What We're Reading / September 2023

This month the Writing NSW team has been devouring poetry, fiction and non-fiction, read on for what we’ve been enjoying!

Borderland by Graham Akhurst

Sophie Groom, CEO 

I’m in the middle of Graham Akhurst’s debut young adult novel, Borderland, and am finding it increasingly difficult to tear myself away to find time for the mundanities of life—eating and sleeping among them. It tells the story of Jono, an Indigenous teenager graduating from a Brisbane private school where he never felt he truly belonged, as he goes about finding himself in the real world. Landing a place at the Aboriginal Performing Arts Centre, Jono thinks he’ll be studying acting while working out what’s next, but ends up finding himself on a very different journey.
What seems like a stroke of good fortune, the opportunity to intern with a documentary crew in the remote west of the state, turns strange and frightening as Jono begins to experience more and more deeply unsettling visions. Sorting out what’s real, what’s not, and what it all means is a fraught experience for the eminently relatable Jono, and Akhurst metes out the tension superbly. 
An Indigenous Australian Studies and Creative Writing Lecturer at UTS, Akhurst weaves together elements of coming of age, the supernatural, Indigenous identity and industrial land use incredibly deftly, and although you never feel “safe” reading Borderland, you certainly know you’re in the hands of a talented writer. Young adult literature luminary Marcus Zusak has blurbed the book, calling it “A hell of a debut novel from a writer at once daring, insightful and heartfelt.” I couldn’t agree more.

Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life by Anna Funder

Rowena Tuziak, Program Manager

Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life is simply extraordinary. Anna Funder brings to light and life Eileen O’Shaughnessy, first wife of Eric Blair (George Orwell).

In this innovative blend of biography, creative non-fiction, personal memoir, and fictional imagining, Funder has crafted something illuminating and enthralling. With meticulous research and investigation into the newly discovered letters from Eileen to her best friend, Funder uncovers the shocking erasure of her imprint on Orwell’s life and writing, both from his biographers and from Orwell himself.

Despite Orwell’s fascination with oppressive power structures, Funder’s work makes clear he seemed incapable or unwilling to examine the patriarchal power structure from which he directly benefited. Philandering, predatory, and quietly cruel, the exposure of his darker behaviours also invites the reader to consider the cognitive dissonance that we ourselves must engage in when reading his work, knowing what we now do about the darker side to his character. This has been such an engrossing read.

Wifedom (2023, Penguin)

Once A Stranger by Zoya Patel

Rochelle Pickles, Professional Development Officer

I recently finished Zoya Patel’s debut novel, Once a Stranger, which is a beautiful story dealing with the complex relationships of family and culture.

After having been estranged from her family for six years, Ayat receives an email from her older sister asking her to come home to Canberra—their mother is dying. The story moves between the perspectives of Ayat, her sister Laila, and her mother Khadija, as they grapple with the events of the past, their mixed feelings about coming back together as a family, and all that was missed in between. Patel is masterful in her handling of time in this book—moving between the present and the various stages of the family’s past that led to the estrangement. Where the characters often struggle to properly express their feelings for each other in present day, the reader gradually learns each of their experiences and motivations through these intermittent windows into their lives throughout time.

I found this book totally absorbing—I felt for all the characters and their varied perspectives, and I became very invested in each of their journeys. Overall, it was a really touching and bittersweet read.

Once A Stranger (2023, Hachette).

Enrol in our upcoming online course Building a Freelance Writing Career with Zoya Patel, Wednesday 11 to Tuesday 17 October 2023.

Dress Rehearsals by Madison Godfrey

Adara Enthaler, Project & Communications Officer

I’ve had Dress Rehearsals sitting unopened on my shelf for a few months after seeing Madison Godfrey read some of their poetry at Sydney Writers Festival earlier this year in June, as I often find myself daunted by the cracking open of a poet’s collection. Poetry can’t be speed-read, you can’t get distracted halfway down the page and continue on without missing anything. Poetry demands you give it your full attention and take your time reading it, and time is in short supply for most of us these days. That’s why when I discovered there was an audiobook –  narrated by Maddie themself – I got stuck right in during my next commute.

Dress Rehearsals is a wonderfully feral exploration of gender and sexuality, girlhood worn as mask and ill-fitting uniform, womanhood as warning sign and performance. Maddie takes us on a pilgrimage through their experiences of desire and femininity in a recounting that’s both affectionate and grotesque in its honesty, and ultimately an expression of trans joy.

“I didn’t want to be a boy, I just wanted to try boyhood on, to eat lunch with my legs bent and spread, my crotch a glorious landscape of grey material, a body allowed to walk itself to school.” – Excerpt from Uniform from Dress Rehearsals.

In hindsight, I wouldn’t recommend listening to this book for more than a few poems at a time, as the steady cadence of the reading did begin to make the poems blend into each other – even spoken poetry demands you take your time – but I look forward to opening my print copy of Dress Rehearsals in the future and diving in for a read, with the foundation of the first listen making space to see more in the words on each read.

(If you’re looking to listen to audiobooks but put off by the pricetag, check out the Libby app – all you need to do is input your local Library card number, and you can start listening to the audiobooks they have available for free.)

Dress Rehearsals (2023, Allen & Unwin).

Kindred by Kirli Saunders

Elliot Cameron, Membership & Operations Coordinator

I grabbed a copy of Kirli Saunders’ Kindred back in 2019 when she featured at Enough Said Poetry Slam in Wollongong. As with many books of poetry I have purchased after seeing the poet perform the work live, I felt some resistance to the idea of reading that same work off the page. Once you’ve heard a story from the mouth of the storyteller standing in front of you, how do you revisit that same story in a more crystallised form?

Four years and a pandemic later, I finally decided to revisit this collection. One thing that became immediately clear, is the steadfast optimism present in Kirli’s live performance lives on in full posture on the page. There is an unyielding sense of hope in her words that leaves no poem untouched. This is perhaps captured most succinctly in ‘Note to Self’ with ‘that which is / for you / will find you’.

That is not to suggest Kirli leaves no space for more challenging topics in Kindred. Loss is woven throughout this collection, whether grieving for time, lovers, family or Country. As Kirli says in the piece ‘Dhawaral Country’: ‘water, enough to drown in / there is trauma here.’ However, the hope present in Kindred exists alongside this grief, not despite it. There is an assuredness of living here undoubtedly born of these two parts, yet somehow more than the sum of them.

Kindred (2019, Magabala Books)

More from Writing NSW

Check out our full range of in-person writing courses in Sydney, our online writing courses and our feedback programs to see how we can help you on your writing journey. Find out about our grants and prizes, as well as writing groups across NSW, and sign up to our weekly newsletter for writing events, opportunities and giveaways.

Related Newsbites

    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop