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meet the winners of the 2020 rachel funari prize for fiction: 1st place, “swampy” by emily white

Emily White (Image: Supplied)

Emily White’s story, Swampy won the 2020 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here’s a Q&A with Emily, plus their award-winning story!


Congratulations on winning this year’s RFP for Fiction, Emily! Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
I am Emily White, advocate for ecofeminism and a high fibre diet, and I am an emerging writer based in Naarm/Melbourne.

What do you think makes a great short story?
If it’s gay, I will probably like it.

What’s your writing process? Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’?
I am definitely a plotter. I think in to-do lists and flow charts. My writing process is more about getting my mind and body to sync up so I can get in the zone and not think about all the other things I need to do. For me, the best time to write is before I get out of bed in the morning, and keep writing until I get so sweaty that I have to stop because I’m too stinky.

When you’re working on something new, what comes first: the character(s), the setting, or the story? Or is it something else entirely?
I think it’s something different every time. But it’s usually a thought that makes me laugh.

How do you know when one of your stories is ready to be sent out into the world?
When I read it back and it makes me sweaty, that’s usually when I’ll start sending it out. For some people it’s blood, sweat and tears. For me, apparently, it’s just sweat.

Writers are often told to ‘write what they know’. Do you agree?
‘Write what you know’ is a good place to start, but that’s not to say write only what you know. If you want to know something, try and write about that thing – you’ll be forced to learn (in a good way).

Swampy tackles some very real-world issues – misogyny, transphobia, intersexism – in a particularly unique way. What inspired you to write Swampy, firstly, and secondly, what motivated you to approach the social critiques inherent in the story in a work of fiction as opposed to non-fiction/an essay?
I think it came from a desire to delight in the disgusting. The thing about being assigned female at birth is that people can hold femininity above you like a threat. If you refuse to take part, or try but fail, you’re at risk of being labelled disgusting. I wrote The Scientists as being obsessed with Swamp Monster’s genitals because our society is obsessed with genitals. People feel entitled to know what your genitals look like, and can get very angry if they can’t tell just from looking at you. People colour code their infants based on what their genitals look like. And they take it so seriously! So seriously in fact that it results in violence. And while non-fiction writing about these issues is very much needed, I chose to tell this story as a piece of speculative ecofeminist fiction because it’s not a story about me, the story is me playing a game.

What’s the first story you remember writing? Tell us about it.
When I was in year 2, I made a bet with a friend to see who could write the longest story over the school holidays. I wrote The Honey Bird, the story of a young girl who finds a honeyeater with a broken wing and nurses it back to health (based on a true story! I found the bird but a responsible adult took it to the vet). When we got back to school my friend had forgotten all about our challenge and so I won by default.

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 Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. The premise is basically “all the men are dead, and we’re starting to think being gay and doing witchcraft is a good idea.” Would recommend.

I’m currently reading Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe. If you’re coming to this book from a place of white privilege, like I am, it will help you question the stereotypes you were taught in school about Indigenous societies, and realise the extent of the destruction that colonialism has wrought on this land and its people – and make you wonder why we aren’t listening to them in the face of capitalism-induced climate change.

My TBR pile is a mess but I recently pre-ordered My Tidda, My Sister by Marlee Silva, so I’ll be reading that when it comes out in September.

What is your earliest literary memory? Did you have any favourite books or authors growing up?
I think the first proper book I ever read was Ruby the Red Fairy by Daisy Meadows. My friend told me her mum’s conspiracy that Daisy Meadows wasn’t a real person, and the books were actually pumped out by a bunch of different people. I still think about that sometimes.

Why did you enter this year’s Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
When I saw that the theme was ‘future’, it was a bit of a light bulb moment – I thought, I have something for that! I wasn’t sure if Swampy would be very ‘publishable’, since it’s so heavy on the formatting, so I’m glad I could find a home for it with this prize.

The Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction calls for stories by women and non-binary writers. What’s your view on diverse representation in publishing?
I’m into it. It’s kind of refreshing to see ‘non-binary’ in a heading that’s not an opinion piece or an educational resource. And with this latest wave of momentum for the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of readers have been calling on publishers to bring them more stories by a diverse range of writers. It’s encouraging to see those publishers finally start to listen to Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour more broadly. That being said, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

As you know, this year’s Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction theme was ‘future’. How do you feel about the future right now? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?
Oh I am very pessimistic. Climate anxiety contains a very specific form of grief and dread, and I haven’t been able to calm down for years. We’re at the point now where the pandemic has proven even to people who weren’t paying attention, that capitalism doesn’t work. If we let things ‘go back to normal’, we will live through the most destructive period of human history.

Where do you hope to see yourself, and your writing, in 10 years’ time? What’s your ultimate publishing goal?
I would love to write a novel and get it published.

If you could invite three literary figures to dinner, who would they be, and why?
Stephen King and George R.R. Martin, so I could sit them down and give them a powerpoint presentation about how gravity works on breasts. And then the third one would be J.K. Rowling, but she wouldn’t technically be a guest, because we would cook her and eat her.

Where can people follow your work? (publications, social media, etc)
You can find me on my Facebook page, Twitter, and in the spirit of pandemic-inspired hobbies, I also recently started a bookstagram if you want to hear more of my squishy thoughts about books.


Editor’s note: Emily’s story is heavily formatted and so, to maintain its integrity, we have decided not to attempt to reproduce it.

To read Swampy, please click here.

The sponsors and supporters of the 2020 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction (L-R: Lip, Scribe Publications, Pan Macmillan Australia, Writing NSW, Emerging Writers’ Festival, Writers Victoria, Kill Your Darlings, Fremantle Press, Affirm Press)

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