of daily life; descriptions of her son’s behaviour and
her own reactions; reminiscences of her own childhood. Robertson addresses the fear
we have of ‘strangeness of others’, by delving into what might be seen as her own
strangeness as a child. In contrast to some seemingly similar stories, this memoir never
positions ‘Ben’, the child with autism, as a problem or an object; the author tries
wherever possible to enter imaginatively into his mental landscape.
This memoir also interrogates narrative and identity. Autistic children are said to have
great difficulty in communicating and forming relationships. Robertson uses the vantage
point of her relationship with her son to critically evaluate the literature on autism at
every point. In this way the book becomes an outward looking conversation about autism
and the possibilities of management and interaction. Crucially, Robertson addresses the
ethics of life writing; specifically whether her use of ‘Ben’s’ life story constitutes a
betrayal, or an invasion of privacy, on her part. The issue of invading people’s privacy is
at the centre of all memoir but it is rarely so directly considered.”
I’m grateful to the Judges for engaging with my book so deeply, to the NSW State Library and to the Award sponsors, Dr Geoffrey Cains and Michael Crouch AO.
Events and talks about biography are happening all this week at the NSW State Library, including the National Biography Lecture on Wednesday, which is being given by John Elder Robinson. Robinson has written several memoirs about living with Asperger’s Syndrome. To me, this really shows the way society has changed over the past ten years in terms of listening to and respecting people with neurological differences like autism. Promoting this change was the main reason I wrote Reaching One Thousand, so I’m happy!
By the way, a colleague at work asked me the other day if there was any news on this Award. I told her I was pretty sure I hadn’t won, but was fine about that. She said, “Yes, that’s right. You can be like Hugh Jackman at the Oscars when he didn’t win best actor!” I’ll go with that, I think.