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February 7, 2023

Member Spotlight: Christine Helliwell

We are thrilled to share our February Member Spotlight features Christine Helliwell! Christine was recently announced as the winner of the 2022 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Australian History for Semut.

Christine Helliwell is an anthropologist, author and academic, an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University in Canberra. She has been carrying out research on Borneo’s indigenous Dayak peoples – including living with them in their communities for months at a time – for almost forty years, and has written widely on Dayak social and cultural life. Her book Semut, which details the crucial Dayak contribution to a secret Australian operation in WWII Borneo, took her almost four years to write. It won the PMLA for Australian History and the Les Carlyon Literary Prize 2022, was First
Runner-up for the Templer Medal Book Prize (UK) 2022, and was shortlisted for the NSW
Premier’s Australian History Prize 2022, the Reid Prize 2022 and the ACT Notable Book
Awards 2022.

What inspired you to begin a career in writing?

I’ve been an academic for most of my adult life, and writing is an intrinsic part of academic work. However, for academics the research itself usually takes precedence over the writing: writing exists primarily to disseminate research results to other academics. And the writing is often very bad: convoluted, obscure and full of jargon. This ‘academic’ writing style is, sadly, often necessary to authorise one’s position as a researcher. Writing that is simple, clear and jargon-free can be frowned upon as not academic enough.

I was inspired to begin a career in popular writing by my interviews with several WWII veterans, as part of an academic research project on WWII in Borneo that I began in 2014. The veterans (and their families) were desperate for the story of a secret WWII operation in Borneo, in which they had taken part, to be told to a broader audience. Once I heard the story I was hooked! I could only agree that it should be more widely known. This was how my book Semut – my first book for a general audience – came into being.

Writing for a popular audience was so much more fun than writing for an academic audience. It feels as if I have, very late in life, found a new career: as a writer rather than an academic. And oh joy, in this new career I can use adjectives!

What does it mean to you to be awarded the 2022 PM’s Literary Award for Australian History for Semut?

I was astonished to win the PM’s Award as there was such a strong shortlist. But once the shock had passed I was thrilled. Partly for what it said about people’s reactions to my book: it showed me I could write for this new audience.

But the win also meant the world to me because it finally gave recognition to two groups of people who dwell at the book’s heart. 

Firstly, those very brave, very young Australian soldiers who jumped into the remote jungles of Japanese-occupied Borneo in 1945, having little idea of what they would find there.

Secondly, Borneo’s remarkable indigenous Dayak peoples, who took the soldiers in, cared for them, and fought and died beside them. Without the Dayaks, as the book makes clear, many fewer Australians would have returned home. For too long the contribution of local Pacific peoples to the Allied cause during WWII has been unsung in Australian histories of the war. The win suggested that finally we are beginning to recognise the debts we owe.

One of the underlying themes of Semut is the criminal devastation of Borneo’s once-mighty jungles that has occurred since 1945: a result of logging, palm-oil plantations and hydro schemes. The PM’s Award comes with a substantial cash prize. Perhaps the best thing of all about the win was that I was able to donate a decent chunk of the prize money to SAVE Rivers, a brave Dayak NGO fighting to preserve habitat along the once-mighty Baram River, where the Australian soldiers in my book fought in 1945.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of your career?

To be more confident in my own writing – to trust myself more. When I started out as an academic, every piece of writing was agony. Writing is an exacting process for most of us: we polish, cut, expand, and search endlessly for the right word. But that is a little different from the lack of confidence I felt, one that almost paralysed me at times. 

Writing for a popular audience was freeing: without the strictures of academic style my fears seemed to dissipate, even though I was writing in a completely unfamiliar genre (military history) and one that is profoundly male in both its authorship and readership. But strangely, I didn’t feel as anxious about being taken seriously in this genre as I had in my academic writing. I wish that, at the start of my career, I’d allowed myself to be a little freer.

Why do you think it is important to be a member of the ASA?

I love the ASA and read every bulletin it produces. Let’s face it: being a writer is a lonely job. Organisations like the ASA remind you that others are out there undergoing the same struggles (and pleasures!), and keep you on top of news from the publishing world, including updates on great new books coming out. 

I’ve also used ASA legal services on several occasions to vet contracts and so on. This alone makes the cost of membership worth every cent. It takes a lot of the anxiety out of the publishing process.