meet the winners of the 2019 rachel funari prize for fiction: 2nd place, “the body remembers” by rae white
Rae White’s story, The Body Remembers, placed second in the 2019 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here’s a Q&A with Rae, plus their award-winning story!
Congratulations on placing 2nd in this year’s RFP for Fiction, Rae! Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
I’m a non-binary writer (primarily a poet) and I edit the journal #EnbyLife for non-binary and gender diverse creatives (enbylife.net).
What do you think makes a great short story?
The succinct and unique execution of a great idea, which I suppose could also be said of poetry.
Your poetry collection, Milk Teeth (UQP, 2018) has been out in the world for a year now. (Congrats!) Do you have a different process for writing poetry than you do for writing short fiction?
Thank you so much! I definitely find myself writing slightly differently with short fiction, more carefully perhaps, and with more redrafting. I find short stories more difficult to write than I do poetry. And in the end I always end up merging the two together – my short stories are always layered with poetry or poetic devices.
When you’re working on something new, what comes first: the character(s) or the story?
Probably the story or at the very least, a glimmer of an idea for a story, which I then tease out into a plot with characters and conflict.
How do you know when one of your stories or poems is ready to be sent out into the world?
Hmm that’s an interesting question. I don’t think any piece of my work is ever perfect or fully complete. I see a lot of my work as fluid – something that is editable and moldable and could, if I chose, always be in flux. So I send out my work when I’m mostly happy with it – when it reads well and sounds good in that moment.
Writers are often told to ‘write what they know’. Do you agree?
I think it’s great for writers to write what’s important to them but if they’re going to write on a topic or from the point of view of a group they’re not familiar with, it’s so crucial to research and also hire a sensitivity reader. It’s also important to check your privileges and ask yourself: why do I want to write this story? Would this story be better served if it were written by someone else?
What (or who) inspires your work? Particularly, what inspired you to write The Body Remembers?
Usually the flicker of a weird little idea in my head, perhaps based on something I witnessed or heard, that I then expand into a poem or story. In the case of The Body Remembers, my Dad told me a story about my Grandma, who went to the doctor with a weird growth on her skin. She was an avid gardener. You can see where this is going. So The Body Remembers was based on that but also, in the end, not about her at all. The grandparent in the story is nameless and genderless, so the reader can project what they want or need onto the character. I took a fragment of familial non-fiction, weaved in characters and plot slivers and poetic devices, and massaged it into fiction.
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 Isabel Galleymore’s poetry collection Significant Other, which looks at the hearts and intimacies of different species, and the kinship and difference between our desires and theirs. I’m currently reading Axis Book 2 by a. j. carruthers, which is the second installment of his lifelong long poem. As for my TBR pile, it’s towering and chaotic, but I am keen to read Kindred: 12 Queer #LoveOzYA Stories.
What book/poem/short story do you wish you’d written, and why?
Hmm… I’ve often been overwhelmed with the beauty of a piece of work but I’m not sure I’ve ever seriously wished I wrote it. My work is such a product, fictional or otherwise, of my own self, that I can’t imagine writing something of someone else’s, even if it’s a piece of work that speaks to me at my core. But perhaps that will change one day!
Why did you enter this year’s Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
The theme really inspired me and made me think about fragmented memory and it’s relation to the body. I couldn’t get the concept out of my head, so I feverishly wrote the story on my phone one early morning (!) and entered it into the prize. I honestly wasn’t expecting to be shortlisted, far less place second!
What does this year’s theme, ‘fragments’ mean to you?
In The Body Remembers this theme is reflected in the fragmentation of memory and how those memories are recaptured and reclaimed by the body: the fractured self as snippets of recollection and body-memory.
Where do you hope to see yourself, and your writing, in 10 years’ time? What’s your ultimate publishing goal?
Ooh! I’d love to have a young adult book published by then, maybe even an award-winning one! I also want to see how much I can experiment with poetry and writing in that time. There’s so much to explore and so many rules to break!
What’s the best (or, perhaps, the worst) writing advice you’ve been given?
The worst? Any advice that involves the strict following of rules (as I’m sure you can determine from my last answer!). I think it’s important for writers to educate themselves on grammar and punctuation and all that, but once you’ve got that sorted, experiment and find your voice. This is one of the things I love about poetry: the freedom to explore and mess with rules and form. Wanna format your poem into columns and leave out punctuation entirely? Go for it!
Where can people follow your work?
My poetry collection Milk Teeth is available in all good book stores and online. You can follow my work at raewhite.net or on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. I also have an Etsy store and Patreon if you wanna throw cash my way!
The Body Remembers
Your words are spliced and springing half-form from your slim-line mouth: Pink gutters. Clogged walls. Lichen lichen blanket. We don’t have the cruelty to wake you and tell you the house on Pearl St no longer exists, pink-painted walls knocked down in the ’90s to make space for a high rise. It’s okay, we chitter like a chorus of budgerigars. We pull the stiff standard-issue blanket up to your neck; tuck it neatly behind your shoulder bones. It’s okay.
Pearl parrot. Pink
bones. Painted painted
Whenever I visit, it’s the same. Your hips shift and the chair groans and you gaze at me with a gentle inquisitiveness. Who are you? I’m a friend, just a friend. We take watered down tea and nibbles of pale tacky biscuits. We talk about the sunshine that basks across the floor and toasts your slippered feet. Sometimes you tell me I have biscuit crumbs in my beard. Sometimes you tell me your partner, who passed away two years ago, will be delighted to meet me. And sometimes you look at me with quizzical love, like the dark warmth of your mind is trying to pull curled discarded fragments of thread apart from one another. Like at any moment you could say, Wait, I know you! Instead it always ends this way: I have a granddaughter just like you.
Sunshine crumbs. Toast
fragments. Discard discard
You remind me of her. When I think on it too hard, when the night is stale and I’ve had too much wine, I think it’s the r sound that breaks me. Her is so close to he. Yet far enough for the rolling murmuring drag of the r to get under my skin and itch like mosquito bites. The body has a way of remembering. My skin feels red with words, with seeping lumps and husked craters. I look in the mirror and see only a pale non-binary boy, skin flaking with lichen-like dandruff. Not a red mark to be seen.
Mosquito skin. Husked
wine. Mirror mirror
Your skin wasn’t always thin to touch, soft and bruised like month-old apples. You once played handball like a badass, beating me and Dad almost every time. Remember that time you fell over while testing out my new birthday skateboard? I panicked and it felt like a baby bird was fluttering in my heart space, but you sprang back up off the concrete and gave me a gleeful thumbs up.
Birthday apples. Bruised
bird. Fluttering fluttering
The lichen, you murmur, head bobbing toward your shoulder, face lagging in sleep. The lichen shouldn’t be on the carpet … carpet pumpkin! I hold my mouth closed with my palm and try not to blurt out a giggle. Soon you’re sleeping heavily, body weight sinking into the chair. I use a small cushion to prop up your neck so you don’t get a headache. I kiss the top of your head and I’m hit with flecks of nostalgia. I miss your thick dark hair and the smell of your pomegranate shampoo. Today you smell of sandpaper and wet earth.
Pumpkin sleep. Sandpaper
headache. Pomegranate pomegranate
I don’t feel seen, I tell my therapist. She’s sitting opposite me with hairy legs crossed and a notebook on her lap. How so? I consider this as I sit in her bright office, blinking sun strobes from my eyes. I feel like I’m coming out every single day of my life. I bunch my sweaty hands together and avoid talking about the lichen. You and I often chat slowly about Pearl St and warm afternoons and drink pomegranate tea but recently, it always comes back to mossy glimpses on gravestones and tree stumps.
Sweaty eyes. Gravestone
tree. Lichen lichen
It’s like in Pearl St, you say, the trees were painted. With a shivering hand, you point outside to the balcony, painted dull green and devoid of plants. Do you mean the walls were painted? I remember trying to graffiti the salmon walls with stickers and rainbows of crayons. Perhaps I was always going to be an artist. No, you say and lisped spittle sings out your mouth and onto your jumper. Painted. Painted in lichen.
Graffiti green. Salmon
rainbows. Painted painted
Dad tells me it can happen. The fixation on a word, a topic, the repetition. A fragmented memory like a scratch in a record, jittering on a loop. I look outside the restaurant window and the road is slick with rain, street lights splashing glass-blown colours of green and grey all over the bitumen, all over the cars and the people. Half of one person’s face is cut through with sharp bright lime. How long? I ask. He hesitates, lips hovering over his beer glass and I can see his neck a concave illusion through the almost-empty glass. Until someone has another fixation, I suppose. He knows it’s not exactly what I meant.
Jittering grey. Fragmented
lime. Splashing splashing
You were always the most supportive but also the most forgetful. Shhh … he. Oh I’m sorry honey. It was sweet to know you were trying, especially when you were forgetting so many other things to completion. Like walking out of your sunlit salmon kitchen, leaving toast and tea burning and steeping. The yellow soap dish was swampy, the tea was cold and thick, your jumpers were crisp with stains. But you always said my name fully, each syllable mouthed to completion.
Honey stains. Sunlit
syllable. Salmon salmon
Your mouth bites slowly around the toast stacked with cream cheese and salmon. You chew gently, eyes smiling. You love when I visit for lunch at the canteen. As you fumble for your water glass, your sleeve skids up your arm and I notice a huge green bruise, freckled with sunspots and creamy white. How did you get that? I ask. The glass tips and shatters and water swims all over the lime green tablecloth. A person opposite us jolts as water trickles over their yellow dress. There’s a commotion and I forget to ask again.
Freckled green. Yellow
bruises. Trickle trickle
The next day we walk across the old rasping footbridge. The stagnant water is glassy and stale, only rippling when a fish darts beneath the surface. Is this a swamp? you ask. I consider the dark green depths and watch a lily pad waver in the breeze. I guess it could be, I say and I lean my torso over the edge. My hands press damp wood; my hands clutch moss and lichen.
Rasping swamp. Stagnant
moss. Waver waver
Dad calls me on the phone, his voice low-pitched and haunted, his whole question an echo. Son, he says and my heart space ripples with pride. Son, do you think lichen can grow on a person?
Haunted heart. Ripple
pitch. Echo echo eyes.
We’re no doctors, but we know lichen on a tree stump or gravestone when we see one. It looks the same on a person. You’re bejeweled with mottled green-grey flecks, larger patches of pearly growth tattooed on your arms and neck. Your skin looks soft and sooty like moth wings. Your eyes and mouth are both smiling at me like your body remembers something I don’t.
I know you,
I have a grandson