Emma Ashmere

writer | author | novelist

Tag: australian fiction

Choosing favourites: Three Summer Reads

Local ABC breakfast radio has been asking authors to choose their three favourite summer reads. With so many fantastic books published during COVID – thankfully – it was very tricky to narrow it down. So, as we dive into autumn here, I’ve stretched three books to four – plus a few others.

WEATHER by Jenny Offill

Lizzie is a university librarian in New York dealing with pompous professors, poverty-stricken students, and occasionally drinking too much with her female friends in bars on the rare nights away from her husband and young son. She feels she should probably be doing greater things. During this short book which zigzags between wit and tragedy, we slowly find out why.

Lizzie’s old mentor Sylvia is an ecologist and runs a podcast on climate change. Sylvia contacts Lizzie occasionally – to see if she’s still squandering her opportunities.

But when Sylvia burns out – she asks Lizzie to answer the deluge of podcast comments flooding in from evangelical Christians, doomsday preppers who stockpile chewing gum, helicopter parents, and trillionaires who want to know which mountain peak or chunk of island they should buy to escape the coming catastrophe.

So Lizzie dives down into the mine-pit of information and misinformation while she juggles work. She’s also bringing up her small serious son who attends a large school, and keeping things in sync with her warm and bookish historian husband. She also goes to mediation classes, avoids the over-competitive parents in the school yard, and the neighbor who ambushes her in the corridor to talk about hateful things.

And then there is Lizzie’s brother, a recovering addict, who needs to move in to their already tiny New York apartment.

This wonderful narrative is told in small bursts of prose. It builds up slowly, a mosaic of information, lists, stories, jokes, anecdotes, politics, poetry.

It cirlces around climate change but also about everything else that swirls through contemporary life and distracts, delights and keeps us awake. The succinctness and weaving of glittering threads creates an enthralling whole.

Jenny Offill describes herself as a ‘merciless editor’ and pares everything back. Every line zings or stings.

A novel for now, yesterday, tomorrow, and too late – it’s a meditation on the natural world and the unnatural world – and how we live in it, and treat it – and who and what we leave behind.

Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson

The Song of the Crocodile is about the First Nations Bilymyl family living on the edge of the small Australian town of Darnmoor. The living conditions are relentlessly tough in this vibrant community.

We meet Margaret who works at the local hospital, and Celie, and Mili. The women set up a successful wash house for the town – literally doing everybody’s dirty laundry – which also gives them access to rich white people’s houses.

This is all about small town politics, and prevailing white Australian myths. There’s the push for redevelopment that will benefit some of the townsfolk – but not the First Nations community.

The author Nardi Simpson is a Yuwaalaraay storyteller, musician and performer living in Sydney. This is her debut novel. This multi-generational epic story captures the searing hypocrisy of race relations and small town politics, the secrets that ooze beneath the surface and the past injustices that persist, deftly told through an ensemble cast of brilliantly drawn characters. I could hear them speaking as I read.

A gripping and engrossing read.

Interspersed with this tough and delicate narrative, are lyrical passages about the ‘eternal spirits’. As a non-Indigenous reader, I loved this interleaving, and how it weaves and deepens the narrative.

A powerful important book, The Song of the Crocodile was long-listed for the Stella Prize.

THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett

Stella and Desiree are identical sisters, born into a southern American town that doesn’t really exist on the map – and is home to a proud population of fair-skinned African Americans.

As children, Stella and Desiree witness a horrific act of racially-targeted brutality committed against their father. The sisters carry that event as they navigate different paths.

The Vanishing Half opens with one sister striding down the Mallard’s main street after many years away, alongside her young daughter. The author captures the potent atmosphere of small town politics – the rumours, the stories, the whispers, assumptions, the ambivalence and the mystery rippling behind the curtains along the street,

We cut to the past, taking us to 1960s New Orleans when the sisters ran away from their home town. But at some point, the sisters separate.

One sister discovers by accident she can pass as white, and moves into the very white world of work, marriage, money, polite suburbia, keeping her heritage secret even from her husband – while the politics of the 1960s civil rights movement erupts. Her carefully curated façade threatens to crack.

The other sister’s story takes us to the 1970s LA drag scene, exploring issues of gender, sexuality and identity, mixing in a world of people who are marginalized in some way, helping each other, finding and building community and solace as they try to survive.

Both sisters challenge the limitations others persist in trying to set for them in their own ways.

This book is all about compassion, and pride, generosity. It is never judgmental about people’s actions and the choices they make or the relentless difficulties they the face. It’s about finding your way and taking up your place when much of the world dismisses your worth.

It’s also about the legacies all of us inherit from our families, strangers, neighbours, larger forces such as daily cultural bias and the complexities of politics – whether we live in towering crowded cities, in perfect-looking suburban estates, or in small towns with deep histories, and powerful rivers running through them.

Brit Bennett’s debut novel The Mothers won a swag of awards.

The Vanishing Half is in production as a TV series.

HAMNET by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet opens in 1596 in Stratford upon Avon with 10 year old Hamnet Shakespeare wandering through the empty house in a slow panic. His twin sister Judith has just fallen very ill. He can only find his angry grandfather – but there’s no sign of his mother Agnes Hathaway.

The story spirals between time and place and characters, but we centre on Agnes and Hamnet, and the daily lives in the years of the plague.

William Shakespeare is never named in the book, but referred to as ‘the Latin tutor’ or ‘the husband’. He is cleverly kept off camera, and described as being impractical. He feels trapped in his life, and despises his brutal father who is in debt.

Agnes, however, is pragmatic. We first see her walking in the forest with a kestrel on her arm. Shakespeare thinks she’s a boy – then realizes it’s the wild woman he’s heard rumours about. Agnes has grown up motherless, using the forest as her pharmacy, sanctuary, and her school. There are stunning descriptions of the natural world.

This is a novel about grief, and how different people to react to great loss, trauma and sadness. One person’s reactions can feel inexplicable to one another – especially within a shattered family. Hamnet charts how a wife and husband distance themselves and yet retain a connection.

Shakespeare disappears to London. Art is a salve for him. The famous play Hamlet emerges, and the internal unspeakable turmoil is turned into something that can be seen and articulated.

For Agnes, healing gives her continued purpose.

Hamnet is a New York Times bestseller.

Other recommendations:

Fire Front – edited by Alison Whittaker

On Connection by Kae Tempest

Intimations by Zadie Smith and The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy.

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Watch the recording of authors Victoria Purman, Pip Williams, and Emma Ashmere for Down the Rabbit Hole: History & Fiction Writing hosted by History Trust South Australia Tues 20th April 2021 @ 5.30pm (Adelaide time). Free zoom.

Emma Ashmere was born in Adelaide, South Australia on Kaurna land. Her 2020 short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian FictionSleepers AlmanacEtchingsSpineless Wonders#8WordStoryNGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She has been shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Award, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Floating Garden, was shortlisted for the Small Press Network Book of the Year 2016. See more of Emma’s posts about books and writing here.

Dreams They Forgot – New Short Story Collection Out Today!

DREAMS THEY FORGOT is out today! Thanks to my publishers Wakefield Press, twenty-three of my stories have been put together in one beautifully designed book.

Dreams They Forgot cover.12 LS.indd

DREAMS THEY FORGOT  is available in paperback and e-book, and is listed on the Sydney Morning Herald’s Books to Read in 2020 and Readings Bookshop Books to Get Excited About and 100 Great Reads by Australian Women 2020. “This debut collection of beautiful short stories spans twenty years of the author’s writing life, bringing together tales of love, loss and feeling out of place.”more about it here.

Dreams They Forgot is listed on Readings Bookshop’s 100 Great Reads by Australian Women 2020. “This debut collection of beautiful short stories spans twenty years of the author’s writing life, bringing together tales of love, loss and feeling out of place.”

“Ashmere’s prose is precise, almost elusive, reading at times like poetry.” ADAM FORD, July 2020,  BOOKS&PUBLISHING. 

About DREAMS THEY FORGOT

Two sisters await the tidal wave predicted for 1970s Adelaide after Premier Don Dunstan decriminalises homosexuality. An interstate family drive is complicated by the father’s memory of sighting UFOs. Two women drive from Melbourne to Sydney to see the Harbour Bridge before it’s finished. An isolated family tries to weather climate change as the Doomsday Clock ticks.

Emma Ashmere’s stories explore illusion, deception and acts of quiet rebellion. Diverse characters travel high and low roads through time and place – from a grand 1860s Adelaide music hall to a dilapidated London squat, from a modern Melbourne hospital to the 1950s Maralinga test site, to the 1990s diamond mines of Borneo.

Undercut with longing and unbelonging, absurdity and tragedy, thwarted plans and fortuitous serendipity, each story offers glimpses into the dreams, limitations, gains and losses of fragmented families, loners and lovers, survivors and misfits, as they piece together a place for themselves in the imperfect mosaic of the natural and unnatural world.

Praise for DREAMS THEY FORGOT

“Emma Ashmere’s characters are luminescent. These stories drew me into people and worlds so vivid they practically lived on the page.”  — ANNA SPARGO-RYAN, author of The Gulf, and The Paper House.

‘Ashmere’s writing is full of quick insights and telling details. These stories move effortlessly through place and time, entering lives on the point of transgression. It’s an absolute pleasure to travel with them.’ — JENNIFER MILLS, author of Dyschronia, The Rest is Weight, and The Diamond Anchor. 

‘Stories of extraordinary range and depth. Deeply engaging and satisfying.’ — PADDY O’REILLY, author of Peripheral Vision, The End of the World, and The Wonders.

‘Ashmere’s prose is precise, almost elusive, reading at times like poetry. It drills down into certain details while leaving others out entirely. This invites the reader to complete the picture by tying together the story elements that Ashmere has chosen to share…The deft description, compelling emotion and insightful observations… will appeal to readers of feminist fiction and Australian realism, in particular fans of Dymphna Cusack or Fiona McGregor.’ — ADAM FORD, BOOKS&PUBLISHING, July 15 2020.   (Read the full review here.)

“The stories in this strong and varied collection range across urban and rural Australia and beyond, to such touchstones of Australian travel as Bali and London, and to more exotic settings such as Borneo and regional France. Emma Ashmere’s stories are often impressionistic, never laboriously chewing on their material and trusting the intelligence of the reader to join the dots and grasp the underlying feeling. There are some excellent stories about family life, especially those told from the point of view of a semi-comprehending and bemused child or adolescent. But Ashmere’s greatest strength is in her stories of the historical past, especially in Australia. These stories acknowledge the limits of what is knowable to contemporary readers, evoking instead the unrecoverable strangeness and mystery of the past.” — KERRYN GOLDSWORTHY, SYDNEY MORNING HERALD/AGE, 5 Sep 2020.

“Ashmere moves skillfully and seamlessly between eras and places… this variety is also a strength, making each story feel different from those surrounding it…  a thoughtful meditation on the things that can hold you down, and the different ways through.” ELIZABETH FLUX, THE SATURDAY PAPER, 12 Sept 2020.

“These short stories have the compressed clarity of diamonds. From somewhere deep, Ashmere brings these small stories to the surface and sets to crafting them. Every angle and facet is laser cut and polished to perfection. Turn them slowly in your hands. Be dazzled by the light that glances and bounces off their surfaces and be drawn to the shadows that lie within.” JENNY BIRD, BYRON WRITERS FESTIVAL, Sept-Oct 2020 NORTHERLY.

“A short story collection can have much in common with a collection of poetry, where each story pivots on attention to something particular and arresting – an image, a memory, the encounters with strangeness or beauty that can occur in a life. Individual stories build delicately towards such a moment, then fall away quickly, willing a reader to engage with feeling and suggestion rather than the comprehensiveness of narrative…. Dreams They Forgot is subtle and evocative in this way; her stories move both on internal trajectories of revelation and in relation to each other, incrementally building a richly nuanced fabric of story, character, and pinpoints of life experience.” ROSE LUCAS, AUSTRALIAN BOOK REVIEW, 29 Nov 2020.

“Generally, an author’s work improves with time, but all twenty-three stories in Dreams They Forgot are of equal quality. In some collections, stories can blur together, but the diverse locations and historical periods utilised in these stories make each piece memorable.” ANNIE CONDON, READINGS MONTHLY, Sept 2020.

“This is an exquisite collection of short stories. Many have a filmic quality as Ashmere introduces a scene and moves like a camera would, resting on an object or a person, and then revealing subtle nuances in gestures or words as we are led further in. The language has the expressiveness of poetry, creating pictures and interactions, leading into stories that leave us pondering long afterwards…. the stories can be read and enjoyed time and again. Highly recommended.” HELEN EDDY, READPLUS, 17 Nov 2020.

“These short stories have the compressed clarity of diamonds. From somewhere deep, Ashmere brings these small stories to the surface and sets to crafting them. Every angle and facet is laser cut and polished to perfection. Turn them slowly in your hands. Be dazzled by the light that glances and bounces off their surfaces and be drawn to the shadows that lie within.” JENNY BIRD, BYRON WRITERS FESTIVAL, Sept/Oct NORTHERLY.

“Emma Ashmere’s short story collection, Dreams They Forgot, is creatively atmospheric, a series of ‘slice of life’ vignettes set in a variety of eras with a mostly feminist leaning. Emma writes with sublime texture, so much simmering beneath the surface. ” THERESA SMITH, THERESA SMITH WRITES, 25 Sep 2020.

“Ashmere has curated this collection in a way which makes it read almost like a novel… Many characters seem to be echoes of each other (or maybe the same person?)… Her prose sits lightly on the page, remaining poetic without forgoing narrative drive. Like a caricaturist, she can evoke a full person with just a few strokes of the pen… If you are yet to discover the short story, then this collection might just persuade you. And if you are already a convert, then Ashmere will no doubt delight and engage.” TRACEY KORSTEN, GLAM ADELAIDE, 25 Nov 2020.

The COVER

The photograph ‘Lynne and Carol, 1962’ is by the late Melbourne photographer Sue Ford.  See more of her stunning work archived here.  My thanks to the estate of Sue Ford for kindly granting permission to use her work.

Behind The Book

Q&A with the Feminist Writers Festival about writing Dreams They Forgot.

‘Written on Water’ published in Overland about writing the story ‘The Second Wave’ about the 1976 ‘tidal wave’ predicted to wipe out ‘the sinners’ of Adelaide.

‘What I’m Reading’ on reading Ali Smith’s new novel ‘Summer’ is on Meanjin’s blog.

Catch A Passing Thought’ on writing short stories and Dreams They Forgot.

Author Talk with Theresa Smith Writes.

Chatting to Pamela Cook and Kel Butler on the W4W podcast.

Hear Emma read her story ‘The Sketchers’ inspired by the art of Grace Cossington Smith and commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria’s NGVmagazine.

 

Events

Join authors Pip Williams, Victoria Purman and Emma Ashmere for Down the Rabbit Hole: Talking History hosted by History South Australia 20th April 5.30pm (Adelaide time). Free zoom.

Launch with Nikki Anderson for Feast LGBTQI Festival 2020.

Thurs 24 Sept 6.30pm (Melbourne time): ” Women Who Break The Rules” Online Event Readings Bookshop. Join Emma Ashmere (Dreams They Forgot) and Laura Elvery (Ordinary Matter) talking to publisher/editor Jo Case about their new short story collections. Free zoom event – but you need to register.

Where To Buy

Find DREAMS THEY FORGOT (RRP AUD $24.95) at your local bookshop or online:

Wakefield Press (Adelaide)

Abbey’s Bookshop (Sydney)

Avid Reader (Brisbane)

Bookroom at Byron (Northern NSW)

Booktopia (Online)

Gleebooks (Sydney)

Readings (Melbourne)

Imprints Bookshop (Adelaide)

Jeffrey’s Books (Melbourne)

Lismore Book Warehouse (Northern NSW)

Matilda Bookshop (Adelaide Hills)

National Library (Canberra)

Ravens Parlour (Barossa Valley)

Riverbend Books (Brisbane)

Wheelers Books (Online)

Dymocks Books (Online)

*Also e-book available. Please note – the RRP is AUD$24.95. Prices vary on Book Depository,  Fishpond,  Amazon etc.*

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See more posts about  reading and writing short fictions and creating a short story collection.

About The Author

Emma Ashmere was born in Adelaide, South Australia. Her new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian FictionSleepers AlmanacEtchingsSpineless Wonders#8WordStoryNGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She has been shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Award, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the Small Press Network MUBA/Book of the Year 2016.