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A Real Piece of Work
Erin Riley 
(Penguin Books Australia, available now)

A Real Piece of Work is our Debut Spotlight for August! Read an interview with first-time author Erin Riley here, plus watch an exclusive reading on our Instagram!

A Real Piece of Work grapples with what it means to live freely inside the oppressive structures of society. Erin Riley, a social worker residing on Gadigal land, explores their queer trans identity through a patchwork of twenty personal essays.

Queer awakening is at the heart of the book. In a conversational tone, they share formative experiences. Riley recounts the curiosity ignited by their ‘first glimpse of queers—women in high-waisted blue jeans and black leather jackets’ at a trip to the basketball court. This interest only expands when they discover competitive wrestling and see characters who brilliantly defy gender norms.

In sport, Riley comes to terms with their own identity, reflecting that ‘gym and exercise was [their] gender affirmation’. But this empowerment isn’t without complexities, and joyful self-acceptance is hard-won. Acquiring a muscular form helped Riley conform to society’s body standards, so exercise also became ‘a cheap way to regulate [their] feelings of dysphoria’.

Queer awakening is at the heart of the book.

Riley is familiar with paradoxes. In the titular essay, they explain how their job in social welfare is ‘to see oppressed people made more marginal in a system that only benefits the few’. They explore how the government individualises inequality, concealing its own responsibility. Riley acknowledges they are a tool in this machine, recounting an incident where they place Shirl, an elderly First Nations woman, into a nursing home:

Here I am. A white settler social worker who believes themselves radical, who understands that structural violence and institutional racism and poverty and colonisation and intergenerational trauma are at play in this moment, here I am placing a First Nations woman into another institution.

The acknowledgment of complicity, while valid, falls short of offering solutions for readers looking for them. Across the collection, Riley outlines the hypocrisies of working in the ‘caring’ industry but is somewhat resigned to its failings: ‘I have long sat with the despondency of being unable to fix structural problems.’

Riley states in their afterword that they never intended to write a memoir, explaining the ruminative, open-ended form: ‘I was writing about outsiders whose lives were affected by injustice, trauma, hardship, rejection and otherness. I soon realised that these were structures that affected me […] and so, I allowed myself to edge into the frame.’

Alongside more analytical essays, the book is peppered with Riley’s own heartfelt stories on connection, with a powerful through-line on the importance of queer family. However, this juxtaposition between the personal and the political leads to a slightly disjointed reading experience.

—Rosie Ofori Ward

Eugen Bacon 
(Transit Lounge, available now)

Serengotti begins in an office in a post-pandemic Melbourne. After a tempestuous morning, the life of Ch’anzu (zie/hir) rapidly turns in an unexpected direction. Estranged from hir wife and now jobless, the novel takes the computer programmer to a fictional town, the eponymous Serengotti. It’s a riff, of course, on the lush ecological region of Tanzania’s Serengeti, but here we instead find a haven for African diaspora in rural Australia.

In his manifesto Afrotopia, Senegalese academic Felwine Sarr theorises on post-colonial futures. He imagines a world where Africans regain centrality in the planet’s narratives. Eugen Bacon’s latest novel does something similar. Child soldiers, widows and refugees congregate to rebuild themselves and create something new. Feeling lost, Ch’anzu arrives at this isolated place to work and slowly regains humanity through the connections made.

Daring and beautiful prose from a bold, promising talent.

The point of view is jarring at first. Using second person, Bacon invites the reader to deeply absorb the protagonist’s emotions and choices. We are also graced with the first-person presence of Tex, Ch’anzu’s elusive brother. He says evocative lines in his chapters such as ‘Memories are bursts of colour’ and ‘The wind stroked my neck and said, Hush.”’ The juxtaposition between the two characters shows the range of Bacon’s craft and the vocabulary of the novel is expansive. The author weaves in Aussie slang (‘pumped’, ‘reckon’ and ‘fair dinkum’), as well as Swahili words such as ‘o mwana’ (child) and ‘ahsante’ (thank you). Bacon mixes cultures in a dazzling way. Ghosts, spirits and majini (jinnis, the mythological creature of Arab and Muslim lore) roam this arid, quasi-quintessential town.

Serengotti is not a utopia, however. It’s a setting reckoning with trauma. But it also has a notable absence in its exploration of what it means to be African in Australia. In Afrotopia, Sarr conceptualises a new order not by replacing people but by reimagining the way we live. He quotes Aimé Césaire: ‘Better to live in hell than in a bad copy of paradise.’ As an Afro-Brazilian, I was excited about the themes. However, there was a discomfort that this Black settlement sat on unceded First Nations land. Serengotti is located near Wagga Wagga—traditional Wiradjuri Country—but the novel doesn’t engage directly with Australia’s colonial history.

At its strongest, Serengotti opens up different possibilities of existence, like when describing the town: ‘It’s Afrocentric in design, but its gardens are littered with dark-leafed Australasian shrub trees.’ The novel imagines with lyricism what could be, playing with magic realism and speculative tropes that the award-winning author has previously explored in her extensive repertoire of genre fiction. It’s daring and beautiful prose from a bold talent.

—Guido Melo

Pink Slime
Fernanda Trías, trans. Heather Cleary (Scribe, available now)

In an unnamed port city in an unspecified Latin American country, Fernanda Trías’ unidentified narrator details living in a world torn asunder. Neighbourhoods are filled with fog and the ‘horrible stench of garbage, silt and chemicals’. Swimming in the sea is likely to leave you ‘infected, exposed to a nameless disease that didn’t even promise a speedy death’. Everyone subsists on the namesake ‘pink slime’, a highly processed meat product called Meatrite with sinister Soylent Green vibes. Portentous references of a fatal ‘red wind’ and near-constant alarms signifying its arrival place whoever’s left in a constant state of high alert.

Despite the unfathomable changes wreaking havoc on Trías’ deftly drawn world, it’s relationships that are at the core of this story. The narrator’s frayed nerves are accentuated by the three people to whom she’s begrudgingly tied to: her ex-husband Max, clinging to life in an ominous medical facility known only as ‘Clinics’; her mother, with whom she has a thorny relationship; and a chronically ill child called Mauro, whose genetic disorder places him in a state of perennial hunger. In many ways, Pink Slime is a treatise on caregiving. Trías expertly encapsulates the relationship between mother and child, obligation and affection, and the conflation of fear with love.

Time in the haunting, elegiac Pink Slime loops in and around itself.

The past occupies a larger-than-life presence in the narrator’s mind as she turns over her marriage and idyllic childhood summers spent in the coastal town of San Felipe—one of the few places Uruguayan-born Trías explicitly names. These recollections are a vivid respite against the dull grey of the present. Time in the haunting, elegiac Pink Slime loops in and around itself. Reading it is like constantly being assailed by a sense of déjà vu; passages are repeated, events of the past are re-examined from different angles. The narrator and, by extension, Trías are fixated on ways of measuring time—what marks the beginning, middle and end of the world, of a narrative?

The beginning is never the beginning. What we often mistake for the beginning is just the moment we realise something has changed.

The narrator’s nostalgia is placed in stark contrast against Mauro’s illness, which ‘holds him captive in an eternal present, a here and now made of hunger and craving’. In a world where desire has all but been sublimated into survival, Mauro’s capacity to still covet is an uncontrollable, dangerous but also a remarkable, and increasingly impossible to meet, urge.

In a world where time is demarcated by finalities—the last time fish, birds and rain were seen, the last time with loved ones—Pink Slime is a potent allegory of climate change. As the narrator tells us at the end: ‘I cannot stop a future that has already happened.’

—Sonia Nair