Prize-Winning Aborigine Novelist Revealed as a Fraud

In 1997, the Australian literary establishment was rocked by the revelation that a critically acclaimed prize-winning female author of the aboriginal autobiographical novel My Own Sweet Time was actually a white man. The scandal led to questions of literary and cultural authenticity, gender and race, sexism and racism, national identity, publishing practices, and the intellectual property rights of indigenous peoples.

Summary of Event

Wanda Koolmatrie’s first novel, My Own Sweet Time (1994), was hailed by noted Australian playwright, author, and critic Dorothy Hewett as the start of a new genre. In 1996, Koolmatrie’s autobiographical novel was short-listed for the New South Wales Premier’s Award and it won the Nita May Dobbie National Award for the best first novel written by a woman. My Own Sweet Time became required reading for high school students sitting for their exit exams (and to obtain their higher school certificates) in New South Wales in 1996. [kw]Fraud, Prize-Winning Aborigine Novelist Revealed as a (Mar. 12, 1997)
My Own Sweet Time (novel)
Wanda Koolmatrie hoax
Carmen, Leon
Koolmatrie, Wanda (Leon Carmen)
Bayley, John
My Own Sweet Time (novel)
Wanda Koolmatrie hoax
Carmen, Leon
Koolmatrie, Wanda (Leon Carmen)
Bayley, John
[g]Australasia;Mar. 12, 1997: Prize-Winning Aborigine Novelist Revealed as a Fraud[02800]
[g]Australia;Mar. 12, 1997: Prize-Winning Aborigine Novelist Revealed as a Fraud[02800]
[c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Mar. 12, 1997: Prize-Winning Aborigine Novelist Revealed as a Fraud[02800]
[c]Literature;Mar. 12, 1997: Prize-Winning Aborigine Novelist Revealed as a Fraud[02800]
[c]Racism;Mar. 12, 1997: Prize-Winning Aborigine Novelist Revealed as a Fraud[02800]
[c]Publishing and journalism;Mar. 12, 1997: Prize-Winning Aborigine Novelist Revealed as a Fraud[02800]
[c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 12, 1997: Prize-Winning Aborigine Novelist Revealed as a Fraud[02800]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;Mar. 12, 1997: Prize-Winning Aborigine Novelist Revealed as a Fraud[02800]
Hubble, Ava
Stevenson, Andrew

My Own Sweet Time depicts the life of an aboriginal woman born in 1949 who was raised by white foster parents in the suburbs. The novel’s author, Koolmatrie, it turned out, was a pseudonym for Leon Carmen, a white man. Carmen later claimed in an interview that he believed he could get published only if he were nonwhite and female. He claimed that the Australian literary establishment discriminated against white men when considering who to publish.

A former school friend of Carmen, John Bayley, agreed to be his literary agent. (Some believe that Bayley, and not Carmen, wrote the book.) Bayley submitted Carmen’s manuscript to three publishers: the University of Queensland Press, Reed Books, and Magabala Books. Magabala Books, a government-subsidized publisher specializing in works written by aboriginal authors, agreed to publish the work, and it was launched in Sydney, Australia, during the Sydney Writers Festival on January 25, 1995. Neither Koolmatrie (Carmen) nor Bayley attended the launch. Indigenous author and poet Sykes, Roberta Roberta Sykes launched the book on behalf of the “absent” Koolmatrie.

The defense of using an assumed identity in literature is not new. Carmen argued that he would not have been published without the symbolic currency of his chosen identity. Other writers, especially women, have chosen an assumed identity (most often another gender). These writers include George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), Henry Handel Richardson (Ethel Richardson), and Miles Franklin (Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin), women whom Carmen claimed presented “only a short step to Wanda, our mythical female author.” (Bayley was a fan of writer Thomas Chatterton, who created a fifteenth century priest-poet called Thomas Rowley.)

For many writers, the motivation behind adopting a gender-bending nom de plume is twofold. First, as Carmen himself argued, the motivation is purely artistic (“bookish,” as he called it); that is, to compromise one’s real identity to garner readers of their work of literature. Second, as confirmed by the first argument, the motivation is implicitly commercial: One compromises his or her true identity to exploit the book market—to sell books.

Carmen claimed that he and Bayley had to accept Magabala’s advance against royalties to avoid potentially awkward questions arising about the book’s (fictional) author. The pair accepted the five thousand dollars prize money for the Nita Dobbie Award. Soon, Bayley sent Magabala a copy of Carmen’s sequel to My Own Sweet Time, the book Door to Door, which Magabala published in 1998. Before this, however, Magabala representatives became suspicious when they could not speak with Koolmatrie personally. It was not long before Carmen admitted to the hoax, and the scandal broke.

Reporters Ava Hubble and Andrew Stevenson of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph newspaper broke the story, “My Sweet Hoax,” on March 12, 1997. The news report came within weeks of two other newsworthy hoaxes: those of Ukrainian writer Helen Demidenko (Helen Darville) and aboriginal painter Eddie Burrup(Irish-born Elizabeth Durack). Bayley, though, claims in his book Daylight Corroboree (2004) that he confessed his part in the Koolmatrie hoax to Adelaide Advertiser columnist Tony Baker months before the hoax came to light in the Daily Telegraph.

The New South Wales Fraud Enforcement Agency New South Wales Fraud Enforcement Agency targeted Bayley for arrest and prosecution because he made “a false and misleading statement involving the author Wanda Koolmatrie who was a fictitious person invented by Leon Carmen and Mr. Bayley.” It appears that criminal charges materialized only because Bayley had accepted the Nita Dobbie Award cash prize on behalf of Koolmatrie. Consequently, his house was raided on May 8. Officers entered the premises, but Bayley was not home; he was en route from Melbourne. They seized the contents of his computer hard drive and his working journals. Interestingly, Bayley’s appearance at Sydney’s Downing Centre magistrates court on March 12, 1998, came one year to the day after the Daily Telegraph broke the story of the Koolmatrie hoax. Magistrate Geoff Brad presided over the case.

To many observers, Bayley was the one who defrauded Magabala Books, and he was the one charged with a crime. Critics were bewildered when the magistrate dismissed the fraud charge against Bayley because there was no prima facie case to substantiate the allegations of fraud. However, evidence seems to prove a prima facie case did exist. First, Bayley falsely claimed that he accepted the Nita Dobbie Award on Koolmatrie’s behalf because Koolmatrie was in England. Also, in Daylight Corroboree, Bayley admits to indicating “yes” on a declaration sent to him by Magabala Books before publication of My Own Sweet Time that included the question “Is the author of aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent?”


One of the most significant aspects of the Koolmatrie hoax was the extent to which it mobilized a range of critical opinion. For instance, while the hoax still inspires much debate about the politics of nonindigenous writers assuming a nonwhite racial identity, according to some critics the incident highlights the existence of antiwhite bias within the Australian culture industry. Such critics argue that the hoax gave credibility to the opinion that white men experience prejudice within a culture defined by a prevailing fascination with minority culture, namely indigenaity, or indigenousness. Critics also argue the hoax legitimated claims of the existence of special privileges for indigenous Australians. Others argue that because the 1990’s saw a series of identity poachers exposed in Australian literary and artistic circles as frauds, the trend is symptomatic of a cultural downturn in white-Anglo privilege. Others claim the fraud was artfully contrived in that Carmen and Bayley specifically approached Magabala Books, a government-financed publisher of works written by aboriginal authors especially.

By extension, some critics claim the hoax exposed the urgent need for the Australian government to recognize, formalize, and protect aboriginal intellectual property rights. Even more critics claim the incident exposed the inherent tensions in postmodern approaches to written works. These critics argue that while postmodern understandings of written works created the very space in which Koolmatrie was heard—as a culturally marginalized voice—the hoax itself raised important postmodern questions regarding authorial intent, authenticity in writing, and the blurring lines between factual and fictional Australian national identity. My Own Sweet Time (novel)
Wanda Koolmatrie hoax
Carmen, Leon
Koolmatrie, Wanda (Leon Carmen)
Bayley, John

Further Reading

  • Bayley, John. Daylight Corroboree: A First-hand Account of the Wanda Koolmatrie Hoax. Sydney: Eidolon Press, 2004. Bayley’s personal account of his and Carmen’s motivation behind the hoax. Includes reflections on the hoax’s cultural consequences.
  • Hosking, Sue. “The Wanda Koolmatrie Hoax: Who Cares? Does It Matter? Of Course It Does!” Adelaidean (University of Adelaide), April 21, 1997. Hosking’s article asks many questions about the hoax and concludes that Carmen’s assumption of an aboriginal identity was purely in self-interest.
  • Morrissey, Philip. “Stalking Aboriginal Culture: The Wanda Koolmatrie Affair.” Australian Feminist Studies 18, no. 42 (2003): 299-307. Morrissey, who wrote a reader’s report of the book My Own Sweet Time before the Koolmatrie hoax was exposed, offers his personal account of the hoax in this informative journal article.
  • Nolan, Maggie, and Carrie Dawson, eds. Who’s Who? Hoaxes, Imposture, and Identity Crises in Australian Literature. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2004. A wide-ranging examination of literary hoaxes and scandals specific to Australian literature. Includes discussion of the Koolmatrie hoax.

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