meet the judges of the 2023 rachel funari prize for fiction: sara el sayed
Over the next few weeks, we’ll introduce you to the incredible people who make up the judging panel of the 2023 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Today, meet writer Sara El Sayed.
Your debut memoir, Muddy People is, for the most part, about your family and your experiences growing up Arab in south-east Queensland. What did you find most challenging about writing the story (and memoir more broadly)? Conversely, what came a bit easier for you?
Writing memoir generally is quite challenging as it requires you to tell a story about yourself, with enough distance to be able to craft the story, but enough closeness to tap into some emotional depth. I found it tricky to be honest about myself at times. What helped was approaching the project by thinking about my narrator as separate from myself as a person – thinking of myself as a character. That made things a lot easier. What came easily for me, easier than I expected, was handling people’s reactions to the book. I thought I would be really sensitive to the opinions of strangers, particularly critical ones, but I’ve been able to manage that better than I expected. I came to the realisation that the only opinions I truly cared about were those of my family, and so everyone else’s reactions paled in comparison!
Take us through your writing process. What kind of planning goes into writing a book like Muddy People?
I started by writing short stories about moments with my family members, and then thinking about how these shorter stories could form part of a broader narrative. At first, I pieced them together chronologically, but it didn’t feel quite right. I then decided to rethink the structure and centre the story around the relationship I have with each of my parents, which led to the alternating chapters flashing back to an earlier childhood moment, and then forward to a closer-to-now moment with my mother or father.
What’s the most valuable writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Don’t be precious!
Can you recall the first thing you ever wrote? If so, can you tell us about it?
The first thing I remember writing (only because I found it a few years ago in a diary) was a story about an anthropomorphic pineapple named Spike who lost his job at the tire factory because he kept popping the tires with his spikes.
The Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction calls for stories by women and non-binary writers. What’s your view on diverse representation in publishing? What comes to mind when you think of our 2023 theme, ‘revolt’? And what do you think makes a great short story?
For some people, sharing stories of their authentic selves can be an act of revolt. I think a great short story, and a great story more broadly, has to come from a real place from within its author. Even when it comes to fiction, the best stories are rooted in lived experience. When we hear more from those whose stories have historically been silenced, erased, or regulated, it sheds a brighter light on who we really are as a community, and how we can be better.
Let’s talk books. What’s the last book you read? What are you currently reading? And what’s on your TBR pile?
I recently re-read Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi and it reminded me of why writing and the sharing of stories is so important, particularly to bring to light the atrocities that face women.
Is there a writer (or writers!) you admire or books that have influenced your work?
Definitely too many to count, but to stick to authors who made and continue to make a big impact on me: Randa Abdel Fattah, Michael Mohammed Ahmed, and Winnie Dunn.
What is your earliest literary memory? And did you have any favourite books growing up?
My earliest literary memory is reading books in the local library with my grandma. My favourite books as a child would have to be Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracy Beaker series. I was obsessed!
What will you be looking for when judging the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
Good characters. Emotional impact. And enough space between the lines for the imagination.
Entries for 2023 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction close at 9pm on Friday 21st April, 2023. Submit stories up to 2000 words that engage with the theme ‘revolt’. Visit https://lipmag.com/about/the-rachel-funari-prize-for-fiction/ for all the details.