Reading Australian Literature

Writers' festivals and other popular forums invite writers to talk about their own work and creative practices. But what might they have to say about the books that excite their imaginations?

Reading Australian Literature is a series in which acclaimed Australian writers reflect on books they value. In a thoughtful and engaging public lecture, each writer will discuss a favourite Australian literary text. What has led them to these books? What do they find remarkable about them? Have these literary encounters left an imprint on the speakers’ own writing? 

Reading Australian Literature is co-presented by the School of Literature, Art and Media at the University of Sydney. The Australian Literature Program in the University’s Department of English is home of the oldest chair in Australian Literature, and offers an exciting undergraduate major, a specialised honours stream and a variety of postgraduate and research options. 

Our 2018 Reading Australian Literature series will be announced soon.

Past Lectures

26 April – Fiona Wright on The Cook by Wayne Macauley

"I’ve chosen to speak about Wayne Macauley’s The Cook in part because I think it deserves more attention than it received when it was released – aside from the beautifully strange honour of winning the ‘Most Underrated Book Award’, it largely flew under the radar of the literary pages. But it’s a wonderful book: blackly funny and devastatingly sharp in its critique of foodie culture, but also tragic by turns, all the more so because it’s really a satire about class – that most taboo of topics in Australia’s supposedly classless society – and about aspiration, and the way these things entrap us all."

Fiona Wright’s book of essays Small Acts of Disappearance won the 2016 Kibble Award and the Queensland Literary Award for non-fiction, and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the NSW Premier’s Prize for non-fiction. Her poetry collection, Knuckled, won the 2012 Dame Mary Gilmore Award. She has recently completed a PhD at Western Sydney University’s Writing & Society Research Centre.

30 May – Jane Gleeson-White on The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

"Alexis Wright’s most recent novel, The Swan Book, has been widely acknowledged as her most challenging and important novel to date. I’ve been possessed by it since first reading it in 2013. Wright has said that she develops her novels by thinking about how the land ‘might respond to different stories. The land is, I suppose, one of or even the central character.’ I’m fascinated by Wright’s portrayal of this sentient land, ‘Country’. I think it marks a paradigm shift in Australian literature, and has implications for Australia, as well as the planet, in an age of climate change."

Jane Gleeson-White is the author of two books about literature, and two books about accounting, capitalism and the environment. Her PhD in creative writing comprised Six Capitals: The revolution capitalism has to have, and a dissertation on Alexis Wright and Kim Scott. She’s worked as a freelance editor of Australian fiction and non-fiction, and the fiction editor of Overland.

12 September – Sophie Cunningham on Cold Light by Frank Moorhouse

“As both an editor and a writer I’ve always been inspired by Frank Moorhouse’s fiction, both stylistically and thematically, be it the linked short stories of Forty-seventeen, or the expansive scope of the 'Edith' trilogy. When I first read Cold Light, the third novel in that trilogy, I was thrilled by Moorhouse’s capacity to celebrate both political idealism and pragmatism as well as to inhabit ambiguous identities (sexual and otherwise). Moorhouse’s dexterity and commitment to detail cast an erotic glow upon a derided decade, the fifties, and a derided city, Canberra. The literary achievement of the entire trilogy, and Cold Light in particular, is nothing short of extraordinary.”

Sophie Cunningham is a former editor and publisher; she is also the author of four books. She is currently writing her third novel, This Devastating Fever, which is based on Leonard Woolf’s life, as well as a book of linked essays called Diary From The End Times. Sophie is an Adjunct Professor at RMIT University’s Non/fiction Lab. 

17 October – Beth Yahp on The Scent of Eucalyptus by Barbara Hanrahan

"Barbara Hanrahan’s The Scent of Eucalyptus was one of the first Australian novels I read as an aspiring writer newly in Australia in the mid-1980s: its telescoping perspective, time swoops and forensic attention to mundane detail led to a magical, dizzyingly captivating world. This world of suburban women remains both familiar and strange, and Hanrahan’s formal dexterity and textual ‘wandering/ wondering’ are qualities as striking to me today as they were then. Hanrahan’s ‘slipping from view’ after her premature death in 1991 is something I find as astonishing as the intensely private, densely lyrical and fastidiously documented world she offers her readers." 

Beth Yahp migrated to Australia from Malaysia in 1984. She has lived in Sydney, Kuala Lumpur and Paris. Her hybrid memoir Eat First, Talk Later was published in 2015 and her first book of short fiction, The Red Pearl and Other Stories, will be published in September 2017, along with a reissue of her award-writing novel, The Crocodile Fury. Beth lectures in the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English at the University of Sydney.

22 March – Tegan Bennett Daylight on Cosmo Cosmolino by Helen Garner

"Cosmo Cosmolino is Helen Garner’s least understood and liked novel, and contemporary reviews were generally not favourable. But it’s always been my favourite of Garner’s works – it is the richest in metaphor, and the only one that deals in what we might call the supernatural, although Garner’s characteristically lucid prose makes the magical very real. Cosmo Cosmolino is a book written by a major Australian author in a period of great flux – it’s a key, I think, to her work, and both a privilege and an adventure to read."

Tegan Bennett Daylight is a fiction writer, teacher and critic. She is the author of three novels: Bombora, What Falls Away and Safety, as well as several books for children and teenagers. Her collection of short stories, Six Bedrooms, was published by Random House in 2015. She works as a lecturer in English at Charles Sturt University.

3 May – Nicholas Jose on Bobbin Up by Dorothy Hewett

" ‘I started writing again,’ Dorothy Hewett recalls in her introduction to the Virago reprint of Bobbin Up. The excitement of that new beginning can be felt on every page as Hewett creates her own form for an Australian novel and her own language for the mix of passion, struggle, pity and romance that is unique to her vision. I found this book incredibly evocative of a disappearing inner city Sydney world when I read it thirty years ago. Revisiting it now, the power of that evocation is even more intense. It’s an extraordinary song of life.

Nicholas Jose has published 7 novels, short stories, a memoir and essays on Australian and Chinese culture. He was general editor of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (2009) and teaches Creative Writing at The University of Adelaide. His most recent book is Bapo (‘eight broken’), a collection of short stories published by Giramondo.

13 September – Emily Bitto on An Imaginary Life by David Malouf 

''An Imaginary Life was the first novel I read by David Malouf (I would soon become obsessed with his work, and would eventually dedicate my MA to a study of his poetry), and the only truly great novel I studied in high school. To me, it was a magical document, and showed me for the first time how a whole world can be created and contained within the pages of even the slimmest novel. It will be a joy to revisit this book, which is so dear to my heart, and to share some of my thoughts about its symbolism and significance, both culturally and to me personally, as a writer".

Emily Bitto lives in Melbourne. She has a Masters in Literary Studies and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. Her debut novel, The Strays, was the winner of the 2015 Stella Prize. Emily also co-owns and runs Carlton wine-bar, Heartattack and Vine.

11 October - Debra Adelaide on Drylands by Thea Astley

"When Thea Astley died in 2004 it struck me with great force that Drylands would always remain her final novel: there would be no new ones. And so I have re-read this novel along with her others many times since then. Drylands will always engage my imagination, partly because it explores similar themes (or obsessions) found across all Astley’s work, yet it remains fresh, challenging, tender and shocking. And above all, it is a story for and about that object of desire, the reader".

Debra Adelaide is an author and academic who has published 15 books including four novels and several edited collections. Her most recent books are The Women’s Pages and The Simple Act of Reading. Debra Adelaide is an associate professor and coordinator of the Creative Writing program at the University of Technology Sydney.

31 March - Charlotte Wood on The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

"I was a latecomer to The Transit of Venus, with my first reading of it just a few years ago. But as soon as I began it I knew this would be a novel I could return to for the rest my life, each time finding a new experience within its pages. I’m delighted at this opportunity to immerse myself once more in Hazzard’s intricate, witty, breathtakingly confident, thoroughly Australian masterpiece."

Charlotte Wood is the author of four acclaimed novels and a book of non-fiction. Her last novel, Animal People, was shortlisted for the 2013 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and longlisted for the 2012 Miles Franklin. Charlotte is the Australia Council’s Chair of Arts Practice, Literature. Her fifth novel will be published in October 2015 by Allen & Unwin.

2 June - Delia Falconer on Seven Poor Men of Sydney by Christina Stead

"I'll be speaking about Seven Poor Men of Sydney because it has been one of the great discoveries of my reading life, albeit a late one. I'm fascinated by the picture it gives of Sydney in the 1920s; but even more so by the intensity of Stead's artistic vision. Against the accepted view that this is an uneven book marred by the excesses of a first-time author, I want to argue for the astonishing maturity and political sophistication of her use of form." 

Delia Falconer is the author of two novels (The Service of Clouds and The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers) and Sydney, a cultural history and memoir of her hometown. Her short stories and essays have been anthologised widely, including in the PEN Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature. She is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Technology, Sydney.

15 September - Malcolm Knox on The Glass Canoe by David Ireland

"David Ireland has always been an adventurous, challenging novelist. In The Glass Canoe, you see him writing for fun, going back to his earthy roots in a working class, Western Sydney pub. It is wild and Rabelaisian, shocking and funny, yet also compact and artistically elegant. I don't think any other writer has so perfectly nailed the animal humour of the Australian male." 

Malcolm Knox's fifth novel, The Wonder Lover, was published in 2015. He is also the author of twelve non-fiction books, and as a journalist has won two Walkley Awards. He lives in Sydney.

13 October - Mireille Juchau on Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot

"I was compelled by the atmospheric setting in Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot (1961) long before I realised that Sarsaparilla was a fictional version of Castle Hill, where I grew up. I also recognised in the characters Mordecai Himmelfarb and Harry Rosetree aspects of my family's experience as Jewish refugees during the post-holocaust period. Through White's evocation of place, and the materials he drew on - Jewish mysticism, symbolist painting, the violent history of Sydney's outer suburbs - I will explore the novel's chimerical "third dimension", and its themes of xenophobia and mysticism, exile and belonging, art and transcendence."

Mireille Juchau is the author of three novels: Machines for FeelingBurning In, and The World Without Us published in Australia in 2015, and the UK and US in 2016. Burning In was shortlisted for 4 awards including the Prime Minister's Literary Award in 2007. Mireille's short fiction, essays and reviews are published in Australia and internationally. She was Scholar in Writing at the University of Technology Sydney, and has taught at several universities.

11 August - Michelle de Kretser on Tirra Lirra By The River by Jessica Anderson

"Tirra Lirra By The River is, among other things, one of the great novels of place. Jessica Anderson's marvellous evocation of Sydney has haunted me for years, and is the reason I keep returning to this novel."

Michelle de Kretser was born in Sri Lanka and lives in Sydney. Her most recent novel Questions of Travel was the winner of the 2013 Miles Franklin Award and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the 2014 NSW Premiers’ Literary Awards.

1 September - Drusilla Modjeska on Visitants by Randolph Stow

"Randolph Stowe's Visitants is often described as 'underrated', an understatement if ever there was one. Set in the Trobriand Islands off the east coast of PNG, it was published in 1979 and, in my view, remains unsurpassed in outsider fiction of our complex near-neighbour. Each time I read it, I admire it more."

Drusilla Modjeska's Poppy (1990), a ‘fictional biography’ of her mother, won the NSW Premier’s Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction. The Orchard (1994) also won the NSW Premier’s Douglas Stewart Award for Non-Fiction and the Nita Kibble Literary Award, as did Stravinsky’s Lunch (1999), which explores the lives of artists Grace Cossington Smith and Stella Bowen. The Mountain (2012), a novel set in PNG, was short listed for the Miles Franklin Award.

22 September - Fiona McFarlane on The Aunt’s Story by Patrick White

"Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story is the book that, more than any other, produces a bodily reaction in me: I react to it with a kind of horrified, delighted rapture. I hope to explore why this is, and to think more generally about the many metaphysical spinsters and acts of escape in White’s fiction.

Fiona McFarlane was born in Sydney. Her first novel, The Night Guest, was shortlisted for the 2014 Miles Franklin award, and her short stories have been published in SoutherlyZoetrope and the New Yorker.

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