meet the winners of the 2017 rachel funari prize for fiction: highly commended, “the glass half” by emily clements
Emily Clements’ story, the glass half was Highly Commended in the 2017 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here’s a Q&A with Emily, plus her award-winning story!
Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
I’m a 24-year-old human-shaped axolotl thriving on a diet of chocolate and garlic. I work as an editor, closed captioner and am currently hacking my way through a memoir.
What do you think it takes to win an award-winning story?
Through editing, I read a lot of submissions and it’s amazing the sort of tropes that emerge in response to a set theme (Jung absolutely came up with the collective unconscious while working through the slush pile). Anything that’s different, that presents a new perspective or angle as yet unseen definitely has an advantage. I’d suggest taking the first thing that comes to mind and setting it on fire. Oh, and no gratuitous animal deaths.
Where do you write?
Not at home. I wrote the glass half in the food court at QV, which is open late and has next to no wifi – two things I always look for while dragging my laptop around the city (the third thing is coffee). Standing desks are awesome, also, because I’ve read too many infographics and the idea of sitting for hours is now terrifying.
What inspires your work? Particularly, what inspired you to write the glass half?
It feels weird to say ‘the work is inspired by…’ It more so happens that there’ll be an itch at the back of my brain and tapping away at the laptop is my way of scratching it. The itch behind the glass half was a podcast I listened to where a woman talked about her experience of the “loss” of weight loss. It was the first time I’d heard someone describe “successful” weight loss as something traumatic, irreversible and ultimately quite horrific. It really hammered home for me the interconnection between body and personality, and I wanted to play that out through fiction.
Let’s talk books. What’s the last book your read? What are you currently reading? And what’s on your TBR pile?
Let’s! I’m currently reading Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan and when that gets a bit overwhelming I flick back to Kelly Link’s short story collection Get in Trouble, which is also dark but in its own whimsical way. Before that I read In My Skin by Kate Holden and I’ve got a bunch of memoir-research in my TBR – The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen and The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy, whose essay Thanksgiving in Mongoliais justgut-wrenching and brilliant.
Why did you enter the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
I’ve been following the prize for a few years now and saw last year’s winner announced at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Recent figures from the Stella Prize are encouraging but there’s so much work still to be done in bridging the gap between women who write and women who have their writing acknowledged. Prizes like the Rachel Funari play a huge part in that, and its inclusion of non-binary writers sets an example that all competitions should follow. For me personally, to be shortlisted in such great company was hugely validating.
What does ‘rebirth’ mean to you?
I don’t know if I buy into there being such a thing as complete rebirth, of ever truly wiping the slate clean. To me, achieving rebirth is about as impossible metaphorically as it is physically – your own growth will always get in the way. So I take it as almost a negative, unnecessary thing to attempt, a regression, which is the view with which I shaped the story of Ruza’s bodily transformation; from the bones of the mother to the bones of the daughter, and all that flesh in-between.
the glass half
My mother was full. That’s what Dad would say, as in:
— Ruza, your mother is a full woman.
To me, my mother was strange pale eyes and skin like salted ham, legs like funnels pointing at the ground. Her dainty ankles at odds with her humongous thighs. My mother was arms that kept moving even when she’d stopped; she was chins that wagged merrily, like her face itself was laughing.
My mother, according to my father, was a Full Woman, though as a child I didn’t fully know what it meant. To me, it was the spark in Dad’s eyes, the red flare in Ma’s cheeks. It was warmth in the kitchen, with her hands gloved in flour and his curved at her hips. After a while, I decided that he meant love – full of love. Ma had opened her mouth and Dad had poured the love in, so now she was full.
It was years before I realised full meant fat.
When I was 14, fat was an obstacle. It was lumped in areas I did not want it lumped in – it jumped into my breasts and jumped out again just as fast, leaving them hanging flat against my chest. My buttocks puffed up behind me as suddenly as muffins in the oven. The fat slid into my hips and thighs, dripped from my jaw in a permanent flesh-beard. My fingers were fat. My calves stopped at my feet without the interruption of ankles. Even my toes seemed to push into each other, soft little toadstools sprouting inside my too-small sandals.
— What are you eating? my best friend Sharyn asked me, without malice.
It was more out of curiosity and a certain sense of self-preservation, as in, what shouldn’t I be eating?
— What I always have.
Then I would shrug, the tremors running down my body. Even as a surly adolescent, I never lost sight of the fact that Ma was a beautiful cook. Beetroot borscht, sublime stroganoff, perfectly pleated pierogi; for dessert, frosted citrus extravaganzas, baklava dripping in honey. Even lamingtons, once, for diversity. She studied cookbooks like religious texts and I studied her, became learned in the love she bathed me in.
— Don’t worry, Ruza, she’d say in her thick accent. You are just like me, beeg and beeyutiful.
And she would wrap her arms around my head and I would smile into the space where, lying beneath layers of lipids, her solar plexus was.
There was a bit of teasing at school but for the most part I was lucky. Sharyn had enough beauty for the both of us, and my body made me unsexed and unthreatening to both boys and girls. We grew a large friend group, people to whom I was funny, robust, daring and dangerous. People to whom I was myself.
This carried into university. I joined both feminist and food appreciation societies, wore loud clothes and wrote loud essays. We went dancing, where I was always the most ridiculous person in the room and loved it. A friend taught me popping and locking, and the meat on my bones just made the moves bigger, more impressive. I became a connoisseur of cocktails, wore sparkles, learned to draw little wings out from under my eyelids.
One night, I lost my virginity to a redheaded man much fatter than me. After he came he paused, mounted on my body. His knees were between mine, my feet relaxed and pointing to the corners of the room. He looked at me spread underneath him and after a moment he threw himself off me and into the pillow. His back-flesh jiggled as he sobbed broken-heartedly into the pillow. He stopped only long enough to point to the door.
I felt bad and almost sick but Sharyn told me it was almost certainly him, not me. I believed her. Shook my hair out, dyed it purple and chose lipsticks that would match my Doc Martens. Then came the men from my classes, who’d kiss me behind the pitted bricks and say
— Don’t tell anyone about this.
I started sort-of dating a tall blond who hid me from his mates and told his sister we were working on a group project. Who wouldn’t hold my hand or touch me unless there were (i) closed doors (ii) closed blinds (iii) closed eyes.
I read Greer I read Steinem I read Woolf I read Wollstonecraft – but their words turned from black to grey on the page until they faded entirely and I couldn’t seem to take them in. It didn’t help that when I Googled these women, they were all slender, their erudite minds fixed in bodies completely unlike my own.
In their place, other voices filtered in. Voices that didn’t speak in words but pictures, pictures I saw flickering in my television, pictures I saw in my favourite clothes blogs, pictures my sort-of boyfriend would slide towards me, cajoling. I shrunk away from my own loud essays, my words waning to whispers until even I didn’t believe what I was saying. The purple from my hair washed out and became grey. I stopped wearing lipstick, conscious of drawing attention to my face. The wings from my eyes folded back.
Then Ma died.
At the funeral, Dad and I held each other, his hands clutching mine in a way that was desperate and foreign. He seemed smaller than I’d ever seen him, sitting inside his skin as though it might fall away from him at any moment. I looked at the coffin and was struck through the heart with fear:
— What are you eating?
— What I always have.
I went home. I graduated university. I broke up with the blond.
Then, with the money my mother had left me, I went to the clinic. The doctor looked me up and down, made noises in his throat and drew his pen over his clipboard. He gave me a list, long as my thumb, of things I could eat and a list, long as my hand, of things I could not. Then he gave me the tablets. Potassium, serotonin, dopamine… and phentermine, chemically similar to speed.
Then there was energy. Energy like I’ve never felt it before. Nervous, anxious, biting energy. My apartment, once full of cheery clutter, faced a purge. I ran back and forth from the bins, hoisting plastic bags of trinkets and trifles and mould-spattered food. The place became sparse, empty.
Healthy, I told myself.
The kilos dropped like rotten fruit. Sometimes I imagined I could hear it; hear my body losing itself. The sound was a soft sucking in my ears at night, like pouring yoghurt down the sink. Ten kilos. Twenty kilos. Thirty, forty.
I went to the clinic in tears. I shucked my clothes and naked, showed the doctor how my skin stretched away from me, handfuls of it hanging like something to be harvested. The doctor drew his pen over my body this time, a dotted outline along which he and them would cut and shift and pull and sew back together again. First, a circumferential body lift. A 15-centimetre belt of skin, an incision that wrapped my entire waist. I told Dad about it, much later. He said he thought that’s what they did to trees when they wanted them to die.
Next, they cut from knees to groin and took as much as they could. They were very strict about the healing. I sat in a room by myself for a month, my legs spread as the skin gingerly grew over. Looking at the stitches running up my thighs like seams, there was a flash in my mind of Ma’s thighs, big and billowing beneath her floral swimming skirts. It was too much. I stood, wiping my eyes.
The incision split. I screamed. I bent to look, and it ripped further. Skin like cloth.
I called the doctor, my fingers shaking with shock. His voice was distant and full of static, as though he’d put me on speaker.
— No, I can’t come now. We can’t move you, there’d be more risk of infection. Don’t worry, it will heal. How long did you say it was? Four centimetres, that’s fine. Just stuff it with some more gauze. Do you have plenty of Panadol?’
I called Sharyn. She was at my apartment in five minutes. The pain was so bad all I could do was lie back on the bed, naked from the waist down. Her mouth set in a grim line, Sharyn shoved her sleeves up to her elbows and got to work. Through the window drifted a scent almost like stroganoff, and it made me want to cry.
A few years later, I got married. To fit in the dress I wanted, I upped my dose of phentermine. Off the books, of course. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a prescription. White lace sleeves hid my underarm scars. My thinning hair pinned under a headpiece that wouldn’t have looked out of place on one of Ma’s cakes.
Far-flung family and friends came to the ceremony; they gathered around me afterward, smiling and touching my shoulders.
— You look great, they said.
— You look like a new person, they said.
This made me flinch and it’s still stuck in my mind. Last month, someone at work told me
— You know, I just can’t stand fat people.
There was a chubby woman walking past, gorgeous in burgundy, and she glanced at me. And I smiled but not at her. And I kept talking to the man who hated fat people. And we took the train together, as we do every day now.
I think of old Ruza, who would have snarled and told him well, she couldn’t stand thin people. I think of old Ruza, who would have chased after the woman in burgundy and demanded to know where she’d bought her skirt and asked her out for coffee sometime. I think of old Ruza and it makes me afraid of new Ruza, who speaks softer and laughs with her mouth closed and is not as kind as she used to be.
My husband is handsome; even Dad said so. We don’t talk as much anymore and I avoid visiting. It’s the look in his eyes when he takes in all the empty space where my body used to be. A Full Woman, he used to call my mother, with pride. I turn to look at my husband, gathered up in the corner of our olive-green sofa, and wonder if he would consider me a Full Woman. He fell in love with me after the phentermine and the little scales I weigh my food with and the scissors and needles that spliced me up and left half of me in a bucket below the operating table.
— But this is the real you, he assures me.
— How do you know that?
— Because. You’re happier this way.
— No, no I’m not.
He looks wounded.
— Why, babe?
My heart, fat as it has always been, is uncomfortable in my chest.
— It wasn’t like I was…
And I think of:
my mother with flour up to her elbows
my mother with smiling pale eyes and wobbling chins
my mother with her beaming smile and
her food her food her food
spread between us
made with all her love poured out from her full body and into ours —
her way of showing us
she loved us
and what am I without it?
Then I close her down and put her away and I look at the man who married me not for who I am but for who I am now. He squeezes my hand and then looks away.
After a while I push myself from our olive-green couch and mete myself some more phentermine, for my next dress, for my next interview, for my next, for my next, for my next.