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2017 - Shortlisted
When a well-loved poet and activist has helped to craft her own life story, it takes a brave biographer to question it. Other accounts of Judith Wright’s life have followed the thrust of Wright’s own autobiographical writing. Georgina Arnott turns her eye to Wright’s early life, particularly her childhood in an old New England family. The received biography emphasises an early life in nature, but Arnott considers the shaping power of family tradition, tugging constantly at the question of whether Wright, the author and activist, was born or made. She then deftly investigates Wright’s formative university years — with a convincing reassessment of the ‘social composition of selfhood’ behind Wright’s poetry and activism — and discovers a number of lost (or perhaps hidden) early Wright poems along the way. This exceptionally intelligent work draws on original research, a gritty sense of social context, and a profound understanding of how an individual life might be shaped by the buffeting of social forces. Perhaps it is a biography Wright would not have liked, but Arnott produces a tough-minded yet fair, engaging and ultimately empathetic portrayal of this remarkable activist, poet, historian and environmentalist.