Ethel Webb Bundell Literary Awards for Short Stories, 2022
Amanda Curtin, April 2022
Thank you to the Society of Women Writers WA for the opportunity to read and judge the thirty-six stories submitted for this year’s awards.
In a random collection of stories such as this, it is always interesting to reflect on the kinds of subjects and themes that writers are drawing inspiration from, especially when commonalities emerge. Covid, climate change and biodiversity all made an appearance in this group, as did social diversity and a strong awareness that Australian history did not begin with white colonisation 234 years ago. Other common subjects were relationships, families, travel, grief, the death or decline of elderly parents, sexual assault and domestic violence. None of these things surprised me. However, the frequent focus on ghostly presences did, and I wondered what could account for this. Perhaps a turning away from the realist mode? A yearning for connection? Or perhaps no more than an anomaly in this particular group.
Consideration of these aspects did not, of course, play a part in the judging process. I was looking for how well an idea was realised, and for the credibility and sincerity of purpose that come from close attention to language, voice, rhythm and structure. I was drawn to stories that engaged with the inner lives of characters, and to those that showed an element of subtlety, a confidence on the part of the writer that readers need not be spoon-fed information or conclusions. And I looked for impact—those precious moments of a fine short story that deliver on the seeds of fear or desire that the writer has so artfully planted along the way; that reveal to us something new, or a new way of seeing something as old as time; a moment of truth, a moment of change.
Every one of the thirty-six stories demonstrated strengths of one kind or another.
Congratulations to everyone who entered, and especially to those who might be taking their first steps in submitting a story to a competition. It is a brave act to write, and an even braver one to offer up that work to the eyes of others.
First place: ‘Gracie’ by Jodie Kewley
The winning story is engaging on so many levels, with an endearing but vulnerable young protagonist whose circumstances and background are revealed gradually and obliquely through small but telling details and through her interactions with the exploitative Tyson and her self-focused father. The present events of the narrative are focalised through Gracie’s point of view, in all its beauty and its limitations, giving this reader a powerful sense of foreboding and fear for her wellbeing that was achingly realised in the story’s final paragraphs.
Second place: ‘Cascade’ by Jane Smith
‘Cascade’ is a sophisticated story that speaks to female friendship, and the ties that bind human lives. The narrator’s petulant resentment of her friend’s forthcoming move to New Zealand to care for family threatens to upset their annual camping weekend—a mourning of a future loss that destroys the joy of the present. The unchanging backdrop of the natural world acts as a foil to the narrator’s inner turmoil as she is forced to find some way of dealing with the profoundly unsettling prospect of change.
Third place: ‘Killing Him Softly’ - July Bowen Kearney
‘Killing Him Softly’ is a poignant, memorable story about a friendship, a might-have-been-but-never-was relationship, that turns on the idea that the living sometimes impose unreasonable expectations on the dying. There is subtlety in the way the story of Angela and Paddy unfolds, and a specificity of detail that anchors it in the real world.
Highly commended: ‘The Selection’ by Madeleine Louise Cleary
In this story, what begins as an ordinary day in an ordinary office gradually gathers in sinister detail to (partially) reveal itself as the scene of a bureaucratic dystopia. Questions of humanity and inhumanity are at the heart of this enigmatic, at times darkly humorous story of Sam’s unwitting rise through the ranks, watched by a Madame Defarge–type character, Marge.
Commended: ‘Dark Holiday’ - Paulette Catherine Gittins
The narrator, a sixty-five-year-old woman still coming to terms with the death of her mother, responds to the call of memory and travels to Venice—brought to life beautifully through sparkling language and a lively, distinctive voice. There is a pleasing shape to this story, as a mysterious advertisement takes the narrator on a journey of reconciliation that gives her back to herself.