What We're Reading / September 2019

What book’s got you feeling all the feelings this month? Our September reads include Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall, Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors, The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, What I Loved by Siri Husvedt and Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s Sergius Seeks Bacchus.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt, Senior Program Officer

Kate Mildenhall’s debut novel Skylarking is based on the true story of two teenage girls growing up on an Australian cape in the 1880s, and the dark fate that befell them. As co-host of The First Time Podcast, Mildenhall describes how, after discovering the story by accident, she grew compelled to write it. In their small, isolated community, Kate and Harriet imagine their potential futures as wives and mothers. Mildenhall’s interpretation of historical events deftly explores the excitement and torment of young love, and the ‘ferocity and wonder’ of friendship.


Sarah Mott, Communications and Project Officer

Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff was a tough book to read. Set in a predominantly Maori social housing estate in urban Aotearoa/New Zealand in the early 1990s, the story centres around Jake and Beth Heke and their children. The characters battle against entrenched violence, poverty and racism, often resulting in self-inflicted violence and misery that is sensitively written yet pulls absolutely no punches (extreme trigger warnings for this book – domestic violence and sexual abuse abound).

The brilliance is in Duff’s prose – sentences are short and choppy with slang and phonetics, adding to the sense that not all that is felt can be articulated in the often painful experiences of the characters, yet we as readers feel exactly what Duff wants us to feel. Each character has a unique voice, each with their own desperation, vulnerabilities and pride.

The controversy surrounding this book provides a context that is important for non-Maoris to pay attention to: many in the community have perceived this work as a condemnation of Maori society as largely responsible for the hopelessness plaguing communities such as Beth and Jake’s. You get the feeling that Duff is of the view that the Maori should ‘move on’ and accept that colonisation has happened, instead of harbouring resentment and self-pity. I also can imagine that many would take offence at the relentless portrayal of negative stereotypes in the book. As with any outsider reading about a culture that is not theirs, it is essential to remember that while this book is incredibly important, it’s a work to read among others – not to hold up as a definitive Maori voice or experience.

Sarah Poh, Communications Intern

I’m making my way through The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. One of the author’s more well-known works, the book is daunting not just in size. The story follows a young American woman, Isabel Archer, who arrives in Europe with her aunt following the passing of her father. Determined to live life on her own terms, Portrait tells the tale of a woman wrestling with her fate and navigating the choices offered by her suitors. Old and New World ideologies collide in this dialogue-heavy novel that dives excruciatingly yet beautifully into the human psyche. A tragedy of betrayal and personal letdowns, it’s no wonder this is commonly regarded as a must-read of the 19th Century.

Claire Thompson, Program Officer

I recently finished Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and would recommend it 100%.

A body is found in a marsh, in the (fictional) southern town of Barkley Cove, 1969. A murder investigation ensues, and we soon learn this small town has a prejudice, namely against the Marsh Girl, who very quickly becomes the leading suspect in the murder investigation. Meanwhile, we’re taken back into the past of 1952, where we meet the Marsh Girl, AKA Kya Clark, at four years old on the day her mother abandons her, leaving after years of her husband (Kya’s father) drunkenly abusing her.

We follow Kya as she grows up in the marsh, watch as her siblings and eventually, father, leave Kya behind, in search of a better life than the one they currently have – living in a run-down shack on the outskirts of society. We empathise with Kya as we witness the ridicule that meets her each time she attempts to enter her society. People are disgusted by her dirty, wild state. The preacher’s wife hurries her daughter away from Kya, afraid she carries disease. We feel for Kya as she resorts to making friends with the gulls that live in her marsh, trying desperately to quell the ache of loneliness that weighs down her body.

The power of Owens’ writing is in the way she uses the murder to grip readers – we want to keep reading to find out who did it, and who the body belongs to – but once we meet Kya, we completely forget the murder investigation and continue turning the pages to find out who Kya is, and if she will ever find the companionship and belonging she so desperately craves. Owens’ provocative language keeps the reader captivated; her years spent as a wildlife scientist are reflected through the repeated references to nature in her book, as in, “Sometimes  [Kya] heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.”

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I’ll say this: if you loved To Kill a Mockingbird, then you’ll love Where the Crawdads Sing; similarly a tale about coming-of-age, loss of innocence and how a town’s prejudice can leave the innocent vulnerable. You’ll still be thinking about the book even after you finish the last page.

Julia Tsalis, Program Manager

I was completely taken by Siri Husvedt’s novel What I Loved and have deeply admired her writing since then. I haven’t been as impressed with other novels of hers that I’ve read, so I approached Memories of the Future with cautious hope, fearing disappointment. I wasn’t disappointed. This is a remarkable novel narrated by a woman of SH’s age and experience, looking back on her life as a young woman attempting to write a novel in 1970’s New York. It is as much a consideration of how the stories we tell ourselves and of ourselves make up who we are. She contends that memory is an act of imagination rather than just a recalling of facts. Our memory lives in our mind just as our imagination does. It is thoughtful and beautifully written.

There are also several pieces in the brilliant Sydney Review of Books that I was particularly impressed by recently:

  • Sheila Pham’s ‘Elite Education’ – a beautiful consideration of belonging and not belonging, the separations that bring families together, and the differences that make Australia.
  • Kiriaki Koubaroulis’ ‘The Paper Trail’, written as part of a project developed by the Bankstown Arts Centre and SRB about the Women’s Rest Centre in Bankstown.
  • Felicity Castagna’s ‘Hopefully the Future is Dark’ on the nuances of writing from the West and the importance of engaging with complexity and contradiction.

Louisa Garcia-Dolnik, Membership Intern

There definitely isn’t enough credit given to readers of full collections of poetry – the stamina and patience required to sustain close engagement over an often deceptively dense amount of content presents a different kind of reading sensibility, one that’s usually invested in time, diligence and a whole lot of re-reading. I opened Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s Sergius Seeks Bacchus and prepared myself for a whopper. It came as a very happy surprise that Pasaribu’s poetry almost seems to fly intentionally in the face of the reader’s expectations: no elevated, impenetrable language here, everything sitting within the realm of the touchable, its lyricism so tangible.

Though Sergius Seeks Bacchus never shies away from the elegiac–his exposé of state violence against LGBTQI Indonesians, laments to lost lovers and friends all receiving the appropriate time and tenderness–a certain light-heartedness weaves itself between his lines, always refusing to tip into that sinkhole of dark affect from which queer poetry sometimes never emerges. Reading this collection felt like talking to a friend–we’d occasionally joke, laugh and in moments of exceptional tenderness, cry over shared losses and heartbreak. This is a collection for queer people, people of colour, the minoritized. I can show this to my Filipino grandparents and I’m confident they’d also be able to take something of value away.

Translated from the Indonesian by Writing NSW Member Tiffany Tsao, the boldness and cheekiness of the line is by no means lost on the reader. Having grown up around Tagalog, I quite enjoyed those glimpses of Indonesian humour and prosody (the concluding multi-stanza poem about new-age umbrellas is absolutely to die for)! A must-read for lovers of queer, playful poetry.

You can check out some of Pasaribu’s work here and here.

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