meet the winners of the 2022 rachel funari prize for fiction: 1st place, “sanjida learns to drive” by zarin nuzhat
Zarin Nuzhat’s story, Sanjida Learns to Drive, won the 2022 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here’s a Q&A with Zarin, plus her award-winning story!
Congratulations on winning the 2022 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction, Zarin! Tell us a bit about yourself.
Thank you! This has been an amazing opportunity. I was born in Bangladesh and raised in Australia. I live in Queensland with my family. In my day job I am a doctor at a local hospital. In my free time I love to write, of course, drink tea with a book in hand, go on drives, and I’ve recently been playing badminton with friends, which has been very fun. I also love to travel, and I’d love to do more of it in the future.
What led you to pursue medicine as a career? And how does your work as a doctor fit in with your writing?
Growing up, whenever I went on trips to Bangladesh, I realised that there were many young kids who dreamed of going to school and doing big things but didn’t have the means to do so. On top of this, so many of their families didn’t have access to basic health care. This inspired me to go to medical school. I would love to go back and work in Bangladesh at some point. Writing and medicine are definitely hard to juggle – the hours are long and I’m often spent at the end of the work day. However, every day I go to work I’m fortunate enough to meet new people with very raw stories of life, death, and everything in between; this is a constant source of inspiration for my writing.
What do you think makes a great short story?
The best short stories I have read are those with vivid characters that reflect, in some way or another, small pieces of ourselves and the world around us. I love stories that highlight small, beautiful details.
Your winning story, Sanjida Learns to Drive, is a story about the challenges a migrant woman faces when she tries to eke out her identity, freedom, and dreams in a new country, even as norms and ideals from her motherland cling to her very being. It’s also a story of hope: the protagonist reclaims some power despite what she was up against. What inspired you to write this particular story?
I was inspired by the subtle ways in which immigrant women in my life and my community fight to hold on to their identity despite often being held back by ideals and cultural norms that reach out to them from far away. There are unspoken scripts that many women in my community are taught to memorise from a young age – how to speak, dress, breathe, dream. However, I also wanted to highlight that these women have so many dreams for themselves and their children, which they bring to life through hard work and sacrifice.
The judges described Sanjida Learns to Drive as ‘a well-rendered story with strong scenes, tightly executed tension, and a sharp-focus insight into the protagonist’s emotional landscape.’ How do you get inside the minds of your characters?
I’m still working out how to flesh out characters. I find it helps me to try and think about my characters’ past and their hopes for the future. Most of my characters have some element of the people around me.
When you’re working on something new, what comes first: the character(s), the setting, or the story? Or is it something else entirely? And would you consider yourself more of a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’?
Ideally, I’d like to be a ‘plotter’ but at this stage I’m definitely a ‘pantser’. Usually, a character will come to me at a random point in time in some random setting. Sometimes something happens that stays with me for a long time, and after days/months/years of ruminating on this event the character and the memory find themselves thrown together on the page. It would be lovely to have a more organised and predictable process!
The Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction calls for stories by women and non-binary writers. What’s your view on diverse representation in publishing?
Australia is so much more diverse now than even a few years ago. I think it’s only fitting that the publishing landscape reflects this. Without these diverse voices, we confine ourselves to old ways of thinking and speaking. I’m grateful for the diversity of Australian literature I’ve been exposed to, but my hope is that this continues to grow and expand. It’s also essential that this increasingly diverse literary landscape is reflected in the literature we are taught about at school.
Why did you enter this year’s Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
At the start of the year, I promised myself I’d try and share my work with more people and practice writing more regularly. One of my mentors mentioned this competition to me earlier in the year. I loved that the prize welcomed and encouraged diverse voices. I almost missed the deadline but I’m so glad I scrambled my way to the deadline!
Let’s talk books. What’s the last book you read? What are you currently reading? And what’s on your TBR pile?
I just finished reading Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton. It was probably one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I’m currently reading Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani. Next up I’m keen to read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie, Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Miranda Riwoe, and The Other Half of You by Michael Mohammad Ahmed. The TBR list goes on forever though!
What is your earliest literary memory? Did you have any favourite books or authors growing up? How have your reading tastes changed over time?
My earliest literary memories are my parents reading me fairy tales – apparently, I would get very angry if they ever skipped a page. My favourite book as a child was Wake up Mummy, a picture book my mum probably has memorised now. Harry Potter and Tamora Pierce books were staples growing up. I think over time I’ve grown to love general fiction and historical fiction more, and I’ve also been introduced to a lot more Australian literature, which I’m grateful for.
If you could invite three literary figures to dinner, who would they be, and why?
I would probably be too nervous to speak, but I’d invite Melina Marchetta, Khaled Hosseini and Monica Ali. They are among my favourite authors because the honesty of their writing and the realness of their characters has stayed with me for a long time. I would love to ask them how they do it and what has inspired them.
Where do you hope to see yourself, and your writing, in 10 years’ time? What’s your ultimate writing/publishing goal?
I am working on a short story collection at the moment. These stories are about south Asian immigrants and the generations before and after them. I write about the complexities in creating and re-creating ourselves in a new world, while places, people and ideas from the other side of the ocean push and pull at our beings. I have also been dreaming of and occasionally working on a novel. My ultimate goal though is to be more honest in my writing.
Where can people follow your work? (publications, social media, etc)
Watch this space! As writing becomes a more real and tangible part of my life, I’d like to set up a website to share my works and thoughts. In the meantime, some of my short stories are available on the State Library of Queensland website.
Sanjida Learns to Drive
The plate clattered to the floor. Sanjida sat frozen in her chair. For a few seconds, all she could hear was the thudding in her chest. Then, Rima started wailing.
Sanjida regretted opening her mouth at all. She could feel Tariq assessing her. She kept her eyes fixed on the tiles. A streak of soft potato and onions coated in turmeric and specks of other spices painted an arc across the tiles.
Tariq heaved a sigh. He was calm, as if he had not just flung a plateful of food halfway across the dining room floor. Sanjida looked up and was met by his steely black gaze.
‘I can’t even eat in peace. How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t have time to give you driving lessons whenever you feel like it? How do you think there’s a roof over our heads?’
Sanjida glanced down at her fingers. For a second she wondered what he would say if she reminded him of the savings account she had brought with her to Australia, amassed from all the teaching jobs she had worked back home. She wondered what he would fling across the room next if she asked him to explain why the account total seemed to dwindle every time she looked at it.
Tariq’s chair scraped across the tiles. ‘Make her shut up.’ He prodded a finger at Rima, inches from her face. Sanjida met Rima’s wide eyes and gripped one of her chubby little hands.
It took a month or four, but Tariq finally agreed.
He tapped his fingers on the dining table. Sanjida pulled out the teabag from his cup and added just a splash of milk. She put the steaming cup in front of him.
‘I’ll put Rima in the car seat,’ she said.
Tariq pressed his fingertips into the corners of his eyes. ‘Should I pour this cup down the sink then?’
‘It’s okay, take your time.’
Rima was on her play mat in the living room, drooling all over a doll. ‘Let’s go Rima, Amma’s going to take you on a drive!’
‘Ca aha ee ee!’ Rima replied with a grin, showing off all two of her teeth.
‘Now drive forward a bit. Slowly.’
Tariq had decided to take her to an empty parking lot to learn the basics. Sanjidja pulled down the handbrake and eased her foot down on the accelerator. The car obeyed, and they inched forward. She turned to Tariq with a wild grin.
‘Keep your eyes on the road!’ He gripped the handle above his door so hard his knuckles were white. Sanjida snapped her eyes forward again. She eased into the faint whirring of the car around her. She pressed down with just a little more pressure and felt the car respond as they picked up speed. She reached the end of the lot and began turning back.
‘Brake! BRAKE!’ Tariq boomed. He grabbed the steering wheel with his right hand as Sanjida slammed down on the brake. They both jerked forward slightly. Sanjida put the car into park and whipped her head around. Rima was fast asleep.
‘Are you stupid?’ A drop of spit flew out of Tariq’s mouth and landed on the handbrake between them. Rima coughed, then squealed softly. ‘You are supposed to brake when you turn. Do not try and act like you know how to drive already.’ She dropped her fingers from the steering wheel and twisted them together to stop them from shaking.
‘Do you think I have all day? Drive!’
Sanjida flicked through her learner logbook. She had more than ninety hours recorded. She knew she was patient, alert, and safe as a driver – sometimes even more so than Tariq. She was just a few hours of night-time driving away from sitting the driving test. The thought of driving alone, with the windows down and the wind weaving through her hair, made her pulse bound with excitement.
Tonight, the three of them had been invited to a family friend’s house for dinner. Sanjida dabbed perfume onto her wrists and glanced at her reflection in the mirror. She wore a deep red sari with black sequins and embroidery running down the body. She liked the way the sari hugged her frame. She tried draping the sash this way and that, and finally decided to pin it up on her shoulder. She slipped on black heels to finish the look. Rima, sitting on the bed behind her, clapped approvingly.
Sanjida giggled and picked Rima up. ‘Don’t we look like a lovely pair?’
‘Amma ti beh veeee!’ Rima agreed. Sanjida had dressed Rima in a deep red frock that matched her own sari perfectly.
‘Hurry up!’ Tariq yelled from the living room.
‘I’m coming.’ Sanjida stepped out into the living room. The sari made her feel giddy and young.
‘What on earth are you wearing?’ His eyes slid from her neck to her feet and back up again. When he met her eyes again, his jaw was tight.
Sanjida’s voice shook. ‘Don’t you remember this sari? I got it from—’
‘Are you a new bride or something?’
Her face was growing hot. ‘What do you mean?’
‘What sort of woman wears a red sari like that?’ He stood, glowering at her. Rima looked up at Sanjida, then buried her head in her neck.
‘I thought it looked nice. And besides, I wanted to match with Rima.’
He shook his head theatrically. ‘Do you want everyone to look at you when you walk through the door? Is that what you’re playing at?’ His voice was rising now, and Sanjida was very conscious of the kitchen windows she had forgotten to close.
‘No, I just like the sari.’ She could barely hear her own voice.
Tariq pointed at the bedroom door. ‘Go change. Now.’
‘Do not make a scene, Sanjida! Go. Now.’ Rima was whimpering softly. Sanjida opened her mouth again to say something – anything – but she could feel Rima’s little shoulders trembling. She turned around and closed the bedroom door behind her.
‘Turn left,’ Tariq bit out.
She hated the pale blue sari she was wearing. She had draped it in a rush, and pockets of material were coming loose everywhere. She felt old and clumsy, but Tariq had approved.
‘Go straight ahead at that roundabout.’
‘That roundabout doesn’t go straight, only left or right.’
‘Obviously I meant right. Why are you driving so slow?’
She gripped the steering wheel tighter. She decelerated softly as she approached the roundabout. She stopped, and took a moment to breathe. She glanced to her right. The road was dark, except two little spots of light from a car close to a hundred metres away. She glanced to her left to be safe, then eased onto the roundabout.
There was a screeching noise to her left, and the sound of a car’s exhaust spitting violently. She turned her head for a split second and saw a bright yellow sports car careening unsteadily towards the roundabout. Her head skidded as she realised Rima was sitting on the left-hand side. Sanjida pressed her foot onto the accelerator and swerved through the roundabout. The seatbelt bit into her skin as she jerked to the side. The front wheel skidded onto the raised roundabout, but she kept going. Some sort of rap music spilled out of the windows along with boisterous laughter as the car pulled ahead of her. It swerved onto the opposite lane and screamed past. She pulled into a side street and stopped the car.
‘What the hell was that?’ Tariq screamed, eyes wide.
Sanjida swiveled around to look at Rima. She had her hands clapped onto her ears as she glanced from Sanjida to Tariq. ‘It’s alright, my love.’ Sanjida reached out a hand to cup Rima’s cheek.
‘Are you bloody stupid?’ Tariq continued. His voice shattered through the small space. Rima rolled down the windows and gasped in a breath. ‘You almost got us killed!’
‘No, I didn’t,’ she replied, her voice low and raspy. ‘That car came out of nowhere, and it should have given way to me.’
‘Oh, teaching me road rules, are you?’
‘I saved us from a big accident.’
‘Shut up! What gives you the nerve to talk back to me?’
Sanjida sucked in a breath. ‘I will go sit in the back.’
‘You are delusional for thinking you could ever drive. You are never going to pass that test. Mark my words.’
Sanjida passed the driver’s test on her first go.
They returned home in silence. As they neared home he said, ‘I guess at least you can drop me at the train station.’ Thunder rumbled somewhere in the distance. The air was heavy with the promise of rain.
‘OK.’ She waited to feel the exhilaration of passing the test. She had imagined this moment a hundred times. She had imagined the joy that would surge through her as she picked up her licence and saw her portrait staring out at her. She barely recognised the woman in the photo, anyway.
Sanjida handed Tariq his packed dinner and filled his water bottle. ‘Do you have your umbrella?’ she asked. He grunted in response.
Rima grumbled in her sleep as Sanjida bundled her into the carseat.
When they got to the station, Tariq stepped out of the car wordlessly and slammed the door behind him. She watched as he crossed the bridge to his platform – a small, faceless figure.
At home, Sanjida unbuckled Rima and pressed a kiss to her warm forehead. Rima’s eyelids fluttered with silent dreams. She raced upstairs to their unit and fumbled in her bag for the house keys. Sanjida laid Rima down on her blanket and almost tripped over her own feet as she ran to the spare room. She pulled two small black suitcases from inside the wardrobe, where she had tucked them in behind their winter clothes.
Sanjida emerged from the room and glanced down at Rima, who was still snoring softly. She closed the door, making sure she had the key, and dragged the suitcases down the stairs. She hauled them one by one into the boot. By the time she was done she was breathless and sweat was dripping down the nape of her neck. She paused long enough to gulp down two breaths, and pulled herself up the stairs one last time.
Rima was just beginning to stretch her arms out when Sanjida opened the door. Rima rolled herself into a sitting position and rewarded her with a sleepy smile.
‘Hey there,’ Sanjida whispered, kneeling in front of Rima on the couch.
‘Let me tell you a secret. We are going on a drive.’
Sanjida pulled Rima to her and kissed her cheek. ‘Yes, exactly.’
Sanjida slipped on her shoes again and walked out of the apartment. She did not look back before she pulled the door shut and locked it. She wondered if she would regret it later, but for now she did not want to spend a moment longer than necessary in there.
After Sanjida had secured Rima in her seat, she walked around the car to make sure her P plates were in place. She smoothed down the plates and felt a smile creeping onto her face.
As she drove out of the garage, she was greeted by sheets of rain pouring relentlessly from the heavens. She closed her eyes and listened to the raindrops hammering onto the bonnet and the windscreen. Somewhere in the distance, she could hear pools of water gurgling in an overflowing drain pipe. When she opened her eyes, the world outside was blurred and hazy. She flicked the windscreen wipers on.
‘Eee eee!’ Rima exclaimed. Peals of laughter filled the car as she clapped her hands together.
Sanjida smiled back at her. ‘These are the windscreen wipers, my love, to help us see the road ahead.
Zarin Nuzhat is a Bangladeshi Australian writer based in Queensland. Her writing is inspired by the tales of growth, bravery, and hard work that are the bones of her community. When she’s not reading or writing stories or drinking tea, you can find her working as a doctor at a local hospital. Zarin’s short stories have been named Runner Up in the State Library of Queensland’s Young Writer’s Award in 2017, 2019, and 2021, and third place in this year’s Eastern Regional Libraries competition Tales from the Pandemic.