meet the winners of the 2022 rachel funari prize for fiction: 3rd place, “the cleaner” by zeynab gamieldien
Zeynab Gamieldian’s story, The Cleaner placed third in the 2022 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here’s a Q&A with Zeynab, plus her award-winning story!
Congratulations on placing 3rd in this year’s Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction, Zeynab. Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m a (somewhat reluctant) Sydneysider living on Dharug land, an avid reader, podcast listener and ice-cream enthusiast. I work in policy and write whenever I find the time and space, which in recent years has not been a lot, but I’m trying to work on that.
What do you think makes a great short story?
Short stories are an interesting and challenging medium because they are so condensed. The best short stories very quickly orientate the reader in time and place and ask a question you’re dying to find the answer to. With so few words at your disposal, every word counts – this is something I struggle with!
The Cleaner tells the story of a chance encounter – and the ultimate friendship – between two women whose paths may not have otherwise crossed. The judges commented that ‘the unfolding dynamic between the two characters is deftly portrayed as they find common ground despite their distinct circumstances’. They also noted the originality of the story. When you’re working on something new, what typically comes first: the character(s), the setting, or the story? Or is it something else entirely?
For me, the inspiration for a story often comes from big ideas and questions, which I then try and distil into a story. I’m always interested in how concepts like class, race and gender influence relationships and everyday interactions in ways we aren’t always aware of or are willing to acknowledge. I see writing as a way to shine a light on uncomfortable truths and the characters and their stories are the vehicles for this.
How do you know when one of your stories is ready to be sent out into the world?
I don’t know that I ever feel that a story is ‘ready’ to be released. There’s always room for improvement, but there’s also a point at which you have to let go. I tend to write in one long stretch, edit furiously and then revisit it after some time – if it still reads well with a fresh pair of eyes, it’s probably there or thereabouts.
The Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction calls for stories by women and non-binary writers. What’s your view on diverse representation in publishing?
This is a complex discussion. The publishing world is a just a microcosm of broader society and its embedded power structures. Diverse representation is part of the conversation, but meaningful change requires deeper examinations of who makes the decisions in publishing and how and why these decisions are made. Publishing is fundamentally driven by commercial considerations but these considerations are not neutral – assumptions are often made about what will sell and what audiences do or don’t want to read.
Writers are often told to ‘write what they know’. Do you agree? Why/Why not?
Yes and no. I think authenticity of voice is important and lived experience is key to that. But writing is also the realm of imagination. Again, I think this is something to be considered with the lens of power in mind.
Why did you enter this year’s Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
I was really interested in the theme of the ‘the aftermath’ and how that could be interpreted. I was also very impressed by the previous entries and the line-up of judges. On a personal level, I hadn’t been writing new material for a while and this was a great opportunity to challenge myself to get back out there and into it.
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 Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic, which was an unsettling, haunting tale of displacement and journeys both intentional and unplanned. I have a long list of books to read, as I always do – I’ve downloaded a snippet of The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris and am looking forward to reading it in full. I’ve had Wolf Hall on my to-read list for some time as well.
What is your earliest literary memory? Did you have any favourite books or authors growing up? How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I was a huge bookworm as a child and loved all sorts of books, from the Harry Potter series to Agatha Christie mysteries. In fact, I read just about every Agatha Christie novel in my teenage years and they are still my go-to comfort reads. I also loved a lot of Australian female authors like Robin Klein, Jaclyn Moriarty, Maureen McCarthy and Emily Rodda. Their books are a portal to growing up in the 1990s and 2000s – the nostalgia is real!
If you could read only one book (or story) and nothing more for the rest of your life, what would it be, and why?
Can I pass on this one? I don’t think I could pick just one! I have a book for every mood so I don’t think one book would cut it for me.
Where do you hope to see yourself, and your writing, in 10 years’ time? What’s your ultimate writing/publishing goal?
My first aim is to keep writing. This is half the battle when you have a living to make and all the commitments modern life entails. It’s also easy to become discouraged with rejections and this is why simply continuing to write is an important goal. I think continuous improvement is also important – if my writing is the same in 10 years as it is now, that would be a problem. Ultimately, I’d love to have a novel (or two) published by then.
Where can people follow your work? (publications, social media, etc)
Nowhere right now! I have no specific internet home at present, but that may change in the future.
She sees the girl in the hijab first through the frosted glass window. The girl wears a coral ruffled hijab, stark against the beige and grey of her office. The girl is typing and does not look up. Few of them do. She knows little of what work they undertake, only that they are lawyers and eat purchased salads at their desks. As she empties their bins, they stare at their screens and wear headsets over their ears and speak to people with their hands placed under their chins.
The girl must be new. She hasn’t seen anyone wearing a hijab in this building before. She knocks on the door. The girl looks up briefly. She has fine eyebrows, skin the colour of diluted milky chai. She looks too young for an office of her own, for the pinstriped suit jacket splayed across the back of her chair.
Can I do the bins now, miss. Please.
Somehow, she knows to address these people as miss, sir, ma’am. She always has, even to girls as young as this one.
The girl’s eyes are trained to the glow of the screen again. Her fingers, which are painted maroon, tap against the keyboard. On her wall is a framed certificate with a name on it. Alia. The cadence of the name, the shape of the letters as they appear alongside each other in capital letters, somehow suits the girl.
She reaches for the bin with a gloved hand and empties its contents into the black bag she carries. There is very little in it – a tissue smeared with lipstick, an empty packet of chewing gum. She is finished in a moment and walks towards the door.
Do you pray with the polish on?
She points at the girl, Alia’s, fingernails. She hadn’t intended to speak but the situation of the girl has piqued her interest. Her youth, her messy stack of files, her coral hijab and painted fingernails.
Oh, you’re Muslim too!
Alia laughs. She looks up now, leans back into her chair.
Well, I’m a bit lax with that stuff, actually. Should probably wipe it off, hey?
Alia laughs again. Her teeth are so white. All the young people seem to have perfect teeth now, shiny and straight and white like pearls.
It’s not necessary.
She is embarrassed now. She should not have spoken. She is old enough to be this girl’s mother, but the girl soils items she gets paid to clean. They can have nothing to say to one another. She dips her head and disappears into the corridor before Alia can ask for her name and how long she has been cleaning this office floor and building.
She removes her socks and shoes at the apartment door and places them on the shoe rack, the socks still balled inside the shoes. She will retrieve them later and wash them in cold water in the sink. She hangs up her jacket and handbag and carries the plastic bag into the kitchen. The tiles are cold against her bare feet. She unpacks the items in the plastic bag and lines them up on the counter: a fresh bunch of coriander, its leaves slightly wet, a small knob of ginger and a large packet of red lentils.
First, she will pray maghrib, then she will make daal and rice. She eats this dinner most nights. She had never really liked red meat, had cooked it only because Farid had asked her to. She likes eating fish, but fish is particularly expensive at present and reserved for a single serving on the last Sunday of every month. Ginger and coriander are expensive too but the daal would not taste of anything but powders without it. She will freeze the ginger and coriander and use it sparingly, stretch it out to flavour the next fortnight of meals.
She will not enter the bedroom yet. If she permits her head to touch the pillow, she will fall asleep, and she cannot do that this early into the evening. She takes stock of her body, wiggling each toe and finger in turn. Her left arm is heavy from the elbow upwards and her right knee twinges, as it often does when it rains. She sits on the couch, in the spot where it sags in the middle, and switches on the television. She will watch a quiz show and eat her daal and she will enjoy both things together. After the meal, she will eat a piece of dark chocolate from the elastic-bound block she keeps stored in the fridge.
Later in the evening, her sister Shahana will call from Bangladesh. She can set her clock by it. On alternate weekdays, Shahana will call at this time, first on video and then on audio when the connection drops out. Shahana fills the time talking about her baby grandson, her newly married niece in Queens, New York, her neighbour’s driver who smokes for hours downstairs. Shahana can talk for many minutes at a time. She is the type of person for whom silence from her audience is an inducement to continue talking. Still, Shahana is kind. She is kind to set aside the time to call her sister so frequently when she has a husband and children and grandchildren and her sister does not.
Alia is not there the next few times she comes around to clean. The certificate with her name on it is still framed on the wall, her pointed black heeled shoes tucked under her desk. Presumably she will return.
When she sees Alia next, the girl’s skin is several shades darker. This, another trend of the young. She moves towards the bin and hopes to slip out unseen. She thinks she has accomplished it, but at the door, Alia lifts her head from her computer.
It’s my first day back today. 210 bloody emails, and that was with me checking it every second day even while on holiday.
Alia sounds exasperated. She taps her fingernails against the desk. They are bare today, unvarnished.
Where did you go?
She does not know why this girl is speaking to her. Perhaps it is because they are both Muslim. Perhaps she would speak to anyone in this way.
Europe trip with my best friend. It was heaven. Have you been?
No, I have not.
She turns away again. She has not been anywhere besides Australia and Bangladesh, a short layover in Singapore. She has nothing to say to this girl about Europe trips.
Sorry! Sorry. Europe trip, blah blah, I know I sound like such a white person now. It happens when you hang out with this lot all the time.
Alia turns her head to indicate the rest of the office, then waggles her head conspiratorially. It is an amusing gesture, and she struggles not to laugh, even as she moves towards the door.
Your parents, they were happy for you to go?
Alia shrugs, swivels her chair. She is wearing a pastel purple hijab today, the ends tucked into the bowels of her shirt.
I’m a lawyer, and I’m engaged. What more could they want?
She notices for the first time the glint of the stone on the girl’s finger. She is about to mouth a congratulations when the sound of a phone ringing blares through the computer screen. Alia nods at her and she knows that she must leave the office now. They smile at each other, and Alia answers the call. She will come back and speak to Alia next time, whenever that is. She thinks she might like that.
She does not see Alia every time after this. Even when she does, Alia is often occupied on calls and mouths a silent hello. But sometimes the girl is sitting at her desk, and on those occasions, they exchange a few words. Mostly, Alia talks and she listens, just as she does with Shahana. Alia shows her pictures of her fiancé, Matteo, who she says converted to Islam when he was just sixteen, and who her parents now adore after their initial scepticism. Alia swears and chews gum, smells of perfume. She rolls her eyes at her colleagues and calls them typical trust fund Knox Grammar boys. She doesn’t understand precisely what Alia means by that, but she laughs just the same as she clears the bin, laughing a little to herself even as she walks down the corridor away from Alia’s office.
One day Alia asks her if she has any children. She says she does not and Alia does not ask any further questions. She decides she likes Alia for this, for her ebullient self-absorption. Alia is bright and full of opinions on the world. She has entered a different world, one previously only accessible to rich white men and women in suits, and she seems to be holding her own with them. She is not offended that Alia has not asked her if she has a husband. She supposes that a girl like Alia in her twenties, who is due to marry and who could marry anyone she chooses, would think every older woman married, if she happened to think about it at all.
There is something wrong with Alia today, that much is evident. Her lips are glossed and she is occupied with her screen but her mind is somewhere else entirely.
She does not try to speak or ask what the matter is. Alia must speak to her if she chooses. She has one foot in the corridor already when Alia begins.
I’m a fucking mess. I can’t keep it together. Matteo says he isn’t sure we should go ahead. He said I should keep the ring. I gave it back to him. Why would I want a ring when he doesn’t want me? He doesn’t want me anymore. He doesn’t. How am I going to go on? What am I going to do?
Alia says this in one breath, then exhales. She seems to fold in half like a piece of paper. Ordinarily, Alia is in motion, some part of her body pivoting, shuffling. At rest, underneath the puff of her hijab, she is small, birdlike. She had not noticed this about Alia before.
My husband died last year. Farid.
Alia does not respond, but underneath the silk of her shirt, her shoulders stiffen almost imperceptibly.
I was never by myself before. We were together always. We could not have children but he was with me always.
She does not know why she is telling Alia this, except that she must. She has not spoken the words to anyone before. People had either known, or if they had not, she had not told them.
Alia waves her hands.
How do you keep going? I don’t understand how you can keep going after that.
I do. I just do.
Why are you telling me this?
She shakes her head. She cannot explain to Alia that she misses Farid as she would a layer of abraded skin but that she has also slowly grown to relish the solitude at the end of each day. She will finish her shift in an hour, meld with the crowd on the train and spend the evening in any way she pleases. She does not need Shahana to call but she will enjoy speaking with her nonetheless, just as she enjoys her conversations with Alia. The aftermath had contained many things and she has learned that not all these things are terrible. She can live on. She is stronger than she appears, the cleaner with the gloves and wispy hair.
You will be okay. I know it.
She reaches into her pocket and locates a packet of chewing gum she had placed there some weeks ago. She leans across the desk and offers it to Alia, who hesitates only for a moment before placing it in her mouth and beginning to chew.