meet the winners of the 2021 rachel funari prize for fiction: 1st place, “lady finger” by keshe chow
Keshe Chow’s story, Lady Finger, won the 2021 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here’s a Q&A with Keshe, plus her award-winning story!
Congratulations on winning this year’s RFP for Fiction, Keshe! Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
In my day job, I’m a veterinarian – I’m actually a cat specialist! I was born in Malaysia but moved to Australia when I was two years old. Myself and my partner, my two kids and my two cats live in inner-city Melbourne. Life is pretty hectic so I do most of my writing late at night!
What led you to pursue this as a career? And how does your writing fit in with your day job?
It sounds so clichéd but I love animals, and always had a passion for animal welfare. So it seemed like a natural progression. Being a vet is actually pretty gruelling and can be all-consuming, so for many years I didn’t do anything creative. I only re-started creative writing again around 18 months ago, and it’s been really nice to use my brain in a different way.
What do you believe makes a great short story?
I don’t know if I’m qualified yet to answer this, because I’m still experimenting with my own style so much! I guess I’d say, something which makes you think, or feel, or perhaps even does both.
In Lady Finger, a young girl comes to terms with both the physical and emotional distance between herself and her grandmother upon return to her home country. What inspired you to write this particular story?
Being an immigrant, I never really knew my grandparents. The few times I was able to visit, there was a huge language barrier that made it difficult to communicate. My last remaining grandparent, my maternal grandmother, died the week my first child was born. So I wasn’t able to go to the funeral, and I hadn’t seen her in years. It’s a very specific type of grief, grieving for a family member you’re so disconnected from. So while it wasn’t my intention before I started, writing this story was cathartic. It was a way of distilling my own complicated feelings about being part of a diaspora onto the page.
When you’re working on something new, what comes first: the character(s), the setting, or the story? Or is it something else entirely?
It can be anything… but generally I walk around with snippets of a story running around in my head for days to weeks before I actually put any words on paper.
How do you know when one of your stories is ready to be sent out into the world?
That’s a tough question, because I feel like I pretty much never really know. Often, even after I’ve sent something off, I go back and find something I wish I’d tweaked! I have to distract myself by starting new projects all the time so I can lay the old ones to rest.
Writers are often told to ‘write what they know’. Do you agree with this advice? And how much of yourself and your own experiences – or those of the people you know – find their way into your fiction?
To a certain extent, there’s always going to be a mix of the known and unknown. Most of my writing involves some sort of fantastical or speculative element intertwined with depictions of real-life people and events. However, I do think at this point in time it’s important for under-represented voices to be able to tell their own stories, rather than having their stories monopolised. So from that perspective it’s better to write what you know.
How do you approach the editing process: is it an edit-as-you-go scenario, or do you allow yourself to write the ‘bad first draft’ first, and edit later?
I find it really freeing to not worry about the first draft and just get the words on the page! However, often the story has gone around and around in my head for a long time before I even start writing, so there’s a fair bit of brain editing that occurs before I even start, as well as a little during, too.
Why did you enter this year’s Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
First and foremost, the theme really resonated with me. Also, when I read last year’s winning entry (Emily White’s Swampy), I just loved it. It was so ground-breaking, so innovative. I feel incredibly honoured to have won this prize, because the calibre of past winners is just so high.
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 touched on this earlier but it is really inspiring to see the push towards diverse representation and uplifting marginalised voices. We have a long way to go, but having safe spaces for under-represented writers is a promising start.
Let’s talk books. What’s the last book you read? What are you currently reading? And what’s on your TBR pile?
I don’t get a lot of time to read so I’m a few years behind unfortunately! The most recent book I finished was Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, which I loved. I also enjoy fantasy so currently I’m reading some Sarah J Maas and working my way slowly through The Witcher. My TBR pile is… Let’s not go there, haha! I’m very fond of Carmen Maria Machado and have just downloaded her memoir, In The Dream House, so that’s on the list. I also have Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half sitting on my iPad, waiting to be read. The good thing about e-readers is you can download as much as you want and it doesn’t take up space. The bad thing about e-readers is you can download as much as you want and it doesn’t take up space.
What is your earliest literary memory? Did you have any favourite books or authors growing up? How have your reading tastes changed over time?
In Grade 2, a friend and I decided we’d write a book about dinosaurs. We wrote it on that dotted paper you use to practise handwriting and it was hundreds and hundreds of pages long, because the writing was so large! Unfortunately, in Grade 5, I re-read it and was so embarrassed that I threw it all out! I regret doing that, because I still love dinosaurs.
In primary school, I read a lot of Paul Jennings, John Marsden, Goosebumps and The Baby-Sitters Club. When I was a little older, I became a bit obsessed with To Kill a Mockingbird; I used to read that book at least once a year throughout high school, although it wasn’t until I was older that I fully grasped the themes. It was my favourite book then and is still a fave now.
Nowadays my reading tastes are really eclectic. I’ll read almost anything, from literary fiction to the classics to romance to fantasy – although I don’t get nearly enough time to read as much as I’d like. One thing I’ve recently gotten into is independent lit mags, many of which publish incredibly original, boundary-pushing work. I also read a lot of kids’ books to my children. I do a pretty good version of The Gruffalo, voices and all.
Where do you hope to see yourself, and your writing, in 10 years’ time? What’s your ultimate publishing goal?
I’m working on a novel, so my ultimate goal would be to publish a book, and maybe even a short story collection. It would be lovely to be living in the country, surrounded by books, with time and space to write (maybe that’s the 20-year plan!)
If you could invite three literary figures to dinner, who would they be, and why?
That’s such a tough question… Maybe Haruki Murakami, Kevin Kwan and Jane Austen. But only if we can have dinner out because I don’t want to do the washing up.
Where can people follow your work? (publications, social media, etc)
Most of my work is linked on my website at www.keshe.com.au
It was tiny, and exquisitely formed. The smallest little banana, not a single black spot marring its smooth, yellow skin.
‘Wai Po says to try a banana,’ my mother translated. I had never bothered to learn my Mother Tongue. ‘Wai Po says this is a lady finger – the sweetest banana in the world.’
Perplexed, I reached out to pluck the fruit from my grandmother’s gnarled brown hand. She smiled, revealing a mouth full of pebbled teeth, the corners of her eyes crinkling into deep craters.
We were visiting my grandmother’s house in Pulau Borneo, Malaysia because, according to the doctor, ‘she didn’t have much time’.
She was eighty-six. I was eleven. Her mind was slipping away in a thick, amnesic fog. Her body had withered until her skin was like a husk. Her shoulders bowed over in a permanent crouch. She repeated herself, often, and asked my mother over and over for her name. But she still smiled regularly, her face cracking open like a sunny-side egg. In those moments, I felt as though I knew her, as though we connected. And occasionally, when she smiled, I felt she knew me, too.
It is a pity, I now realise, that I never learnt her language. As an adult, I mourn the missed opportunity to delve into her mind; to plunge into her world of stories and anecdotes until they wrapped around me like a blanket. We had only met each other thrice. Now, we had but a short time to reach out and touch each other with nods and smiles and offerings of fruit.
The banana was surprisingly heavy for its size. I peeled back the unblemished skin and brought it to my mouth. My grandmother raised one hand, in that slow-but-urgent way that only the elderly can manage. She garbled a string of words I had no hope of understanding. I looked at my mother.
‘Wai Po says not to bite,’ my mother said. ‘She says to cut, and eat it in pieces.’
My grandmother offered up an ornate knife, the handle carved from ivory or bone – I couldn’t tell. The blade was curved, silver, and looked sharp. Too sharp for a banana.
‘Okay.’ I shrugged and took the knife. My grandmother’s black scarab eyes creased as I put a coin of banana on my tongue. She refused to take back the knife.
That night, we left an offering of banana on the smooth, marble steps of my grandmother’s house. It was ostensibly for the Moon Goddess, although logically I knew it would be the guard dogs eating it. Still, I performed the ritual, arranging thin slices artfully on a platter and depositing it on the doorstep. We lit candles in the lanterns and hung them by the door. A cage door clanged open, triggering a cacophonous round of barking. I lingered. I wanted to see the Alsatians. But my mother yanked me back into the house.
‘The dogs will kill you,’ she scolded. ‘They’re not pets.’
I leant out of my second storey bedroom window after dark, watching black-brown shadows prowl the perimeter of the compound. The air outside was close and humid, tinged with a sour undercurrent of sewage. It was a stark contrast to the air-conditioned household air, always set to frigid crispness.
A lizard crept over the windowpane with erratic, jerky movements. His pinpoint eyes watched me warily; I held my breath, not wanting to disturb him. I had learned that lizards, when startled, drop their tails as a diversion, the decoy tail thrashing wildly while the fortunate lizard escapes. I was scared of blood and disembodied tails, so I kept deathly still until the lizard ran away.
The moon edged out of the Earth’s dark mantle, casting a silky glow over the silver blade of the knife.
The next morning, Wai Po held up a small square mooncake, brown and shiny, as though lacquered. The surface bore an intricate pattern resembling carved wood, like a tiny treasure chest. My grandmother pressed it into my palm. I noticed it was unusually warm.
My mother and grandmother watched as I cut it into quarters with the bone-handled knife. Inside was a muddy mixture of black bean paste. One quarter contained an egg yolk – round, preserved, and slightly translucent. My grandmother insisted I take it.
‘The best bit,’ my mother translated.
Later, tucking me into bed, my mother told me the story of Chang’E, who was so enamoured by her husband’s Elixir of Immortality that she stole it and drank it and was banished to the moon. I asked then, in my eleven-year-old innocence, whether anyone could truly live forever. I was thinking of my grandmother, but my mother wasn’t to know.
‘No,’ my mother said, a hint of impatience in her voice. ‘But Wai Po says otherwise.’
‘What does she say, Ma?’
My mother rolled her eyes a little. ‘Wai Po says that we are all made from the moon. She believes that if we go to the moon, we live forever.’
‘Does she think I’m made of the moon?’
‘Yes, little one.’ She stroked my black hair away from my eyes. ‘She believes that we all have a tiny piece of moon inside. And when we die, she calls us back.’
‘Do you believe that?’
‘No,’ my mother said, and kissed me on the forehead. ‘Sleep, now.’ She turned out the light. I closed my eyes, but all I saw were round yellow coins burning into the back of my eyelids. I opened my eyes, and the full moon peeked out from a cloud, spilling her brilliance.
The next morning, my grandmother handed me a fortune cookie, which was not something I could cut with a knife. I wanted to eat it, but Wai Po shook her head.
‘Wai Po says not now,’ my mother translated. ‘Later.’
Later never came, because Wai Po died that evening. The house sank into silence. Even the dogs were quiet, slipping silently from their cages when the Keeper let them out. I was in my room, turning the fortune cookie over in my hands, when I finally heard them. When the moon rose and crested the hills, they sat in a line and howled and howled.
The house was heavy and full of whispers. Words I didn’t understand swirled around me and rushed up and down the corridors, never loud enough for me to hear. I wandered the hallways, tiny and wraith-like, while the adults spun webs with ceremonious precision. It was only me that was lost and unravelling. I knew for sure that I’d run out of time.
I was pacing the hallway when I first noticed it, delicate and almost impossible to see. When I reached my finger out to touch it, I felt its silky softness. A string – fine as gossamer –extended from my left foot to the ground. It followed me, like I used to believe the moon did when my parents drove me around at nighttime. I’m old enough to know now that’s not the case. But the string was different to the untethered moon. The string did follow me. When I moved, it moved too.
I discovered there were strings on my other foot too, a whole web of them. Every time I looked, I found some more.
My mother stayed distant and wouldn’t tell me anything. Whenever I saw her, her face was red and blotchy. Sometimes I would push my way into her room and find her on the bed. She wouldn’t even open her eyes. I would lie down behind her and curl around her body.
Three times a day I went to the kitchens and the servants gave me fruit and fried eggs. I would take them back to my room, watch the sky, and eat.
What did my grandmother want me to do with the knife? I sat beside my open window, running my finger along the blade. If I dared to press a little harder, it would slice into my skin, spilling blood onto my clean white sheets. I thought of the offerings we made to the Moon Goddess, and her Elixir of Immortality.
If I offered up a finger, would I get to live forever? If I offered up my heart, would Wai Po come back to life?
I splayed my hand on the wooden windowsill and held aloft the knife. It glinted in the moonlight, forbidding and detached, while the Moon looked on and smiled. I braced myself to bring the knife down in a swift, slashing arc. But then, picturing my amputated finger thrashing like a lizard tail, I chickened out. My face flooded with tears as I stowed away the knife. Sobbing, I slammed the window shut and curled under my sheets.
Each day, I discovered more and more strings under my feet. They became so long and numerous I had to tuck them into my slippers. It was awkward, walking around with feet full of strings. I wondered when my mother would notice.
Each night, I’d try to chop off my finger, but always reneged on my plan. I couldn’t bear the sight of blood – much less my own. But I felt like a failure. I would never appease the Goddess, never become immortal. My mother would continue to ignore me and I’d never see my grandmother again.
One night the lizard came back, its tiny head lifted high. It seemed to sniff the air as it crept in through the open window. I froze. But when a humid breeze tickled my nose, I sneezed. The lizard darted off, but not before dropping its tail. And, as the myths predicted, the tail continued to flop around, performing a macabre dance over my rumpled bedclothes. I screamed and scrabbled backwards. Something crunched under my hand. It was the fortune cookie; the one Wai Po gave me the day she died. I had kept it beside my pillow, not wanting to break it open, because breaking it felt like an irreversible, final act. But now it lay in pieces, a slip of white paper peeking through the crumbs.
The lizard tail finally stopped jerking, so I picked it up with a tissue and flung it out the window. Then I pulled the crumpled paper from the cookie, smoothed it out and read.
Not knowing what it meant, I folded it up and put it carefully under my pillow.
It was almost a week later when I finally caught my mother, briefly suspended between errands. I showed her the paper from Wai Po’s cookie. She translated it hurriedly, brushing her hair away with her forearm, before patting me twice on the shoulder and rushing away.
At nighttime, I waited for the moon. By now, it was a crescent, a fingernail-shaped sliver hung in the sky.
I threw the window open, pulled the knife from my dresser and started sawing at my foot-strings. They were tougher than I’d imagined – each one took a minute or two to sever – but whenever one broke my body became lighter until I was only tethered to the floor by a single strand.
‘Goodbye, house,’ I said into the darkened room.
I took the knife and slashed the last string.
When it snapped apart with a twang, I started to rise. I was feather-light, floating up and out through my open window, clutching the rumpled paper in my fist. As I travelled a slow, otherworldly path up and into the sky, the ground fell away like a rapidly imploding star.
‘Goodbye, Earth,’ I whispered, soaring toward the waiting moon.
The Moon whispered back, echoing my grandmother’s words:
I will wait for you, she said, her face a pebbled smile.