Honorary Doctor of Letters
Citation delivered by Professor Paul Wellings, Vice-Chancellor, of the University of Wollongong on the occasion of the admission of Kathryn Marie Lette as a Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) on 20 April 2017.
Chancellor, I present Kathryn Marie Lette.
When Kathy Lette left school at the tender age of 16, few would have envisioned her exceptional contribution as a best-selling author, entertainer and health and social justice advocate – though her quick wit, verve and unapologetic refusal to quietly accept the status quo were certainly already at play.
Kathy was raised in the Sydney southern suburb fondly know as, The Shire. As a ‘surfie girl’ growing up in the 70’s cultural epoch of sexism, she was propelled into feminist thinking by the teachings of Germaine Greer. She and childhood friend Gabrielle Carey formed cabaret duo The Salami Sisters, singing their observations on the ‘raw slice of life’ and making the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1978 protesting buskers’ rights not to be moved on. The pair went on to write a controversial column in the Sun Herald.
One year after she dropped out of high school ‘to become a writer’, Kathy co-authored Puberty Blues, an autobiographical, proto-feminist teen novel about two 13-year-old southern suburbs girls seeking to boost their social status by ingratiating themselves with a male surfer gang. Insightful and explicit, the novel defined a generation and became an Australian cult classic. It was made into a major feature film in 1981 and an award-winning television mini-series in 2012.
Kathy spent her early adult years as a newspaper columnist and sitcom writer in Australia and America before penning her next novel, Girls Night Out, in 1998, relocating to London that same year. She has since written numerous international bestsellers, some of which have been translated to film and stage productions. Her novels have been published in 17 languages and 120 countries, and she is an undisputed queen of the chick-lit realm.
Kathy also held the prestigious post of London Savoy Writer-in-Residence in 2004, where a cocktail named after her can still be ordered.
As a writer, she has employed humour and refreshing candour to shine a light on serious issues, challenge social norms and empower her readers. Kathy’s 2014 novel, Courting Trouble, used comedy to talk about sexual violence and the court system’s mistreatment of rape victims; she has variously put under the microscope issues of sexism, inequality, marital infidelity, body image, menopause and the joy and isolation of motherhood.
Kathy drew on a deep well of personal experience in writing her 2012 novel, The Boy Who Fell to Earth – a funny, quirky and tender story of a single mother raising a child with Asperger’s Syndrome. Kathy’s son Julius, now 25 years old, was diagnosed with the condition at the age of three, and writing the novel served as a way of coping, accepting and overcoming the challenges and wonders of raising an autistic child. The story is currently being made into a Hollywood feature film.
In recent years, Kathy has been vocal in raising awareness of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). She advocates helping autistic people become their own best selves and celebrating what makes each individual extraordinary, rather than forcing them to fit a societal definition of ‘normal’. She is an ambassador for Britain’s National Autistic Society and for BioAutism – Australia’s only charity dedicated specifically to raising awareness and funding for ASD research, and regularly uses media appearances to eliminate stigma and bring awareness and understanding to new heights.
Kathy champions a wide range of charities for women, children, and community health more broadly. She is an ambassador for Plan UK, Women and Children First and the White Ribbon Alliance, and counts helping women achieve equal pay as a key priority. She has campaigned for the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria, and in 2014 spoke at the Wollongong Community Cancer Link’s Literary Luncheon.
Though she took full British citizenship in 2011, Kathy maintains a strong connection to Australia’s mediascape through television appearances, radio, and writing opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines. On a more personal note, for almost 30 years she has returned to the Illawarra to celebrate family Christmas, relishing the reunion with her beloved Mum – her strongest guide and mentor – and her three wonderful sisters, who she cites as the greatest gift imaginable.
Chancellor, Kathy Lette’s contribution to society as a prodigious writer, tenacious social commentator and health and wellbeing advocate is exemplary. It is a privilege and pleasure to present Kathy Lette for a Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.