Australian female authors face a double whammy in getting work read: the apparent cultural cringe that can afflict Australian readers and the fact that work from male authors is still more likely to get reviewed. In the spirit of doing a very small part to address this imbalance, here are some of my favourites from this year.
There are great organisations championing cultural change, an obvious example being the beloved Stella Prize – and I mention this because I have included a book from the Stella 2017 shortlist, which means it was actually published in 2016. (It’s such an exceptional read that I’m sure you’ll forgive me for including it here.)
The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein
Sarah Krasnostein’s biography of trauma cleaner Sandra Pankhurst is a remarkable debut. Krasnostein unravels the complicated life story of Sandra – born Peter in the early 1950s – in clean, insightful prose. Sandra’s story travels from a youth scarred by acts of emotional abuse, physical assault and prejudice from family, strangers and society; to an adulthood defined by her resilience and desire to forge a life that is entirely her own.
As a trauma cleaner, Sandra only ever wanted to belong; and now she believes her clients deserve no less. Krasnostein interweaves Sandra’s life story with the glimpses we are given into the lives of her clients. The people she cleans for have sometimes died – perhaps from violence or through drugs. Sometimes her clients are still alive – perhaps hoarders, or people who through mental illness or age can no longer maintain their homes. Krasnostein’s handling of these tales is just as sensitive and empathetic as that of Sandra’s life.
The Trauma Cleaner is a confronting book about the deep hatred our society showed and continues to show transgender people; and the way we wilfully ignore some of our most isolated and vulnerable individuals. But there is hope here, too – because there are magnificent women like Sandra Pankhurst that have survived the system.
Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman
Terra Nullius is the debut novel from the winner of the 2016 black&write! writing fellowship, and was Highly Commended in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2017. When the novel opens the reader assumes that the story is set in Australia’s past, but – and I reveal this because it will be a selling point for some readers – the action actually takes place in the far future. History repeats itself as the Settlers colonise the Natives in Australia. Children are removed from their families, and adults put to ‘work’ in what could more accurately be called ‘slavery’.
The story follows different groups of characters: a young Native man, Jacky, who is on the run; the Settlers who are pursuing him; the Natives who move to ever more uninhabitable areas of Australia in order to evade Settlers; and a Settler Trooper who deserts his post when he sees the humanity in the Natives. The number of different viewpoints means the novel maintains a quick pace, and the reader is given more opportunities to draw parallels from Australia’s not-so-distant history to this ‘speculative’ fiction – which doesn’t feel that speculative at all. Coleman crafts a work of fiction that will be all too familiar to Australian readers.
Adult Fantasy by Briohny Doyle
This was my favourite non-fiction book of the year, and perhaps my favourite book full stop. Not to embody stereotypically millennial traits like narcissism or anything… but this series of personal, yet rigorously researched essays eerily reflected my own life and anxieties back at me.
Adult Fantasy asks what it means to be an “adult”, in a time when so many of the markers of adult success – owning a house, having a stable career, and marriage – are out of reach, unobtainable, or simply unwanted in your 30s. Doyle goes further and discusses other facets of life – like the place of friendship, alternative living and home ownership plans, and the companionship of pets – all topics that are rarely mentioned whenever the ‘how to adult’ debate dominated the media every few months.
Doyle is incredibly articulate and manages to cut to the bone of the overcooked millennial debate. A nuanced, engrossing and entertaining read.
The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke
Shortlisted for the Stella Prize in 2017, The Hate Race is a memoir about Maxine Beneba Clarke’s life growing up black in white middle-class Australia. Her writing is moving, powerful, funny, and any other number of superlatives. But even putting aside her expert ability to craft a narrative, The Hate Race would be a genuine ‘must read’ for its subject matter and honesty alone.
Discussions of race are very much a part of the cultural zeitgeist in 2017, but with Trump dominating the 24/7 news cycle pretty much 24/7, and the international success of the British Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, it’s possible that Australian voices get lost. Clarke’s memoir is distinctly Australian. From the suburbs, to the brick houses, to the dry summer heat, to the slang, to – unfortunately – the derogatory terms thrown at Clarke from a young age.
The major question I had after reading The Hate Race was: how can we get this book put on every high school reading list in the country? Who can we write to? Someone let me know.
Image: Alfons Morales
Melissa Wellham works in social media by day, and writes science-fiction by night. You can follow her on Twitter at @melissawellham