The powers that be graced us with another fabulous Sydney Writers’ Festival a couple of weeks ago, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Below is a short summary of the festival highlights from this bookseller’s perspective, with a corresponding list of books that you must, must get your hands on as soon as possible.

‘Why We Read’ – panel discussion

I was excited for my first session of the festival and I arrived at the Seymour Centre bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, coffee in hand, ready to listen to four fabulous writers talk about the importance of reading. Um, hello, perfect audience member, right here! Books are life, etc. I certainly got what I bargained for… and more. During question time at the end of the session, US author Zinzi Clemmons (What We Lose), who was sitting in the audience, asked Pulitzer-prize-winning author Junot Díaz if his recent New Yorker essay, in which he wrote for the first time about his childhood abuse, was written because he was aware that sexual misconduct allegations were soon to be made against him. She also asked him if he’d like to apologise for his behaviour toward her when she was an undergraduate student at Columbia. Cue uncomfortable audience murmuring. The facilitator of the session, Ashley Hay (The Railway Man’s Wife), attempted several times to shut down the pow-wow that ensued between Clemmons and Díaz (who launched into a very long story in an attempt to defend himself) to no avail. Eventually Clemmons stormed out, the audience applauded (I’m not really sure why…perhaps in relief?) and the remaining five minutes of the panel discussion was back on track, finishing with this wonderful quote by Tara Westover (Educated):

‘Reading a book is a time you sit quietly for a little while and listen to what someone  else has to say.’

Díaz subsequently pulled out of the festival and his entire Australian tour, and stepped down from his position as Pulitzer chairman. If you want to read more about the happenings of the #MeToo movement arriving at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, click here.

What You Should Be Reading:

Educated by Tara Westover

This book details how Westover went from a childhood upbringing with Mormon survivalists – they believed the end of the world was nigh and weren’t allowed to go to school – to educating herself, being accepted into university and eventually completing a PhD at Cambridge. Wow. Life goals, am I right?

Eliza Robertson and Abigail Ulman – Q&A

Alright, I’ll be honest. I went to this Q&A to see Australian author Abigail Ulman, the moderator of the session. Ulman’s debut book of short stories, Hot Little Hands, was one of the key texts I studied for my PhD at the University of Newcastle so I’m a pretty big fan. But I was pleasantly surprised to fall equally in love with the words of young Canadian author Eliza Robertson, who spoke so eloquently about her latest novel, Demi Gods, a story set in the 1950s on the Canadian coastline. The main character, Willa, is the youngest of two girls and her mother has a new lover, whose two sons are dangerous and enchanting in their own right. What follows are a series of tumultuous and toxic affairs between the girls and their almost-step-brothers, with apparently devastating consequences. I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far it’s addictive, with beautiful language, evocative imagery, and a kind of sun-kissed glow that reminds me of my parents’ old childhood photographs.

What You Should Be Reading:

Demi Gods by Eliza Robertson

Hot Little Hands by Abigail Ulman

‘How Science Got Women Wrong’ – Angela Saini and Jamila Rizvi

Bright and early Saturday morning, my first panel of the day included the incredibly intelligent Angela Saini talking about her book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong. I was so excited for this panel because obviously I wanted some great science-y facts and quotes to shoot at my male friends and family whenever they say something vaguely sexist. The first thing I’d like to comment on was science journalist Saini’s glorious British accent; she is so well-spoken and eloquent. The talk was insanely interesting, detailing how science has dictated the perception of women throughout history, and how this is inherently biased because science was dominated by men, with political agendas at the heart of a lot of published research. The most interesting fact of the morning was about Charles Darwin’s “evolutionary biological” theory on women, which was in fact based on… nothing. Darwin simply observed women in society at the time and thought, Huh, that’s funny, there aren’t many women in power or achieving great things, and then wrote papers about how that was obviously because women are intellectually inferior. WTF, Darwin?

What You Should Be Reading:

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong by Angela Saini

Not Just Lucky by Jamila Rizvi (a career manifesto for millennial women – Rizvi did an excellent job at facilitating this panel)

Yrsa Daley-Ward is a Queen

I hadn’t heard of Yrsa Daley-Ward before the festival, but my partner is a big fan of her work and I’m endlessly glad she dragged me along to this session. Within the first ten minutes of Daley-Ward performing some of her poetry from Bone, I had tears running down my face. She spoke from the heart and it made mine skip several beats. During the interview by Australian poet and performer Candy Royalle, Daley-Ward charmed the audience with anecdotes and funny stories from her interesting childhood, and candidly shared snippets of her creative process. She then read an extract from her brand-new memoir, The Terrible, which I obviously purchased immediately after leaving the room. I also lined up to have it signed and practised being cool and not starstruck when I spoke to her. (Update: definitely gushed too hard). The Terrible is an experimental, unique style of memoir that is part poetry, part prose, comprised of little vignettes of memory and story that weave together as a glorious whole by the last page.

‘Use what you’ve got coz no one else has it and that’s a beautiful place to be.’
– Yrsa Daley-Ward

What You Should Be Reading:

Bone (poetry) Yrsa Daley-Ward

The Terrible (memoir) Yrsa Daley-Ward

Gay For Page

If you hear a rumour that I traded cupcakes and a smile for a ticket to this sold-out Saturday evening event, you’ve been misinformed. *cough*. ‘Gay For Page’ was easily my favourite session of the entire festival. Yrsa Daley-Ward, Masha Gessen, Eileen Myles, Carmen Maria Machado and Christos Tsiolkas chatted amiably about iconic queer literature throughout history, the books and stories that most influenced them growing up and identifying as queer, and what the future of queer literature looks like to a full and lively audience at Carriageworks. I was excited to see iconic Australian author Christos Tsiolkas (The Slap; Barracuda) in real life for the first time and he didn’t disappoint. The standout of the panel was US novelist and poet Eileen Myles, who said, ‘We don’t just read, we fantasise. We’re already writing while we’re reading’, talked about having a crush on Jo from Little Women, and claimed their dog is ‘definitely a huge dyke’.

‘That’s what we do as queer children, we write ourselves into the story.’
- Christos Tsiolkas

What You Should Be Reading:

Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles

Inferno: a poet’s novel by Eileen Myles