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Nene Gare (1914–1994)

by A. Haebich

This article was published:

Nene Gare, by Pat Barblett, 1986

Nene Gare, by Pat Barblett, 1986

National Library of Australia, 11383145

Nene Gare (1914–1994), writer and artist, was born on 9 May 1914 at Kent Town, Adelaide, South Australia, and named Doris Violet May, fourth of seven children of locally born parents John Henry Wadham, saddler, and his wife Mary, née Hounslow. After attending East Adelaide Public School and Muirden College, she studied painting at the Adelaide Art School. Growing up in the Depression, she felt her family’s straitened circumstances compared to their wealthy relations. This was the source of the empathy she would later have with Aboriginal and other people living in poverty. She dropped her given names in favour of Nene when she left Adelaide for Perth in 1939, where she worked as a typist (1939–42) while attending art classes at Perth Technical College. On 10 June 1941 she married Frank Ellis Gare, a public servant, at St George’s Cathedral, Perth.

Gare’s first short story was published by the Sunday Times (Perth) in 1943, and was followed by others in Perth and Adelaide newspapers. Her husband’s public service career required the family to move frequently, spending periods at Salamaua, Territory of Papua-New Guinea (1946–48), and back in Western Australia at Carnarvon (1952–54) and Geraldton (1954–62), where he was a district officer with the Department of Native Welfare. The Aboriginal families Nene met there inspired the principal characters of her first and most celebrated novel, The Fringe Dwellers (1961). A compelling account of the impact of 1950s assimilation policy on an Aboriginal family, the novel told the story of the clash of cultures and generations in a family pressured to leave their way of life on an urban reserve for a house in town.

Three memoirs followed Gare’s initial book: Green Gold (1963) drew on her experiences in Carnarvon; A House with Verandahs (1980), a memoir of her Adelaide childhood; and An Island Away (1981) describing the life of a patrol officer’s wife in New Guinea. A collection of short stories, Bend to the Wind, was published in 1978, and Kent Town: A 1920s Girlhood was published posthumously. Her writing drew closely on personal experience and observation, as she explained by reference to The Fringe Dwellers: ‘My novel is factual. I keep a diary. I keep notes. In my memory I hear Aboriginal people talking. I hear it and I type what I hear’ (Mattingley 2006, 19).

In 1962 Frank was appointed commissioner of native welfare and the family settled in Perth. Nene resumed painting, participating in many exhibitions, and winning several awards including the Canning Art prize (1978).  Perth’s Swan River and her garden formed much of her subject matter, but she also painted local landmarks, usually in oils or water colours. Sometimes she donated the proceeds of sales to organisations she supported, including Amnesty International and People for Nuclear Disarmament. She also continued her own learning, undertaking courses externally at Murdoch University between 1980 and 1982 in French, literature, and semiotics.

The Fringe Dwellers was the source of much of the acclaim Gare attracted during her literary career, and was favourably reviewed in major Australian newspapers, as well as the London Observer and the Irish Times. Discussing the novel, the anthropologist Diane Barwick wondered if anthropological material including ‘the impact of change on individuals’ can best be presented in the novel form (NLA MS 8294). By 1985 the book had been reprinted many times and set as a school text. It was adapted as a feature film directed by Bruce Beresford and after a premiere at the Sydney Film Festival in 1986 was a finalist at the Cannes Film Festival the same year. Filmed in south-west Queensland with Gare often attending, it starred Aboriginal actors such as Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker), Ernie Dingo, Justine Saunders, and Bob Mazza, and was the first Australian film to cast Indigenous actors in all the leading roles.  

Known for her empathy and friendliness, Gare believed that the strong had a responsibility to help the weak, that nations should share their resources equally, and that ‘there are right and wrong choices and the right choice is a lot easier to see than we will admit’ (Age, 1994). Described as sensitive and delicate, she was nevertheless ‘vigorous in her affirmation of life’s fullness and simplicity’ (Campbell 1994, 21). After suffering from heart disease for several years, she died on 24 May 1994 in her home at Shelley, Western Australia, and was cremated. Her husband, two daughters, and two sons survived her; another son had died in his infancy.

Research edited by Kylie Carman-Brown

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne). ‘Obituary Nene Gare, 1914–1994.’ 7 June 1994, 20
  • Campbell, Marion. ‘Writer Committed to Underprivileged.’ Australian, 17 June 1994, 21
  • Canberra Times. ‘The Unfortunates Who Are Trapped between Two Worlds.’ 21 October 1961, 17
  • Haebich, Anna. Spinning the Dream: Assimilation in Australia 1950-1970. Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2008
  • Mattingley, Christobel. ‘An Unassuming Radical: The Powerful Influence of Author Nene Gare’s Work.’ National Library of Australia News 16, no. 7 (April 2006): 19–21
  • National Library of Australia MS 8294, Papers of Nene Gare

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

A. Haebich, 'Gare, Nene (1914–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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