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meet the winners of the 2016 rachel funari prize for fiction: 3rd place, “la otra” by laura elvery

Image: Supplied

Image: Supplied

Laura Elvery’s story, La Otra, won 3rd place in the 2016 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here is an interview with Laura, plus her award-winning story!

*

Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
I’m a writer and PhD researcher from Brisbane.

What do you think it takes to win an award-winning story?
Mostly, I guess it’s about coming up with a story I really want to tell. I think knowing who the judges are is important, and which stories have done well in the past. If there’s a theme, then trying to approach the theme in an unusual way might be a good starting point. I try to begin early (which doesn’t always happen) so I can get a few drafts done and ask for edits from my writers’ group.

Where do you write?
Ideas and plot outlines go into my notebook by hand, so that can be anywhere. First draft will be typed – maybe at my computer at work, or my laptop at the dining table or the state library. Never in a small room. Never without wi-fi.

What inspires your work?
This story came about in pretty typical fashion for me: two or three ideas smooshed together. Years ago I made a note of a news article from 1914 about Mary Richardson vandalising the Rokeby Venus. When I decided to write an entry for the Rachel Funari Prize, this idea came to me, but demanded a new setting and characters. La Otra is set in Brisbane, and part of it occurs along a grassed area of Southbank where I go running. I knew I wanted to write about a group of high school girls doing something destructive, so the note about the Rokeby Venus and this familiar space where a piece of public art might exist came together.

Why did you enter the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
This is the third year in a row I’ve entered, and the first time I’ve gotten the nod. Those two other stories have made their way elsewhere, so I aim to treat competitions as a push to write a new story. I’ve admired the judges and writers on the Rachel Funari Prize shortlists in previous years. I think it’s a terrific prize and I’m really grateful to receive third place.

What does ‘Other’ mean to you?
In writing La Otra I wanted to focus on the feeling of being under someone’s gaze. I think young women, like Sarah in my story, are observed and scrutinised in a way that can be upsetting. They may feel very visible. And, I’m no expert, but I was interested in representations of women in art, and how they’re looked at differently and as different.

 

La Otra

Sarah, Monique, Henrietta and Tess pulled aprons and pots of paintbrushes from the store cupboard. Ms Farrell called the roll and fielded questions from her nineteen year 12 students as they moved through the Art studio hefting portfolios and papier mâché busts of Frida Kahlo. Yes, Ms Farrell was coming to their upcoming formal. No, she was not going to wear a dress. No, she would not be getting her hair and makeup done. Yes, she thought the whole thing was a bit ridiculous. Yes, yes, her love for her students outweighed any politico-social concerns she had about the Australian high school formal industrial complex. But for now, girls: Art.

The eighty-minute class moved gently. Sarah called Ms Farrell over.

‘Miss, what do you think? I’m trying to revoke the power of the male gaze by subverting the perspective of The Birth of Venus.’

Ms Farrell nodded, took the paintbrush from her number one student, and added some texture to Venus’s tendrils.

Monique, Ms Farrell’s second-best student, immaculately groomed, impossibly perfumed, leant her head on Tess’s shoulder and said, ‘I’m going to miss Art the most. I don’t know what I’ll do without it.’

Ms Farrell smiled warmly. She took Monique’s portfolio from her hands and flicked through its pages.

‘I’m going to miss you, Miss,’ said Henrietta, Ms Farrell’s eighth best student. Henrietta’s triptych based on representations of weaponry in The Hunger Games had sold particularly well at the school auction in term three. Someone’s father, probably Henrietta’s, probably a barrister, bought it unframed to hang in his offices at Waterfront Place. Loudly, over a plastic goblet of unwooded chardonnay, he declared Henrietta’s effort entitled Arrows+Other Arsenal to be a ‘remarkable cohesion of feminist iconography and really, really great line work’.

Ms Farrell assured Henrietta that she would miss her, and all the girls, after graduation. When the bell rang at the end of class – their penultimate class together – Ms Farrell’s students gathered in close. With charcoaled knuckles and clay-stuck fingernails, the girls patted her pale, soft, wrinkle-pleated arms.

‘Till next time, till next time,’ Ms Farrell said. ‘And if you don’t wash your brushes properly, I kill you.’

The girls’ laughter twirled above their heads. It was first period and they lingered in the warm room. Outside, the school’s brand new kiln fired ceramics projects in the docile sun.

Finally, the girls hung up their aprons and waved as they walked out onto the verandah, one by one. ‘Bye, Ms Farrell.’

Their teacher raised her voice. ‘Sarah? Monique, Henrietta, Tess? Can you stay for moment?’

‘Yes, Miss,’ they chorused.

‘I will write you all late notes for period two. I have something in mind for my first, second, eighth and sixteenth best students.’

They all looked at Tess kindly.

They settled on four stools in front of Ms Farrell’s laptop. She turned off the lights and hit a key on her computer.

‘I was wondering if you’d heard of this man?’

Diego – no last name – was a Spanish-born artist who had been commissioned by the state to produce an artwork for the western boardwalk at South Bank. Ms Farrell tapped a few keys and a photograph appeared projected onto the whiteboard. She clasped her hands together and faced the girls.

‘He calls it La Otra.’

Sarah, Monique, Henrietta and Tess gasped. They were very late to their next class.

*

They decided on Sarah’s house because it was the closest to South Bank, and also the closest to the new liquid nitrogen ice-cream place they’d been meaning to try. Sarah’s mum buzzed Monique, Henrietta and Tess up to the apartment. They spilled out of the lift, all short denim and swinging hair. Their chests were criss-crossed with bags, like bandoliers.

‘My word,’ Sarah’s mum said. ‘Are you staying for the night, or for a month?’

‘Just the night, Mrs Birch.’ Henrietta patted her fat duffel bag. ‘So much homework.’

‘Good girl, Hen. You’ll be an opthamologist yet!’

They said yes please to Mrs Birch’s offer of fruit toast and Earl Grey. She’d leave the goodies outside Sarah’s door. Mrs Birch handed Tess a sticky note with the wi-fi password written on it, and told them to head on through to her daughter’s room.

It was dark. Monique turned on the light.

From inside, Sarah said, ‘Turn that off again, please?’ And Monique flicked the switch dutifully. The girls kissed hello and hugged beneath the pendant light and offloaded their luggage onto Sarah’s bed. Tess marvelled at Sarah’s scarlet formal dress hanging in her wardrobe. Monique said, ‘Hen’s got a new flame at the train station’, and Henrietta confessed everything: the part about the boy writing down the names of Hen’s favourite books and then the part about the boy copping a ticket from a TransLink inspector because he’d forgotten to tap his travel card.

‘He reckoned it was worth it,’ Monique said. ‘But I don’t think it was.’

They settled into a silence that was thrilled and expectant.

‘Okay?’ Sarah asked, and the trio nodded.

Sarah tapped on her laptop. Here was the photo Ms Farrell had emailed her. And here were another nine photographs that Sarah had taken this afternoon – on recon, she pointed out – of Diego’s sculpture by the Brisbane River.

La Otra, hey,’ Tess said. She slid off the bed and checked outside Sarah’s door for the tea, but came back empty-handed.

‘I’m appalled,’ Monique said. ‘And you know I love being appalled.’

Hen stood to address her best friends. She explained her thoughts as potentially reactionary, but no less valid because of their emotional sheen. She needed to weigh up the artist’s right to freedom of expression with a citizen’s right to police and resist that expression when the piece of art was imbued with so much fuckhoundedry.

There was a knock on the door. ‘Toast!’ Tess screamed.

In silence, they ate the toast and drank the tea. When it was time to go, they all ducked to the loo, then Monique stacked the plates for Mrs Birch. Sarah, Monique, Henrietta and Tess gathered their bags and balaclavas and they bunched together in the lift, four warm bodies breathing deeply. An installation of bravery in an air-conditioned metal cube.

*

In La Otra, Diego-no-last-name had created a functional bronze sculpture for the people of Brisbane. At the base of a grassy hill that led to the river, a life-size faceless woman perched on all fours on a low concrete plinth. She was round-bottomed, trophy-hipped, and aglow in the moonshine to be molested by ibises; naked but for the scent of the grass and the river that settled on the small of her back. A seat for someone. A bed for someone. A shining folly seen from above by a mother possum with bauble-eyes as she acrobated electrical wires with a baby on her back.

Sarah circled the sculpture, her second time here. She felt her own, transmitted version of Ms Farrell’s fury. From a young age Sarah had known the fever of male eyes on her; she thought it was as common as flowers. Sarah touched a hand to the crown of the woman’s scorched bister-brown head. A sign was bolted to the plinth. It read:

 Diego: La Otra (“The Other”)

Earlier, Ms Farrell had said Here when she unlocked the storeroom with the key she kept clipped to her waist. She turned her back as Sarah, Monique, Henrietta and Tess raided a metal cupboard for cans of spray paint, labelled with stickers of the school logo.

Monique set her bag on the grass. She wondered aloud about sitting on the sculpture.

‘I shouldn’t though, should I.’

‘Probably not,’ Henrietta said. She tossed Monique a can of purple spray paint.

A can of green in her hand, Tess tried to choke back nervous giggles. Sarah pulled a balaclava out of her duffel bag, and then a hammer. A jogger listened to his headphones as he shuffled past on the path below the sculpture, oblivious to the hammer, oblivious to the girls.

Monique watched him leave. She shook her can of paint. The marble rattled in its throat. Sarah made dents with her hammer and Monique and Hen and Tess ran loops around the plinth to tinsel the burnished woman with white, green and purple.

‘Hey!’ a voice called out. ‘Stop there.’ A security guard fondled a swinging torch light down over grass, over river.

‘Go, go,’ Sarah called.

She thought of Mary Richardson and the photograph of the Rokeby Venus that Ms Farrell had also shown them. She thought of Mary’s little axe, hidden in a suffragette’s sleeve. Such pleasing slashes on the glass, on the canvas. Mary Richardson trying to scramble away through the gallery, a fever at her throat. Sarah raced towards her friends, and her feet pounded the wooden boardwalk all the way home.

*

Sunshine Gardens had called the school formal committee with bad news about the drop-off zone out the front of the marquee. Due to earthworks, nothing larger than a four-wheel-drive would be permitted to deliver students to the waiting crowds on the night of the formal. No limousines. No hummers. No decommissioned fire engines.

The girls in Ms Farrell’s period four Art class were taking it well.

‘Probably better for the environment.’

‘Just showing off, anyway.’

‘Less is more, right, Ms Farrell?’

Ms Farrell looked up from the buttery slab of clay she was slicing into strips with wire.

‘I agree wholeheartedly. Lovely work going on here, girls.’

As she glanced around the studio, she made eye contact with Sarah at the opposite table. Sarah, Monique, Henrietta and Tess hadn’t yet found the chance to talk to Ms Farrell alone. The destruction of La Otra was complete.

Sarah nodded deliberately.

Ms Farrell’s lips parted. She mouthed, Very good. She raised her voice to the whole class.

‘Please remember to staple your—’

A voice came over the PA system.

‘Would the following year 12 students please come to the office to see Mr Young …’

As each of their names was read out by nice, asthmatic Jackie in the office, Sarah, Monique, Henrietta and Tess nodded and set down their tools. Not unusual for one or two students to be summoned. But four – and best friends, at the same time – was deeply curious. Scraps of gossip from their classmates rose around the classroom until Ms Farrell said, ‘All right, that’s enough. Sarah, Monique, Henrietta and Tess? We will clean up your things while you’re gone.’

Ah, Sarah thought. Their teacher, then, knew that they wouldn’t be back.

The principal’s office was down the steps and one building over with gazebos and gardenias around it. Beyond that the groundsman on the ride-on mower droned over scrolls of the green grass, and beyond that was the train station and the occupied freeway. Beyond that: South Bank. Beyond that: Spain.

‘Bye, Miss,’ Sarah said to Ms Farrell.

Out the verandah and down the steps into the courtyard, the girls walked two-by-two, arms resting on each other’s jacket sleeves or fingers meeting to touch in the swish of their skirts. Sarah recalled the scratch of the balaclava against her cheeks and the hammer in her hand and the wolfish yelp she gave as it swung. Nearing the principal’s office, Tess felt around in her pocket, pulled out a cigarette and dropped it into a bin. Past the canteen, Henrietta took off her glasses and held them up to the light. Here, some years ago, at this corner, she’d bitten into a pie and her final baby tooth had fallen out. Sarah looked at Monique’s red hair that quivered as she strode the final steps to the principal’s office, tendrils of it curling like perfumed Venus, newly-born.

 

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