Australian Historian Grace Karskens Wins the 2019 Calibre Essay Prize

The essay, Nah Doongh’s Song, has won the presitgious Calibre Essay Prize from a field of over 450 essays submitted from 22 countries.


“Mudder, Fadder, everybody dead, all but myself”

Grace Karskens is the winner of the thirteenth Calibre Essay Prize, Australia’s most prestigious essay prize, for her essay Nah Doongh’s Song.

The essay is about a remarkable nineteenth-century Aboriginal woman and will be published in the Australian Book Review’s (ABR) Indigenous issue this month.

Grace Karskens is Professor of History at the University of New South Wales. She is a leading authority on early colonial Australia. Her books include Inside the Rocks: The archaeology of a neighbourhood and the multi-award winning The Rocks: Life in early Sydney. Her book The Colony: A history of early Sydney won the 2010 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the US Urban History Association’s prize for Best Book 2010.

“I am absolutely delighted to win the prestigious Calibre Prize,” Karskens said. “This is also a big win for Aboriginal biography, and for slow history: the time it takes to recover the stories of Aboriginal people who survived the maelstrom of invasion and dispossession with such courage and resolution.”

The distinguished Australian historian will receive $5,000. The judges – J M Coetzee, Anna Funder, and ABR) Editor Peter Rose – chose Nah Doongh’s Song from a field of over 450 essays submitted from 22 countries.

For more information about the Calibre Essay Prize, visit the ABR website.

Quotes from Nah Doongh’s Song

In old age, Nah Doongh missed her own family. “All my folks are dead,” she told the Shands sadly, “Mudder, Fadder, everybody dead, all but myself.” They probably heard her words complacently, nodding at yet more evidence of the “dying race”. Yet for Nah Doongh it was surely not about “the race” but her own family and band. She yearned for long-lost parents and brothers.


I want to acknowledge the limits of biography and geobiography, of what we can know about people so utterly erased from mainstream history. At every turn, evidence is profoundly mediated by happenstance, by vast silences, by loss. Human figures are indistinct, like shapes deep underwater; tiny clues flicker, their significance magnified by the unknown. So this story of Nah Doongh is bookended with what I call ‘ghost biography’.

Image Credit: Photo of Grace Karskens by Joy Lai

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