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meet the winners of the 2015 rachel funari prize for fiction: 3rd place, “excerpts” by ali zayaan

Photo: Supplied

Photo: Supplied

Ali Zayaan’s story, ‘Excerpts’ won 3rd place in the 2015 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here is an interview with Ali, plus his award-winning story!

Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
I study Econ and Politics at Adelaide Uni. I love writing like I have loved very few things ever in life but I don’t do enough of it and I feel constant low-level guilt slash impostor syndrome about that. I follow both catspotting and cool fun cat group on Facebook and waste a lot of time on BuzzFeed. I don’t feel too strongly one way or the other about long walks on the beach.

What do you think it takes to write an award-winning story?
Well, I’m not really sure, because third place in the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction is the only award-winning story I’ve ever produced. I do notice that the lit world’s diversity problem extends to which stories win awards, and it’s not because minority writers aren’t producing great work but because a lot of people in the lit world- their frame of reference is very aligned with a certain history of literature, very linear and Western Canon, and that influences what fiction is considered good fiction and what writing is considered good prose. It’s not very constructivist at all when arguably it should be, because storytelling and narratives are such universal ways of making sense of life and English is such a universal language, and in that context a lot of the judging of good fiction and good prose is so limited.

I personally think that there should have been a moratorium on literary short stories about a white man in a dead-end job having an affair with his student where he can’t get it up and he’s disillusioned by life so he masturbates in the shower – there’s always one or two profanities tossed in because it’s edgy – what, 15 years ago. But I still see variations of that all the time, in print, winning things. And I see vibrant, colourful, original stories from the perspectives of women and people of colour and lgbtqia+ people mostly concentrated in publications that get described as “niche” or “radical” or “special-interest” or somehow in opposition to the mainstream. Like Lip.

So, yeah, I don’t have much that’s helpful on what it’d take to write an award-winning story. I do have an opinion on what it should take, and that is: really really good, original writing that makes you feel things, because while there are a lot of distant and cerebral stories that are so beautiful, I do think that the emphasis on rather detached and cerebral writing as opposed to colour and emotions and politics, which comes from this idea that the former is more pure than the latter, is limiting. (It’s definitely a constraint when trying to write fiction capturing the realities of those of us whose everyday existence is political, and I also suspect that the distrust of openly emotional writing is similar to the kind of subtle lit sexism that considers romance or chick-lit or novels about women’s domestic lives frivolous but the minutiae of middle-aged men’s everyday lives literature).

Where do you write?
I’d like to say I write at home, in my bed, but I’m also really unproductive at home and end up doing most of my writing when I’m visiting people and staying somewhere different.

Why did you enter the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
I liked the theme and the description of the kind of stories they wanted (for the reasons mentioned earlier), and the info on the panel of judges sounded really cool.

What does privilege mean to you?
Privilege is having things you don’t have to think about and that you can get away with not thinking about. This applies in so many ways, of course, and a lot of them are covered thoroughly elsewhere. But what I think is important in this context is being able to be a blank slate because your identity is the default, the norm, and thus a non-entity: people fill in the blanks about you with new things they learn about you through your self-expression, through what you tell them and how you present yourself and your sense of humour and your social media profile. Not everyone gets that privilege. People talk about representation in numbers: a lot of writers, directors, actors, characters are white, straight, male, but it’s more than just that. It’s perspectives, and who gets allowed natural self-expression. What Laura Mulvey said about the male gaze and women looking at themselves through the eyes of men – that, as male, and as white, and as straight and cisgender, and so on.

When, say, you’re a bisexual brown woman, something as simple as wearing a shirt out somewhere can be like: am I making a statement about my sexuality by wearing plaid as opposed to a blouse? Am I implicitly condoning lite racism by not ever wearing traditional clothes when I’m out and am I just validating the idea that non-Western dress and traditions are something to be ashamed of? Do I dress like this because I want to present a certain way or because I just fucking like this shirt?

And on some level you feel that second-guessing about everything, from your accent to your interests to who you date to what you study to your beliefs: do I speak in a neutral accent because I don’t like people making presumptions about where I’m from, or because foreign accents are seen as uneducated or funny, and am I condoning that belief by being smart and articulate in a neutral accent? Do I date white people because I end up meeting more of them living in Australia, or because Eurocentric beauty ideals have been drummed into me? If I’m atheist, will that be taken as an intelligent brown person implicitly condoning the racism of a lot of New Atheism public figureheads/did I stay religious because I believe or because being part of this is an important cultural and group identity thing for me? It ends up seeping through into how you express yourself – how you speak, how you dress, how you write.

We’re often told, implicitly and explicitly, that our readers will be the default white and straight and male – Junot Diaz’s article on this, ‘MFA vs POC’, is great –that the only universal fiction is in that perspective and that to write for a different audience from that makes your work “niche”, demonstrates insecurity or a lack of ambition, and so on. (No matter that ‘minorities’ are a majority of readers, and have long been able to understand and empathise with white straight male perspectives in stories, even while those are different experiences from ours –  the reverse would be asking too much). And trying to make sense of your life and seek out understanding through someone else’s perspective doesn’t really allow for free, natural self-expression.

Privilege would be the freedom to express yourself without modulation or self-censorship, and to have that expression taken seriously and understood.

 

Excerpts

oracle, storyteller, narrator

She goes about her writing with a snarling ferocity, all hard hooks and uppercuts, bleeding over the keys until she’s all dried out, and then she goes and sits outside in cold that nips at her arms, that drills into her bones and aches, in cold wind that hurts, because visceral pain is good. It’s tangible, the kind of anchor she needs to remind herself that she’s real. She sits on the steps and windblown leaves eddy at her feet, rich thick reds and browns and yellows, frayed at the tips into fractals, frayed leaves falling from frayed naked trees. She’s made up of stories, she thinks, and she’s not quite sure where they end and she begins, so she’s not quite sure if she’s all real.

She’s not sure what the stories are. The stories fill her up and start to press against her skin, feeling for the seams; if she couldn’t write she felt like she’d have to exorcise them, dig up the veins on her arms with a scalpel to let the stories out.

Most of her stories don’t feature her. Sometimes they feel like letters she writes to herself, in the second or third person because she needs to keep her distance, but most of the time they feel like something greater, something she channels like a medium, like some hyphenated third-culture-millennial tribal storyteller. They’re snapshots, usually, of people that aren’t her, though they most likely are her, of course, versions of her, but she does sometimes wonder if around her Adelaide is full of the people she writes. She wonders if she’s ever seen any of them on the train.

a day in the life

You’ve seen enough movies to know how it goes. The handsome white man and the pretty white woman end up together, and the handsome white man saves the day, and the pretty white people do all sorts of things.

Sometimes you get to be a best friend who has some decent one-liners, but just as often the handsome white man rescues you and in return for being saved from those evil men the same colour as you, of course, you give yourself to him, breasts heaving, voice husky and meek and slightly inflected. Or you’re in a sitcom and you get a minor storyline where your parents call you and their accents are not husky and slightly inflected, of course, but it’s all very funny.

That, or you’re a poverty-porn star, and you get to be an inspiring slumdog, and everything is very bright and oversaturated, like you’re seeing it all through the cheap yellow sunglasses being peddled by those poor, poor children, god bless their souls.

Once, for your creative writing class, you read a short story about two brown people in love or maybe not in love, and after you’d read it out loud your tutor asked you, but how would the majority of your audience relate to it? You understand the implication: your experiences are niche, white stories are universal.

You don’t really care, you want to say. You couldn’t give less of a fuck because that’s not who you are writing for is it, you’re writing for people like you who never get to read about people like them. You’re more diplomatic, though. A lot of us reading these stories aren’t white, or straight, or men, you say, but we’re expected to be able to empathise with them, so is it too much to ask that white people be able to identify with me? Can’t you slip into our skins like we slip, every day, into yours?

The girl across you in class looks scandalised, and everyone gets very defensive, and it feels pointless to try press home your point, so you give it up, because you’re fucking tired. Living in colour is fucking exhausting. You write plenty of ambiguity into the rest of your stories, colour never explicitly stated.

Later you’ll submit those stories to journals, and never get one in. Sometimes you nurse your suspicions, and sometimes you feel like you’re making excuses, that you’re just not good enough, but you’ve read the stories in those journals enough to make a list that you now check off with every new issue. Middle-aged white man, check, dead end job, check, labyrinthine sentences, check, masturbation and/or unsatisfying sexual experience, check, existential apathy, check.

Serious short fiction is soul-crushing, you see, and conservative. It only flirts with edginess. Ruffling feathers or being entertaining is the domain of lowbrow art. Race and class diversity is for the underground. You can learn to embrace that. You’re a certain cosmopolitan archetype now: the smart, political woman of colour, polite, diplomatic, endlessly patient, but with controlled rage that could fuel a dying star. Women who speak clipped English with only the faintest hint of their original accents, because they’ve had it drummed into them that a woman speaking in thick native accents don’t get taken seriously, sharply dressed women, obsessively aware of what presentation lets a woman actually be taken seriously; women proud enough to hate that they have to speak white and dress white, and ask things politely of white men. You’ve got bitterness folded up inside you like samurai steel.

You really like this one white girl in your comparative politics class and you feel vaguely guilty about it because you want to be fiercely proud, you want to be defiant, and feeling dry-mouthed and nervous when the thin blonde girl with a campus hoodie sits down next to you at lectures feels the exact opposite of that.

You feel vaguely guilty that you don’t really like any Hindi music, but you listen to a lot of Kanye West and you bought all of M.I.A’s CDs, and you’ve actually read Edward Said and everything Jhumpa Lahiri or Warsan Shire ever wrote, and although you’ve only seen like six Bollywood films you loved Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na and that makes you feel kinda legit. You know how to make three kinds of curry, and that’s a perfectly healthy amount of pride, you think. You can’t help who you like, even though you only talk occasionally and you don’t even have her number and it’s all very embarrassing and you’re pretty sure she’s straight anyway, though she did compliment your hair once. You don’t see why it’s a statement anyway. You can’t help who you like. You can’t help who fills you with a longing that physically hurts.

You go to get-togethers and huge family dinners with people from over the community every fortnight or so, and you talk awkwardly to the one other boy your age there while all your relatives and his don’t even bother with subtlety and whisper to each other across the room.

Sometimes the two of you go out and you talk about things and he almost gets it, he feels out of place, just as stuck between worlds, he knows even less Bollywood movies than you do and you’re pretty sure he’s also besotted with a pretty white girl in one of his classes, though of course he’d never say that, just as you’d never mention the pretty blonde girl from politics. You’re not remotely romantically interested in each other, but he gets it, and so do you, so you sit through movies lightly stroking each other’s hands, then arms, letting him run his fingertips lightly fake-absently up the side of your thighs, and then you go out to the parking lot and make out with him up against the wall.

You always wear button-up blouses when you go out with him, and he notices but pretends not to notice because you both like to pretend each time is spontaneous and unplanned, but this means he can undo your buttons with one hand as you press your mouth into his, and when your blouse is open you push his head down, tell him he can’t kiss your neck because you can’t go home with visible hickeys, shiver because it hurts but you feel glorious, kinda.

Sometimes if you’re feeling it you push your hands into his pants and touch him a bit but you can’t make him cum cos he has to go home. Things have never actually gone all the way to sex. The mood usually wears off after a while. You put him in your mouth once but then you kinda didn’t feel it anymore so you stopped, and the both of you got dressed and left. You suspect that if either of you actually lived alone you’d probably have fucked by now, if only because you’d be able to go on longer in a bedroom before the mood just faded than you could in parking lots at 11pm, in winter where every kissed spot burns with the cold after the warmth of his mouth has left it. You think it’s a little sad that convenience has ultimately become the deciding factor for if you’ve had sex, because you’ve still never had sex. It feels like the deciding element should be something a little more… highbrow, like you should decide and plan it, plan out a day, but you never really feel the mood in advance.

Your mum smirks while asking you how your date went, every time you come back home. You’re pretty sure she thinks this is a chaste courtship that will eventually end in a proposal, and that’s easier than explaining hooking up, or coming out, or discussing sex with your parents at all. So you protest enough to convince her she’s spot on and you go lock your room behind you, examine your body in the mirror, the blotchy red marks, and you turn the lights off, change into your loosest shirt, and go to sleep.

prose politics polemics

i.
Written during a creative writing class on the inside of the notebook:

I’m so sick of ‘rich, sensuous’ Asian novels with lush descriptions of colours and spices and sticky sweetmeats. I refuse to conform. Why does any book set in the continent have to be full of colours and odours and sounds, anyway? Establishment Western literary canon gets a whole range of styles, I will be as sparse or colloquial as I fucking want, and fuck you if you think you’ll stop me. I don’t need to be exotic and full-colour, I’ll run the gamut from Faulkner through Lahiri to fucking Hemingway or avant-garde postmodernist bullshit if I want, Christ

ii.
Diary entry:

I don’t know how I can tell one story. I don’t know if there is such a thing as a single story, the concept is alien to me, I don’t know why, I don’t know if it’s because I am so full of stories that my blood feels thick with it. I don’t know if that’s ambition. I want to be the Fitzgerald of the third-culture internet-age diaspora. Telling one story is too easy, my story is no more important than any others, we’re all equally fascinating and we’re all equally voiceless, I want to tell our stories, I want to write a novel that is all our stories at once, somehow. Is that possible? Should I really be aiming for any less?

iii.
When a boy asked me what I most wanted:

I want someone to read me and cry. Is that ridiculous?

Well-
It sounds morbid- I don’t mean because they’re sad. I want them to recognise something, I want them to cry because they’ve found a home.

That’s what it’s always been. I never knew why it was so important, but I think I’ve figured it out. Why I write, why I need my vicious, bitter, self-loathing fucking self on paper, why I fucking need people to read and to give a shit. I’ve realised that what I want, above all else, is to be known.

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