News / Writing NSW staff pick their favourite writing of 2018


The staff at Writing NSW did a lot of reading in 2018! Check out some of our top picks for the year, including work from Alison Whittaker, Behrouz Boochani and many more.


DAN HOGAN, PROGRAM OFFICER

‘Why start-up what’s already our expertise?’ — Alison Whittaker, Blakwork

Blakwork by Alison Whittaker is a powerful collection of poetry and prose. Whittaker’s experimental sensibility is at the peak of its powers — Blakwork’s arrangements emit vital interrogations, unsung celebrations and immensely unjust losses, as well as moments occurring in the past/present/future. Whittaker’s extraordinary wielding of language, storytelling and imagery in Blakwork cuts through the noise. Her work blistered my heart and popped the pustules (in the best, most necessary, way). ‘Experimental’ often appears in the argot of poetry reviews as a kind of overused and superfluous descriptor.

If a hypothesis posits whether poetry has any function or facility in today’s pockmarked world, then Blakwork is the experiment that proves, without a shadow of a doubt, that poetry is not only vital but urgently needed now more than ever.

‘Frustration might just motivate you; uncertainty can be freeing; negativity, correctly wielded, is a constructive force.’ — Kat Muscat, Defiance, Feminism, Empathy

Defiance, Feminism, Empathy: The Writings of Kat Muscat is a book that enshrines Kat’s greatest and most powerful work. The collection covers a vast array of subject matter and genre, culminating in a glowing archive of one of Australia’s most insightful and incisive writers. Deep-dives on gender, sexuality, violence, mental health and marginalisation – to erotic fan fiction and lessons that can be learned from listening to Blink 182 — Kat’s writing is transcendent and vital.

Defiance, Feminism, Empathy is a commanding book. A book that dares to invoke defiance in order to build a bolder, kinder future.

ASHLEY KALAGIAN BLUNT, ONLINE PROGRAM OFFICER

This year I was delighted by Jay Martin’s Vodka and Apple Juice: Travels of an Undiplomatic Wife in Poland, a memoir of the author’s three years in Poland accompanying her husband
on a diplomatic posting. Having left a successful career in Canberra, Martin is both excited and nervous to step away from work and experience life in a new culture. Her narrative traces her efforts to learn the Polish language and the unwritten rules of Polish life, as well as the challenges of making meaningful friendships and helping her marriage survive the long, grey winters. Her writing is personable, peppered with gentle humour and introspection.

Vodka and Apple Juice won the 2016 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award for Unpublished Manuscript and is Martin’s first book. I highly recommend it.

Early in the year I read The Friendship Cure, and it made a significant impact on me. Much like alcohol, bacon and sitting, loneliness is bad for our health. Research is revealing that loneliness raises our cortisol level, causes tumours to grow faster, raises our blood pressure and increases our risk of death, among other nasty things.

Australian author Kate Leaver urges us to recognise loneliness as a pressing health threat. But she also reassures us. There’s an antidote to loneliness, as her debut book shows. Just as loneliness causes us harm, friendship can dramatically affect our physical health, as new research shows. Having a caring social network of close friends may lower your risk of Alzheimer’s, obesity, heart problems and high blood pressure, and improve your chances of staying fit. Likewise, having a close friend at work can improve attention span, mood and even productivity. And while friendship can’t cure depression, spending time with friends and cultivating strong friendships can be part of good mental healthcare practices, alongside healthy eating and exercise.

Combining scientific research, interviews and memoir, The Friendship Cure explores the many benefits of friendship, along with a few of the perils, through pop-culture references and anecdotes of both successful and failed friendships. In her chatty, personable style, Leaver provides valuable insight into the meaning of friendship, how it functions in our social lives, at work, and online, and why it’s so good for us. Reading it gave me the confidence to develop new friendships and strengthen existing ones.

Another delight was the audio version of Everywhere I Look, a collection of Helen Garner’s essays narrated by the author. It’s an intimate experience to hear the author’s own voice intonating each sentence exactly as she heard them in her head in their creation. Like David Sedaris, Jon Ronson and other writers whose non-fiction is so thoroughly imbued with their crafted persona, Garner is her work’s perfect narrator.

SHERRY LANDOW, MEMBERSHIP & DEVELOPMENT OFFICER

A 2018 favourite of mine is Davina Bell and Allison Colpoys’ picture book, All the Ways to be Smart. Bell and Colpoys are the writer-llustrator duo that brought us Under the Love Umbrella and The Underwater Fancy Dress Parade. With its catchy rhyming structure and visual vibrancy, All the Ways to be Smart promises to be just as irresistibly popular as their previous works.

This book teaches children that intelligence is so much more than being book-smart. Intelligence can also mean being empathetic, artistic, athletic, and inquisitive. It places value in every kind of talent, from ‘building boats from boxes’ to ‘kindness when there’s crying’. All the Ways to be Smart is the perfect feel-good bedtime story that I can’t wait to gift this Christmas.

Another highlight for me this year was Giulia Enders’ bestselling book, Gut: The Inside Story of our Body’s Most Underrated Organ. Not a glamorous topic by any means, but certainly fascinating. Enders writes about the body in an accessible and entertaining way. If you have even the slightest curiosity in how our bodies work, I highly recommend this read (caution: reading this book may cause uncontrollable outbursts of fun-fact- sharing).

Earlier this year I was standing in a bookshop with The Decision Book in my hands, weighing up whether to buy it or not. It took about 10 minutes of picking it up and putting it back again before I realised it could probably teach me a thing or two. To be exact, it had 50 things to teach me: dozens of strategic thinking models from the Pareto Principle and the Johari window to the Eisenhower Matrix.

Small and sleek enough to read on the go, The Decision Book presents key approaches to decision-making theory in bite-sized chunks. Writers Mikael Krogerus and Roman Tschäppeler teamed up with illustrator Philip Earnhart to provide diagrams that complement each theory. Best served as a reference book, I recommend The Decision Book to anyone else who wants to cut down their bookshop deliberation time.

JANE McCREDIE, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER

I saw Kim Scott speak at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, not long after reading his extraordinary, rule-breaking novel, Taboo. It was wonderful to hear him read the opening pages of the book, with their disorienting blend of realism and magical elements. Scott himself describes the book as ‘a trippy, stumbling sort of genre-hop’. It’s that and more. Set against the historical background of massacre and dispossession in Scott’s own Noongar country of south-western WA, Taboo brings an unflinching gaze to the fraught process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous. It is a truly original, transformative work from one of our leading writers.

Also this year, I read Bren MacDibble’s How to Bee. This intelligent, thought-provoking children’s novel depicts a future world where natural and social ecosystems are in crisis. Nine-year-old Peony lives on a fruit farm with her grandfather and little sister. Both children work in the orchards collecting pests from around the base of the trees, but Peony aspires to be a ‘bee’, one of the children dressed in striped vests who climb the trees to manually pollinate the flowers now that wild bees are extinct. When she is abducted by her mother and taken to the city to work, Peony tries to escape and find her way back to the farm. This is a book about family breakdown and violence, set against a backdrop of wider environmental and social collapse. The book does, however, offer hope through the kindness and human connection that can be found in unexpected places. Given the threats currently faced by our planet, this is a timely and important book for young readers.

Lastly, I read Kate Atkinson’s clever, intricate novel, Life After Life. The book opens with its central character, Ursula Todd, assassinating Hitler in 1930, but that’s hardly the end of the story. The novel explores the different paths one human life can take, and in its course, Ursula dies many times. She perishes at birth, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, the doctor prevented from attending by a snowstorm. The novel resets: this time the doctor gets there in time to save the baby. Ursula goes on to have a fatal fall from the roof, to drown on a family holiday, to succumb to the 1918 influenza pandemic, to die in the London Blitz, and to die again in the ruins of post-war Berlin. Each time, she is resurrected to live yet another alternative ending. I found this a moving exploration of the randomness of life and a masterful reflection on the way a novelist determines the fate of her characters.

MYRA OPDYKE, COMMUNICATIONS INTERN

One of the standout novels I read this year was City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple. I don’t often read history books or travelogues, but Dalrymple truly outdid himself with this enthralling work, weaving the history of Indian rulers with their present-day influences and remnants. These sometimes took the form of ruins now residing on the outskirts of bustling, colourful cities, but also the people who were the last remains of a legendary family, or people who didn’t conform to the gender binary and had their own unique subculture. He sought out these places and people, uncovering the reality of a culture still very much alive with its past, with all of the engaging diversity that entails. He combines history, interviews and his own quirky connections — such as his loud Punjabi landlady and his favourite taxi-driver — into an expertly woven portrayal of Delhi.

In the realm of the present and the future, I read No Is Not Enough by Naomi Klein. The first section draws on Klein’s long career in social research; in it, she outlines how the world ended up with Trump, Brexit and environmental crisis. This section is fascinating and provided many moments where I had to just sit back and admire her thorough research, which gave me a new lens through which to see a lot of our current global social climate. The second section is very gloom and doom, realistically telling us what is at stake in the current environmental crisis and our addiction to the growth narrative. Finally, Klein says that it’s time to stop complaining. She points out that there are endless analyses of what is wrong with the world, but not many people offering a solution. She says that saying No to the current social structures and failures isn’t productive; given a No, we have nothing to work towards, but if we think about what we actually do want, then we can work towards this Yes.

Finally, the most striking Australian novel I have read this year is Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains. This is a moving book outlining Boochani’s experience seeking asylum from Australia. Boochani makes observations about people, culture, perception and language as he watches his fellow inmates in Manus Island detention centre lose hope. This is a raw book, written from lived experience, by a man who is university-educated and who has written articles about the conditions on Manus Island for many well-known Australian publications.

His endeavour to write this book was risky, given that it was composed via messages to his friends on a smuggled phone, but it culminated in a powerful addition to Australia’s literary canon.

JULIA TSALIS, PROGRAM MANAGER

Drew Rooke was a Writing NSW Early Career Writers Grant recipient in 2016 and read an extract from his book One Last Spin: The Power and Peril of Pokies at our program launch this year. I was immediately intrigued by the sad compelling nature of his book, a mixture of personal anecdote, stories of people in the grip of gambling addiction, academic research and interviews with those researching and working in the gambling industry. The book opens with this quote from a gambling counsellor: ‘Australia has pokies the way America has guns.’ It is an eye-opening read about the insidious nature of pokies in Australia and their grip on our society.

When I was at the Edinburgh Writers’ Festival, I attended a panel about writing from the Appalachian regionof the US with the novelists Silas House (Southernmost), Jennifer Haigh (Heat and Light) and poet Rebecca Howell (American Purgatory). They spoke about the particular challenges faced by people living in this area — a place of great physical beauty that for the last 100 years has been colonised by industry and is suffering the environmental and social consequences. It also remains a largely working class area in a country where no one wants to admit to being working class, which as Howell pointed out creates problems ‘because if the land of opportunity is where you live and you don’t have opportunity then either the system or you is broken’. Both Silas House’s Southernmost and Jennifer Haigh’s Heat and Light chart the social, environmental and personal issues of living in this complex part of the world. I recommend them both.

Not a book, but a reading highlight for me this year has been the Reading Victoria project commissioned by the Melbourne City of Literature to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Each week a new piece of writing about a suburb of Melbourne has arrived in my inbox. A spark of joy in amongst the work and junk mail. Sometimes by writers I’ve never heard of, sometimes well-known: always interesting. I feel like I’ve gone on a fictional tour of the city learning about the place and its people through individual stories. Next year will be a little less fun without it. You can find the collection at readingvictoria.cityofliterature.com.au.

ANNIE ZHANG, ACTING COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER

This year I was lucky enough to stumble upon some excellent books from diverse authors.

I thoroughly enjoyed the strange and trippy stumble through adolescence, art and Chinatown that is Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau, recently published by Brow Books. Our protagonist is 15-year- old Monk who lives in a Chinatown apartment with her Xanax-addicted father. Then the eccentric and artsy Santa Coy (who loves hot sauce) enters their lives, and the apartment begins to fill with his artistic creations as well as his strange energy.

A series of surreal adventures follow — cakes are iced, pasta is cooked, videos are made, dull teen parties are held, drugs become involved. The book is split into nine chapters, further divided down into even smaller sections that are usually one to two pages long, each detailing intense snapshots of Monk’s life. The book’s greatest strength is its jarring and unique prose.

Another book I loved was Apple and Knife, which I reviewed in full here. Author Intan Paramaditha lures the reader into worlds where horror and fairy tale blend into the everyday. Dark energies and mysterious entities lurk in the underbellies of Indonesia in each of these 12 subversive stories and the voices of women become sharply heard. Paramaditha’s stories star a fascinating host of disobedient women — ranging from the maligned, to the merciful, to the malicious.

Power struggles inevitably occur with a supporting cast of corrupt generals, affluent corporate figures, and village heads of parochial communities. Often, these side characters function as embodiments of the conservative, patriarchal forces that attempt to bring women to ruin.

Epstein’s translation is deserving of high praise. Each story has been carefully rendered in language that effectively establishes a mood of enigma and possibility, and the prose is replete with visceral Gothic imagery. Thanks to the impressive efforts of both author and translator, Apple and Knife is a gripping and powerful collection.

KIRSTEN KRAUTH, NEWSWRITE EDITOR

It’s exciting to see how a fiction writer’s career develops over many years and two of my favourite books have been by established Australian novelists always ready to try out new styles and genres: Krissy Kneen’s Wintering and Toni Jordan’s The Fragments. Krissy Kneen’s novel is set on an isolated Tasmanian coast where the cold seeps into your bones. When a man disappears in strange circumstances, the narrative turns from small-town mystery and domestic drama to a surreal world of shapeshifters and dark creatures in the night. Toni Jordan’s latest moves between 1980s Brisbane and 1930s USA — about fractured narratives and what lies in the space between what we read and what we imagine. Beautifully structured and layered, this book is a clever meta-fiction about what it means to be a writer and the words we leave behind. I also found Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains to be profound, unsettling and a must-read.

 


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