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Thursday, March 13, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New Australian Aboriginal Hoax Uncovered -- Award-Winning Author `Wanda Koolmatrie' Isn't Native; And `She' Actually Is A `He'

AP

SYDNEY, Australia - The aboriginal autobiography "My Own Sweet Time" by Wanda Koolmatrie won critical acclaim when released in 1995, even receiving a national literary award as the best first novel by a woman writer.

There was embarrassment - and outrage - in Australia's literary establishment today when it was disclosed that the author is really Leon Carmen, a 47-year-old white man living in Sydney.

"As we now discover, it is a pack of lies, because it is actually a fiction and not autobiographical, which I think immediately devalues its literary merit," said Lydia Miller, director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board.

Miller accepted the 1996 Dobbie Award for "the best first novel by an Australian woman" on behalf of the absent "Wanda Koolmatrie," who was purportedly overseas at the time.

The arts board gave grants to Carmen's publisher, Magabala Books, as well as the Western Australian state government and federal government.

Breaking in

The disclosure was the second aboriginal hoax to rock the arts community in a week.

Last Friday, aborigines and some museum curators and gallery owners were angered to learn that acclaimed aboriginal painter "Eddie Burrup" is really an 82-year-old woman of Irish descent, Elizabeth Durack.

In an interview with the Telegraph Mirror, Carmen said he wrote under the name and identity of "Wanda Koolmatrie" to break into the Australian literary scene.

He believes Australians discriminate against whites and men in favor of female, aboriginal and immigrant-descended writers.

"I created a character and breathed life into her.

"I can't get published, but Wanda can," Carmen said.

The book received critical plaudits last year even as Helen Darville, a member of an English immigrant family, was reviled for writing an award-winning book purporting to draw on recollections of her Ukrainian ancestors.

"The Hand That Signed the Paper," written under the name "Helen Demidenko," became a bestseller before Darville's identity was disclosed.

Devaluing experiences

Some in Australia's white Anglo-Saxon community contend that politically correct art critics and awards judges devalue their experiences in favor of the supposedly more interesting or authentic stories of aborigines, women, and "ethnics" like "Demidenko."

Carmen's book hoodwinked the critics, who hailed it as a masterpiece of comic aboriginal autobiography.

"This is the lively, gutsy story of an urban aboriginal girl making it in the tough city counterculture of the mid-60s," author and reviewer Dorothy Hewett said.

"This heartwarming comic odyssey cries out for a sequel. It could be the start of a new genre," she wrote.

Carmen wrote a sequel, "Door to Door," but Magabala Press insisted on meeting "Wanda Koolmatrie" for editorial discussions.

That was one reason Carmen went public with his hoax now, he said.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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