Australian-born Toronto travel writer Amanda Lee is the winner of this year’s MFA Research Bursary.
The $1,500 bursary is awarded to a student in the second year of the King’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction. The bursary is intended to help the student undertake research for their book project, which they would otherwise not be able to pursue.
It’s made possible by the generosity of award-winning journalist and nonfiction writer, Mary Janigan, a supporter of the MFA program since its inception, and her husband, respected business leader Thomas Kierans.
Lee’s book project, Chasing Opal, began as an attempt to understand what drove her father, “an introspective man from England, to spend his days under the harsh Australian sun and his nights living burrowed beneath the red sandstone” as he scrabbled to find expensive opals in remote Coober Pedy, South Australia.
“When I first conceived of this project,” says Lee, who will graduate with her MFA in May 2020, “I wanted to hunt down my father’s outback secrets and tell his story against the eccentric world of opal miners.”
Her father had told her Coober Pedy was “no place for a woman.” But during her own initial research trip to the remote community last year, Lee was surprised to discover “some incredible women, whose stories are rarely told – from Minnie Berrington, the first female opal miner in the 1920s, to Rena Bryant, who painted an uncompromising picture of the town in her memoir, White Man in a Hole.” Lee has since also tracked down Desrey Jones, a young woman born and bred in Coober Pedy, who is one of the very few women involved in the opal mining industry today.
Lee says she plans to use the research bursary to help her return to Australia in November “before the blistering heat drives people out of Coober Pedy.” There she will “shadow Jones,” hike to the infamous “Crocodile Harry’s Underground Nest,” which was operated by a larger-than-life “rake, a perfect foil to the women who have emerged in my story of Coober Pedy” and spend time with the volunteers of the Coober Pedy Historical Society, all women, who have become “the keepers of the town’s collective history.”
Kim Pittaway, executive director of the King’s MFA program, thanked Janigan and Kierans for their ongoing support for our students. “As Amanda’s project highlights, researching a book often requires return trips and more digging. Thanks to the bursary, Amanda will be able to deepen her understanding of her topic and produce a richer, more complex narrative.”
Learn more about the MFA program.