meet the winners of the 2021 rachel funari prize for fiction: 3rd place, “here i am” by tanya vavilova
Tanya Vavilova’s story, Here I Am, placed third in the 2021 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here’s a Q&A with Tanya, plus her award-winning story!
Congratulations on placing third in this year’s RFP for Fiction, Tanya! Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
I’m a Russian-Australian queer writer preoccupied with liminal spaces and outsider perspectives – by life on the margins. My debut collection of essays We Are Speaking in Code was published by Brio in 2020. It mostly sold to my family and friends. I’m a second-rate but enthusiastic ocean swimmer, and amateur marine biologist. I freelance as a technical writer.
What do you think makes a great short story?
So many things! A great short story propels the reader forward, each line making you want to read the next one and the next and the next. Every detail, every sentence works hard to advance the narrative. Nothing should be superfluous. If your character is eating an egg sandwich at the bus stop, ask yourself why. Is it because her flatmate took the car that morning? Why an egg sandwich and not a falafel roll? If it’s a packed lunch, is it because money is tight? Is she going to the hospital to visit her sister, sneaking out in her lunch break? And because she’s hungry and distracted, she doesn’t hear the bus rounding the corner. She’s standing up just as it roars past. There is something particularly lonesome about eating an egg sandwich at a bus shelter – is that the point? Every detail has to reveal something about a character or situation, but it also needs to keep the story moving. I rarely achieve this in my own writing, but it’s something I aim for.
In Here I Am, the protagonist visits her estranged sister and tries to make amends. The distance between the two of them is quite evident. What inspired you to write this particular story? And what, or who, inspires your work more generally?
I have a younger sister. We’re quite different – in terms of personality, values, interests – which leads to a natural (though not unpleasant) distance. Also, when I was twenty, I shared a wall with two friends, a couple, who fought. Ben once punched a hole in the wardrobe (or perhaps took a hinge off, I can’t recall) during a fight with his girlfriend let’s-call-her-Miranda. Afterwards, he sat me down, Miranda smiling beside him, and assured me that he would “never ever hurt her.” To my shame, I never checked in with Miranda privately. Writing can be an act of atonement when other avenues have closed (we lost touch over a decade ago). I’m older and a little wiser now, and hope never to repeat the same mistake.
What’s your writing process? Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’? And does your approach vary depending on what you’re working on?
Pantser! The romantic view: a gardener planting a seed and observing what grows. A lot of the work happens in the unconscious, I think. Details, threads, characters emerge from the muck. I imagine my unconscious is a bit like a landfill – tied bags of plastic, car parts, washing machines, chicken bones but, occasionally, I’ll stumble upon a small treasure, maybe a gramophone, photo album, or a giant rat that I can then repurpose for my writing. I’m slowly learning to trust the process. Of course the downside is that you spend a great deal of time at the editing stage. I like George Saunders’ intuitive and iterative approach to revision. He imagines a meter mounted on his head with positive on one side, and negative on the other. As he reads each sentence, the meter swings from left to right. If it lands in the negative zone, he will edit the words to push the needle towards the positive. You keep re-reading and making revisions until you can step back and honestly say, “Yeah, ok, I’m happy with that.”
Dorothy Parker once said: “I hate writing, I love having written”. Do you find the writing process energising or exhausting?
Let’s talk books. What’s the last book you read? What are you currently reading? And what’s on your TBR pile?
Last book: Tony Birch’s Shadowboxing
Current book: Elizabeth Tan’s Smart Ovens for Lonely People
TBR pile: Richard Brautigan’s Sombrero Fallout and Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, a Still Small Voice
Why did you enter this year’s Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
I was interested in this year’s theme of homecoming. Having been shortlisted with a different story last year, I thought I’d try my luck again.
The Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction calls for stories by women and non-binary writers. What’s your view on diverse representation in publishing?
As a queer writer and reader, I am always searching for books that reflect back my own experiences and those of the people I love. While there are some fabulous Australian titles and authors (Ellen Van Neerven, Tom Cho, Christos Tsiolkas, Laura McPhee-Browne), there are not nearly enough of them on bookstore shelves. I want to see more Australian books that celebrate difference and deviance in all forms.
What’s the most helpful writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Honestly, the advice to break writing up into manageable chunks! I first came across the pomodoro method in one of John Birmingham’s books. It involves setting a tomato timer for twenty-five increments where you write without distraction, with scheduled breaks between each twenty-five minute block. Birmingham is very disciplined and will have a kettle filled with water and a teabag in his mug (and maybe a biscuit on a plate!) before he sits down to write. That way, when the timer goes off, he can boil the kettle and be back at his desk, all within five minutes ready for the next pomodoro. That’s too regimented for me, but I do work best in twenty-five minute increments (I just take longer breaks).
Where do you hope to see yourself, and your writing, in 10 years’ time? What’s your ultimate publishing goal?
My ultimate goal is to keep writing – to find ways to carve out time and space to write in the face of financial and other life demands. For me, this means finding ways to live with less and to live more simply. I’d like to someday find a publisher for my novels and short story collections.
If you could invite three literary figures to dinner, who would they be, and why?
Carmen Maria Machado, Jeanette Winterson, and Rita Mae Brown. All queer, sparky writers who would be guaranteed to bring good conversation to the table. I’ll cook a one-pot dish and supply the wine. That’s the sort of host I am.
Where can people follow your work? (publications, social media, etc)
We Are Speaking in Code can be ordered from your local bookshop. My short story capsule Grub is available from Spineless Wonders. The print copy will be out later this year as part of Spineless Wonders’ 10th anniversary.
Here I Am
Here I am and no one’s waiting. What did I expect? I should’ve stayed away.
The guard blows her whistle and the train curves away from the station.
A couple ahead drags a red suitcase up the stairs. Just behind them, an elderly man catches his breath every few steps, clutches onto the railing.
All the benches are metal. I choose one to wait for the train home. It’s due in forty-five. I’ll pass the paddocks and the industrial centre, but this time in reverse.
On the other side of the station fence, the gums that line the road look forlorn, brittle-branched, bark curling in the mulch. There’s the IGA and bottle-o, the post office, what looks like a town hall, a faded sign to the side advertising ballroom dancing. Some shopfronts boarded up.
I watch a woman push a pram towards the surgery. She stops outside the door to pull her hair back into a ponytail. Her baby squawks.
The fibros are built too close to the tracks here. Plates and cups must rattle with each passing train. People pause their telephone conversations. They must get used to it.
It was probably Jason’s decision to move here. So far away from everyone. Ella would’ve needed some convincing.
She’d promised to pick me up. ‘You’ll see my dusty red Camry in the carpark,’ she’d said, as if I wouldn’t be able to recognise her without the car. She’s still my sister, even if it’s been a while. Anyway, there is no red Camry. Only a lone blue wagon.
Ella said Jason was going to be away, that she could spend the day with me. I told her I missed her when, the truth was, I was worried.
I watch a plastic bag blow across the platform. We are destroying the earth with our need for convenience, hygiene.
I’m resting my head in my hands when the guard startles me.
‘You right?’ she asks.
I’m the only one on the platform.
‘Saw you get off the train just now.’
I don’t know what to tell her. ‘Change of plans.’ I shrug to indicate it’s no big deal.
‘Righto,’ she says.
She follows my gaze to the plastic bag. ‘Some poor turtle’s gonna get caught in that.’
We are hundreds of kilometres from the sea.
She is deft and quick, traps the bag with her boot.
‘The supermarket recycles plastics.’
‘Probably not themselves,’ she clarifies. ‘They must ship them somewhere.’ She stuffs the bag in her pocket.
The sky is a hazy blue. Two myna birds peck at some bread crusts. Don’t be a tosser, the sign on the rubbish bin warns.
‘The next train does not stop at this platform,’ the message plays on loop. ‘The next train does not…’
When I get sick of watching the myna birds, I walk over to the vending machine. It looks like it hasn’t been restocked for months. No Kettle chips or Pretzels. A few flavours of Smiths, some chocolate bars left, that’s it. I drop the coins in the slot.
I kick the vending machine with my sandshoe.
The vendor’s number is on a white sticker. How long does it take for the company to dispatch a worker? Hours, days?
I go back to watching the mynas peck at the disappearing bread. Two more birds join the fray. Each one looks out for itself.
The guard smiles as she walks past me to her office. I imagine an old desktop computer in there and a kettle. A box of Bushells. Arnott’s assorted. She likes the gingernuts or maybe the lemon creams best.
Ella used to pick the Kingstons out when we lived together briefly as adults. When I asked why she didn’t just buy a whole pack she said, ‘I like having options.’ We were in our twenties, both single, both deciding what to do with our lives.
I don’t know why I thought she’d turn up. She was always the unreliable one.
We hadn’t spoken in years when I rang. When was the last time I saw her? Christmas 2014 or 2015 when the whole family got together in Coffs. Aunt Clare spent the holiday pushing Avon cosmetics onto the women.
Slowly, more people trickle down the stairs. They check their watches and phones. Everyone on their way to someplace else.
That was the Christmas I stuffed up. Staying in the room next to Ella and Jason, I heard his voice night after night. He was nit-picky, churlish. Always criticising, or that’s what it sounded like through the wall.
I get up to use the restroom. A girl in a Bonds singlet is hunched over the sink. When I exit the stall, she’s examining her face in the mirror.
‘You okay?’ I ask, but only because I feel I should.
‘Not really hey. You don’t have any mints, do you? I just puked my guts out.’
I shake out some Tic Tacs.
‘Thanks,’ she winces.
She’s young. Twenty maybe. A big night, gastro, something worse? Ella used to puke every Friday night. Same pub, same crowd. ‘Why?’ I’d ask her in the mornings when she had the blinds shut. ‘Why do you think?’ was her cryptic answer. I had no idea.
I pull the door handle and step back into the light.
On the other side of the tracks, two kookaburras land on a tree branch. I can’t remember the last time I saw kookaburras. They trill and chortle, waking the platform up. Even the two teenagers bragging about hot chicks shut up. The girl from the toilet stares at the birds, too.
The kookaburras’ laugh is hearty. Familiar.
You don’t see them much in the city. You get the mynas and pigeons, and the grey ibises with their hooked beaks tearing through plastic.
Ella would hate the fumes and the traffic noise, the crowds. You can’t see the stars where I live. What you get are the bright stadium lights and the rowdy football fans. I almost like it, all that activity. It makes me forget that I’m on my own.
A woman in denim cheers as the train pulls into the platform. She leaps into the opening doors. I can’t tell if she’s touched by madness or just exuberant.
I’m about to follow when I hear my name.
‘Fiona! Don’t you dare get on that train.’
I look up to see Ella flying down the stairs.
‘Top up?’ Ella asks.
Her left foot drags a little as she moves around the kitchen. I wonder whether to ask about it.
‘I need to get a new kettle,’ she says, ‘look at all that rust.’
I notice the faded curtains, a still life from Vinnies above the toaster. Wooden cupboards with green laminate counters. But then a bright explosion of pink geraniums on the windowsill.
‘Where did you say Jason was?’
‘Visiting his brother in Taree.’ She crunches on a shard of peanut brittle. ‘You can spend the night.’
‘That’d be nice, El.’
She passes me the brittle, and I take it to be polite. We listen to the cats yowling outside.
‘They’re making a nice racket, aren’t they?’ I say.
‘They’re in heat.’
‘I know, El.’
She rolls her eyes and, for a moment, we’re teenagers again, fighting over CDs or boys or who gets the last chicken drumstick.
I look at the ceiling. A Daddy-long-legs dangling in the corner. ‘How’s Jason?’
‘He’s coming round to the idea of having kids.’ Her smile is wary.
He’s been coming around for years.
‘That’s good El, but—’ I stop myself.
That Christmas in Coffs when I heard a loud crash, I’d been on edge for days. I ran into their room and Jason spun around, red-faced. ‘Stay out of it,’ he said. The cupboard door hung off its hinges. ‘Look’—he changed tact—’I lost my temper but I’d never touch El, you know that. It’s just furniture’—he laughed—‘a shitty IKEA .’ When I didn’t move, Ella added, ‘It’s okay, please just go.’ I backed out the room. Not once did I ask if Ella was OK.
‘Does he um…have an idea of timings?’ I ask.
For years, he’d been stringing her along. They were living in the wrong town or the wrong house or on the wrong budget.
‘Don’t start.’ When I don’t say anything else, Ella softens. ‘Not yet.’ She rubs the creases on her forehead.
Later, on the back porch, we watch the tangerine sun dip below the horizon. The bushfires along the east coast have tinged it neon orange.
Ella drags over some crates to use as footrests.
‘We never get around to the weeding,’ she says.
The yard is choked with fireweed and lantana. A rusty shovel leans against the shed.
‘We’re vegans now.’
‘Good for you.’
She studies my face. ‘You always thought you were the enlightened one.’
She’s right. I did.
‘That’s not true El,’ I say.
‘Don’t worry,’ she says, ‘I’m not entirely sold on the idea. Jason’s the committed vegan.’ She laughs. ‘Do you remember the time he served us raw steaks as a statement?’
‘His heart’s in the right place.’
I picture the cupboard off the hinges.
‘I don’t know El.’
She sets me up in the spare room with sheets that smell of lavender. Our mum’s sheets smell like that. Fresh, floral. On the bedside table, a jar of daisies, tissues.
‘I’ve missed you El.’
She slaps my arm playfully. ‘Let’s not get sentimental.’
I hear her moving through the house turning off the lights. I wish we had more to say.
When her phone pings, Ella springs from the chair. She hunches over the power socket.
‘It’s Jason, isn’t it?’
She puts her toast down and leans against the counter.
‘He’ll be back in an hour. I’ll drive you to the station.’
‘You’re so matter of fact.’
‘He’ll be tired. It’s a long drive.’
I look at the trail of ants under the windowsill.
It’s a long trip for me, too.
I admire her emerald kimono. In the dusty light, El looks ten years younger. We could still be living together, above that coffee shop, on sliced bread and vegemite. Early on, she accused me of jealously. ‘I wonder if you’re critical of Jason because you haven’t found someone yet.’ It wasn’t fair, but it may have been true.
‘It’s a gorgeous colour on you,’ I say.
‘It’s from Aunt Clare.’
‘She visits you?’
Ella purses her lips. ‘She’s visited once.’
It comes as a shock.
‘You’re in touch with Avon?’
Ella sighs. ‘You mightn’t approve of her acrylic nails, but she does get some things.’ She picks at a stain on the counter. ‘I made banana cake,’ she changes the subject. ‘You can take it with you. It’s not vegan.’
She doesn’t want it in the house.
‘It’s just me, isn’t it?’ I ask.
She carefully cuts the cake out of the tin.
‘We prefer a quieter life,’ she says, ‘just the two of us.’ She hands me the cake in tinfoil. ‘But I’m really glad you came.’
I take one last look around while Ella locks up.
We cross the lawn. The grass is dewy.
As we are turning down the driveway, Jason’s car comes into view.
I freeze. ‘He’s early,’ Ella murmurs.
He pulls up beside us.
‘Fiona this is a surprise’—his tone is light and upbeat—’El didn’t tell me you were visiting.’ He clicks the door shut. ‘Your hair, you’ve changed it. It suits you.’ He smiles.
I forget he can be charming.
‘Long time no see.’
He gives me a hug and kisses El on the cheek.
‘I was about to drive Fi to the station,’ Ella says.
‘She can walk, can’t you Fi?’ He looks at me. ‘It’s a nice day out.’
I don’t say anything.
Ella turns to me. ‘I’ll call you soon, okay?’
I kiss them both goodbye and roll my suitcase down the drive.
‘Love you El!’ I call.
When I’m three or four houses down, I hear muffled voices coming from Ella’s place.
My heart races.
Then the clang of something—a bin?—being knocked over.
I take a few more steps towards the station before turning around and retracing my steps.
Leaving my suitcase on the grass, I pick up an umbrella from the bucket and quietly open the front door.