The University of Queensland Non-Fiction Book Award shortlist

Songs of a War Boy cover

Songs of a War Boy

Deng Adut and Ben Mckelvey

Hachette

About the book

Deng Adut's family were farmers in South Sudan when a brutal civil war altered his life forever. At six years old, his mother was told she had to give him up to fight. At the age most Australian children are starting school, Deng was conscripted into the Sudan People's Liberation Army. He began a harsh, relentless military training that saw this young boy trained to use an AK-47 and sent into battle. He lost the right to be a child. He lost the right to learn. This is an inspiring story of a man who has overcome deadly adversity to become a lawyer and committed worker for the disenfranchised, helping refugees in Western Sydney. It is an important reminder of the power of compassion and the benefit to us all when we open our doors and our hearts to fleeing war, persecution and trauma.

About the authors

Deng Adut is a lawyer working in Western Sydney. He uses his spare time to help other Sudanese refugees.

Ben Mckelvey is a freelance writer and editor from Sydney. Ben's previous gigs have included editing Sport&Style and Juice magazines, and working on the Sydney Morning Herald as a Senior Feature Writer. He has been embedded with the ADF in East Timor and Iraq, and has worked independently in Iran and Afghanistan

Judges' Comments

This is the story of a six year old boy whose childhood is brutally ended when war comes to his village in South Sudan. He is taken from his mother and forced to join the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.  For years he suffers unimaginable horrors until he is rescued by his brother. Eventually, with the help of the UN and an Australian couple, the brothers are resettled in Australia. With the help of Ben Mckelvey, Adut writes movingly of his struggle to not let his abusive experiences threaten the stable life he is offered in Australia.  He becomes a lawyer and refugee advocate, proudly giving back to his adopted country.  It is a powerful reminder that Australia is at its best when it welcomes those fleeing persecution.

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Ghost Empire cover

Ghost Empire

Richard Fidler

HarperCollins

About the book

In 2014, Richard Fidler and his son made a journey to Istanbul. Fired by Richard's passion for the rich history of the dazzling Byzantine Empire - centred on the legendary Constantinople - we are swept into some of the most extraordinary tales in history. The clash of civilisations, the fall of empires, the rise of Christianity, revenge, lust, murder. Turbulent stories from the past are brought vividly to life at the same time as a father navigates the unfolding changes in his relationship with his son.

About the author

Richard Fidler presents Conversations with Richard Fidler, an in-depth, up close and personal interview program broadcast across Australia on ABC Radio. He's interviewed prime ministers, astronauts, writers and scientists, but the program often features remarkable people who are unknown to the wider world. The program attracts a large listening audience around the nation, and is the most popular ABC podcast in Australia, with over 2.4 million downloads in August 2016 alone. In another life Richard was a member of Australian comedy trio The Doug Anthony Allstars, which played to audiences all over the world.

Judges' Comments

Fidler has written a dazzling historical reconstruction of the Byzantine Empire which ruled the then-known world for a thousand years.  His language and story-telling are infectious, and even though the history of this vanished civilisation has been told before in different ways, there is colour and wit and adventure here which keeps the reader constantly engaged.  He has made it part-memoir too, taking his son on a journey to Istanbul to visit the sites where emperors reigned, enemies clashed, and blood was spilled. The father-son journey fits beautifully with the bigger story.  There is violence and treachery here on a grand scale and for the contemporary reader, poignant reminders that history has a way of repeating itself. This is serious history but done with a light but masterful touch.

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For a Girl cover

For a Girl

Mary-Rose MacColl

Allen & Unwin

About the book

Emerging from an unconventional, boisterously happy childhood, Mary-Rose MacColl was a rebellious teenager. And when, at the age of fifteen, her high-school teacher and her husband started inviting Mary-Rose to spend time with them, her parents were pleased that she now had the guidance she needed to take her safely into young adulthood. It wasn't too long, though, before the teacher and her husband changed the nature of the relationship with overwhelming consequences for Mary-Rose. Consequences that kept her silent and ashamed through much of her adult life. Many years later, safe within a loving relationship, all of the long-hidden secrets and betrayals crashed down upon her and she came close to losing everything. In this poignant and brave true story, Mary-Rose brings these secrets to the surface and, in doing so, is finally able to watch them float away.

About the author

Mary-Rose MacColl's first novel, No Safe Place, was runner-up in the 1995 The Australian/Vogel's Literary award and her first non-fiction book, The Birth Wars, was a finalist in the 2009 Walkley Awards. Her international bestselling In Falling Snow was published to great acclaim in 2012. Her fifth novel, Swimming Home, won The Courier-Mail 2016 People's Choice Queensland book of the Year Award. Mary-Rose lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband and son.

Judges' Comments

This is a mature memoir from MacColl, usually a writer of fiction, in which she reveals the abuse she suffered at the hands of her high school teacher and husband while still at school. Traumatised as she was by the abuse and the accompanying lies and deceits she was forced into, MacColl never let go of her sharp intelligence and a willingness to reflect on and confront the hard stuff.  Her account of the incident that triggered waves of memory and consciousness, when she accidentally caught her new son’s flesh in the pram strap, is aching in its raw honesty.  She takes the reader along on her road to healing and recovery, and the result is a finely nuanced book which never resorts to sensationalism.

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Position Doubtful cover

Position Doubtful

Kim Mahood

Scribe

About the book

Since the publication of her prize-winning memoir, Craft for a Dry Lake, in 2000, writer and artist Kim Mahood has been returning to the Tanami desert, where, as a child, she lived with her family on a remote cattle station. The land is timeless, but much has changed: the station has been handed back to its traditional owners; the mining companies have arrived; and Aboriginal art has flourished. Comedy and tragedy, familiarity and uncertainty are Mahood’s constant companions as she immerses herself in the life of a small community and in ground-breaking mapping projects. What emerges in Position Doubtful is a revelation of the significance of the land to its people — and of the burden of history. This is a beautiful and intense exploration of friendships, landscape, and homecoming. Written with great energy and humour, Position Doubtful offers a unique portrait of the complexities of black and white relations in contemporary Australia.

About the author

Kim Mahood is a writer and artist based in Wamboin, near Canberra, whose 2000 memoir, Craft for a Dry Lake, won the NSW Premier’s Award for non-fiction and the Age Book of the Year for non-fiction. Her artwork is held in state, territory, and regional collections, and her essays have appeared in Griffith Review, Meanjin, and The Best Australian Essays. In 2014, she was awarded the H C Coombs Fellowship. Position Doubtful was shortlisted for the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Award for non-fiction and the 2017 Australian Book Industry Award for the Small Publishers' Adult Book of the Year.

Judges' Comments

This is an ambitious and beautifully-crafted memoir by a fine writer about her journey back to the land of her childhood across the Tanami Desert to the East Kimberley, regularly over a period of several years, to connect with the indigenous peoples who were the original owners of the land on which she lived. Together they chart maps of country, the indigenous maps overlaid with settler maps.  The result is stunning, a metaphor for reconciliation.  As artists working together, laughing and crying together, burying loved ones together, they present a way of viewing the landscape as something beyond a barren place to mine for minerals.  This book is capable of shifting your thinking.

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Saltwater cover

Saltwater

Cathy McLennan

UQP

About the book

When Cathy McLennan first steps into Townsville’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service as a young graduate she isn’t expecting a major murder case to land on her desk. The accused are four teenage boys whose family connections stretch across the water to Palm Island. As she battles to prove herself in the courtroom, Cathy realises that the truth is far more complex than she first thought.  Saltwater tells the compelling story of one lawyer’s fight for justice amongst the beauty and the violence of this tropical paradise.

About the author

Cathy McLennan has more than twenty years’ experience in criminal law, from her early days working as a barrister for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service in North Queensland, to appearing in the High Court and deciding cases as a Queensland Magistrate. Cathy is well known for her dedication to vulnerable Queenslanders.

Judges' Comments

McLennan has written an amazingly frank and compelling story of her days as a newly-graduated barrister working for Townsville’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service.  From her first day, she is aware of the difficulty and exhausting complexity of the job that is hers. Legal officers and lawyers and magistrates come and go, but the lives of the local indigenous peoples go on.  With great sympathy, insight, humility, and occasional humour, she has written a deceptively illuminating book about the situation in the State’s north, the abuse and violence, and waste of young lives. Her plea is that she wants change and action, and the reader feels the same way at the end.

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