When I first moved to Naarm (Melbourne, Australia), I had never read any books by Australian writers and had never heard of any Australian writers besides Tim Winton. Little did I know that some of the most exciting English language writing was happening here, particularly by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers. This is the reading list that I wish I’d had then. These books show what life is like in this country more than any travel guide ever could.
Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven
Whenever I’m asked to recommend a book, Australian or otherwise, I always pick Heat and Light. This collection of short stories by award-winning author, editor, and educator of Mununjali (Yugambeh language group) and Dutch heritage Ellen van Neerven is told in three parts and expands on ideas of what being, language, time, and country truly are. This is the rare short story collection that you can read in a single sitting but also can return to time and time again.
Snake by Kate Jennings
White Australian writer Kate Jennings’s autobiographical novel about growing up on a farm in rural New South Wales in the 1950s might be one of my favourite books ever written. Formally experimental, the book shifts between the second person and the third person to tell the story of Irene; Rex; and their children, Girlie and Boy. Jennings also writes her own whiteness in a way that more white writers should. It’s worth reading both for the prose itself and for the rendering of the violence of country life.
Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter
There is no book quite like this erotic lesbian crime thriller told in verse by white poet Dorothy Porter. Private Detective Jill Fitzgerald falls in love with a suspect as she investigates the disappearance of budding poet Mickey. Read it first for the hilarious, sexy, racy story and read it again and again for Porter’s poetic use of the Australian vernacular and originality of form.
Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin
I can’t be convinced that anyone is writing better creative non-fiction in the world than Maria Tumarkin, who was born in 1974 in the former Soviet Union into a Russian Jewish family that then immigrated to Australia in 1989. In Axiomatic, five essays tackle five axioms and look at what grief, trauma, and the past can show us about the present and the future. It is impossible to keep up with Tumarkin’s mind and the breakneck speed of her use of language, but the effort in itself is as rewarding as any reading experience I’ve ever had.
The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell
Goa, Gunggari, Wakka Wakka Murri multi-award-winning author, playwright, actor, director, filmmaker, producer, screenwriter, and showrunner Leah Purcell’s play (also a movie) is as satisfying to read on the page as it is to watch on the screen. A retelling of Henry Lawson’s Australian classic, The Drover’s Wife exposes the violence, racism and misogyny of often-romanticized bush life. While the story is compelling, like any good play this work comes to life in the dialogue. Read it to hear Australia for what it really sounds like, for what it really is.
Benang: From the Heart by Kim Scott
Benang follows the story of Harley, “the first white man born” in an Aboriginal family as part of a white grandfather’s eugenics breeding project. Nyoongar writer Kim Scott uses archival documents alongside storytelling practices in this circular, expansive, and rhythmic novel. It is an epic that details whiteness’s attempt to colonize everything, including the body itself.
Aboriginal Country by Lisa Bellear
This poetry collection looks at the late 1980s movement for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty and a treaty but might as well be talking about contemporary Australian politics. In the collection, poet and photographer Bellear, a Goernpil woman of the Noonuccal people of Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island), Queensland, asserts that Australia is and was Aboriginal Country and interrogates white activism and feminism. Yes, these are urgent, resonant political poems, but they are also intimate and beautiful.
Living on Stolen Land by Ambelin Kwaymullina
In Living on Stolen Land, Ambelin Kwaymullina, a writer, illustrator, and law academic who belongs to the Palyku people of the eastern Pilbara region of Western Australia, gives us a better history lesson of Australia than any textbook has or ever could. Defying western definitions of genre, this prose poetry book could be read by anyone of any age with lessons about land and its ownership that span beyond just so-called Australia.
Gunk Baby by Jamie Marina Lau
Writer and producer Jamie Marina Lau’s second novel is set in a brand new ear cleaning business in a shopping mall in the climate-controlled suburb of Par Mars. The owner of the shop, Leen, gets entangled in a fringe online group of keyboard activists. In cool, clean prose, Lau exposes the apocalypse that is life under capitalism. Reading this book is not like watching a dystopian film, it’s like living in one.
New Animal by Ella Baxter
I read white writer Ella Baxter’s New Animal in one day. In the novel, skilled embalmer and makeup artist to the dead Amelia flees to Tasmania to escape the grief of her mother’s death. Upon arrival, BDSM encounters and self-destructive practices of the body ensue. Driven by Baxter’s voice, this is a decidedly unsexy book that looks at the entanglement of the loss of a loved one and a loss of self.
An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life by Paul Dalla Rosa
I’ve been a fangirl of white writer Paul Dalla Rosa long before this book was published. Dalla Rosa is Australia’s version of Ottesa Moshfegh, and in these stories, queer, desperate, debased protagonists navigate real and digital life and the overlap between the two spaces. Capitalism is a main character here, especially the aspirational brand of capitalism specific to Australians. Also, I suggest you read it because it’s very, very funny.
Paige Clark is a Chinese/American/Australian writer, whose gorgeous debut collection was published by Two Dollar Radio. She is Haunted was released in July 2021, and we are wishing both it and Clark a very happy first birthday. Clark’s stories are wonderful and strange and will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading. — Eds.
In stories charged by the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, grief, exes, and the profundities of friendship, She Is Haunted features injured ballerinas, cloned dogs, and competitive call centers in settings as far ranging as future and present Australia, New York City’s Chinatown, and suburban California. A mother cuts her daughter’s hair because her own hair begins falling out; a woman attempts to physically transform into her dead husband so that she does not have to grieve; a woman undergoes brain surgery in order to live more comfortably in extreme temperatures. Braiding the real and the surreal, both playfully witty and deeply insightful, these stories show us characters striving to make sense of the grand themes of family, love, death, and our changing world.