From the MFA student whose New Yorker short story became a viral sensation to the youngest ever author to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this year’s program features some of the world’s most gifted new voices. This week, these writers will gather in Sydney to discuss white lies and deceptions, post-truths and collective delusions — and how their work engages, challenges and dismantles the status quo. Working in luminous prose or pitch-black satire, unflinching memoir or fantastical short fiction, these are the writers to discover now before they become household names.
Best known for: Her uncanny ability to pull mythology, folklore and legend screaming into the present. Her first book was Fen, a volume of 12 short stories set in the lonely landscape of eastern England’s marshlands. With subjects as diverse and unsettling as a girl who starves herself into the shape of an eel, a boy who returns from the dead in the guise of a fox, and a house that falls in love with a human, the book is a potent, mythologically-charged work of fantastic imagination.
Latest book: Everything Under, a book which defies categorisation yet is strangely familiar. It’s the story of a woman who spent her childhood living in a sheltered world dominated by her charismatic mother where, by the river they called home, they speak in a private language only they understand. It’s also the story of a child who runs away from home, fearing that she’s doomed to do something terrible to her parents. It’s a story of language, the power of fear, and fate. Above all, it’s a book that will draw you into its strange, atmospheric world, where a terrifying creature called the Bonak might, at any point, appear.
This is a chance to: Hear from the youngest ever author to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Recommended if you like: Angela Carter, Greek mythology, British folklore, Karen Russell, fiction that disorientates you.
Find Daisy at Sydney Writers' Festival
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Best known for: His satirical, uncanny short stories that reckon with toxic racism, consumerism and the dehumanisation of modern life in a way that’s both darkly funny and compulsively readable. Deploying gallows humour and absurdism to full horrifying effect, Nana Kwame is a vital new voice in American fiction.
Latest book: His debut book of 12 short stories entitled Friday Black. The stories lay out surreal versions of reality in which ordinary, everyday racism has escalated into hyperreal situations where extreme brutality has become mundane. While decidedly dystopian in subject, Nana Kwame’s stories are a lot of fun to read, thanks to his smart, mordant, beautifully crafted prose and outsized imaginative powers. There is anger in this collection, but also nuance, compassion and a keen sense of empathy.
This is a chance to: Discover why everyone from George Saunders to Roxane Gay has pipped the Friday Black author as one to watch.
Recommended if you like: Black Mirror, the short stories of George Saunders, The Twilight Zone,post-apocalyptic fiction, Get Out.
Find Nana Kwame at Sydney Writers' Festival
Best known for: Her short story ‘Cat Person’, which went spectacularly viral after it was published online by The New Yorker. The story — about a 20-year-old college student named Margot who goes on a date with an older man named Robert, leading to an uncomfortable and unsatisfying sexual encounter — sparked a firestorm of online debate about gender, consent, power and privilege, became one of The New Yorker’s most-read stories of 2017 and earned Kristen both a publishing contract and a development deal with HBO.
Latest book: You Know You Want This, a volume of short stories that build on Kristen’s reputation as an astute chronicler of our most grotesque impulses. Sometimes using merciless realism, other times drawing on fairy-tales and horror tropes, this is a book that has proved as divisive as Kristen’s best-known work — it’s been variously described by critics as “weird and pervy”, “bold, bizarre and defiant,” “delicious reading” and “dark as hell”. Across these 12 tales, you’ll find stories about biting fetishes and blood magic, fairy-tale princesses and flesh-eating parasites, threaded with biting social commentary and delivered with sly humour.
This is a chance to: Find out firsthand what it’s like to be at the centre of an internet controversy — and discover why Kristen is so much more than just a one-hit wonder.
Recommended if you like: The provocations of writers like Chuck Palahniuk and Mary Gaitskill, Netflix’sYou, Carmen Maria Marchado’s Her Body and Other Parties.
Find Kristen at Sydney Writers' Festival
Best known for: Her wickedly funny debut novel which is part love story, part slasher-fest, part family drama, tied together with morbid humour and a distinctive narrative voice.
Latest book: My Sister, The Serial Killer. Oyinkan’s debut novel tells the story of two sisters: the beautiful, charismatic and self-centred Ayoola, and the loyal, protective, reliable Korede. Ayoola is an Instagram entrepreneur. Korede works as a nurse. Ayoola has a habit of killing her boyfriends. Korede cleans up the crime scenes. Set in Lagos, the story unfolds as a stylish, deftly written psychological thriller that has, at its heart, a very genuine relationship between two sisters and a twisty, satisfying denouement that keeps the pages turning right to the end.
This is a chance to: Go behind the scenes a book so good that its film rights were snapped up by the producers of Baby Driver before it even hit the shelves.
Recommended if you like: Killing Eve, love triangles, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, pitch black comedies, Dexter.
Find Oyinkan at Sydney Writers' Festival
Best known for: Her striking, lyrical poems that combine intimacy, intellect and a preoccupation with science and the natural world to startling result. In 2014, she published a book of poetry called Gathering Evidence, which went on to win the Patrick Kavanagh Award and The Irish Times Strong/Shine Award — the book was praised for its individual voice and reinvigoration of the Irish lyric tradition.
Latest book: Orchid & the Wasp, her debut novel. The book tells the story of the punnily named Gael Foess, beginning when she’s a precocious 11-year-old and tracking her life through Dublin, London and New York as she grows up over the following nine years. Gael is a Machiavellian character with a flair for consumerism and a talent for deception — the kind of ruthless, defiant person who’ll do anything to get what she wants (up to and including art forgery and infiltrating Occupy Wall Street). Described by Caoilinn as “a scathing critique of neo-capitalism”, it’s also a compulsively readable work full of shining, whip-smart prose.
This is a chance to: Hear from a poet-turned-novelist whose work has been described as “massively brilliant” by Anthony Doerr.
Recommended if you like: Grifters, classical music, likeable psychopaths, Conversations with Friends, the Humans of Late Capitalism Twitter account.
Find Caoilinn at Sydney Writers' Festival
Best known for: Her ability to eloquently capture the zeitgeist. Her first book, titled Sympathy, was a work of fiction that was hailed as the “first great Instagram novel” by The New Republic for its depiction of intimacy in the age of iPhone-mediated emotions. The book explores digital power dynamics, the allure of cool girl Instagram, hyper-connectivity and the illusion of connection, mapping out the increasingly blurred lines between our virtual and offline selves. After its release, Olivia went through a period of intense anxiety which coincided with her doing a writing residency at which she was unable to write. Her new work, a book-length essay, examines anxiety — and so much more than anxiety — in the internet age.
Latest book: Exposure, a longform essay about writing, anxiety, technology and feminism in the 21st century. Throughout this timely, perceptive work, Olivia explores the challenges of scrutiny and surveillance as a woman (and author) in the public eye — referencing the likes of Rachel Cusk, Chris Kraus, Maggie Nelson, Roxane Gay and Elena Ferrante, it’s a brilliant encapsulation of the hypocrisies and challenges faced by female writers, whose work is so often dismissed as somehow less worthy than men’s. Exposure is a rigorous and compassionate book that combines critical analysis with autobiography — a masterly work of non-fiction.
This is a chance to: Unpack what it means to be living in an age when we’re always online and where anxiety goes hand in glove with exposure.
Recommended if you like: Autofiction, Olivia Liang’s The Lonely City, Sheila Heti, oversharing as political act, talking about going a digital detox but never actually doing it.
Best known for: Their career as an Olympic athlete, then as a high fashion model and highly visible public face for gender fluidity. As a teenager Casey found success as an elite swimmer, yet at the same time started drinking and experimenting with drugs. When they were 19 years old, they set a world record in the qualifying heat for the women’s 50-metre freestyle at the Atlanta Games. The following day, they placed last in the actual race.
Latest book: Godspeed, a bold and brutally honest memoir of Casey’s time as both an athlete and an addict. Casey tracks their early career as a swimmer, their devastating experience in Atlanta, and the dark times that followed in vivid, unflinching prose. This is a raw, beautifully told coming-of-age story, that will leave an indelible mark on those who read it.
This is a chance to: Hear from a writer who’s lived a singular, utterly fascinating life full of dizzying highs and crushing lows.
Recommended if you like: Stories of survival, Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, secretly harbouring Olympic ambitions, Forward by Abby Wambach.