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5 Fave Memoirs: NYWF Panel Prep

The National Young Writers Festival opens today, and I'm speaking on two panels as part of the program. First up: Hero of My Own Story – this Friday 2 October 7pm-8pm.

“In writing what we know, we often write about WHO we know. Join these artists in a discussion around the ethics of writing memoir, what it means to write real-life people into your work, and how to take care of yourself and others in your craft.”

I strongly believe in the power of autobiography and I've had the privilege of reading and listening to some amazing memoirs and auto-fiction.

Here are 5 of my favourites in no particular order:

The Good Girl of Chinatown by Jenevieve Chang

There are a lot of memoirs about the Asian diaspora, about the rise of Communism in China, about adapting to a new country. The Good Girl of Chinatown is about all that and what happens next. It reveals the patterns and pains of Jenevieve’s and her family’s travels in fascinating style. And we see China in the 21st century, where Jen’s stories of her time as a Shanghai showgirl had me absolutely gripped.

The Book of Thistles by Noëlle Janaczewska

Before this book, I had never, ever thought about thistles. Through many snippets of archival documents, Noëlle introduces many different types of thistles and their changing reputation and legal statuses, mingled with her personal experiences. If you like your memoir deeply embedded in history and science, The Book of Thistles is a treasure trove. And it taught me how to eat an artichoke (a type of thistle!)

Hunger by Roxane Gay

Probably the most intimate and vulnerable writing on this list, I do recommend having tissues on hand and somebody to debrief with. It’s an outpouring of emotion that draws you down and in. I found myself swinging from tears to outright laughter and back again. With deep self-awareness, Roxane lays out the complicated relationships between a person, their body and the rest of the world.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield

From the man who brought you Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ in space. Who knew it could take so long to read such a compelling book? The problem was, I had to stop constantly to binge Wikipedia articles on space disasters, space food and the International Space Station. But while all that is awesome, the real lessons Chris shares here are a love of discovery and a willingness to grow. And have fun while you’re at it.

Kill the Messenger by Nakkiah Lui

I saw this play performed at Belvoir in 2015. Nakkiah appears as herself, the playwright interrogating how and why we make/watch black theatre. It’s a barrage of questions about purpose, meaning, hope and truth. What are the ethics of writing about other people? What is the point of staging suffering? Rereading Kill the Messenger five years on, with the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody at 441 (at least), what has changed?

Writing about your own life isn’t easy, but I love how autobiographical work can help a reader recontextualise their own life, it can inspire them or simply make them feel less alone.

While I'd love to be in Newcastle, the usual home of NYWF, proceedings are obviously online this year. But that means you can join in from anywhere! After Hero of my Own Story, I will be talking on one more NYWF panel, with a provocative question: Why Isn’t Theatre Sexy? on Sunday 4 October 5pm – 6pm. I hope you check it out!