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meet the winners of the 2015 rachel funari prize for fiction: 2nd place, “fota” by danielle binks

Photo: Supplied

Photo: Supplied

Danielle Binks’ story, ‘Fota’ won 2nd place in the 2015 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here is an interview with Danielle, plus her award-winning story!

Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
Wearer of Many Hats. I’m a book review blogger over at my own Alpha Reader, a publicist for Wild Dingo Press, frequent commentator focused on youth literature (mostly via Kill Your Darlings), one of Melbourne Writers Festival’s 30 Under 30 ‘next generation of young writers’ and an emerging writer of young adult fiction.

What do you think it takes to write an award-winning story?
The courage to hit “send.” Sometimes I think the ideas and writing part can be easy; it’s sharing your story with others that’s hard.

Where do you write?
In bed, with my laptop. But I do a lot of dreaming up stories when I’m on the train or walking my dog – and I’m surprised at how much of what I work through in my head actually makes it to the page.

Why did you enter the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
I’m a big fan of Lip, and when they announced the creation of the Rachel Funari Prize a couple of years ago, I remember being very excited but sure I didn’t have anything good enough to submit. This year I decided to give it a go, spurred on by the warm reception and celebration of the Prize in past years.

What does privilege mean to you?
Undeserved benefit or advantage, received in society by nature of ones identity … often confused with “guilt” that’s then clouded by defensiveness, which hinders progress towards equality. Better summarised by the band Incubus: ‘Isn’t it strange that a gift could be an enemy … The day you were born you were born free/That is your privilege.’

 

Fota

The epiphanies started before I was even born, back when my grandparents first came to Australia from Piraeus aboard the Patris. But when I tried to start this story with the Jubilee pool and Mr Savalas’s wishbone legs, Nana said; ‘Let there be light, Alexandra,’ which means start from the beginning.

It’s funny how water keeps popping up in the bible, like the good book has sprung a leak. Right on the very first page there’s the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. There’s water into wine, the rain that fell for forty days and forty nights, parting of the Red Sea and Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. Maybe that’s the beginning Nana means, when Jesus sprung up from the River and was revealed to the world?

And I suppose I can’t forget that it was an epiphany that bought Nana and Papou to Australia in the first place, and started the tradition of Accosta family epiphanies. That’s as good a place to start as any.

three crosses

The Blessing of the Waters, if you don’t know, is the Greek Festival. It’s celebrated on January 6th all over the world, to mark the end of the holidays and to remember when Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist. Nana Accosta and all her friends call the day Theofania or Fota – but I like Blessing of the Waters, just for the way it sounds.

The blessing works like this: all the boys and men who want to dive for a year of good fortune line up on the St Kilda Pier in their boardies (except the old men, who still wear budgie smugglers), and then the bishop blesses a wooden cross before chucking it into the water. Then all the men have to dive into the water and try to swim to the cross, and the one to reach it first is blessed with a year of good fortune.

I’ve been going to the Blessing of the Waters since I was little, and Uncle George (if he wasn’t diving) would sit me on his shoulders so I could see all the men jump and then churn up the water swimming to the cross – and when there’s fifty or so men and boys swimming for that itty-bitty cross, all their long, hairy-man legs kicking away, the water starts to froth and turn white, until it looks like they’re all in a bubble bath. Nana Accosta is not too amused with this part of the blessing – she says all those men kick and fight for the cross like they’re piranhas after a bit of bloody meat – holy piranhas, she calls them. But I happen to know for a fact that Nana Accosta is just jealous that she never got to dive in the Theofania. Girls are not allowed, and Nana once told me how every year when she was a young girl living in Piraeus she would beg here mama to let her dive for the cross – but her mama always refused.

I don’t really understand that. Girls should be allowed to try for good fortune too.

three crosses

Epiphanies aren’t really part of the Theofania, but it is a peculiar Accosta family tradition to have an epiphany on epiphany day, if we get the cross.

Papou jumped off the Harbour of Piraeus in 1959, and when he broke the water with the cross in his hand, he said the epiphany came straight away and all his good fortune with it. He said he had the urge to keep on swimming through the Saronic Gulf, breaststroke to the Great Barrier Reef and float in the Indian Ocean. So Papou packed up his new bride and came over to Australia aboard the Patris ­– all because an epiphany told him to.

Uncle George had to wait until he was 18 before Nana Accosta (who’s Mama Accosta to him) would let him dive. He didn’t get the cross in his first year, or his second, third or seventh. He got the cross in his eleventh year of diving. Nana says to take Uncle George’s epiphany with a grain of sea salt, because she knows for a fact that he’d filed those divorce papers before he hit the water.

My papa, Nana tells me, got the cross and his epiphany the first time he dived.

three crosses

I’ve been asking Nana Accosta if I can dive in the Theofania since I was sitting on Uncle George’s shoulders. I kept asking every year, and then I started begging last year when Henry Theologidis got permission to dive – and he’s only one year older than me. He was half-drowned after his older cousin accidentally belly-flopped on top of him when they jumped off the pier – but the point was that he got to dive!

But I am a girl, and Nana does not want me diving with those holy piranhas.

Then it happened that back in December and three weeks before school holidays, I got called into the principal’s office. I had my suspicions that I was going there to account for Henry Theologidis’s bruised shin (which he got for bragging) but Principal Hutchinson had me sit down, and then told me that Nana was in hospital, Uncle George was on his way, and I was to be let out of school to go with him and see her.

I lived in a hospital for one year after I was born. I do not remember this time, but I think it has something to do with why I don’t like hospitals very much now (even if they have a nice name like Alfred).

I remember Nana had tried to smile at me, but only half her mouth would lift. Her words did not come easy. She said she felt as though she had a lake in her chest, and she was drowning in it. I asked her why she thinks it’s a lake in there and not a river, sea or ocean, and she said that she thought of it like the opposite of Lake Eyre, where she couldn’t get enough Eyre to breathe.

three crosses

I had to go to school the next day, even though I wanted to stay with my Nana. I had to go to school and listen to Henry Theologidis brag about the good fortune he was definitely going to have when he dived for the cross in January. And all I could think was that if anyone deserved a year of good fortune it was my Nana Accosta who was presently being swallowed up in the white of her hospital room, who could not make her whole mouth smile and who should have been diving in the Theofania since she was a little girl living in Piraeus.

So I punched him.

And I guess I had an epiphany straight after, where I saw myself diving in the Blessing of the Waters. Which is how I got to be at the Jubilee Park public pool a week before Christmas, watching Mr Savalas breaststroke like his arms were windmills in the water.

Mr Savalas, I should say, is the king of the Theofania. He has dived for the cross ten times since he was a boy, and had nine years of good fortune. The year he didn’t get to the cross quick enough just so happened to be the same year he’d has his hip replaced.

So to get ready for my own epiphany, I watched him.

Mr Savalas has wishbone legs; they seemed frail enough that it looked like someone could pull on either one and break him down the middle. He’d stand and look out at his 50-metre lane, his bony feet making dark patches of puddles on the concrete edge. Then he’d bring his hands together, like he was about to pray, stretching out his arms before him and dive a perfect arc into the chlorine pool.

Watching Mr Savalas got me thinking on how diving is a lot like faith; you put your hands together, hold your breath and hope to float.

three crosses

I went to see Nana Accosta every day. I’d come straight from the Jubilee pool, and stand in the doorway of her hospital room with squelching boardies and slippery thongs. Nana had taken to wearing a mask over her face, for Eyre. But she’d always remove it when she saw me, then spread out her arms and let me come to her. She’d breathe in my chlorine-hair and ask me if Uncle George was doing a good job taking care of me, and then she’d ask what I was up to. When she’d ask me that, I’d have to distract her.

‘What happened to my papa after he got the cross? What was his Accosta family epiphany?’

There are two pictures hanging in Nana’s hallway. The first is of my papa in his dive at St Kilda beach, the second is of him and George with arms slung around each other.

‘Well,’ Nana began, ‘He climbed up out of the water clutching that cross, shook the hands of the bishops, who put a little golden cross on a chain around his neck. He posed so I could take a photo of him and George, and then he let his brother kiss the cross… ’

Nana started stroking my hair, her fingers untangling the damp knots.

‘…and then he felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around to see a pretty girl with green eyes smiling at him. He smiled back, and she asked if she could kiss the cross too, for good luck, but he must have misheard or else been very clever, because he leaned forward and kissed her instead.’

I thought of that photo of my papa, right after he got the cross and didn’t even know that my mama was the epiphany waiting for him, and I suddenly wasn’t so sure if I wanted an epiphany. They seemed very tricky things.

three crosses

Christmas came and went, and isn’t even worth talking about because we celebrated in hospital. But more importantly, Fota day came in the days after.

I started liking that word better – Fota – because it sounded something like fate.

three crosses

There must have been a hundred of us intending to dive for the cross. And twice that many crowded on the pier to watch. I was one of the last to arrive, on account of needing to sneak out of the house without waking George.

I had to walk past all the lined up divers before taking my place closest to the bishops, and next to Henry Theologidis, who had many scowls for me.

‘Girls can’t dive!’ Henry huffed next to me, but I ignored him.

The bishops wore sunglasses and white vestments, with creeping blue vines on their lapels. They sang hymns and said prayers as the pier moaned beneath us.

I looked out at the rolling waves and the crowded beach. I squinted my eyes against the sun. I knew the hymns must be ending and the tossing of the cross beginning, because Henry started crouching low and making chicken wings of his arms – elbowing me and his cousin next to him (who I made a mental note to avoid, lest he bellyflop on me). With everyone crouched so low I could see where Mr Savalas stood, ten men down from me. His wishbone legs were bouncing and he was bringing his palms together in prayer, so I did the same.

A cheer went up, the cross whizzed over our heads to splash in the water and the pier let out a mighty groan as one hundred men leapt off …

And I dived a perfect arc.

three crosses

I do not know what an epiphany feels like, which should be some clue to you that I did not get the cross (but neither did Henry, thanks to good old Mr Savalas!)

But I know how I felt when I called Uncle George to come get me and take me to see Nana. He didn’t even yell because I’d snuck out of the house and dived with the holy piranhas, or because I got the seat wet when I climbed into his car.

Maybe it wasn’t fota, or an epiphany, but climbing into Nana’s bed and telling her that I dived in the Blessing of the Waters felt pretty darn good.

It felt like home.

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