Drusilla Modjeska was born in London in 1946 and raised in Hampshire, the eldest of three sisters. Her father, Patrick Medd Q.C was a noted Judge and Counsel, and co-author of Murder (1956), which put the case for abolishing capital punishment, and author of Romilly (1968), a biography of the Whig Parliamentarian, Sir Samuel Romilly. Her mother, who was known as 'Pookie', is the subject of Poppy (1990), which is perhaps Modjeska's best known work.
At twenty, she married anthropologist Nicholas Modjeska, and together they left for Papua New Guinea. Her years there, including one as a student at the University of Papua New Guinea - where her husband was a tutor in 1968 and 1969 - laid the basis for her enduring interest in the Pacific and in Papua New Guinea in particular. While her new novel, The Mountain (2012), is not autobiographical, it makes use of her experience at the University of Papua New Guinea, which had been established at the insistence of a United Nations visiting mission led by Sir Hugh Foot in 1962. Before this intervention, few Papua New Guinean students had matriculated, so slow was the Australian colonial administration in developing secondary education. Many of those with whom she studied went on to become major players in independent government from 1975, including prime ministers, foreign ministers and diplomats.
It was the most wonderful experience for a girl fresh out of English girls' schools and a secretarial college. It was in Papua New Guinea that I first read, for instance, Fanon, Achebe, de Beauvoir, Camus, Conrad, Baldwin ... My education had begun.
In 1971 Drusilla moved to Australia, and though the marriage ended soon after, friendship and family connection remained. Within that decade she graduated with a BA (Hons) in History from the Australian National University and a PhD in History from the University of New South Wales. She had also begun her career as a writer.
Exiles at Home (1981), her first book, was a study of a remarkable generation of Australian women writing between the wars. Most of their books were out of print when Exiles was published, and have been brought back into print since. This book won the Association for the Study of Australian Literature Walter McRae Russell Award in 1983.
Then came Poppy (1990), a 'fictional biography' of her mother, a trail-blazing work regarded as a genre breaker, blending fiction and biography in the story of an extraordinary 'ordinary' woman, who both exemplified the constraints on the generation who came to motherhood after World War II, and overcame them. In 1991 Poppy won the National Book Council Banjo Award for Non-Fiction, the NSW Premier's Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction and was shortlisted for the Fawcett and PEN International Awards.
The Orchard (1994) once again broke boundaries, using a Middle European folk-tale (in a tradition shared by Angela Carter, A.S. Byatt, and Marina Warner) as the basis for a work both fictional and non-fictional about the middle years of a woman's life when she 'reaches both ways' towards the generations above and below her own. In 1995 The Orchard won the NSW Premier's Douglas Stewart Award for Non-Fiction, the Nita Kibble Literary Award and was listed for the Orange Prize.
Stravinsky's Lunch (1999) explored the lives of two modernist artists, Grace Cossington Smith, who is said to have painted Australia's first post-impressionist painting ('The Sock Knitter', 1915), and Stella Bowen, who left Adelaide on the eve of the First World War and lived the rest of her life in England and France. She had one child, a daughter, with Ford Madox Ford. The life and work of these two artists is seen through the prism of love and art, with all the attendant contradictions and dilemmas for a woman.
During these years of writing and publication Drusilla held a teaching appointment at UTS, where she was part of the team that established the writing programme, followed by research fellowships at the University of Sydney. Although she did not return to Papua New Guinea until the 2000s, she maintained contact with many she had known during her years there. She read widely in Pacific, and especially PNG literature, coming to understand the complexity of post in post-colonial. As Albert Wendt puts it, post 'does not just mean after, it also means around, through, out of, alongside and against.'
In 2004 she was one of the first outsiders to visit the Ömie, from which The Mountain's fictional mountain people are drawn. This remarkable small mountain tribe had maintained its tradition of barkcloth art despite the incursions of missionaries and marginalisation from the post-colonial state. Since 2004 Omië art - which is made by women and of exceptional quality - has achieved critical acclaim and is held in major Australian state galleries. The first international exhibition of Ömie art was held at the Fowler Museum, University of California, Los Angeles, and the de Young Museum, San Francisco in 2012. Ömie art is now held in major international museums such as The British Museum, Musuem Fünf Kontinente, Munich and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
Drusilla now returns to PNG frequently, and has become closely involved with the two communities - the Ömie of Mt Lamington and the Korafe in the fjords of Cape Nelson that also feature in fictional form The Mountain.
She describes The Mountain as a 'passionate response' to having known 'this beautiful, heart-breaking country' and its movement from the high expectations that preceded Independence in 1975 to the current realities of corruption, logging, and the too-often dysfunctional government. A novel rich in character, it returns to familiar themes of love and art, viewed this time through the prism of post-colonialism, and the notion of hapkas, a PNG pidgin word that turns the negative connotations of half-caste on its head, celebrating - both joyously and mournfully - the complex, often difficult, inheritance of living within and between powerfully different cultures.
If Poppy was the book into which I put everything I knew at forty, The Mountain is the book of all that I have become at sixty.
In 2011 Drusilla co-founded SEAM to support literacy in remote PNG communities. In 2014 architect Stephen Collier joined SEAM and by the end of that year had come up with the innovative design of School-in-a-Box , a sustainable, affordable and transformable way of delivering literacy and learning resources into remote areas.
In 2016 the first School-in-a-Box was delivered to Tainabuna School, near Tufi, in Oro Province.
By the end of 2016, SEAM's Making Books programme had made ten books with schools in PNG, had trained teachers and workshop leaders for the expansion of Making Books to other schools in Oro Province and to take workshops with Kokoda Track Foundation to Gulf Province and to the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. If you would like to donate to this project, please visit seamfund.org.
In Second Half First (2015), Drusilla tells the story of returning to PNG in 2004 - an arrest, a death, and how and why SEAM came into being – as part of a memoir that begins with her fortieth birthday. The end of a disastrous love affair begins this book of personal reflections on familiar themes: love and independence, reading and writing, finding and losing, giving and receiving. It’s not so much answers that she gives, or seeks, as a meditation on attempting to 'live the question' as the poet Rilke put it way back at the start of the last century.
Drusilla is based in Sydney, but makes regular visits to Papua New Guinea and to London.