meet the winners of the 2022 rachel funari prize for fiction: 2nd place, “the reliquary” by claire alcock
Claire Alcock’s story The Reliquary placed second in the 2022 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here’s a Q&A with Claire, plus their award-winning story!
Congratulations on placing 2nd in this year’s Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction, Claire. Tell us a bit about yourself.
Talking about myself always feels a little bit like a dating profile; trying to sum up the details in a way that makes me seem cool and mysterious (even if I’m anything but). The base ingredients are that I’m a queer, neurodivergent, non-binary woman. Add a couple spoonfuls of making boardgames and playing tabletop RPGs, a generous serve of loving bugs (I look after three native bee hives, a brush-footed trapdoor spider, and several ant colonies), a dash of performing slam poetry with a sprinkle of interactive theatre, roast all that in some therapy for a few years and you’ve got yourself a pretty decent homunculus version of me.
What do you think makes a great short story?
For me, my favourite short stories are the ones that have absolute confidence in the world they build – the two examples that immediately come to mind are Margo Lanagan’s Singing My Sister Down and Lesley Nneka Arimah’s Who Will Greet You at Home. Because you just don’t have time in a short story to fully develop the context, having the self-assurance to not explain everything, to give just the right amount of detail, is so important. It’s a real balancing act, but the ones that pull it off are the ones that leave the deepest impressions on me.
The Reliquary tells the story of a young girl who, after her father’s unexpected death, learns the generational practice of catching and keeping the family ghosts. The judges said, ‘the premise of this piece is very intriguing’. What inspired you to write it? And what, or who, inspires your work more generally?
The Reliquary actually came out of my parents exploring our family history. Looking through all the dusty photos and old letters, I was struck with the image of being tethered to these records of the past, of becoming the caretaker of these inherited memories. I wanted to explore the tension between how tradition can both keep us connected to our family/community/culture and how it can also imprison us, inhibiting our growth and causing stagnation.
Stylistically, this piece was inspired mostly by Kelly Link’s work. I love the domesticity of her magical realism, and again she has that complete confidence in world-building. She’s been a big influence on my writing (especially as I was lucky enough to attend a masterclass of hers a few years ago), but is it a cop out to say I get inspiration from everything and anything? I’m a bit of a bower-bird for ideas, taking interesting little morsels from everywhere and ferreting them away for later.
When it comes to your writing process,are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’?
When it comes to short stories I’m more of a pantser, mostly because I can afford to be. If I know that I’m just capturing a particular moment or idea, and I don’t need to consider how it fits into a larger narrative, then I’ll start writing and see where the story takes me.
For longer works though I’m very much a plotter. Partly because it’s easier to sustain writing a longer piece when I’m following a map (even if it’s very rough), and partly because it annoys me to no end when I’m reading a book or watching a TV show and you can tell that the writer/s didn’t have the end point in sight from the beginning. If new things come up as I’m writing a scene, I’m happy to explore and see what it adds to the story, but otherwise I build the skeleton of the story before I add the meat.
How do you approach the editing process: do you edit as you go, or do you allow yourself to write the ‘bad first draft’ first, and edit later?
A little bit of column A, little bit of column B. I’ll take a moment to edit sentences or word choices here and there every couple of hundred words, but I try to keep in that creative flow state as much as possible during the first draft. I find if I get too caught up in making it “perfect” it sort of jams me up creatively, when instead the right wording might come to me when re-reading it later. If I’m stuck on something, I won’t force it, just make a note to come back later and move on to the next scene. My aim is to get the first draft to “serviceable” and then refine it from there.
How do you know when one of your stories is ready to be sent out into the world?
Mostly when I’m sick of refining it! Honestly though, it can be so hard to determine. For some stories, I’m really patient and will sit on it for a while, because I know it isn’t quite what I want it to be but I don’t know what else it needs. Other times I’ll think the story is done and present it, then when I read it years later I’ll see ways to change or improve it, and then there are stories I’ve sent out as soon as I’ve done a line edit (usually because of an encroaching deadline). I don’t think art is ever really “finished”, even after it’s published; there just comes a point when you decide to stop working on it.
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 have so many things to say about this, but I’ll try to condense!
There’s two main things that diversity in publishing (actually every industry) is so important for – firstly, it’s incredibly important that people are exposed to stories that centre people who are different to ourselves, whose gender/race/sexuality/class are different from our own because I believe that’s the core of building connection. How can you begin to understand the experiences of someone else if you aren’t even exposed to them?
Secondly, and somewhat conversely, it is also so important to be able to see stories that you feel represent you and your experience. For people who have been historically excluded from these spaces, who haven’t seen their stories being told, to see a part of themselves represented with the same care and compassion that has normally been reserved for white people/cis men, it is such a validating and connecting experience.
But having diverse representation in publishing isn’t just about helping people connect (even though that is reason enough), it’s about having a more accurate portrayal of the world. When you only see the same types of people and are exposed to the same types of stories, your understanding of the world is going to be flat and narrow, and we continue to see the dangers, the very real and harmful results of that all over. If we want to make the world a safer, more peaceful place, we need to expand and include rather than reduce and exclude the many different voices that have always existed but have been silenced and marginalised.
Why did you enter this year’s Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
I’ve actually intended on entering the competition in previous years, but each year I didn’t have a piece that was ready that felt like it fit the theme. This year’s theme of “Aftermath” really resonated with me, and that combined with finally beginning to medicate my ADHD meant that I had the motivation and executive function to enter. It honestly blew me away that I was shortlisted, let alone placed second, and that validation has really given me the push I needed to prioritise my writing.
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 The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark. I’m currently halfway through The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison.
At this point, the better question is what isn’t on my TBR pile! Out of that ever-growing list, the books I’m most excited to read next are Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor, Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee, and Siren Queen by Nghi Vo.
What is your earliest literary memory? Did you have any favourite books or authors growing up? How have your reading tastes changed over time?
Growing up with a librarian for a mother and a journalist for a father pretty much sealed my fate as loving reading from a very early age. I loved Shirley Barber’s fairy books when I was little, and I have a clear memory of discovering Tamora Pierce in grade five and just falling head over heels with the characters and the worldbuilding. When I moved to a new school in grade seven, the school librarian took me under her wing and recommended Kim Wilkins and Isobelle Carmody, both of which changed my life.
I’ve always been drawn to the fantasy/speculative fiction genre, which to be honest hasn’t changed much since! But because, statistically, it can be incredibly easy to read in a cis/white/abled/hetero-normative bubble, in recent years I’ve made a conscious effort to focus on actively seeking out and reading authors from different backgrounds. It’s not enough to simply say we need more diversity; we need to follow through by supporting and promoting authors who have been marginalised for far too long.
If you could invite three literary figures to dinner, who would they be, and why?
Catherynne M. Valente, Becky Chambers, and Seanan McGuire. I love all of their work so much; to say their books have reached into the foundations of my being and fundamentally changed me for the better is putting it lightly. But also, I think they would all get along really well so the conversation would be wonderful (and social cohesion is extremely important when hosting dinner parties). Plus, I would have the opportunity to impress them with my cooking, which would hopefully mean I could invite them over to dinner again!
Where do you hope to see yourself, and your writing, in 10 years’ time? What’s your ultimate writing/publishing goal?
I just want to do everything! I love storytelling, and I just can’t restrict myself to only one or two forms of media when there are so many ways stories can be told. The current goals are that in ten years’ time I’ll have a couple of novels and novellas published, a narrative-based videogame released, several boardgames produced, and a handful of theatre shows put on. And honestly, this is me lowballing what I’m aiming to achieve. Since I’ve finally begun the appropriate treatment for my mental health, I’m on track to reach all these goals and so much more.
Where can people follow your work? (publications, social media, etc)
For those who live in and around Meanjin, I host a monthly creative storytelling night called Gather Round in West End. We showcase emerging writers and performers (so please get in touch if you’re in the area and would like to get involved!) and you can find us on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/gatherroundstorytelling
I’m also part of the production team of Here & There Productions, creating and performing in puzzle-based interactive theatre shows. If that sounds up your alley, you can check out our upcoming productions here: https://www.facebook.com/HereThereProductions
And for people who like watching live-plays of tabletop RPGs, I’m part of the crew of Hijinks, which can be found on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/c/hijinks
The day before the funeral, Mother shows me how to lock Father’s ghost into the little box passed down from generation to generation. We haven’t spoken since he died so as not to scare him, but it’s time to put him away with the rest of the family.
I am eight years old.
Two days after the call, after Mother came back from the hospital, after she told me he was gone, I saw him standing next to her in the kitchen. Mother was washing the bitter herbs that would be our only meals for the next week when a warm shaft of afternoon sunlight caught him, formless and distinct as a shadow. Just there, as if waiting to help prepare our food. His ghost reminded me of dust, motes of fine powder floating in the air. I was so surprised to see him that I wanted to cry.
Mother had warned me about how sadness or anger would make them go away, so I swallowed the hardness in my throat. I thought about how he held my hand when I needed stitches after I fell off my bike; I thought about the happy things and ignored the fact that they’d never happen again. He stayed with her until there was no more sunlight.
Mother says we must show them kindness.
She’s made me put on socks every morning since he died. As with voices, sharp noises can scare ghosts and make it much more difficult to catch them. I want to slip and slide across the polished parquetry in spite of myself.
Instead, I help Mother clean. Usually, you only need to attend to the things they touched in the last days of their life, so they cannot cling to an object. They like to hide where they think no one will find them, like old shoes or underneath sofas. They stick to places they remember best, which is why schools and old homes always seem to be haunted.
But Father’s death was unexpected, a screeching flash of metal and glass, and we cannot take the risk. We check the thin line of salt that surrounds the house twice daily to make sure it hasn’t broken.
At night I lie awake in my bed and, through the walls, hear the muffled sounds Mother makes as she groans into her pillow, unnerving sounds like a wounded animal from a nature documentary. I wonder if Father can hear them too. I hope not. Every morning her eyes are red, the circles under them so dark they look like bruises.
I found a ghost once, by accident. It was during the morning tea break at school. None of the other kids wanted to go near it, but I was curious, and I knew it couldn’t hurt me. It was just a little wispy scrap of a thing, hiding in the slimy, knotted roots of a tree at the edge of the playground. Someone suggested we catch it and bring it back to class, and suddenly there was a flurry of activity as everyone tried to offer me their greasy paper lunch bags or plastic lunch boxes, but I didn’t want to catch it so my classmates could ogle it like a weird bug in a jar. Besides, I didn’t know exactly how to catch a ghost anyway. I lied and told them I’d try my best, but that they needed to give me lots of space because the ghost was easily frightened and they were all too close. So everyone backed off, and most of them trickled away, distracted by one thing or another, while I sat next to the roots quietly and peered into the shadows.
‘It’s okay, you can come out now if you want,’ I whispered, when we were finally alone. ‘I’m not going to hurt you. What’s your name?’
The ghost didn’t answer. For a moment it seemed like maybe it wanted to, then the bell rang again to tell us morning tea was over.
‘I’ll come back in a bit,’ I promised, because I didn’t want to be late to Maths.
I didn’t get a chance to run over and check on the tree between Maths and Reading, and I don’t remember any of the words we learned that lesson because I spent the whole time looking out the window, trying to see if there was any movement in the playground. Each time the swing shifted in the breeze I wondered if it was the ghost, but through the glass I couldn’t tell.
I raced back to the tree as soon as the lunch break bell sounded, but I couldn’t find it. I even looked all over the playground through the whole break, under the swings and around the monkey bars and the down the slide, before I accepted defeat. The ghost was gone.
Everyone else seemed to have moved on and forgotten about it, but I felt like I’d done something wrong. When I got home that afternoon, I didn’t tell Mother or Father about it.
I wake early to find Mother perched at the end of my bed. In the growing light she shows me how to weave the net to catch Father’s ghost. She winds seven of his hairs around the black threads, as tight as she can without breaking them. These came from his pillow and hairbrush instead of plucked from his head, since there was little left to pluck from. We hook the net onto the wooden racket and hide it in the linen closet so he won’t know what we’re up to.
I put the kettle on while Mother sets a tray with a teacup, saucer, and sugar bowl. The leaves steep like shadows swirling in water. Then I place the pot on the tray and we take it into the sitting room. The scent is irresistible to the dead and we don’t have to wait long. Father’s ghost appears and floats towards the rising, fragrant steam.
Mother gives me that sidelong glance, a silent instruction. I try not to feel guilty for tricking him as I fetch the racket. Mother said it’s the only way to protect them. It’s our responsibility to look after those who came before us, those who loved us, to keep them safe instead of letting them drift outside and be carried off by the wind. Or letting them fall into another’s hands. Ghosts are worth a lot of money to the right ? or the wrong ? people. Father told me stories of spirits being abandoned by their living relatives, then rounded up by the government and used to make golems for the military, sent to distant lands. Wizards buy them from poor families, too, but no one knows what they do with them.
Mother is quick. She brings the net down over Father’s ghost, and my stomach twists as I watch it struggle in vain. The dust tries to escape but Mother sweeps the racket through the air with ease and catches every bit of him ? she was a mean tennis player. The delicate net glistens, as sticky to ghosts as spider webs are to butterflies. Mother pops the whole thing into a velvet bag and draws the string shut.
I follow her upstairs and hold the racket in the bag while Mother rings her bedroom with salt. Then she brings out the little box.
Mother says it’s called a reliquary. It is a very small box, but beautiful. A fine carving of flowers covers the wood, inlaid with gold so that it is perfectly smooth to touch. It looks both old and not old; while no one makes boxes like it anymore, it has been well-cared for.
Mother draws the curtains shut and there is whispering in the room.
The voices become louder still when Mother removes the necklace from around her throat; a key, small and golden, hangs on the chain. I wonder if they are murmuring in excitement or in discontent. Each soft voice tries to clamour for attention above the others. I think I can hear Great Aunt Edith scolding them for their bad manners.
The velvet bag shivers in my hands. I stroke it as I remember Father stroking my hair whenever I was upset.
The lock clicks as Mother twists the key, and the lid springs open. The little white figures jostle and shove each other as they try to climb out first, but Mother fans them back. There are so many of them, ghosts of all ages. Hector, the son who’d died in the snow; Rose, who’d passed in childbirth and taken the unnamed babe with her; my great-grandfather Jack, who’d gone to war as a young man and never returned; the grandmother I was too young to remember, who’d withered away in a hospital bed. Compacted after so many years in that small box, they are easier to see than Father.
Mother takes the bag from me and pulls it off the racket. She unhooks the net of black thread and hair and spins it until it looks like a short length of thick twine. Then, lovingly, she wrings it out over the reliquary. Father spills out of it, pooling inside the box and dribbling over the sides onto the sheets. There seems to be so much of him; I worry he won’t fit.
For the first time in days, Mother speaks.
‘Please,’ she says, barely above a whisper, looking at all the other ghosts who’ve been sneakily exploring the terrain of the bedspread while she’s distracted. They turn to her, but seem reluctant to do anything.
‘Please,’ she says again.
They begin to trundle back to the reliquary. A couple of the smaller ones, the children, need to be tugged along, but they all return in the end. Each of them grabs a little bit of Father’s ghost and pulls it inside, until finally it’s all packed away in that small, beautiful box.
When at last Mother turns the key again, she finally speaks to me.
‘They are your family. They will help you if you ask, but you must keep them safe.’
We don’t eat much for dinner. Mother puts some toast on, but she forgets about it and it burns at the edges and I’m not very hungry anyway. We don’t talk much either, even though we don’t have to worry about scaring off Father’s ghost anymore. I clean the tea cup and saucer and put away the sugar bowl. Mother sits on the porch as the sun sets and then for a long time after.
When I finally go to bed, I cry for the first time since Father died, and it’s as if as soon as I start crying, I can’t stop. I cry and cry into my pillow until I feel like one of those wounded animals on TV, like my lungs are suddenly too small and I can’t get enough air and my whole body hurts.
But I’m not crying for Father, even though he’s dead and I’m never going to hug him again, and he’s never going to tell me stories again, and he’s gone in a way that means he’s not coming back. I know that makes me a bad daughter, and I am sad, but at least I know he’s safe.
I’m crying for the little ghost in the tree, whose name I will never know, because whoever it was, it didn’t have someone like Mother to love and look after it.
I just hope, wherever it is now, that it’s safe.
Claire Alcock is a poet, storyteller, and performer from Meanjin, and has been a feature performer at Ruckus Poetry Slam, Saudade, Jungle Love, Yonder, and Queensland Poetry’s Volta. In addition to receiving the highest placed QLD entry for the XYZ Innovation in Spoken Word Award in 2021, their written work has been short-listed for the Monash Undergraduate Prize for Creative Writing and the international First Pages Prize. Claire also hosts the monthly storytelling event ‘Gather Round’ in West End.