What We're Reading / Staff Picks of 2020

This has been a year of triumphs and hardships, and we’ve been equal parts proud and humbled to share it with you, in solidarity. As a thank-you, we’ve gathered our literary favourites of the year, paired with a tea surprise!

It feels like an eternity since we packed our bags on Wangal land and set up at our respective homes for what was then chalked up to be a short couple of weeks in lockdown—we even left our beloved afternoon biscuits and tea in the kitchen where we’d be sure to see them again after only some brief time apart. A long nine months later, we’re starting the day with our 9:30am Zoom meetings, have all spent an inordinate amount on tea (was tea the #1 non-alcoholic beverage of the year?) and, if we’ve been lucky, made heady progress on our to-be-read piles which were likely glad to receive some love. Unsurprisingly, it’s those meetings, tea bags and books that have seen us safely through the storm. This has been a year of triumphs and hardships, and we’ve been equal parts proud and humbled to share it with you, in solidarity. As a thank-you, we’ve gathered our literary favourites of the year, paired with a tea surprise.

Jane McCredie, CEO

One of my favourite books this year was Tara June Winch’s The Yield, a luminous exploration of hope, grief and the complex histories of her Wiradjuri homeland. The book skillfully interweaves three strands: extracts from a Wiradjuri dictionary compiled by recently deceased elder Albert Gondiwindi, the contemporary story of his granddaughter August, and letters from an early 20th-century missionary, the Reverend Greenleaf. I found myself speaking the book’s Wiradjuri words out loud as I read, feeling the shape of them. As the book says in its opening paragraph: “Every person around should learn the word for country in the old language, the first language”. In Wiradjuri, that word is Ngurambang.

It’s probably not surprising that I’ve also been drawn to speculative fiction in this dystopic year. Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future offered a fascinating picture of the kind of world we might be able to create in the context of climate change, while James Bradley’s Ghost Species and Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in that Country, explored two very different realities that each happened to feature a pandemic of sorts, along with cross-species communication and other wild imaginings.

Best paired with: Earl Grey

Ashley Kalagian Blunt, Senior Program Officer

One of my top reads of this year was the debut novel Song of the Crocodile from Yuwaalaraay author Nardi Simpson. Set in the regional (and fictional) town of Darnmoor, the story spans four generations of the Billymil family and their effort to sustain their Indigenous culture and community despite the overt and covert racism of the settlers, and the corrosive impact of intergenerational trauma. The book is filled with ancestral spirits and Yuwaalaraay language, and presents both an insight into an ancient worldview that understands the healing power of the natural world, and a sharp, affecting critique of Australian society. 

Best paired with: Higher Living Organic Cocoa & Chilli Tea

Julia Tsalis, Program Manager

In very many ways 2020 has not been a good year, but for me it has been a very good year for reading. This is mainly due to the wealth of beautiful books to read, especially all the wonderful Australian books. We have so much to revel in and so much to celebrate (ideally, quietly while lying in bed). I have written about many of them over the year including Tara June Winch’s The Yield, Kirsten Krauth’s Almost A Mirror, Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s How to be Australian, and Alice Bishop’s A Constant Hum to name a few. And here’s another:

Julie Janson’s novel Benevolence is a powerful and evocative work tracing the effect of colonisation on the Indigenous people of the Sydney basin and on the land from the perspective of Darug woman, Muraging (Mary James). Many of the chapters start with historical information about the last edict from the colonial government or the arrival (or departure) of a new Governor. Framing the story with these public events while telling the personal story of one woman demonstrates the devastating effect of colonisation.

Muraging’s life is hard and heartbreaking but her strength and connection to a greater sense of self is the heart of this story. She is a powerful black woman surrounded by a lot of small white men. By shifting the perspective we can see not only the damage that essentially evil people do, but that even those who think they are being kind, benevolent, can do such incalculable damage. Janson is able to capture all this with her deft weaving of language, striking characters, and vivid descriptions of place.

This year I’ve also found great comfort in the poetic gems from the Poet Laureates of Melbourne arriving in my email inbox every Saturday, brought there by the wonder that is the Melbourne City of Literature. I was so grateful for the insight of these poets, travelling with me through this strange time. Some of my favourites: Andy Jackson, Cate Kennedy, Jennifer Nguyen, Thuy On, Eleanor Jackson, Lisa Gorton and Ross Gillet. I love that we have so many great poets that it can’t be limited to just the one Poet Laureate, we can have many because we need them all.

Best paired with: T2 – Melbourne Breakfast (sort of appropriate) to start the day and then a vodka, lime, and soda to finish it!

David Henley, Business and Property Manager

This year I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books, sometimes 10 or more a night just to get the little guy to sleep. I’m just lucky he loves books. These top choices are determined by the amount of times he has made me read them.

Too Many Elephants in this House, by Ursula Dubosarsky and Andrew Joyner. A fun picture book about a boy who has filled his house with his elephant friends to the point where his mother says they have to go and he has to do some lateral thinking. 

The Bluey books. Yep, my kid is a Bluey watcher and a Bluey reader. The best thing about the bluey books is that each are a bit different. They don’t just retell the episodes. For instance, Bob Bilby recounts the events of the episode but from the point-of-view of the hand puppet Bilby. And The Beach retells Bluey’s walk but with flaps to lift to reveal different encounters.

His current favourite is Colour for Curlews by Renée Treml, which he picked up from the library. In this one native birds are all in black and white and steal a bunch of paints to colour themselves. So it demonstrates colour mixing and all gets to know some of the lesser-known birds of Australia.

Best paired with: Seven Spice Sri Lankan Chai

Claire Thompson, Program Officer

I’ve read quite a few good books this year, but The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey was the stand out. 

Caitlin is terrified of dying. She focuses on her own mortality more than most people, so much so she ends up joining a support group for other people with the same anxiety, ‘The Morbids’. Each person within this group envisions a different way they are certain they will die: by a shark attack, a train accident, falling down the stairs in their apartment. This fear impacts how they live their lives: they can’t go surfing, can’t catch trains, can’t live anywhere with stairs. For Caitlin, she’s terrified of being attacked on her way home. But she wasn’t always terrified of death. Caitlin used to have a thriving career, a best friend, was on good terms with her parents. It’s not until the story progresses that we find out what triggered this all-encompassing fear in Caitlin. And what led her here, to where we meet her at the start of the novel, working late nights at a restaurant, self-medicating with alcohol, not talking to her best friend, struggling with insomnia, and living in a dingy, dirty apartment. 

This story is about friendship, about making yourself vulnerable and learning to accept help. Ramsey explores mental health in a sensitive and authentic way. None of the romanticisation or problematic messages you sometimes see when the protagonist is struggling with depression or anxiety. This novel is humorous, uplifting and forces you to reflect on your own fears and anxieties about this life. Plus, it’s set in Sydney, and it’s always fun reading books where the streets are familiar. 

Honourable mentions of other books I enjoyed in 2020 go to: Kokomo by Victoria Hannan, Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney, Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner and The Space Between by Zara McDonald and Michelle Andrews. 

Best paired with: an Iced Matcha Latte (made at home with either T2 Choc Chip Matcha, or a matcha my friend got me from Japan, mix it all together, add some ice and some milk and honey and YUM CAFFEINE)

Lou Garcia-Dolnik, Membership and Administration Officer

A year of multitudes, my attention span was shot through in 2020. A small price to pay for a relatively comfortable version of lockdown, a stable job and the health of my loved ones, but, if this year has taught us anything (the jury is still out), it’s been the preciousness of inter-community solidarity and this: we are never really truly alone. It’s been exceptionally heartening to see my very favourite journals rise to the challenge that has been the throbbing heartache of this year, doing the necessary and often painstaking work to foreground the sufferers of violences, many of which were exacerbated by the onset of the virus, and to connect community with community in a time of mass isolation.

Of those, Overland has surpassed its mandate as a journal of radical politics to deliver three incredible issues since March under the directorship of new co-editors Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk. In the editorial to their newest issue which presents essays from Indigenous writers across the globe, Evelyn and Jonathan write “holding academic discourse accountable to material reality… should [be considered] central to [scholars’] practice.” The essays within deliver on that promise in spades, in startling, incendiary and experimental modes of writing—this is an issue of diverse ideas and practices, which I’m very excited to gobble up over the coming afternoons. I would also highly recommend their online Poetry in Lockdown series, edited by Toby Fitch and Melody Paloma, which features poets such as Eunice Andrada, Panda Wong, Tony Birch and Jazz Money.

It’s hard to think of a journal that has thought through the possibilities of extended lockdown more imaginatively than Liminal, who have published no less than 4 special edition e-chapbooks since the onset of the pandemic, each boasting an exciting array of emerging Asian-Australian artists. All this while continuing their regular series of weekly interviews and articles, AND publishing an anthology of Liminal Fiction Prize winning-short stories! Their latest series of art and writing, Community, is edited in collaboration with Hyphenated Biennial and focuses on dialogue, solidarity and meaningful collaboration between First Nations and Asian Diasporic Artists. A must read for your slow mornings.

Other journals I’ve particularly enjoyed dipping in and out of this year include The Sydney Review of Books, un Magazine, Feminist Writers’ Festival’s online Features and Kill Your Darlings. If, like me, you’re struggling to commit to longer work, or find the cost of books increasingly punitive, there’s no shortage of stellar work available at a moment’s click.

Best paired with: T2’s Choc Chip Chai with soy milk and 1 tsp honey

Sarah Mott, Project and Communications Officer

I read a LOT of books this year, probably like many others, I used enforced couch time to delve into my TBR pile of local authors such as Alexis Wright, David Ireland, Murray Bail and Melissa Lucashenko, to name a few. Here are a couple that stood out among the many talented Aus writers I spent the year with:

Blueberries: Essays concerning understanding – Elena Savage:

This is the collection that kicked-off my hunger for the personal essay. It also hit home as a millennial navigating privilege, class, sexuality and creativity. Savage plays with prose and skips across genres, but the collection still feels satisfyingly complete and interconnected. Savage asks questions but doesn’t necessarily answer them, she uses her personal experiences and musings to connect us to broader, often difficult subjects, and her writing grapples between rage, humour, pain, playfulness, wryness and passion in perfect measures.

Sea Hearts – Margo Lanagan:

I picked this one up during the lockdown and it proved the perfect mix of escapism and human fallibility, wrapped in folklore. Being ginger and averse to the heat, I’m a sucker for a story set on windswept rocks and freezing tides. Coupled with smacks of feminism, explorations of love, male desire and entitlement, and the labelling of ‘difficult’ women as witches, there is an element of subtle domestic horror in this gentle fantasy that elevates it above traditional selkie tales.   

Best paired with: I drank more coffee than I ever have before in 2020. I discovered my limit before bad things happen, which is two and a half cups. 

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