The ‘diversity’ check box was included when the AWW Challenge began in 2012 with the aim (which mirrors that of the challenge as a whole) of drawing attention to writers whose work might be overlooked in reading communities. As editor, I have tended to focus upon Indigenous writers, writers with migrant heritage, LGBTQI/non-binary writers and writers with disability. Sometimes I have focussed on works which feature characters from these categories (and in which the reviewers discuss the representation of these characters), but I generally I’ve prioritised authors because of their lived experience.
The number of books tagged with ‘diversity’ in the AWW challenge is rising every year, although the proportion of all books reviewed remains steady. In 2019, they comprised 186 of 1288 books reviewed, which is approximately 14% of all books (in 2018 it was 13%). It’s good to see an increase, however small, but I do wish that the statistics reflected our population (almost 20% of Australians have a disability, for example). Having said that, it can take effort to diversify one’s reading as it means thinking about and seeking out books when we have busy lives (even I am not always on the ball in this respect!), but small steps in the right direction are helpful. Below are some observations on reviews of books that featured diversity in 2019.
One of the highlights of the literary year was Goorie writer Melissa Lucashenko’s win of the Miles Franklin award for Too Much Lip. This novel was reviewed by nine readers, and Jon Shaw does a good job of summing up the general sentiments:
It’s a brilliant book. The last pages sent me back to reread the beginning. Some of the jokes still make me laugh a week after reading them. It puts heart and body into abstract terms like intergenerational trauma, lateral violence, white supremacy. It doesn’t need my recommendation, but I recommend it anyhow.
Other works by Indigenous authors which were reviewed include Anita Heiss’s edited collection, Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia. Sue of Whispering Gums penned some detailed thoughts on this collection, commenting that, although there was a wide range of authors, they each shared the common experience of racism. Sue concludes that ‘the least we can do is choose to understand – and we can start by reading books like this.’
Alison Whittaker’s collections of poetry, Lemons in the Chicken Wire and Blakwork (winner of this year’s Queensland Premier’s Award for poetry) were reviewed by 5 writers, with Nancy reviewing both! (See her reviews here and here).
For those who enjoy speculative fiction, Ambelin and Ezekial Kwaymullina’s Catching Teller Crow was widely reviewed. Elizabeth, a judge for the YA category in the Aurealis awards (which this book won), comments that it’s a ‘masterful story that presents dark subjects in a way that allows their impact to be felt while also offering hope and remaining appropriate for a young adult audience.’
Whatever genre pleases you most, Indigenous writers have it covered! And here’s a thanks to Lisa of ANZLitLovers for her Indigenous Literature Week which she holds each July. AWW reviewers who follow Lisa’s blog often pen reviews on Australian Indigenous authors (for eg here’s Bill of the Australian Legend with his thoughts on Blakwork) during this week & also link it to the challenge. It’s a great way of encouraging readers to engage with Indigenous literature.
Writers with Migrant Heritage
As is usual, there was a big showing of books by authors with migrant background. Nalini Haynes reviewed Randa Abdel-Fattah’s romance When Michael Met Mina. She describes it as a ‘YA version of When Harry Met Sally’ with Mina, a refugee and scholarship student, meeting Michael, the son of anti-refugee parents. It’s ‘an exposé of racism and Islamophobia in Australia. Abdel-Fattah seeks to maintain balance by having Chinese and Indian immigrants in the anti-refugee organization: possibly too many non-whites to be convincing, none of whom experience racism personally’ but on the whole Nalini enjoyed the book and recommends it.
Cass Moriaty reviewed Turn Left at Venus by Inez Baranay, an Australian emigrant born in Italy to Hungarian parents. Cass describes this novel as ‘a literary, utopian, feminist, science fiction novel that explores the patriarchy, gender, the artistic life, writing, relationships, friendships, aging and death.’ Charting the friendship of two little girls who meet on a boat, the story ‘travels forwards, backwards and sideways, encompassing dreamscapes, memories, internet threads, history, ambition, darkness and happiness, taking the reader on a journey of time and space, of the real and the imagined, of an examined life and the unexamined and unknown alternatives.’ Well, that sounds interesting!
Other works which you might like to pick up include Melanie Cheng’s collection of short stories Australia Day and novel Room for a Stranger (a popular novel with 4 reviews), and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s stories Foreign Soil and autobiography The Hate Race (with one review each). Melina Marchetta’s The House on Dalhousie was also a popular read, with 6 reviews.
LGBTQI & Non-Binary Writers
LGBTQI & non-binary authors were also well represented, which is great to see. Jess Walton’s Introducing Teddy for young readers, which depicts a transgender character, was reviewed by Amy of GoodReads, while Alison Evans’ new book, Highway Bodies, was reviewed by Jemimah of Oddfeather Creative, who gave it a cracking recommendation:
Highway Bodies can be seen as a prolonged metaphor for queer teens living in a world that means them harm, and Evans has achieved this very effectively through the bodily disgust and controlling behaviour of zombies and non-ally survivors respectively. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good zombie horror thriller, anyone who needs to understand the perils of living as a queer teen in the world today, or anyone who likes to see their hometown as the setting in a book.
Readers also picked up novels by established authors such as Margaret Merrilees and Fiona McGregor (authors of Big Rough Stones and Indelible Ink respectively, both which were reviewed by Kim of Devoted to Words), as well as C.S. Pacat’s much-loved Captive Prince series, reviewed by Ju of GoodReads (click here for her thoughts on Prince’s Gambit and King’s Rising).
Writers with Disability
In terms of books by authors with disability, or which featured characters with disability, readers continued to cheer the deaf protagonist of Emma Viskic’s crime series, with 5 reviews of the latest instalment Darkness for Light. My memoir about deafness, Hearing Maud, was reviewed by 4 readers, and readers were also very enthused about Kelly Rimmer’s The Things We Cannot Say, with 10 reviews. Theresa of Theresa Writes penned an in-depth review of this novel, which entwines two stories, one set in occupied Poland in WW2, and the other set in the present, following the parent of a child with autism, and both stories connect as the plot progresses.
Lee Kofman’s engaging memoir Imperfect, which muses on her own body and those of people who do not fit a prescribed ‘norm’ (which is just a construction, anyway), is another great book about bodies that are different, and garnered 3 reviews.
As always, it isn’t possible for me to cover every book tagged ‘diversity’ over the last year, but if you can check out the rest of them here. And if you’re ever stuck for inspiration, do a search for ‘diversity’ in the ‘Books Reviewed’ tab – there are currently 530 books to choose from!
And that’s it from me, folks. After seven years of being Diversity Editor for AWW (almost from its inception), apart from a few months during while Marisa Wikramanayake was at the helm, I am docking at the port. It’s time for some new energy in this role, and I have no doubt that our incoming editor Rebecca Bowyer will do a great job.
Thanks so much to all the fantastic AWW reviewers who, these past few years, consciously sought out books by diverse authors, or happened to pick them up and enjoy them enough to pen a review. It’s been so heartening to read your thoughts, whether critical or positive, particularly as a deaf person for whom reading is listening. I hope that you will continue to hear and reflect on voices beyond the mainstream as the AWW Challenge progresses.
I’m Jessica White, a novelist and researcher, and I’ve been deaf since age 4 when I lost most of my hearing from meningitis. I have a PhD from the University of London and have published two novels with Penguin, A Curious Intimacy (2007) and Entitlement (2012). My memoir, Hearing Maud has been published by UWA Press. I’m currently writing an ecobiography of 19th century botanist Georgiana Molloy. You can find more information about me at my website. I’m also on Twitter and Facebook.