John Mateer was born in Roodepoort, a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1971. After emigrating to Australia in 1989, he lived in the cities of Perth and Melbourne.
In 1994 he published his first volume of poetry, »Burning Swans«, followed by other collection of poems like »Barefoot Speech« (2000). In 1998 Mateer traveled to Indonesia on a scholarship, which he afterwards described in a nonfiction work, »Semar’s Cave: an Indonesian Journal« (2004). This book demonstrated his eye for detail and fascination for everyday life far from the tourist trails. Mateer’s search for the experience of belonging, which takes him to very different countries but which is ultimately never successful, is artistically rooted in his African heritage. In the poem »Letter to a Lost Friend« from his 2009 volume »Ex-White: South African Poems«, Mateer asks if Africans can be whites. The answer is supplied by the poems themselves, showing as they do that his home country’s culture was always a conglomerate of very different influences, which compel the poet to consider them from the perspective of a stranger. Mirko Wenig and Josef Haslinger make the comment that »anyone who goes with [Mateer] on his lyrical journeys finds themselves exposed to a variety of images, rhythms and influences, but can also find out something about their own culture.« The magazine »World Literature Today« described Mateer as the latest incarnation of the international poet. In 2013, he published »Unbelievers, or ›The Moor‹«, written over the course of seven years, in which Mateer seeks clues to the significance of Islamic and Arab history – as well as to the Islamic world’s poetry and contemporary history – in places as varied as Dubai, Seville, Cairo and the Portuguese village of Monsanto. »The Japan Times« compared the complex reverberations of his work with the prose of his compatriot J. M. Coetzee, and called Mateer’s poems inquisitorial and intensive. Most recently he published the novella »The Quiet Slave. A history in eight episodes« (2015) about the origin of the Malays of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean. A selection of his poems in »The West. Australian Poems 1989–2009« will also be published in 2015 in German translation (»The Scar-tree / Der Narbenbaum«).
Mateer won the 2001 den Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry and in 2003 he received the Centenary Medal for his services to Australian literature.