meet the judges of the 2021 rachel funari prize for fiction: vivian pham
Over the next few weeks, we’ll introduce you to the incredible people who make up the judging panel of the 2021 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Today, meet author Vivian Pham.
The Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction calls for stories by women and non-binary writers. What’s your view on diverse representation in publishing?
When we think of diverse representation we often think of gender and race, but overlook how much of our identity and experience is determined by class. In my view, in spite of the many literary wins there have been from within particular communities, publishing remains a gated community and clings to a widespread contempt for the working class.
What comes to mind when you think of our 2021 theme, ‘homecoming’?
At this moment, what comes to mind is a scene in the Canadian television series, Anne With an E, when Bash and Gilbert arrive in Port of Spain. There is a bittersweetness in Bash’s face. He is proud to know this place; its people, their iridescence, their rhythm. But no one seems to recognise him.
What do you think makes a great short story?
As with a novel, confidence. Or maybe a better word would be sincerity. I think a great story wants to speak to you. It wants to tell you something. It’s not interested in playing hard to get or meeting you halfway; it’s knocking at your door. This calls to mind one of my favourite Stewart Lee quotes: “The most controversial thing you can do is be sincere in a world of irony.”
Tell us about your involvement with the International Congress of Youth Voices. What was that like?
It was very interesting – meeting people always is! I was able to travel to San Francisco for the Congress in 2018 and San Juan in 2019, which was an immense privilege. I met activists as young as 14 who were passionate about climate advocacy, prison abolition, gun reform, and each had a special connection to writing. I’m really glad to still be in touch with a few of them.
It’s an incredible accomplishment to write and publish a novel at all, let alone write a novel as a sixteen-year-old and subsequently spark a publishing bidding war. You wrote the first draft of your debut novel The Coconut Children at Sydney’s The Story Factory. Tell us a bit about your experience with the novella writing program. Did you go into it knowing you’d write this particular story?
The novella program was composed of Sunday mornings in a room at the Bankstown Arts Centre. The Coconut Children wouldn’t exist without The Story Factory’s Richard Short and Bilal Hafda, and Alison Lyssa, the world’s most wondrous volunteer. And if it did, I doubt it would be nearly as joyful.
Writing is often thought of as a solemn and solitary thing, soundlessly executed in the night – and sometimes it is – but a lot of it, for my first draft at least, required reading aloud to a group of strangers and seeing if any of the lines you intended to be funny earn even a snicker. And seeing those strangers transformed in your eyes, because now they know your most essential secret: that you write, or try to.
What’s your writing process? Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’? And do you begin with a story or a character?
The Coconut Children began with Vince. I wrote the book in 2018 and rewrote it in 2019 because almost every word of the first version irked me, but I never touched a word from the first paragraph of the first chapter. I still remember writing it because it’s the first time I imagined Vince.
I would keep notes whenever I went to Cabramatta and try to see things I hadn’t seen before. When I was stuck with a particular point in the story, I would try to rewrite it in a different form. For example, when the dialogue didn’t feel write I’d copy and paste the paragraph into a different document and change it to Courier font. When I was rewriting, I wrote some of my best when I approached the avalanching words the same way I would try to write poetry. Feeling adventurous, I’d ask myself what I might do to the English language that had never been done before.
Are there any writers you admire, or books you feel have influenced your work?
There are many! Frantz Fanon, Fernando Pessoa, P.G. Wodehouse, Alex Turner, Ingmar Bergman are a few examples. Not all are novelists, but each have composed some of the most surprising and intricate sentences I’ve ever read. Recently I’ve been listening to Blu & Exile and was taken by the line: “With no god but the light, I ignite”. But out of all the writers I admire, I only love James Baldwin.
What does a typical day look like for you?
The semester has begun again so I’ve been waking up early for class and listening to music on out-of-tune trains (note: please don’t steal this phrase, I’ll come back for it later). Not much writing has been happening. A typical day, at the moment, is composed of little things that make me feel as though I have a routine, such as drinking tea.
Let’s talk books. What’s the last book you read? What are you currently reading? And what’s on your TBR pile?
The last book I read was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I’m currently reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and What Fanon Said by Lewis Gordon. I’d like to read Dreamtigers by Jorge Luis Borges and the Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba series by Koyoharu Gotouge.
What is your earliest literary memory? And did you have any favourite books growing up?
My earliest literary memory is of watching movies with my older sister, Kim, and the hours afterwards when we would fuss over what every shot, gesture, and scrap of dialogue might mean. She taught me to see life cinematically and get pleasure from writing things down.
Growing up, I joyfully read anything written by Roald Dahl. I think I’d pick up most of my Dahl from the airport before a flight, which, looking back, was financially irresponsible and probably led to my family’s ruin.
What will you be looking for when judging the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
To use a phrase by the English aphorist Daniel Carrington, I will be looking for “the voice behind the voice”.
What does literary success look like to you?
Literary success looks like a very long email with no subject line from someone who is confident that your book has changed their life.
Entries for the 2021 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction close at 6pm on Friday 16th April 2021.
Submit stories up to 2000 words that engage with the theme ‘homecoming’. For all the details, please click here.