There are many things that come to mind when I sit down to write about these stories. The first is how great they are: that much is clear. But hovering over that is the cloud of everything that’s happened since submissions for this edition closed.
When I began to read these submissions, the news (at least in this part of the world) was dominated by the bushfires that were devastating Australia. This was, perhaps naturally, reflected in the setting and context for many of the stories I read. In the end, none of the four stories selected were set amongst the bushfires, or even mentioned them. Nevertheless, in reading these stories there was no mistaking the impact of the fires on the collective Australian consciousness.
In the interregnum between submissions closing and the final stories being selected, along came Covid-19, and the world changed again. On a conceptual level, I thought perhaps that the importance of these four stories would be diminished in the face of such a universal, global threat. Who would care for the intricacies of interpersonal interaction when so many people were sick and dying? However, I’m convinced these four stories, and fiction in general, remain as imperative as ever.
Ashleigh Synnott’s ‘Salmonella excretion in joy-riding pigs’ is a story of connectedness and desperation, and is as resonant as ever in a world in which we are all coveting connection in the maelstrom of desperation. No less importantly, the story is empathetic and funny, and poetic. Likewise, the character of Sylvie in Kristen Tytler’s story is everything we might want ourselves to be during difficult times. I read this as a portrait of a girl who is independent but also loyal, and one who, though naturally solitary, cannot remain unaffected by beauty (Unfortunately she is also complicit in murder, but, oh, how we forgive – and even revere – flaws when we love a character).
What I want in a story, more than anything, is to be sat up. To be lolling in a chair and then be pulled forward – literally pulled forward – by a carefully constructed narrative. This was my experience of reading Karen Whitelaw’s ‘Unspoken’. It’s short, it’s simple, it’s utterly believable, there’s no overt violence, and yet it’s frightening as hell. For the narrator, who’s recalling her experience as a Year-8 schoolgirl, it is nothing short of a completely disorienting introduction to a darker world. Did ‘Kohl’, by Nasrin Mahoutchi-Hosaini, make me sit up? Yes it did, but it happened so slowly that I didn’t even know; yet by the end I was inches from the screen and hanging on every word. Mahoutchi-Hosaini’s “Kohl” is what we might call classic storytelling. It’s light in style but rich with observation – it’s a masterclass in how a writer is supposed to notice things.
Maybe I try to make too much of these stories, maybe I try too hard to connect them with the current state of our world: such is the curse of a reader. But, to be frightened yet to notice, to connect and to aspire to beauty, no matter how flawed, must be precisely what we need right now.
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