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I’m thrilled to be moderating this special initiative of ACT Writers. To be held on Saturday 28 August, F*CK COVID: an online literary affair will feature intimate panel discussions with four of Australia’s most exciting literary voices – please see below. Both sessions, which will be live (and not recorded), will include a generous allocation of time for audience interaction. Do join us!

PROGRAM:

1.30pm-3pm AEST – Hard truths; risky fiction with Irma Gold and Mark Brandi.

3.30pm-5pm AEST – Past-present: adventures in non-fiction with Shu-Ling Chua and Ruhi Lee.

F*CK COVID is a free event but bookings are essential – please click here to secure your place! Donations will be gratefully received and, in their entirety, will go towards writers’ fees.

Mark Brandi’s bestselling novel, WIMMERA, won the coveted British Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger, and was named Best Debut at the 2018 Australian Indie Book Awards. It was also shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards Literary Fiction Book of the Year, and the Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year. His second novel, THE RIP, was published to critical acclaim by Hachette Australia in March 2019. Mark’s shorter work has appeared in The Guardian, The Age, the Big Issue, and in journals both here and overseas. His writing is also sometimes heard on ABC Radio National. Mark graduated with a criminal justice degree and worked extensively in the justice system, before changing direction and deciding to write. Originally from Italy, he grew up in rural Victoria. Mark now lives in Melbourne and his latest work of fiction is THE OTHERS, also published by Hachette Australia.

Shu-Ling Chua is a Melbourne-based (formerly Canberra-based) essayist, critic and poet, whose work has appeared in Peril Magazine, Lindsay, Meanjin, and Asian American Writers’ Workshop, among others. Her debut essay collection, ECHOES, was published by Somekind Press in 2020. Shu-Ling was shortlisted in the 2018 Woollahra Digital Literary Award, highly commended in the 2017 Feminartsy Memoir Prize and selected for the 2015 HARDCOPY manuscript development program. She has completed writing residencies at the Wheeler Centre and KSP Writers’ Centre.

Irma Gold is an award-winning author and editor. Her debut novel, THE BREAKING, was released in March and has been receiving critical acclaim. Her short fiction has been widely published in literary journals, including Meanjin, Island, Westerly, Review of Australian Fiction, Award Winning Australian Writing and Going Down Swinging, and her acclaimed collection of short fiction is Two Steps Forward. Irma is also the author of four children’s picture books, most recently Where the Heart Is, which was read by Fergie, Duchess of York, on her Storytime channel. Her fifth picture book, Seree’s Story, will be out with Walker Books in 2022. As editor Irma works for a range of publishers, big and small, and was Convener of Editing at the University of Canberra for a decade. Irma is Ambassador for the Save Elephant Foundation, Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge and co-host of the writing podcast, Secrets from the Green Room.

Sneha Lees writes on Boon Wurrung land. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, ABC Everyday, SBS Voices, South Asian Today and The Big Issue among other publications. Her book GOOD INDIAN DAUGHTER was published by Affirm Press in May 2021 under the pseudonym Ruhi Lee. In 2019, she was a recipient of the Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund and her manuscript was shortlisted for the Penguin Random House Write it Fellowship. In 2020, she was commissioned to write for Multicultural Arts Victoria’s Shelter program. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (International Studies) and Bachelor of Commerce (Human Resource Management) from Monash University and is now studying Screen Production at The Compton School, University of Canberra. She is currently working on a screenplay. 

This year has been a wild ride in so many ways (more about that at a later date) and, as usual, reading has provided solace, sustenance, challenge, and adventure. I’ve reached the point where I’d like to be given home-detention so all I can do is read; being given home-library detention would be even better. For what it’s worth – very little, most likely – the following are the books that got beneath my skin this year. Needless to say, if I made the list tomorrow, it would probably be different. In any case, here goes.

Position Doubtful: mapping landscape and memory by Kim Mahood (Scribe) is a fearlessly articulate – and appropriately dry-eyed – love-letter to the Australian desert, in particular the Tanimi. So very skillfully Mahood takes us through her decades-long experience of that part of the world, slowly revealing what to many (most?) will always be a place of both mystery and spirit. Threaded throughout are observations about friendship and the search for home. Sublime.

Despite, or because of, my advancing years, I very much enjoyed No Way! Okay Fine by Brodie Lancaster (Hachette). Sub-titled ‘a memoir of pop culture, feminism and feelings’, Lancaster adroitly explores a range of challenging issues, such as body image, love in all its often messy and confusing guises, and the pleasures and power of pop music. Even though at heart I remain a skinny-black-jeans-wearing indy-music kid, I was genuinely moved by Lancaster’s adoration of pop-music stars such as One Direction, Kanye West, and Taylor Swift. Thoughtful and entertaining.

Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions (UWAP) won this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award and deservedly so. The story focuses on a man, a retired structural engineer, who has recently moved to a retirement village. It takes an enormous amount of skill to build narrative momentum out of such a constrained scenario, but gradually Wilson goes deeper and deeper into the man’s history and his family environment. What especially appeals is the humour, the knife-sharp prose, and the sheer ambition. A unique reading experience.

Speaking of unique reading experiences, in The Museum of Modern Love (Allen & Unwin) Heather Rose takes a similarly constrained premise – a group of people watching performance artist Marina Abramović sitting at a table and staring at the ‘sitter’ opposite – and crafting a story that does exactly what it says on the tin: explores many facets of what it’s like to love in this day and age. Ticking two other boxes for me, Rose’s 2017  Stella Prize-winning novel also delves into music and architecture. Very memorable. Side note: it’s been reported that it took Heather Rose seventy drafts to get the novel right. How’s that for tenacity.

Pushing uniqueness to the limit, George Saunders’ Man Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) is all it’s cracked up to be. Like many readers, the first 30 pages almost had me tossing the novel into the nearest bin, but then something clicked and I was able to enjoy this fresh and eminently playful reading experience. What especially appealed to me was how the work busts out of all the known forms: in a way it’s a play, but it could also be a film-script, even a verse novel. It’s really quite extraordinary.

Staying with the playful, I’ve written previously about my admiration for Cassandra Atherton’s work. Exhumed (Grand Parade Poets) is another collection of prose poems that is such a delight it really is quite magical. Atherton’s work bounces from one word and phrase to another, without ever losing sight of the core idea in each piece. Do search it out and be delighted.

Back to more conventional storytelling, in To Become a Whale (Allen & Unwin), Ben Hobson tells a tale about a thirteen-year-old boy dealing with the loss of this mother and a father who is in all kinds of trouble. Setting much of the novel in the world of whale hunting (which, thankfully, in Australia is a thing of the past), Hobson explores masculinity in all its contradictions and strangeness. The prose is crystal-clear, and enveloping this rather sad story is a loving swell of emotion and humanity.

Being a resident of the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, I’m fortunate to live in one of the most peaceful parts of the world. Edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldma, in Kingdom of Olives and Ash: writers confront the occupation (HarperCollins), a diverse range of authors, from Geraldine Brooks to Colm Tóibín, experience what it’s like to live in Palestine under the occupation of Israel. Despite the variety of voices and the different writing forms, the conclusion is always the same: when one nation has a stranglehold on another, human beings are diminished. No doubt it is naïve, but one can only hope that this dire situation is resolved sooner rather than later – it certainly can’t be left to go on for another 50 years.

This year I also thoroughly enjoyed Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko (UQP), Wimmera by Mark Brandi (Hachette), and As the Lonely Fly by Sarah Dowse (For Pity Sake).

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