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Kylie Tennant
, early 1980's (printed 2018)

by Jacqueline Mitelman

inkjet print (sheet: 58.5 cm x 45.7 cm, image: 43.0 cm x 30.2 cm)

Kylie Tennant AO (1912-1988), writer, grew up in Manly in an acrimonious household. Starting an arts degree at the University of Sydney, she met Lewis Rodd. When he moved to Coonabarabran to teach, she gave up her formal studies and walked to Coonabarabran to join him, on the way witnessing the lives of the itinerant unemployed. They married in 1932; the following year Tennant walked from Coonabarabran to Brisbane. Subsequently, Tennant often lived uncomfortably amongst the rural and urban poor to gain material for her books and articles for Smith’s Weekly, the Referee and later the Sydney Morning Herald. A member of the Communist party for a short time in the mid-1930s, she resigned over its distance from the real circumstances of the working class. Her nine novels include the award-winning debut Tiburon (1935); Foveaux (1939), set in Redfern’s slums; The Battlers (1941), which made her a household name; Tell Morning This (1967), in preparation for which she spent a week in Parramatta gaol; and Ride on Stranger (1943), which was the subject of a libel case and was withdrawn from sale. Her non-fiction works include Speak You So Gently (1959), first-hand observations on Aboriginal life at the Christian Collective at Lockhart River. She wrote frequently for children, and her All the Proud Tribesmen won the Children’s Book Award in 1960. Over the 1960s, with two children of her own, she was an advisory editor for Overland, sat on the board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund and wrote a biography of HV Evatt. In 1960 she nursed her mother until her death from lung cancer; the following year her husband, who had acted as her editor, typist and critical adviser, became an invalid after a suicide attempt. In the mid-1970s she underwent a mastectomy. The couple’s son, a schizophrenic, suicidal heroin addict, died in 1978. Tennant nursed her husband until his death from bladder cancer in 1979. These events informed Tantavallon (1983) and her autobiography, The Missing Heir (1986). Tennant was awarded a D. Litt from Monash in 1987. Just weeks before her own death from cancer she wrote a piece that was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, railing against ‘stupid’ laws against what would now be called euthanasia.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Purchased 2018
Accession number: 2018.124