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Shelf Reflection is a monthly series where we explore the bookshelves and reading habits of our featured First Book Club authors.

This month’s reflection is from Dr Natalie Kon-yu, whose debut book The Cost of Labour (Affirm Press, out 8 Feb) tackles the outdated institutions, expectations and ideologies that hold parents hostage. Stay tuned for more on our website and podcast later in the month!

A white bookshelves extending horizontally along a wall and halfway up it. The shelves are filled with books organised according to colour, as well as some board games and pottery. Above the bookshelf is 3 large wall-mounted mirrors, several indoor plans, photographs and other objects.

Natalie’s bookshelves. Image: Supplied

What are you currently reading?

I have just finished The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay, and am about to start Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It’s been on my bedside table for years and it has finally made it to the top. I’m really looking forward to devoting some time and head space to it.

As you can see I’m a few years behind. I’m also dipping into Azadi by Arundhati Roy, Mothers, Fathers and Others by Siri Hustvedt, Danged Black Thing by Eugen Bacon, Le Malaise Creole: Ethnic Identity in Mauritius by Rosabelle Boswel and Neither Settler Nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities by Mahmood Mamdani. I love essay collections and short stories for the way they allow you to dip in and out. I have two small kids and my reading time is barely existent, so reading like this helps.

What kind of reader are you?

Obviously very scattered and behind! I read a lot for my job as a lecturer and I don’t read as many novels as I would like. But, pandemic permitting, this is something I’d like to change this year. I read quite a few books at one time, though I only try and read one novel at a time.

I’m a big re-reader and have read many of my favourite books several times. I’m also diligent, so I always finish a book after I’ve started it. It’s a bad habit, because I’ve only got limited reading time, and often the book I am ploughing through does not get better. It’s a habit I’d like to give up, but I don’t know if I can.

I love reading in a quiet house, lying on my bed, or on the sofa in the afternoon or morning. I can’t read at night—both because I’m too tired and reading is too close to work for me now. It’s hard to shut off. I’m trying to read more in front of my kids, so that they can see that reading can be for pleasure, not just for school.

I realised that my schooling had been filled by male voices, so I’ve been correcting that since about 2002.

What does your book collection look like?

It depends on which one! I have books stacked high on my bedside table and my home desk. I have four bookcases in my office and I have two big book cases at home. My books here live with some of my bric a brac—I’m an op-shop tragic and grudgingly, I have to share the shelf space with my family, so I keep all my favourites here.

I try to colour code my books at home, so that they look nice, but it is also an easy way for me to remember where my books are. I never forget a spine. I love second hand books, but I’m a big believe in supporting my local indie bookshop. I tend to read mostly female writers and I don’t think anyone who knew me would be surprised by that. I realised that my schooling had been filled by male voices, so I’ve been correcting that since about 2002.

What’s one book you found critical to the writing of your own book?

That’s a hard question and I can’t just pick one. There were a few that I kept going back to. Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism, Erica Millar’s Happy Abortions: Our Bodies in the Era of Choice, Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work and Rickie Solinger’s Pregnancy and Power: A Short History of Reproductive Politics in America were key texts for me. I also loved Rivka Galchen’s Little Labours—a truly beautiful book. These books are both memoir and research-based which is how I tend to think. I’m an academic, so I want the hard data, but at the same time, I want to write personally, to communicate with others. That’s so important to me. All of these books were hugely influential in how I approached The Cost of Labour and I am indebted to them.

What book/s are you constantly recommending other people read?

My favourite recent novel was Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar. I inhaled that book. I also loved Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. Closer to home, I loved Alice Pung’s One Hundred Days, Leanne Hall’s The Gaps and Rebecca Lim’s Tiger Daughter. If people love short stories, I point them in the direction of Tony Birch—especially his latest collection Dark as Last Night. And I would always recommend Siri Hustvedt, Arundhati Roy, Carol Shields, Miriam Toews and Toni Morrison to anyone who will listen. Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows was a revelation to me. I’d never heard of her until someone mentioned it at a writers’ festival. It was so joyful and sad at the same time.

I’m an academic, so I want the hard data, but at the same time, I want to write personally, to communicate with others.

Siri Hustvedt, Toni Morrison and Arundhati Roy are all amazing for the breadth of their work—their essays and their fiction. I started reading Toni Morrison when I was seventeen. I still remember buying Beloved from a book store in Perth (where I grew up). I bought the rest of her books soon afterwards. She blew me away. I’d never read anything like her work in my life. I also read Arundhati Roy when I was young—maybe 21. She made me fall back in love with reading after I finished my lit degree.

If you had to pick one book to live in for the rest of your life, which would it be?

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. It’s a book that sits very close to me and there is so much about it that’s eerily familiar. I don’t know if I’d want to live in it though—it’s so heartbreaking. Maybe it’s the book I’ve lived in the longest. I probably identify most with Ammu. Her sense of the unjustness of the world really resonated with me. But she is far braver than I am. I love her ability to speak her mind, but also her capacity for joy. All the characters are familiar, especially Mammachi, Chacko and Baby Kochamma. There’s a lot about colonisation and the resultant Anglophilia that resonates with me. It’s a book that I read from the inside out. I know these people.

I also love the non-linear narrative. Life is like this—we bounce from past to present and back again. It makes sense to me.

What’s next for you?

I really want to read more fiction this year. Short stories and novels. I love short stories, but I’ve never been able to write one. I don’t know why. But I’d like to learn how to do it. I also want to get back into the novel I started writing a few years ago. It’s bugging me—it wants to be finished. But reading is next—that’s my hope. Lots more books.

The Cost of Labour is available from 8 February at your local independent bookseller.