There are college student Peach, whose stomach is rapidly expanding, primary school best friends Lucy and Francine, who experiment sexually together, and copywriter Mara, who is haunted by memories of her first period while making an advertising campaign for sanitary pads.

They are the creations of emerging women writers whose provocative stories and styles are pushing the boundaries of what contemporary literature can be and do.

From left, writers Cleo Wade, Intan Paramaditha, Sharlene Teo, Ashleigh Young, Eliza Robertson, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Emma Glass, Jenny Zhang and Sydney Writers' Festival director Michaela McGuire.

Photo: Louise Kennerley

Ten international debut poetry and fiction writers will feature at this year's Sydney Writers' Festival, eight of whom identify as women. This is double the number of debut writers from abroad who attended the event in 2017. Their work is diverse in style, character and plot, but they are united in their interest in female bodies, power, identity and resistance.

Much of their writing predates the election of US President Donald Trump, the Black Lives Matter movement and #MeToo. But they tap into an appetite for stories that unsettle the orthodoxy and offer a new perspective.

The festival's artistic director, Michaela McGuire, said the high number of debut female writers on the program – including Zinzi Clemmons​, Carmen Maria Machado, Yrsa Daley-Ward and Sharlene Teo – was not the result of a deliberate strategy, but "just the very pleasant realisation that many of the best books I read in the past year were outstanding debut novels by female authors".


"Stylistically, they're all incredibly daring, but in very different ways. There's such confidence to these works, too, especially in their unique and compelling explorations of women's bodies."

More broadly, 53 per cent of the authors and moderators at the festival this year are women, and there is an impressive line-up of emerging non-fiction writers including Ashleigh Young.

Bloomsbury published three of the debut female fiction writers attending the festival – Jenny Zhang's short story collection Sour Heart, Emma Glass' novella/prose poem Peach and Eliza Robertson's novel Demi-Gods.

Editor-in-chief Alexandra Pringle said there was a "new explicitness and daring, a wonderful boldness" in the writing now being published. She said recent political developments and activism had changed what was being sent to literary editors and there was now a "greater diversity than we've ever seen before" in writing from different backgrounds, countries and cultures.

Intan Paramaditha​'s English-language debut collection, Apple and Knife, consists of short stories published in bahasa Indonesia in 2005 and 2010. They are set in Indonesia, bend and blend genres, and bristle with feminist rage and resistance.

"I wanted to write stories about women in Indonesia and I just thought it was important to tell stories about bad women, about disobedient women, about women who resist," Paramaditha, who is an academic at Macquarie University, said.

"I feel like, in a way, it is really great we have more women writers and these women writers write feminist stories. But I do think it is important to see all these movements – women's movements – within the long history of feminism and looking at them in relation to the diversity of feminist practices."

For while a "new vanguard" – as the New York Times recently labelled a list of 15 significant women writers in the 21st century – may be shaping fiction, women writers have long pushed boundaries and responded to political moments.

"Women writers have been writing – or have wanted to write, but have been systemically prevented from doing so – about power, gender and otherness since women have been writing, but such writing by women, and non-white men, has generally only received something resembling equal recognition in recent years due to an overwhelming tipping point being reached," said Sam Cooney, publisher of Brow Books, which released Apple and Knife. "Enough was finally enough, and a sufficient number of fair-minded people are in positions of power to do something about it."

Sour Heart author Jenny Zhang said she is also hesitant about the term "new vanguard" because whenever a minority group is labelled as such it is usually because they just have not been given a chance.

"I think what happens is somehow by sheer force of will or grit someone sneaks past all of the obstacles and all of the stopping blocks and they write something so spectacular that it proves the old orthodoxy wrong," she said.

"The thing that is exciting about the programming [festival artistic director Michaela McGuire] has done is that it is about not overlooking or underestimating what was always there – this really robust imagination and ability."

The Sydney Writers' Festival continues from May 5 to 6.

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Melanie Kembrey

Melanie Kembrey the Spectrum Deputy Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald.

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