Top picks: Seven emerging female voices

As old power structures are dismantled, new voices emerge — voices telling stories ignored or suppressed by the establishment; voices that tell of different experiences in honest, uncompromising ways; voices that insist, finally, that they will be heard. This year’s Program features a wealth of debut novelists, emerging essayists, virtuosic short story writers and groundbreaking poets. Here are seven emerging female voices to know:

Zinzi Clemmons

“I came to literature as what I believed to be an outsider,” wrote Zinzi Clemmons in a 2016 essay. Her debut novel, What We Lose, came out a year later, the story of a young woman named Thandi who’s caught between cultures and identities. Thandi is the daughter of a South African mother and an American father (like Zinzi herself is), who feels out of place both in the white-dominated suburb of Philadelphia where she lives, as she does in her mother’s hometown of Johannesburg. The story unfolds in a series of intimate, collage-like vignettes: blogposts, text messages, photographs, hand-drawn charts and hip-hop lyrics sit alongside often hauntingly beautiful prose. Defying neat categories while nodding to the tradition of black avant garde literature, What We Lose is a meditation on grief, desire, identity, race, family and politics.

What they’ve said: “One can’t help but think of Clemmons as in the running to be the next-generation Claudia Rankine.” —Megan O’Grady, Vogue

You might not know: Zinzi was mentored by Paul Beatty while completing an MFA in fiction at Columbia.

Emma Glass

At 98 pages, Peach is a novel that you read in an afternoon — but the impression it leaves will resonate for days. This is the story of Peach, a woman who, in the wake of a brutal sexual assault, is attempting to navigate a world askew. Written in a surreal, rhythmic cadence that treads the line between poetry and prose, this is a bodily book, full of visceral, fleshy imagery that occasionally veers into Cronenberg-esque horror. Peach is an utterly original book that feels vital in this cultural moment — all the more impressive, as Emma began writing it nearly a decade ago when she was just 21 years old. 

What they’ve said: “A strange and original work of art that manages to be both genuinely terrifying and undeniably joyful.” — George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo  

You might not know: As well as a novelist, Emma is a full-time research nurse specialist at a children’s hospital. “The tactility of nursing is unlike anything I’ve ever known,” she says.

Carmen Maria Machado

An essayist and critic as well as a fiction writer, Carmen Maria Machado must be one of the most buzzed-about authors on this year’s program. Her debut book of short stories, Her Body and Other Parties, has attracted both critical recognition and popular acclaim, winning the Bard Fiction Prize, the National Book Critics Circle's John Leonard Prize, and the Crawford Award, and praised by New York Times’ book editor Parul Sehgal for its “abundant, utterly hypnotic invention” and “otherworldly power”. The stories contained within this book draw deftly on fables, horror and queer theory to explore the monstrous side of female existence. Unsettling, yes, but also vibrant, vital and dazzlingly queer in every sense of the word. 

What they’ve said: “The stories in Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties vibrate with originality, queerness, sensuality and the strange.” — Roxane Gay

You might not know: The cult 1980s children’s book, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, was an influence on Her Body and Other Parties.

Eliza Robertson

From Kamila Shamsie’s reworking of Antigone to Emily Wilson’s (also a guest of the Festival) new translation of The Odyssey, the mythic tales of ancient Greece and Rome are being breathed into life once again by contemporary writers. In Demi-Gods, Eliza Robertson looks to the myth of Castor and Pollux — twin brothers mothered by Leda who were transformed into the constellation Gemini after their death — as template and inspiration. This debut novel follows two young sisters, Willa and Joan, whose mother remarries a man with two sons, Patrick and Kenneth, who then serve as a catalyst for the girls’ respective sexual awakenings. Over the decades, the step-siblings’ stories diverge and entwine, mapping out the ambivalences and ambiguities of sexual desire through the lens of the female gaze.

What they’ve said: “…Demi-Gods is an uncomfortable, propulsive and deeply enjoyable read.” — Richard Warnica, Weekend Post

You might not know: Eliza is a dedicated astrology buff. Find out why at her Curiosity Lecture, On Astrology.  

Jenny Zhang

The seven short stories contained in Sour Heart offer a loosely connected, prismatic view of the Chinese-American experience: in each story, Jenny’s narrators are first-generation Chinese-American girls navigating the complexities of the love between parents and children, poverty and its indignities, inherited histories, racism and the immigrant experience. They are blunt about sex and bodily functions and the blurring line between familial love and familial shame. Jenny is a poet and essayist as well as a fiction writer, and this book brilliantly showcases her technical artistry and unflinching gaze. A grotesque, funny and tender book from a brilliant new voice.

What they’ve said: “…a beautiful portrayal of the complexities and limitations of empathy, of family, of the lessons history can bestow through pain.” — Arabella Sicardi, Hazlitt  

You might not know: Sour Heart is the first book to be published by Lena Dunham’s publishing imprint, Lenny. 

Ashleigh Young

Winning the ultra-lucrative Windham–Campbell Prize last year propelled Ashleigh Young into the spotlight, but the poet-turned-essayist has been producing some of the most perceptive, exacting and tender writing to come out of New Zealand for a while now. Her book of essays, Can You Tolerate This? beautifully evokes her family and hometown Te Kuiti, her self-consciousness and weird preoccupations (Paul McCartney, not breathing too loudly, her “little moustache”), and her introspective character, imbuing everything with wry, reflective humour.

What they’ve said: “Calling to mind both Joan Didion and Anton Chekhov, Young is relentless in her examination of herself and endlessly curious and compassionate in her consideration of the world. Can You Tolerate This? offers a glimpse into this extraordinarily promising writer’s quest to seek in the small accidents of her individual life the outlines of a much larger reality.” Windham–Campbell Prize judges’ citation

You might not know: As well as winning the Windham–Campbell Prize, Can You Tolerate This? also won the Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Nonfiction and the Royal Society Te Apārangi Award for General Non-Fiction.  

Cleo Wade

An artist, activist, poet, essayist, model and Instagram-famous multi-hyphenate, Cleo Wade is a writer who aims to empower, to motivate, and to inspire. Her most recent work is Heart Talk: Poetic Wisdom for a Better Life, a book that beautifully combines Cleo’s poetry and art with handwritten mantras and affirmations that showcase her mastery of the economical form. “I think that activism is really organised storytelling and I tell stories through poetry and visual representation,” says Cleo. Her work isn’t just something pretty to be shared on social media, it’s also a clarion call for everyday activism and active engagement and participation in community. Designed to be consciousness-raising, Cleo’s work is a refreshing antidote to these troubled times. 

What they’ve said: “Is Cleo Wade the Millennial Oprah?” — Lizzy Goodman, The Cut

You might not know: As a performer, Cleo’s accomplishments are varied: she’s recited poetry at Essence Festival, spoken at a NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) rally, and done a TED talk on the importance of giving a damn.