Carly-Jay Metcalfe and Sharlene Allsopp’s books are different, yet both authors share a common bond as debut authors at this year’s Brisbane Writers Festival.

Breath is Metcalfe’s buoyant, beautifully articulated memoir and Allsopp is the author of a confronting, thought-provoking novel, The Great Undoing.

These authors are united by their status as debut talent at BWF, as well as their studies towards Masters degrees in creative writing and in sharing a curiosity about who is reading their work.

Metcalfe’s book charts her life with cystic fibrosis, deftly interweaving strands of illness narrative with those of addiction and cancer recovery to create a rich, deeply immersive account of her life. It is a story suffused with humour and akin to an autobiographical tapestry.

The recipient of a double-lung transplant at age 21, Metcalfe was given five years to live at the time of the life-saving operation but has now lived 27 years with her new lungs. Life, she says, is “fascinating, extremely humbling and very humorous despite it all”.

“My life has been underscored by illness, death and grief, but despite that I was always a remarkably happy person,” she says. “I was a really happy kid, but I did feel like I was stuck in a perpetual cycle of grief watching so many of my CF friends die.

“I think that, for me, writing was always my way through the pain of that. It’s kind of always been a bit of a salve for me. So much of my writing and my journey in writing the book was wrapped up in two really central questions: Why did I survive? Why did everyone else die and I got to live?”

Since Breath was published in March, Metcalfe has heard from both readers and people from her distant past. She says that launching the book at West End’s iconic Avid Reader bookstore was “an absolute joy” and that nurses, caretakers and fellow students from as far back as her primary school days have reached out to her.

“I’ve had nurses from the mid-1980s contacting me, saying, ‘I remember you! I read your book! I loved it!’,” she says. “I’ve had kids I was at school with, saying, ‘Holy hell! You’re still alive, I can’t believe it, I thought you were long dead!’ It’s been a really beautiful thing to have all of these readers and people from my past reach out and say that my story resonated.”

Allsopp, too, is a writer concerned with revealing layers and multiplicities in her work. The Great Undoing effortlessly fuses elements of various genre fictions – dystopian, historical and literary, to name three – to tell an apocalyptic story in fragments, one that is about differing perspectives, fact and fiction and the deception and prejudice inherent in the formal recording and dissemination of history.

This Bundjalung writer formats her novel as the journal of her protagonist, Scarlet, written tellingly over a copy of Ernest Scott’s A Short History of Australia.

The observations of the real-life historian quite literally intrude as Scarlet tells her own story. She, however, counters Scott’s profoundly racist assumptions with her own research notes, corrections and annotations, furiously scrawled in the margins of his book, revealing a gradual processing and calibrating of past-and-present trauma.

Scarlet, too, is engaged in an extensive investigation into the role of her late great-grandfather, William Olive, in World War I, battling to break through what she calls “the deliberate collective forgetfulness” about First Nations people in Australian history.

Olive is Allsopp’s great-grandfather and the book is partly dedicated to him. Originally planned as a memoir, writing The Great Undoing was as much a personal journey for the Brisbane writer as it was a fictional endeavour.

“When I uncovered this story about my great-grandfather it just felt like a little moment in my life where the stories I had told myself about who I was, because of what I understood about myself and my family’s past, suddenly changed everything about my present,” Allsopp says. “I began to see us incredibly differently and I think the work then became therapeutic.

“I hate using that word but it gave me a place to vent my feelings and work out my family’s history. I refuse to work within the boundaries of genre rules and regulations because, to me, I genuinely believe they’re the rules of white, Western colonisation and that they’re purely about commercial interests and giving readers hints as to how they can take meaning from my work.

“I love the idea that maybe readers don’t fully understand what they’re reading in my book, that maybe they’re a bit disoriented, like Scarlet, and hopefully that leads to a really different kind of meaning or understanding of the story I am trying to tell.”

Metcalfe will appear as part of “Body and Soul” at the festival, alongside fellow debut memoirist Anna Jacobson and former Paralympian Matt Levy, to discuss their respective accounts of the relationship between mind and body.

Allsopp will appear as part of “Alternative Routes”, a discussion of experimental writing; and at “Fantasy Festival”, a conversation about what the ideal inclusive literary festival might look like for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Writers, along with a couple of other events.

Breath by Carly-Jay Metcalfe (UQP, $32.99) and The Great Undoing by Sharlene Allsopp (Ultimo Press, $34.99). 

Brisbane Writers Festival runs May 30 to June 2;

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