EWB Literary Awards Judge's Report
Short Story

 

Firstly, I’m pleased to report that your competition is in very good health, judging by the number of entries (70) and the variety and quality of the stories entered. Most of the stories are about relationships of one kind or another, which seems totally appropriate to me. I suppose inevitably, they reflected the tenor of the times; there were many stories which featured old age, divorce or bullying, but no stories at all about religion. Most were third person and there were none in second person – which is a difficult technique to employ. Many were adventurous in obvious ways: one featured extra-marital infidelity, in which the husband discovers that his wife is having sex with their domestic robot! He finds out because the company sends a bill, saying that he hadn’t subscribed to this optional extra. It made me think of Foxtel! Needless to say, this story was quite witty. Another adopted the point of view of a snake, as it slithered secretly around a house; another was told from the point of view of an angel fish. I admired this adventure into animal empathy but I have to admit that in the end snakes and fish don’t have such a great range of thoughts, and this was a limiting factor. Most stories stayed within the mode of realism, sometimes in very intricate ways, as you shall hear.

Most of the stories seemed to me to come from experienced and accomplished writers; even as I stand here, I have no idea who they are – mercifully, they were all just a number between 1 and 70 to me. The quality of the stories suggests that the competition does have a certain prestige. It’s also worth mentioning that short fiction has been a very strong feature of Australian literature, as it has been in many postcolonial literatures. Short fiction was the strongest genre for arguably our first great writer, Henry Lawson, and WA has had one of Australia’s pre-eminent writers in Peter Cowan, who knew more about the short story as a genre than anyone I have ever met. Currently we have one of Australia’s best short story writers in Susan Midalia, and others such as Joan London, Amanda Curtin, Gail Jones and Tim Winton have made major contributions to the genre.

When I first saw Anne-Marie’s terms that allowed for up to 9 prizes or Commendations, I thought, “Oh, I won’t want to use all those; they make up almost 10% of the stories”. Then I found it hard to leave stories out, so I have used all 9 spots. I would like to say to each of the 9 authors that any one of them would have been a worthy winner, and perhaps in another year might have won. Each of these stories seems to me publishable with no, or very little editing. I’ll start with the Commendeds, in number order – they aren’t ranked within this category:

No.33, “Threads”: This is a story with an exotic locale but it does not depend on exotica to generate interest. It concerns cultural clash and emotional learning, as a young woman who has grown up in Melbourne is taken back to the Thai village where she was born. I have visited Thailand, including villages, a number of times and the story’s details seemed completely convincing to me.

55, “To Have and to Hold”: This is a very adult story about a marriage breakdown, which begins reasonably enough but descends into argumentation as each spouse digs in to justify himself or herself. The author takes no side, and is enabled to do so through the story’s form, which is very interesting and unusual; it is an epistolary narrative. The story comprises a series of letters between the husband and wife, with even the forms of address (“Dear Phil”, “Dear Melissa”) descending into acrimony (“Melissa Dalgleish”, “Phil” – from “M”). The title “To Have and to Hold”is of course ironic.

69, “End of the Line”: This is a first person story told by a schoolgirl whose sister is bullied because she is different. The speaker does not automatically stick up for her sister and at first pretends not to be related to her, in childish fear. When a teacher notices what is happening to the sister she tries to help, speaking kindly to the girl and spending time with her. The result is that the sister becomes obsessed with the teacher. The whole story is sensitive and intelligent, and never loses understanding of the children’s points of view.

Highly Commended:

19, “Tethered”: The story provides an impressive, detailed portrait of an old woman, living alone, who resents the big changes in the environment around her; this resentment is partly a form of grief for her sister who has not long since died. In succinct prose and with wonderful imagery, the author makes an unattractive character interesting. Carefully selected details are worked into a strong narrative structure; the story covers a lot of psychological territory as the woman learns – the hard way – that not all change is bad.

42, “Aihe’s Story”: This is a story set in New Zealand which deals with Maori beliefs. It doesn’t sentimentalise Maori life, and indeed is told by a boy who lives in fear of his violent father. The Christchurch earthquake brings death into the family and his caring grandfather takes the boy on a boating trip to scatter his mother and sister’s ashes. When they do so they are suddenly accompanied by a legendary dolphin, Pelorus Jack. The boy’s name, Aihe, his grandfather tells him, means dolphin. Beautifully written, the story accomplishes the amazing feat of combining a realistic mode with myth-making.

54, “Thicker Skin”: Detailed and imaginative, this story skirts the boundary between realism and surrealism. A boy who loves animals acts as one in a drama lesson at the beginning of the narrative, but as the story progresses seems to become an animal, of different sorts, as he goes home from school afterwards. He is still a boy, who goes home to retrieve his cricket bat but at times, including at the end of the story, it seems that he literally becomes an animal, in the end a dragon to defend himself against his drunken and deranged father. The author skilfully makes it unclear whether we are in the boy’s imagination or in a metamorphosed, surreal actuality.

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Now we come to first and second - but I don’t have a first and second, I have two equal firsts. Anne-Marie appealed to me to separate them but I couldn’t, because they are such different stories that comparing them is like the old philosophical question, “Which would you prefer: bananas or Thursday?” The two stories are number 18, “Visiting Andy” and number 34, “Quinn”. Last year I went on a fascinating tour of Japan, and the experience helped me in reading “Visiting Andy”, in which Andy’s parents come to visit him while he lives in Japan. The language and locale mean that to some extent the parent-child roles are reversed. It is also a coming of age story in that Andy comes to see his parents somewhat as he sees other older people, and sees the differences between his parents as well as their differences from him. However, although the parents have their idiosyncrasies, they also have a degree of wisdom gained from experience, and help guide him, surreptitiously, to renewing his engagement to his Japanese girlfriend. He had broken up with her just before their arrival but he hadn’t told them about it. So it is a sensitive, intelligent story about the son’s maturing once he becomes more accepting of his parents’ failings, and therefore of his own. “Visiting Andy” is a very mature piece of work, full of beautiful psychological detail, ranging from Andy’s childhood to the present. The superb ending captures the humour and pathos that underlie the whole story.

And finally to the winners:

8, “Trust”: “Trust” is an intelligent, witty story with some elements of humour (a feature rare in the stories overall). Full of lively, interesting details, it features an eccentric, cantankerous older woman as a central character, and allows her eccentricities to speak for themselves. She is a lady who lives alone, defiantly, and who feels more companionship with animals than with people, so that when she discovers two fox cubs in her shed, unlike the local council, she does not see them as pests, but as semi-magical creatures; she also does not see them as pets, recognising their wildness. She is pretty wild herself, but the story embodies important themes about environmentalism and humans’ place in the natural world. It is also a story with a wonderfully underplayed ending.

Number 34, the eponymously titled “Quiin” is a completely different type of story, except that its psychological detail also seemed unerring. It offers an intricate portrait, often told from his point of view, of a seriously Aspergerish or autistic child. Seeing things from his point of view requires great handling of narrative perspective. Technically, the author employs third person but often shifts into sympathetic, or empathetic narrative, so that we are given a double perspective on both ordinary and dramatic events – they are seen as the rest of the world sees them plus as Quinn sees them. In doing so, the story can reveal Quinn’s inner life, which is much richer than the self he is able to show the world, which simply doesn’t operate on his terms. This is very difficult to do without becoming sentimental or unrealistic, but the story never misses a beat; nothing is over-dramatised and the details are always convincing, including in very rich imagery.

So there you have it. Thank you for the opportunity to read these enriching works; congratulations to everyone who entered, and to the Society for organising the competition. I particularly want to thank Anne-Marie Price, who handled all the administrative details, and tried to get me to separate these last two stories, “Visiting Andy” and “Quinn”; I was glad when she gave in!

 

Emeritus Professor Dennis Haskell, AM