Prolific writer Dr Peter Kocan, who forged a career as one Australia’s most gifted writers after rising to notoriety in 1966 with the assassination attempt of the Leader of the Opposition, will this afternoon be honoured for his longstanding commitment to Australian writing, receiving the Australia Council Writers Emeritus Award.
Professor Dennis Haskell, Chair of the Australia Council Literature Board, will present the award at a ceremony in Sydney. Dr Kocan will receive the $50,000 Emeritus Award for his exceptional contribution to Australian writing.
Despite the unusual circumstances that first brought Dr Kocan into the public spotlight, he has subsequently forged a career as one of Australia’s most versatile and compelling writers, making a substantial and sustained contribution to Australian literature as a poet, novelist and dramatist.
At age 19, Dr Kocan was sentenced to life imprisonment for the attempted assassination of the then Opposition Leader Arthur Calwell in 1966, earning him a prison sentence and a place in an institution for the criminally insane. Soon after his incarceration, Dr Kocan rebuilt his life through writing about his experiences and developing his writing skills.
Four powerful novels, five collections of poetry, literary awards and much critical acclaim later, Dr Kocan is still associated with the his criminal past, a past that has arguably fuelled his literary endeavours. His work offers us a glimpse into not only our prison and mental health systems, but the subsequent alienation felt by people in society after their release.
“To honour Peter through this prestigious award is to acknowledge his contribution and impact on Australian literature, and to communicate to the rest of the world the pride Australians have for his personal achievements,” said Professor Haskell. Along with prison playwright Jim McNeil, and poet Francis Webb, Peter Kocan is not alone in drawing literary inspiration from his confinement.
Whilst still in custody in 1975, his first volume of poems, The Other Side of the Fence, was published. The collection offered an honest and compassionate view of outcasts of society and was a runner-up for the British Commonwealth Poetry Prize in London.
After his release in 1976, Dr Kocan settled on the NSW Central Coast and began many years of writing for community theatre. Among his successful plays is Home Fires Burning which was broadcast on ABC National Radio.
His first two novels, The Treatment (1980) and The Cure (1983), have become classics of prison literature. The laconic, powerful yet often humorous novels successfully merge fiction and autobiography. The Cure won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award in 1983. Both novels were also re-published for the US market, as testament to their international appeal.
Next came the futuristic Flies of a Summer in 1988 and the fictionalised and hard-hitting account of his youth, Fresh Fields, in 2003. Fresh Fields won the FAW Christina Stead award and was short-listed for both the NSW and Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards.
Dr Kocan’s fifth novel, The Fable for All Our Lives another autobiographical fiction piece – was released earlier this year and has been hailed as his most ambitious work yet.
As a poet, Dr Kocan has published four poetry collections Armistice (1980), Freedom to Breathe (1985), Standing With Friends (1992), and Fighting in the Shade (2000). He won the prestigious Mattara Poetry Prize in 1982 and was short-listed for the Victorian Premier’s Award for poetry in 1986.
Dr Kocan received a University of Newcastle Medal for academic excellence for his consistent good work during his degree studies, which concluded with a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in English with honours in 1998. He recently obtained a doctorate in Creative Arts.
Media contact: Victoria McClelland-Fletcher, 02 9215 9008.
Photo credit: Vincent Long