Christine Helliwell has won the Australian War Memorial’s prestigious Les Carlyon Literary Prize for her non-fiction book, Semut: The untold story of a secret Australian operation in WWII Borneo.
The New Zealand-born anthropologist and academic said she taught herself how to write a page-turner by spending time reading popular military histories in a book store in Canberra.
“What a thrill to win this award. Especially when there were three other great books on the shortlist, any of which could easily have won it,” Helliwell said.
“Les Carlyon was a monumental figure in Australian writing: not only a great historian but a wonderful, wonderful wordsmith. It’s a huge honour to win an award that bears his name.”
Australian War Memorial Director Matt Anderson will present Helliwell with the $10,000 prize on Tuesday 22 November.
“Semut is a truly deserving winner. Author Christine Helliwell’s impeccable research and the readability of her writing will bring Australian military history to a new audience,” he said.
“The Les Carlyon Literary Prize is a way to support writers and to find and encourage the best storytellers in Australia.”
Semut is a comprehensive account of special operations in Borneo during the Second World War. It describes what it was like on the ground for serving Australians and their Dayak allies.
Competition judge, Dr Karl James, Head of Military History at the Australian War Memorial, said it highlighted the Borneo and Dayak perspectives, including voices normally written out of history.
“This is a significant work which is part history, part travelogue. It shines a bright light on a little-known aspect of the Second World War,” he said.
“Semut highlights the actions of a brave group of Allied servicemen and the equally important contribution of Dayak people of north Borneo, to the Allied war effort.
“The amount of archival and field research is formidable, but the story is told in an engaging and accessible way for a wide audience.”
The judging panel assessed the book for successfully combining anthropology and military history and presenting rigorous research in a readable and engaging style.
Dr James said: “Readers will sense and smell the jungle, discover what is was like to be there – the trips upriver and being in a war that spanned the globe, even touching remote communities in the jungles of Borneo.”
Semut is also on the shortlist for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.
“My book came out of a joint research project between the Australian National University and the Australian War Memorial that began in 2015,” Helliwell said.
“Huge thanks to the Australian War Memorial not only for hosting that project, but also for creating and awarding this prize. It not only helps to keep alive the work of military history in this country, but also preserves the memory of Les Carlyon, and the kind of writing to which we should all aspire.”
The judging panel judged submissions according to their literary merit, the contribution of the work to understanding the Australian experience of war and conflict, its authenticity and credibility, and its originality.
Stephen Gapps’ book The Sydney Wars was the inaugural winner of the Les Carlyon Literary Prize in 2020.