Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks

Photo by Randi Baird

Geraldine Brooks came to what was then the Arts faculty at the University of Sydney in the 1970s from an all-girls school in a middle-class neighbourhood. “Sydney University was a place that loomed large in my imagination from the time I was a child. I would stare at it as we’d go by on a bus into the city from my home in the western suburbs. It was a romantic dream, the idea of someday being one of those students that I could see up there on the footbridge,” Brooks says.
She left with a Bachelors degree and an experience that broadened her horizons.
“I was very at sea my first year, and I keenly felt my lack of worldliness in this suddenly expanded community of people from backgrounds so different from my own. It was when I joined the Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS) that I found my tribe. I loved being a minnow in the bright wake of dazzling students like David Marr and Neil Armfield. They had a confidence about what they wanted to be that stiffened my spine and inspired me to believe that anything might, actually, be possible.”
Brooks characterises the benefits of an Arts degree by its broadness of disciplines.
“It opens you up to ideas, and gives you an essential toolbox for an ongoing intellectual journey.”
A strong desire to be a newspaper reporter was behind Brook’s pursuit of an Arts degree. “I knew I would need a broad based liberal education to do that job with any skill,” she says. Interestingly it was a chance choice of a first year class in the Government department that truly inspired Brooks.
“I had intended to be an English major. Government was very much an afterthought class for me – the fourth one you pick to fill out the first year schedule. But I came alive intellectually in government; probing the nexus between classical political theory and pressing current events. This was helped along by the fact that the faculty in those days contained quite a few young lecturers from the US, who had come to Australia to evade the Vietnam draft. Matters of ethics and political violence were very vivid to them, and they communicated the urgency of these issues in class,” she says.
From studying these conflicts to reporting on them, Brooks went from the gothic towered sandstone of the university, to the features desk at the Sydney Morning Herald. Her three years of excellence there lead her to win the Greg Shackleton Australian News Correspondents scholarship to the journalism master’s program at Columbia University in 1982. Finally she made it to the Wall Street Journal where she was offered the prestigious position of a ‘fireman’ correspondent.
“It’s the one who gets called on to go to the worst places at the worst of times. It started for me in the Middle East, where I was a correspondent for six years, and after you get the ability to deal with chaotic situations, it’s all anyone ever wants you to do,” Brooks told Andrew Denton in 2005.
Although she may have been sent there, Brooks admits that her time as a foreign correspondent in turbulent areas has been an important part of her life and career.
“It has been a great thing to have been an eye witness, in my decade as a foreign correspondent, to some of the history of my own time.”
A run in with the Nigerian Secret Police was the catalyst that caused Brooks’ transition to her hugely successful career as a novelist. Her first work of fiction, Year of Wonders is an international bestseller, People of the Book is a New York Times bestseller, and she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2006 for March.
“I feel thankful to have unexpectedly found a place as a novelist, and it is from this perch that I am able to continue to probe some of the experiences I had working as a reporter in times of catastrophe.”