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From Bland Street to Bosnia

A search for childhood friends became a winning book, reports Murray Waldren

LAUDED by the judges as being "of subtle pleasures and insights", Geraldine Brooks's memoir-like Foreign Correspondence last night won the sixth $20,000 Kibble Award for Women Writers.

An annual bequest for books on life-writing, the award honours Nita Kibble, the first woman appointed a librarian with the NSW State Library, whose career began by accident in 1899 when her signature on the application was misread as a man's. Brooks, who has won numerous awards for journalism, says this first literary recognition is "very special - it's an affirmation this is the right way for me to go". As for its being a women's only award (a condition resented in some literary quarters), she has no hesitation: "Just look at Nita Kibble's own story, which is very much in living memory . . . this is only a small part of the catching up on injustice."

Born in "Bland Street, Ashfield", Brooks grew up in Sydney's suburban Concord but couldn't wait to escape from what she saw as "no life at the end of the world". It was only years after leaving that she realised "how rich Australian culture was, and that real life was lived between the bread and the butter". Now 43, she is based with her journalist husband Tony Horwitz and son Nathan, 3, in Waterford, Virginia: "A one-general-store-that-sells-chewing-'bacca and one-post-office town of 250 people."

That will change at the end of the year when the family moves "back to Balmain". She's been agitating for a homecoming for some time, she says, "and missing Australia terribly - I need to water my roots. I've been away so long I'm in danger of idealising Australia, of losing touch".

Her full-circle learning curve, however, incorporated years of journalism for papers including the Wall Street Journal, and a decade spent living in the Middle East, Europe and the US, from where she was a "have trouble, will cover" foreign correspondent.

She saw action in many of the world's hotspots, plus the "cruel chaos of Somalia, Bosnia and the Gulf War", before "retiring" soon after her first book, Nine Parts Desire, was published.

"I was becoming burnt-out from the disjunction of going from the incredible quietness of Waterford to such hideous war-torn chaos as Somalia or Bosnia," she says.

"The last straw was when I was jailed in Nigeria as a suspected French spy. I thought, what if I'm like Terry Anderson and here for years - I'll be too old to get pregnant."

On her release three days later, she flew back to Waterford. A year after, Nathan was born. Not long after that came Foreign Correspondence, which details how she set out to track down childhood pen-pals around the world. Her journey instead became "an inward, revealing investigation of me, my family and my roots. It was personally very rewarding". And now, critically and financially as well.

* The associated $2500 Dobbie Award for a first book went to Adelaide-based Eva Sallis for her novel Hiam, which two years ago was the winner of The Australian/Vogel Award.

This article was first published in The Australian Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 1999

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