Our favourite books of 2019

Believe it or not, another year has come to an end. In the midst of political unrest, we’ve taken solace once more in books, and there have been some damn good ones in 2019. We asked our team, and some of FWF’s friends, to give their recommendations for the best books of this year. We hope you enjoy these at the beach, on the couch or wherever you’ll be relaxing your way into 2020.

Foong Ling Kong

I started the year with Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Her book has stayed with me throughout this tumultuous year while too many leaders around us float on in their fug of superiority because history has never told them they had to do things differently, or consider life from another perspective.

I cheered at the publication of Ruby Hamad’s White Tears, Brown Scars, Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do and Mona Eltahawy’s Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. Through their meticulous research, each of these writers work hard to call out discrimination, disadvantage and privilege, and provide road maps on how we need to do solidarity better so as to not replicate hegemonies.

Clare Bowditch’s memoir Your Own Kind of Girl and Stephanie Wood’s Fake show what it takes to own our presence and life, and how the only person who can write and control our stories is us. It has been nothing short of wonderful to watch readers respond to both books.

Foong Ling Kong is chair of the Feminist Writers Festival Board. 

Nikki Anderson

Locally, there was just so much great reading this year. In nonfiction, #metoo: Stories from the Australian movement gave me pause to reflect on the Australian context of the movement, going back to The First Stone (which still enrages me) and looking at sexual harassment/assault in a range of contexts. Likewise Emily Maguire’s This is What a Feminist Looks Like was a great chance to reflect on the Australian feminist movement and Emily’s sharp eye in pulling out some highlights from extensive research in a mass of archives was sturdy, fascinating work. Ruby Hamad’s White Tears, Brown Scars packed a punch and made me think long and hard about my own feminism; Carly Findlay’s Say Hello looks prejudice squarely in the eye as she shares her own style of disability advocacy and activism; and The Cherry Picker’s Daughter gave great insight into a life dictated by government intervention, but also the strength of mob and family.

In local fiction, Claire Coleman’s This Old Lie took me worlds away, but made me look at contemporary politics in very uncomfortable ways. Similarly, Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island created a rich space, but gave me terrors for what we are doing to the world and its people.

In junior fiction, my daughter and I ripped through the latest instalment of Hilary Rogers’ Girltopia series, The Girlhoods. The premise is great: what happens when all the men and boys in Melbourne get some sleeping sickness and the girls are in charge? So very pacey. We also loved Fiona Hardy’s How to Make a Movie in 12 Days, The Brilliant Ideas of Lily Green by Lisa Siberry and Nova Weetman’s Sick Bay, for its deft handling of mental health, school bullies, friendship and finding yourself. So many complex, resilient and plucky girls to be reading about!

Nikki Anderson is director of Feminist Writers Festival.

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

By far my favourite book this year was Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror. Having followed Tolentino’s work for years via The New Yorker, it was a pleasure to deep-dive into her brain in these nine wide-ranging essays around the theme of self-delusion. From barre classes to religion, marriage and reality TV, Tolentino leaves no stone unturned. She’s one of the writers who most challenges me, and this book is brilliant.

My favourite fiction read was The Place on Dalhousie. I first read Melina Marchetta when I was 14 years old, and feel a strong personal connection to her stories and characters. This one feels like a homecoming, after her foray into crime fiction that didn’t do too much for me. Marchetta writes with humour and warmth and a striking sense of humanity, and I found myself yearning to be with her characters any time I wasn’t sitting down with the book. 

I also loved Ocean Vuong’s stunning On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a letter from a Vietnamese son to his illiterate mother; Melanie Cheng’s Room for a Stranger, which got me out of a reading rut with its simple yet deeply affecting story of an intergenerational, cross-cultural friendship; and Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, equal parts sentimental and scathing. 

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is commissioning editor at Feminist Writers Festival.

Jo Case

See What You Made Me Do: This powerful, beautifully written and impressively researched look at the psychology and prevalence of domestic violence is a must-read. Investigative journalist Jess Hill spends time with women who’ve been abused and men who’ve been abusers, as well as psychologists and social workers, using her interviews to excavate the psychology of abuse and its complex underlying causes. She explores the damage done to men and women by traditional expectations of masculinity, coming away with insights that speak potently to why so many men feel powerless, and how the resulting feelings of shame can be enacted in attempts to gain control over the women in their lives. This is also an eye-opening look, grounded in meticulously documented fact, at how our current laws around domestic abuse and child protection are failing victims – contrary to the claims of many men’s rights activists.

White Tears, Brown Scars: Ruby Hamad’s blistering take on feminism and race takes readers on an eye-opening historical journey through the oppression and marginalisation of colonised and enslaved women, from the institutionalised rape of African-American slaves and Indigenous Australian women (at the same time white women’s mandated “virtue” was being idealised), to pop-culture issues like the appropriation of the real-life Pocahontas, and how skewed stereotypes of Asian, Latin-American, Arab and black women prevent us from really seeing them as individuals. Hamad shows that while mainstream popular feminism focuses on enabling individual women to access power, the power structure our society is built on has white privilege as its foundational core – and a feminism that is truly for all women intrinsically demands that the system itself be dismantled and rebuilt.

Catch and Kill & She Said: Two books were published this year by the New York journalists whose months-long investigations exposed the decades-long open secret of Harvey Weinstein’s abuse of women in Hollywood – and detailed the horrific full truth of his behaviour. She Said, by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, has the advantage of being a #MeToo story by two women, whose New York Times article beat their competitor (Ronan Farrow, in the New Yorker) to publication by five days. And it’s a very good and important book.

But the book that blew me away with its emotional honesty, complex reflections on gendered, institutionalised abuse of power in Hollywood and pure storytelling craft was Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill. Farrow is an exceptional writer who makes himself and his colleagues into fully realised characters, and is driven to continue reporting his story, despite almost insurmountable obstacles, in no small part due to his guilt over not having done more to support his sister, Dylan, in speaking out about her abuse by their father, Woody Allen. (Though he has been famously vocal in his support.) With its story-within-a-story about reporting the story, and his eventual discoveries about the sexual abuse problems embedded at NBC that compromised his ability to take Weinstein public from the start, this journalistic thriller is the All the President’s Men of the #MeToo movement. 

Jo Case is a bookseller at Imprints in Adelaide and marketing & publicity director at Wakefield Press. She was a co-founder of the Feminist Writers Festival and a founding board member of the Stella Prize.

Emily Maguire

I’ll be buying multiple copies of Melina Marchetta’s The Place on Dalhousie for Christmas gifts this year. Nobody does warm and generous and real so well. Not a hint of false sentiment or cloying sweetness, just recognisably flawed people doing their best to love each other and themselves.

In See What You Made Me Do Jess Hill shows that domestic abuse is truly a national emergency and we need to start treating it as one. The book is deeply researched and beautifully written; careful and nuanced, but never timid or tentative. It’s (necessarily) hard going at times, but if you can read it, please do and then pass it on. This is vital work. 

Two new Australian poetry collections I’ve returned to again and again throughout the year are Eunice Andrada’s Flood Damages – a sublime work throbbing with pain and prayer, longing and alienation, resistance and rage – and LK Holt’s Birth Plan, a rich, dark, feminist exploration of motherhood, the body, art and the dying world.

Emily Maguire is the author of five novels and three works of nonfiction. Her most recent book is This is What A Feminist Looks Like: The Rise and Rise of Australian Feminism.

CB Mako

My favourite this year is Squee from the Margins: Fandom and Race by Rukmini Pande (who finished her PhD program at University of Western Australia). A must-read for those who are active in fandom communities. So much validation especially for fangirls of colour. 

And after reading Rukmini’s book – she used the concept of ‘feminist killjoy’ – best to read Sarah Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life.  

CB Mako is a disabled QBIPOC award-winning writer, and has writing featured in Growing Up Disabled in Australia (Black Inc, 2020) and the Liminal Fiction Prize anthology (Brow Books, 2020). 

Eleanor Jackson

#MeToo: My apologies if it seems self-serving to include a book in which I am published! But in this book, we see the range and depths of stories that illustrate the complexity of sexual assault and the circumstances that enable it, and the messy terrain of the “movement” surrounding #metoo and contemporary feminism. Challenging and avoiding resolution, it reminds us how far we have to go. 

Thick: What can I say about this great book of essays that hasn’t already been said? Black feminist analysis, written in ways that put the body and mind on alert. 

Axiomatic: The feminism in this Stella Prize shortlisted book is not so much about the lens focused female/women’s issues, but in Tumarkin’s unflinching gaze and resolute desire to see the world and to fully inhabited it as a deep-thinking, cognisant mind, giving life to a kind of feminist memory. 

Invisible Women: I work in research, so this data-driven exploration of structural bias, the way we have designed and delineated women out of the world, was one of my top reads for 2019! In an increasingly data dominated world, policy makers and the public need to be reminded that we still see the world as we are, not as it is – and much can be done to address this.

Eleanor Jackson is a Filipino Australian poet, performer, arts producer and community radio broadcaster. She is the author of A Leaving and the live album, One Night Wonders. A passionate advocate for diverse and inclusive cultures, she is chair of Peril magazine and vice-chair of The Stella Prize.

Zoya Patel

The Farm: This captivating work of speculative/science fiction is so close to reality it’s eerie. It asks important questions about the commodification of women’s bodies and the way Western capitalism uses poor women of colour to perpetuate a system of inequality. 

Things Nobody Knows But Me: A stunning memoir, with humour, compassion and grace. This book will make readers think about family, mental health and dual cultural identities.

Hitch: I love books that intersect physical journeys with emotional ones, and this book certainly does that. It’s gripping, engaging and raw in its telling. 

Zoya Patel is the author of No Country Woman, founder of online feminist journal Feminartsy and a former FWF Board member.

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