meet the winners of the 2016 rachel funari prize for fiction: 1st place, “one hundred and fifty seconds” by katy warner
Katy Warner’s story, One Hundred and Fifty Seconds, won 1st place in the 2016 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here is an interview with Katy, plus her award-winning story!
Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
I am a playwright, sometimes actor and writer based in Melbourne. I grew up in Perth and moved east about seven years ago to study acting at the VCA. Somehow acting turned into playwriting and I wound up with a Master of Writing for Performance. I am currently working on a new play for Melbourne Fringe and am about to embark on the writing of my first novel.
What do you think it takes to write an award-winning story?
Just write it, actually finish it, check your spelling and submit it. You never know what will appeal to that particular judge on that particular day, so just write with your own, unique voice and meet that deadline. Then forget it and move onto the next story. In the past I’d been tempted to try and second-guess the judges – read their work, read past winners, try and figure out what sort of aesthetic they like, blah, blah, blah. Don’t do it. Just be yourself and write what you write in the way that you write it.
Where do you write?
Wherever and whenever I can. My lumpy armchair, the library, cafes, at work on my lunch break, the park. I have an old desk I should probably use more than I do…
What inspires your work?
I think it is just that desire to tell or share a story. I have a tendency to be a little shy and I think writing helps me feel like I have a voice.
It’s probably a really predictable answer but I am, of course, inspired by reading great writing. There is nothing quite like losing yourself in a book. I hope I can create that for a reader one day. I love poetry even if I can’t write it. I find real inspiration in the rhythm and patterns and repetitions and symbolism in poetic works. My experience in theatre is a real inspiration for my writing – I like discovering and playing with the voices of characters really different from myself. Maybe it is my introverted version of being an actor?
Why did you enter the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
The Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction is a well-respected prize due to its association with Lip Magazine, the quality of the judges and, of course, Rachel Funari herself. This is an important prize; not only for its generous awards but more than that. It is important for its celebration of women writers, voices and stories. This is a prize that celebrates and promotes equality and diversity. This is a prize I want to write to and for.
I wrote the short story specifically for entry to the prize. I think the very nature of the Rachel Funari Prize made me feel supported and safe to write a piece like this; the narrator’s voice is a tad confronting and I was challenged throughout the process of writing her. I never imagined I would win – it has been a real boost to my confidence. I cannot thank Lip Magazine enough for the honour. I am so very grateful.
What does ‘Other’ mean to you?
I get kind of angry when I watch news programs and Q&A and things like that. I can never understand how someone, say, for example, Peter Dutton sleeps at night or how this government can justify their actions, particularly in relation to off-shore detention and asylum-seekers. I remember complaining to my Mum about it, about how plain wrong they are. ‘But they think they’re right. In their eyes, you are the wrong one,’ she told me. That always stayed with me. How could these people actually believe what they are doing is right? Since when is compassion and empathy wrong?
They are my other. And I am theirs.
I was interested in exploring that mindset, which I consider as ‘other’ – someone lacking compassion and empathy. The voice in my story is my idea of ‘other’ and through her point of view we see her version of ‘other’ – the vulnerable minority and the compassionate colleague.
You recently donated some of your prize money. Tell us about that.
One Hundred and Fifty Seconds is set in a fictionalised but all too real refugee detention centre. A hybrid, I suppose, of Nauru and Manus. With this in mind, it seemed only right, and fitting, to give some of the prize money to the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre. I have always been a supporter of ASRC but this prize gave me to the opportunity to donate more than I usually could afford. ASRC is a vital organisation full of people working tirelessly to make a difference. I admire and appreciate all the work they do and this was a small way to offer some support.
One Hundred and Fifty Seconds
We were helping. That’s why we were there. I told her that. We’re helping, I said, but she didn’t hear me or she didn’t care. Probably both. She was like that. I was used to it by then.
At first it drove me insane, mad, crazy. Like this lot, here, with their head-banging and cutting and nail scratching craziness. Drove me insane. She did. I’d say, why aren’t you listening? I’d say, there’ll be a pop quiz at the end of this. I’d say, hello hello hello anyone home? But she didn’t care. She knew she was listening. She didn’t need to prove it to anyone. I could admire that. Eventually. But, like I said, at first it drove me crazy.
We were standing outside the shower block. We had to stand there, just in case. Showers were a place where things happened. Naked people. Hot water. Blood runs quicker in the shower. Things happened. In the past. Not anymore because we stood there now and we watched and we waited. A presence. That’s when she said what’s the fucking point? And it took me by surprise because she rarely spoke and she never swore. Never. Or maybe she did and I just didn’t notice because her words all tended to be grunts of agreement or disagreement. Over the months I had learnt to recognise both – The Yes and The No. But not at first.
At first I just thought she was always disagreeing. That she might have been one of those people they’d describe as “contrary”. I sang her that song, that nursery rhyme. Mary, Mary, quite contrary. I sang badly but it usually made people laugh. She didn’t laugh. She rarely laughed. Unless she was playing with the kids. Then she was a different person. The kids liked her. The mothers liked her. She learnt some broken words from some of the languages even though I said don’t, don’t do it, you’ll make it too easy, you’ll give them a false sense of security, an expectation, you know? She stared at me for a bit and I smiled at her and she said what kind of expectation, even though she rarely asked questions. She was not a question asker. I’d written that in her report. I’d also written that she becomes a different person when she is with them. They found that interesting. Interesting, they said. Tell us more, they said but there wasn’t any more to tell. Not them. Not then.
I explained because I always had to explain that nothing could be promised to these arrivals, that we could not encourage them to expect anything. These women and these children. We couldn’t get their hopes up. We were here to help that process, to help them understand that life isn’t any easier here, life is not easy, go home where you are understood, where you should be. We’re helping, I told her. And that’s when I couldn’t tell if she hadn’t heard me or didn’t care.
The showers were a boring job to be honest but I was good at it. I was strict. I timed them, mentally, as soon as I heard the first drop of water fall. I counted. Kept time in my head. I could keep time, in my head, even as I held a conversation. I could be talking away and I would know, yep, one minute has passed. Multitasking. Mental multitasking. Not many people can do that. Anyway, I would keep time, in my head, on shower block duty. Two and a half minutes. One hundred and fifty seconds. That was enough. It really was. After two and a half minutes I’d turn off the water and sometimes they’d yell out and I’d shout watch it and she’d roll her eyes and turn the water back on and call out something in that language. Something soft and cooing, which I’d try to remember for my next report. But I never knew how to spell that stuff. What letters could capture that sound?
I explained to her, as I always did, that you can do everything you could possibly need to do in the shower in two and a half minutes. I’d experimented at home. It was possible. It wasn’t inhumane. It was responsible and better for the environment. Of course.
Home was also where I’d practised my timing skills. I’d set the timer on my mobile phone and turn away from the screen and count in my head. One hippopotamus, two hippopotamus… I got good. I’d impersonate the beep of the alarm in time with the timer. Then I started to practise how to keep time while I watched my shows or ironed my shirts or dried the dishes. Not that I watched a lot of television. Not that I had a lot of dishes to dry. But I did iron my shirts. I was proud of my shirts, with the company’s logo, the world resting in the palm of a hand, embroidered on the pocket. It meant safety. It meant peace. It meant protection. It said that too, in scrawly letters under the logo. Safety dot Peace dot Protection. I’d point that out to her from time to time, when she said crazy things like what’s the fucking point. Safety, Peace, Protection, I’d say and run my finger across her shirt pocket. She’d stepped away from me. I’d invited her to dinner once but she said no. No reason or excuse. Just no. I respected that.
I’d been at the Centre for a few years before she came along. It was the first of the new Centres built to deal with the onslaught of these arrivals. The old Centres were overflowing because the top half of the world was breaking. It was splitting itself apart. So they got out. I think I’d stay and fight. Isn’t that what you do? When you love your country? I asked her that once and she grunted. I thought it was yes but now, maybe, maybe it was one of her no grunts. I can’t remember.
The Centre was no longer new when she started working with me and neither was I. I’d watched arrivals come in and sit down and wait for something that was never going to happen and then be taken away again. There’d be someone new in their place in an instant. They all looked so similar I’d only realise they were new because of their numbers. 83037 became 10651. Same face. Same look in the eye.
She didn’t call them by the numbers they’d been given. She learnt names. She spoke from the back of her throat when she said them, rolled her tongue, and I said she sounded like a retard and she shook her head. I explained the numbers were for their own safety and we’re helping. She shook her head again and went off to join in with a ball game some of the kids were playing. I wondered where they got the ball and did a random check on Block E. They shouted at me because they always shouted at me as I looked under mattresses and inside pillows. I messed up the room a little and told them to clean it up. They always looked so bored and I’d given them something to do. I was helping.
She was still playing some ball game with the kids. Dust fogging up at their feet. Tangled bodies. I couldn’t follow what they were doing, couldn’t understand the rules of the game. Now I think of it, I don’t think there were any. She was never good at rules, she would forget them or bend them, ever so slightly, and I was constantly reminding her. She’d just shrug her shoulders or squeeze her eyes shut very tightly for a second and then continue like I wasn’t even there. That was the problem. I should have written that down somewhere, told someone. There seemed to be no rules to this game so I shouted out towards them, what are the rules but they were laughing with those shrill, alien laughs that they couldn’t hear me or didn’t care. Probably both.
And then they all stopped.
We all heard the scream. It cut through everything. Like the low, haunting wail of the Code Four siren but not quite. Worse. Because this was human. Human but not quite human.
I could hear them running behind me as I approached the shower block. It was off-limits at that time of day. There was a set period of time for showers. Seven to seven forty five. We were strict on that. It was for their own safety, of course. So we could be there, of course. So things like this wouldn’t happen. Of course. They could not be trusted.
She caught up with a sea of little faces and long limbs hovering behind her. She said nothing so I yelled at them all to move back, move back and I motioned to the taser gun because that always helps in these situations. They understand the taser.
We went in together. The two of us. I gave her a wink but she was blank and I’m sure she was shaking. Or maybe that was me.
The small body had a small cord wrapped around its small neck. The cord was attached to the tap. The small body was slumped, awkwardly. Not quite standing, not quite sitting, not quite hanging. It was still. The larger body swayed back and forth and up and down and wailed and screamed and hit and pulled and fell down. I started keeping time in my head.
I think she said fucking snap out of it. I think she cut the wire away. I think she laid the small body on the shower floor. I think she pressed its chest. I think she shouted for back up. I think she hit me across the face and spat at me and pushed me and kicked at me. I think her face was streaked with tears and snot and sweat.
I think she gathered them together. The women and the children. They were her people after all. They understood each other with their thick, harsh voices and their lack of rules. She said what’s the fucking point but I didn’t hear her or didn’t care. Probably both. And they tore down the Centre with their fists and their teeth and their wails. Like a mad hurricane. All of them. Her and them when I’d thought it was us and them. Them and Us.
And I stood in the shower block, my black boots on the damp concrete floor, and I kept time. In my head. In my head.