What We're Reading / October 2023

This month the Writing NSW team has been devouring fiction, essay, poetry, memoir and short story, read on for what we’ve been enjoying!

I’d Rather Not by Robert Skinner

Sophie Groom, CEO 

In preparation for chatting with him at the Headland Writers Festival this coming weekend, I’ve been reading Robert Skinner’s book, I’d Rather Not. Given the tumultuous state of the country and the world right now, it feels both fortunate and also somehow inevitable to be reading this collection of hilarious essays about the realities of life in Australia in the current moment.
Experiences like dealing with Centrelink, becoming homeless, working on literary publications with shoestring budgets and interacting with the inanities of bureaucracy all make great fodder for Skinner’s quintessentially Australian brand of humour. Sardonic, and drier than the outback where Skinner finds himself in one of his rare bouts of gainful employment, this is a book that will have you shaking your head and laughing by turns. And if that laughter sometimes verges on hysteria, well, who could blame you?

The Lost Arabs by Omar Sakr

Elliot Cameron, Membership & Operations Coordinator

‘I cannot imagine the ease of being only one thing.’ Another month, another pre-Covid collection of poetry to revisit. Omar Sakr’s The Lost Arabs is an unflinching and unforgiving exploration of a young Arab-Australian’s journey through diaspora, family trauma, sexuality, and identity. It is a collection I had experienced in part before—both from the page and the stage—but which has gained a new level of appreciation from me this time around.

Sakr’s writing is beautiful, but not through a use of beautiful imagery. Instead, he pulls you through the ugly, the raw, the uncomfortable, the difficult-to-read-about.  ‘Swallow all the dead children’ is one of his instructions in ‘How to destroy the body slowly’. If you are willing, Sakr often has hope waiting on the other side, but his writing makes it clear you should not expect to go unscathed: ‘I know a flower is not a weapon but the possibility / for harm remains.’

For these reasons, The Lost Arabs has solidified Omar Sakr as among my favourite brand of poet: the type that refuses to pull any punches. Better yet, he is seemingly unafraid to let the reader know whom the punches are directed at; from relationships as intimate as parents and lost lovers, to as far-reaching as ‘the murderous militarism of the West’.

It is a tall challenge to write poetry that feels timeless. It is a taller challenge yet to write poetry that feels more alive as time goes on. ‘Every day I say a prayer for Palestine / And every day a dog runs away with it’, Sakr wrote in 2018. It has been five years since, but I hope that dog is taking those prayers where they need to go.

The Lost Arabs (2019, UQP Books)

Body Friend by Katherine Brabon

Rochelle Pickles, Professional Development Officer

This week I finished Katherine Brabon’s Body Friend, a slow-paced and thoughtful read packed with beautiful prose and unique insights into living with chronic illness.

Following a recent surgery, an unnamed protagonist befriends two women who have opposing approaches to managing their chronic illness and pain. Frieda thrives on control, pushing herself to swim every day. Sylvia values rest and allowing the body time to recover. The protagonist is drawn to both women who encourage—and, at times, shame her—to follow their own approach. As she moves between periods of activity and rest, she wonders how much her actions are led by her body, and by these outside pressures.

Body Friend puts words to many feelings and experiences that can be hard to articulate when living in a body that is constantly fighting itself. The cyclical style of the narrative—as the protagonist moves back and forth between Frieda and Sylvia—beautifully emulates the often-cyclical nature of chronic illness, through flares and recovery and surgery and recovery and low points and higher points but never without illness. It’s a welcome affront to the usual representations of how illness works—this idea that there is treatment and then there is getting better. Those of us with chronic illness know this expectation too well, building a levy of new and creative ways to respond to the question: ‘are you better yet?’. This book was like a balm; and one I’d recommend to others with experience of chronic illness and those who wish to better understand.

Body Friend (2023, Ultimo Press)

Pomegranate & Fig by Zaheda Ghani
I Look Forward to Hearing from You by Nick Bhasin
Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor

Rowena Tuziak, Program Manager

This month I was delighted to chat with Zaheda Ghani, Nick Bhasin, and Hayley Scrivenor for our Writing NSW Talking Writing event on debut authors. It was a joy to read each of their debuts.

Pomegranate & Fig is a story of displacement in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970s. Each chapter is told in vignettes from the perspective of three young characters navigating this transition. It’s evocative, emotive, and poetic, and is a timely must-read.

I Look Forward to Hearing from You is a hilarious yet tender story of an aspiring TV writer’s descent into an anti-depressant, diet-pill fuelled frenzy of self-destruction following the death of his mother. This is a pop-culture extravaganza as Bhasin skilfully weaves into the narrative an impressive array of faux TV and movie titles, celebrity quotes, and gossip. Without giving too much away, let’s just say you’ll want to know more about Matthew McConaughey’s goat.

Dirt Town is a crime novel, but not as you know it. With multiple viewpoints, including the collective ‘we’ of the children of the regional (and fictional) town of Durton, it is layered and psychologically rich. Vivid, literary, heartfelt and haunting, if you haven’t read it already, you’re probably the only one.

Pomegranate & Fig (2014, Hachette)
I Look Forward to Hearing From You (2023, Penguin)
Dirt Town (2022, Pan Macmillan)

‘Temper’ by Jo Langdon in Overland #251

Adara Enthaler, Project & Communications Officer

I tend to prefer losing myself in long works of fantasy and collections of poetry by singular writers, letting myself be entranced by one writer’s voice at a time for days at a time. This week, however, I picked up the latest issue of Overland to challenge my habits with a chorus of poetry, fiction and essay, and I found ‘Temper’, a short story by Jo Langdon, following me into the weekend.

To mean a person’s control of their emotions, the act of assuaging or lessening, and the method of hardening a substance, ‘Temper’ is the perfect name for this story. Our nameless first person voice heroine is just beginning university, and has the misfortune of encountering a distasteful man she has met before. Internally expressing and suppressing a desire to inflict violence on this man, referred to only as ‘Bastard’, she recounts her previous encounters, the nature of his odious character, and her own certainty that she wants nothing to do with him.

Simultaneously, the young woman describes her experiences in traversing university orientation and teenage backyard parties with an accuracy that spikes an unpleasantly nostalgic feeling of gut-twisting anxiety. A young person’s wish to be confident and self-assured whilst desperately striving to be seen as interesting and desirable, navigating social tensions and learning who to trust and how to behave, is something Langdon portrays precisely.

Read ‘Temper’ by Jo Langdon online here.

Tell Her She’s Dreamin’ by Simone Amelia Jordan

Nevenya Cameron, Administration Officer

Tell Her She’s Dreamin’ is my first reading venture into the world of memoir, and what a great book to begin with! It’s a funny, relatable and entertaining account of Simone Amelia Jordan’s wild life as a hip-hop journalist, taking the reader all the way from the Inner West of Sydney to uptown New York. Simone recounts growing up as a scholarship kid navigating Sydney’s private schools and hanging out in the burgeoning hip hop scene of late-90s Burwood, to starting her own business in her early twenties, leading her to the neon lights of New York City. In New York, Simone forges a career in hip-hop journalism, meeting music stars, attending all-night parties, and producing stories for magazines, radio and television. With unbelievable anecdotes and Simone’s honest style, I’ve found myself laughing out loud while reading.

Throughout the memoir, Simone’s tongue-in-cheek voice highlights the adversity she faced as a Lebanese-Australian woman in an accessible and engaging way. The story is a testament to ambitious young women with tenacity, drive and persistence who won’t let any barrier prevent them from chasing their dreams. I’m not surprised it took out the coveted 2021 Richell Prize.

Tell Her She’s Dreamin’ (2023, Hachette)

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