In reading through the hundreds of entries to the Neilma Sidney Prize, we were not only looking for quality writing but also for originality and an engaging narrative. Those stories that stood out to us often employed description in a way that appeared effortless, yet brought to life both the familiar and the unknown. The stories that lingered with us were those that had a creative take on the notion of ‘travel’, or reoriented our perspectives in an unexpected way. We were particularly cautious of those stories in which the exotic ‘other’ was sought out simply for its otherness, or seemed to exist primarily to provide colour to the traveller’s narrative.
‘On the road to Kuang Si Falls’, by Ashleigh Synnott – the story with the most original take on the theme. This story impressed us with its pathos and empathy, but more importantly with its imaginative scope and ambition. The characters are imbued with a deep sense of dignity and agency, and the textures of the descriptive passages haunt the reader long after this evocative, profound story has finished.
Toby Sime’s ‘Civilisation at last’ is a standout example of the ‘young traveller’ genre, with a sustained narrative voice, wry sense of humour and a particular maturity of insight into how the impulse towards wanderlust reflects on and relates to a sense of home. Emerging from the narrative is an exploration of sexuality as a seamless, fluid thing; an emotional journey in its own right, but executed with subtlety and a particular knack for characterisation that is both vivid and moving.
Finally, the winning story, Lauren Foley’s ‘K-K-K’, impressed us not only with its unexpected interpretation of the theme, but also its strong narrative voice and confident, accomplished prose. To effortlessly weave humour into what is essentially a story about displacement and different forms of violence – the lateral and indirect as well as the explicit – is no small feat. Its most powerful attribute is the way it transforms an otherwise familiar suburban context – train stations, footpaths, the mundane public journeys for day-to-day chores – into a source of anxiety and fear. Through the eyes of this young refugee and her family, the reader sees Australia as if for the first time. It is not a sight easily forgotten.
The Overland Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize is supported by the Malcolm Robertson Foundation