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meet the winners: miranda mae debeljakovic, “chops and potatoes” and q & a

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Miranda Mae Debeljakovic’s story “Chops and Potatoes” won Lip‘s 2014 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here is an interview with Miranda, plus her award-winning story. Enjoy!

 

Q & A

Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?

Hello! I’m Miranda, and I’m currently in my second year of a BFA, majoring in Creative and Professional Writing at the Queensland University of Technology. I was born in Fremantle, WA, and then moved to the nation’s capital when I was almost seven. I now live in a big old creaky Queenslander with four friends (a PT, a barman, a nutritionist and a saleswoman) in the middle of steamy Brisbane. I like running, playing water polo, writing strong women, dancing like I’ve got no bones and cuddling my blue heeler puppy, Minty.

 

What do you think it takes to write an award-winning story?

My best writing always comes from a really strong sense of place. My friend Alex and I took a road trip up the Queensland coast in June last year, and from that time I knew I wanted to set ‘Chops and Potatoes’ on a sugarcane farm, even if I wasn’t sure what was going to happen in it yet. I think that a great story should communicate to the reader a feeling, message or concept in a beautiful and original way. For me, once I know what that feeling, message or concept is, the rest comes pretty easily. But getting that first good idea can be a struggle.

 

Why did you enter the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?

I entered the Rachel Funari prize after my best friend told me about it (thanks Gracie!). I realised that ‘Chops and Potatoes’ fit beautifully with the theme of identity, and the ideology behind Lip and the prize itself really appealed to me. I think that women’s voices are hugely underrepresented in fiction still, and I love that this prize and magazine are about foregrounding women and their stories.

 

What does the term “women’s stories” mean to you?

The term means so much to me, because it is the primary concern of every single thing I write, regardless of whether that’s my intention or not. I’m a woman, and I write stories, and therefore the stories I write are women’s stories (right?!). I’m obsessed with power in relationships, particular male-female relationships, and I try to always give the women in my stories the power. Through their words of course, but more importantly through their actions.

 

How do you plan to spend your prizemoney?

My prize money will be a huge boost towards my savings for a trip to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam that Alex and I are planning for later this year. We want to travel rough, do a heap of soul-searching, meet some interesting people, possibly volunteer, and hopefully be inspired to write about it all!

 

Chops and Potatoes

Our Dad’s a Vet. That’s what I heard my teacher Mrs. Lindsay telling our principal Mr. Malcolm when I got in trouble for punching Ray Carter because he called my sister a slag. I didn’t get it at first, because we had no animals and Dad didn’t wear a flat hat or carry a bag and he wasn’t on TV like Doctor Harry.

And then I asked my sister Ally, and she told me that Vet was short for Veteran, which meant that Dad had been a soldier. He was in a war in a place called Vi-het-narm where there’s loads of jungle and it’s really hot, hotter than here. And all the people have slanty eyes like Keiko from school but not exactly because Keiko is Japanese. She brings sticky little balls of rice to school for lunch and one time she gave me one and there was tuna inside. It was delicious. Not like the sandwiches my sister Ally makes us, scrapes of vegemite and slabs of cheese inside dry bread. She’s trying to be a mum but she’s not really good at it yet. The slices of cheese need to be thinner and she needs to buy some butter. I should probably tell her.

Ally is sitting across from me now, with her earphones from her Walkman in and some homework papers in front of her. She bops her head in time to her music and chews on the end of her pencil. When she opens her mouth I can see the black paint off the pencil in little flakes on her tongue. She scrapes her bare feet along the floorboards and tickles my arches with her toes. I pull my feet away and tell her to take her headphones out. She mouths, ‘what?’ even though I know she can hear me. She motions to her ears and then shakes her head. I frown. She gives me a big goofy smile, her teeth so white against her tanned face.

‘What?’ Ally asks, after she pulls the headphones out. I can still hear the music coming from them when they’re lying on the table. It’s The Doors. We only own three tapes and one of them is Times Tables that I’m supposed to listen to but I never do. Ally always listens to Best of the Doors or Best of Bob Marley. She bought them at the tip for twenty cents.

‘You need to buy some butter,’ I say.

Ally raises her sun-stained eyebrows at me, ‘what?’

‘You keep forgetting to buy it. And vegemite without butter in a sandwich is feral.’

‘Far out, squirt,’ she says. But then she bites her lip and runs her eyes over the kitchen to her left. There are thick rings of grease on the stovetop and a troop of ants march from the window, over the lino bench and down to where there’s something brown and sticky on the floor. The onions in the bowl are sprouting little shoots. Cookbooks with yellow stains and bent covers that we never use pile up next to the stove. Ally pulls on her ear and then leans down to scratch her leg, ‘alright mate. I’ll get some butter.’

‘Mum always put heaps on.’

Ally’s face scrunches into itself like a crumpled paper bag and she breathes out hard. I feel bad. Her blue eyes have big circles under them that look like squishy, purple storm clouds. I’m about to offer to walk all the way to the shop in Bundy, when we hear the boom-boom of workman’s boots coming up the back steps to the deck. The kitchen door swings open and Dad strides in, his steps making the kitchen floor shudder. He looks over to where Ally and I are sitting at the table and runs his eyes from me to her, ‘who’s cooking tonight?’

‘Me,’ says Ally.

‘What’ve you got?’

‘Chops and potatoes.’

Dad grunts and falls hard into a chair. He leans down to unlace his boots as the door lurches open again. I don’t turn around this time because I know who it is from Ally’s reaction. She sits up straighter in her chair, runs a hand through her knotted straw-blond hair, and moves her knees apart. I hear the squelch of sweat as her thighs unstick.

‘Hi girls,’ says Pat. He leans over to ruffle my hair. His fingers rain dust into my eyes and I have to brush it away. Dad finishes taking off his boots and chucks them onto the deck. Pat does the same, and I wonder, like I always do, how the pads of his feet can be so soft and pink, when the rest of him is so dark. Dad takes a Fourex from the fridge and gives it to Pat, and then takes one for himself, ‘come on mate’ he says, ‘leave ’em to their letters.’

Dad leaves the room but Pat stays. He looks over at Ally, who stares down at the numbers on the blue-ruled page. He walks over to her, turns her chin towards him, and runs a calloused thumb over her lips, pulling the bottom one away from the top. I look from one of them to the other, the quiet broken by the buzz of cicadas and Jim Morrison’s tinny voice from Ally’s headphones. Then Dad calls from the living room, ‘Jesus mate, I thought you wanted to watch this!’

Pat takes a sip of beer and then leaves. Ally won’t look at me and her neck and chest are red. She might be about to cry. She gets up from the table and walks out the door and I know from the way her feet patter-patter that she starts to run as soon as she’s outside. In my head I follow her down the back stairs, across the gravel courtyard and then over the grass, treading the double lines made by tires between the two cane fields, and towards the ridge.

I stay at the table and eat some crackers and draw title pages for my books, which was our homework for this week. Pat and Dad come in every now and then to get more beer. When Pat comes he looks over my shoulder at what I’m doing, sometimes he says something but other times he just looks and breathes. Dad asks me where Ally is and then after that he doesn’t talk to me. When they go back to watch the footy I hear Pat’s voice from the living room get louder and louder and his laugh sounds like a cross between a chainsaw and a dog barking.

Dad doesn’t get loud when he’s drunk, he gets quiet and he twitches and sometimes he breaks things if someone makes him angry.

When Dad comes in again he’s blinking too much like there’s something in his eye, and he’s not swaying but his hands are shaking and so are his knees and his ankles. He stares at me as he opens the fridge and takes a beer out.

‘Where’s your sister?’

I shrug and keep my eyes on the map of the world I’m trying to draw, but I can’t remember what’s above Africa or where Japan goes. I hear a few metallic clicks and a thud and Dad grunts in frustration. And then I look up and there’s a can of beer on the table in front of me right on top of China. I tap it three times on the top and flick the tab open and Dad grabs it and slurps all the fizz. He looks at me. He’s all red and his eyes, which are normally the colour of a swimming pool with sunlight through them, are blurry and bloodshot.

We both stay silent and down the corridor we hear Pat weeing in the toilet, it’s fast and loud like a horse. He stumbles into the kitchen, fiddling with his shorts, ‘right,’ he says, ‘Cunt of a game wasn’t it?’ He asks Dad.

‘Oops,’ he looks at me, ‘sorry littlie.’ He pats me on the head. ‘I’m off, Jake,’ says Pat and goes to shake Dad’s hand but Dad looks away and sucks on his beer.

‘Bye, chick,’ he says to me and strides out the door, letting it bang shut behind him. It’s still warm but starting to get dark and the air is thick and moist like the bathroom after a shower. I get up so I can watch the sun go down over the cane fields from the window above the sink, but when I’m there Dad grabs my arm so tight that I can’t get away.

‘Where’s your sister?’

He’s asking like he already knows, but he’s scared about what I might say.

‘Where is she?’

He’s holding his can in one hand and my arm in the other and I can feel that his whole body is shaking and it’s making me shake too.

‘I don’t know! She ran off, ’cause Pat upset her.’

Dad’s breath is coming so hard out of his nose that I can feel it on my face, the scar on his cheek glows white in the dimness of the kitchen and I’m not scared of him. He’s just broken.

‘Go and find her,’ he says, and lets me go.

I walk out under a sky that looks like unwashed bedsheets tinged with blue. I hear a car start up somewhere and birds going screech-screech and one that sounds like a siren going bloop-bloop. I walk the tracks between the fields and the cane rises high on either side of me and welcomes me in like the walls of a cave.

This was the way we came when me and Ally went looking for Mum that day. She used to always run away to the ridge or the shed, the same as Ally does now. She did it when Dad broke an ornament or said something about how he saw a guy in Narm with his guts hanging out and his head cut off.

We looked and looked, and pushed our way through some of the cane to see if Mum was hiding, but she wasn’t there. And Ally hiked up to the ridge in bare feet and shorts and she scraped her knees all dry and bloody but she still didn’t find her. She yelled at me because I didn’t go with her, and then she yelled at me because I was the last one who was with Mum and I should’ve seen where she went. And then I told Ally that Mum had said she was going to the shops in the car and then she came back but I hadn’t seen her after that because I’d been talking to Keiko on the phone.

So we went to the shed to check the car and it was still running and Mum was asleep in the front seat, and it was all foggy inside and she was listening to The Doors tape, and it was on “Waiting for the sun” which was my favourite, but she wasn’t singing along because she was sleeping. I just stood there while Ally opened all the doors of the car and told me to go and get Dad and Mum slithered out of the front seat like a ragdoll, like her arms and legs didn’t work anymore.

Ally didn’t talk to me for three weeks.

I’ve made it to the shed now and it’s getting quite dark so it’s spooky, but I know what all the looming shapes are because I’ve been in here so many times. There’s the combine and the transporter and Dad’s truck that he uses to get around and make sure everyone who is working is doing the right thing. There are lots of places to hide and things to hide in if you don’t want anyone to find you. Last week after I punched Ray Carter, Ally slapped me and called me stupid and we both cried. So I ran in here and crawled into a crack and no one found me for three hours and it made me feel powerful.

There’s a loft in the shed, where Dad keeps the old equipment that they don’t use anymore, and some old tarps and ropes and things like that. I can hear rustling, and it might be a mouse or mice but it sounds a bit too heavy, and it might be Ally so I climb up the stair ladder and poke my head out the top. I can’t see much at first because it is gloomy, but then I make out shapes of rusty machines and crates and in the corner on an old blue tarp is something with softer edges, moving up and down with a squelching noise that sounds like it’s not supposed to be heard. And there’s the sound of breathing, private breathing, like when you hear someone asleep but scarier.

A last bit of light comes in the window and catches the corn-coloured streaks in Ally’s hair. She’s breathing hard with her eyes closed and her chin tipped back and Pat is holding her and his black head is pressed into her white chest and he’s pushing her hard into the tarp. I don’t know if I should help her or if she wants to be helped or if I should try and kill Pat because that’s what I feel like doing, or if I should leave them to it, and not tell anyone. My head races and it’s like there’s a tornado inside it mixing up all my thoughts and not letting me think straight and my heart is trying to rip itself out of my body and Ally opens her eyes and looks right at me over Pat’s shoulder and I turn around and I run.

I run and run and run and run and run.

And I hide.

And I hope that no one ever finds me.

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