Each month the NSW Writers’ Centre staff share what we’ve been reading. In July, we’ve been reading (and listening) to a range of Australian writers, including David Hunt, Pip Smith, Jessica Anderson, and McKenzie Wark. We look towards reimagining our national and personal histories, whether through Hunt’s Girt, a satirical take on Australia’s past, or in Smith’s Half Wild, an account of a transgender man living in 1920s Sydney. Other books on our shelves include the classic Australian story Tirra Lirra By The River, British playwright Alan Bennett’s hilarious The Uncommon Reader, and the epistolary e-mail saga I’m Very Into You by McKenzie Wark and Kathy Acker.
Jane McCredie, Executive Director
This month, it’s been all about listening, rather than reading, for me. I’ve been making my first forays into audiobooks ahead of an event the Centre is staging about them at September’s St Albans Writers’ Festival. I began with David Hunt’s funny, thought-provoking alternative history of Australia, Girt, as Hunt will be joining me on the panel in St Albans. Girt is the ideal book for anybody who thinks Australian history is boring, and it’s particularly wonderful to hear it read in Hunt’s own deadpan voice. His descriptions of the characters of early colonial Sydney are unforgettable. The Reverend Samuel Marsden, known to his contemporaries as the “flogging parson”, had “a ruddy face, piggy snout, melon-shaped head and the strength of an ox on steroids”, Hunt tells us. “If you weren’t into self-flagellation, he was prepared to do it for you.” And then there’s Mary Reibey, whose portrait is on our $20 note, described as “Australia’s first cross-dressing, horse-thieving, seal-clubbing convict entrepreneur and stand over woman”. As for Lachlan Macquarie, he was an “unusual choice” for Governor of NSW, Hunt tells us: “He’d been caught arranging dodgy commissions and lying to the royal family. He was in poor health, with his skin yellowed from malaria and a liver that had spent decades being kicked by Johnny Walker. His face and limbs were blotched from the curative acids he applied to his syphilitic lesions and years of bathing ‘Wee Mister Mac’ had left him with a disconcerting neurological twitch.” It’s a proud history, that’s definitely worth reading (or listening to).
Ashley Kalagian Blunt, Program Officer
This month I read Pip Smith’s inventive and compelling debut novel Half Wild. Blending fiction and non-fiction, the novel tells the many selves of Eugenia Falleni. Born as a woman in Italy, Eugenia arrives in Wellington with her family at a young age. There she begins to identify as a man, to the frustration of her family. As an adult, Eugenia reinvents himself in Australia as Harry Crawford, where he marries a woman named Annie Birkett. But Annie goes missing, and her body later turns up, blackened from a fire. Crawford goes on to remarry before the police catch up with him.
At its core, Half Wild is a murky true crime story. Smith makes the most of that murkiness, shifting narrative perspectives throughout to ask who Falleni might have been, and what the legacy of his murder trial reveals about our concept of justice.
In anticipation of our upcoming Honouring Australian Writers event, this month I read Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson. A Miles Franklin Award-winning novel, Tirra Lirra tells the story of Nora Porteous, an older woman who returns to her Brisbane childhood home after 40 years of living in London. On arriving home, she quickly falls ill and becomes bedridden, finding herself in the unpleasant situation of needing to be waited on and cared for by the children of families she once knew. Now faced with her past, she begins to recall the moments that shaped her and questions how truthful her memories have really been.
Tirra Lirra is an iconic novel that explores the the financial, sexual and familial prisons women in the 1920s and 30s were often kept in. We see their resilience through Nora’s constant escapes (of her small town, her marriage and her country), artistic pursuits and camaraderie with likeminded women.
Between my re-reads of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series, I squeezed in a charming little novella I picked up at a library sale. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett features Queen Elizabeth stumbling across a mobile library at the palace. She politely borrows a book, not expecting to make a habit of it, but rapidly becomes obsessed with reading. Devouring everything from Plath to Proust, she ignores the disapproval of the royal household and neglects her duties (and corgis) to read as much as she can. A wacky and witty tribute to the pleasures of literature!
I picked up McKenzie Wark and Kathy Acker’s publication I’m Very Into You after reading a brief excerpt from the book online. Composed purely of email correspondence sent between the two on the back of their brief romantic dalliance in Sydney more than two decades ago, its contents provides not only an engrossing glimpse into the minds of two very engaged intellectuals but also a snapshot of long distance communication in a pre-SMS/social media era (they send up to ten emails a day to one another). The two talk about everything from The Simpsons (“Watching new series The Simpsons—it’s getting pretty weird.”), Canberra (“bureaucracy’s answer to Disneyland”), to more intimate subjects revolving around queerness, love and relationships.
Compiled by Amelia Zhou.