23 February 2024

A life well read: Canberra pays tribute to Marion Halligan, a beloved woman of words

| Sally Hopman
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Group of six women

Marion Halligan, middle, front row, at last year’s ACT Book Awards with MARION board members Samantha Faulkner, Deb Stevens, Katarina Pearson, Emma Batchelor and Katy Mutton. Photo: MARION.

In 2012, the ACT Writers’ Centre wanted a new name. It wanted this name to represent the growth of local writers and writing – and give a nod to a woman who had contributed to the craft more than most people would ever know.

The society became MARION, in honour of writer and mentor Marion Halligan AM. (It was also in memory of Marion Mahony Griffin – architect and visionary, “but mainly Marion Halligan”, chair of MARION Emma Batchelor said.)

Today, the Canberra literary community and the wider sphere are celebrating the life of Marion Halligan who died on Monday, 19 February. She was 83.

“We thought it might be coming for a while,” Ms Batchelor said.

“She had not been very well. But at least she went peacefully, surrounded by her family.”

Ms Batchelor said she met Ms Halligan when she became chair of the then ACT Writers’ Centre, describing her as “always so warm and funny, and a little bit cheeky”.

“She was always so happy to see everyone, so encouraging of emerging writers and very generous with her experience and sharing her wisdom.”

Born in Newcastle in 1940, Ms Halligan moved to Canberra in the 1960s. She often described herself as a late starter when it came to writing. Her first novel, Self Possession, was published in 1987 when she was 47. Before this, she worked as a teacher and journalist in Canberra before publishing her first short stories in the 1980s.

READ ALSO It’s all about telling the story, says winner of the 2023 ACT Book of the Year

Ms Batchelor said it was comforting for many writers that someone of Ms Halligan’s talent didn’t publish until her middle age.

“When you come to something later in life, there is so much more emotional nuance to what you are writing that you bring to your work.

“That’s the beauty of her work. There is always something in her work you can connect to, no matter what stage of life you are at.”

Her most personal novel, and one she was reported as saying she considered her best, was The Fog Garden, published in 2001 and described as a “cathedral of grief” for her husband of 35 years, Graham, who died of cancer. It was shortlisted for several international and Australian literary awards.

“That was the thing about Marion,” Ms Batchelor said.

“She’d write these incredibly personal books like The Fog Garden and the one she wrote about her daughter, Words to Lucy; then she’d write cookbooks and short stories, fiction and non-fiction, reviews … she even tried her hand at crime writing.”

Ms Batchelor said the last time she saw Ms Halligan was at last year’s ACT Book of the Year awards.

“It was so wonderful to see her there in the front row. She was just as happy as ever, just a little frail. It was wonderful to see her book so highly commended that night.”

The MARION board will rename one of its annual book awards as the Marion Halligan Award. It will recognise work that demonstrates uniqueness, literary excellence and surpasses genre.

Black and white image of woman

A portrait of acclaimed writer Marion Halligan. Photo: Zhenshi van der Klooster.

ACT Arts Minister Tara Cheyne paid tribute to Marion Halligan this week, saying the Canberra community would dearly miss her.

“During her lifetime, she was a prolific writer and novelist, authoring more than 20 books from short stories to non-fiction to children’s books,” she said.

“No stranger to literary honours, Marion won the ACT Book of the Year three times and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and the Nita Kibble awards. Her business was words, and her last book, Words for Lucy, was another significant expression of her talent.”

Ms Cheyne said she had the honour of speaking to Marion at that ACT Book of the Year event last year. “She was warm and insightful, generous with her time, and obviously thrilled to be part of our celebration for her work, and that of her peers.

“Just as she has inspired and made an enduring impression on her contemporaries – from her readers to so many authors and the broader Canberra community – through her artform, she will continue to reach, engage and impassion countless future generations.”

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