meet the winners of the 2023 rachel funari prize for fiction: 1st Place, “[faan uk kei]” by sydney khoo
sydney khoo’s story, [faan uk kei], won the 2023 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here’s a Q&A with sydney, plus their award-winning story!
Congratulations on winning the 2023 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction, sydney. Tell us a bit about yourself.
Hey, I’m sydney khoo (they/them), a nonbinary writer from Dharawal Country (South Western Sydney) born to Malaysian Chinese parents. My favourite pastimes include drinking bubble tea in Cabramatta, and going to outdoor cafés to write with my dog Gizmo.
Your winning story, [faan uk kei], ‘explores the suppression of personhood, and what it means to no longer recognise one’s own body as home’. What inspired you to write this particular story? And what or who inspires your work more generally?
The seed for this story was planted back when I first came out to my family as nonbinary. I left it to grow at the back of my mind for about four years. It was always going to be a story about gender, grief, and ghosts, but I hadn’t initially intended for it to be so grotesque.
In general, I try to draw from lessons I learn in life. Sometimes I experience situations where I’m not sure if there is a lesson, so I write in the hopes of discovering one.
[faan uk kei] was voted by the judges as the strongest and most impactful of the shortlisted pieces. They described it as ‘an assured and compelling short story that shows a writer confident in their craft and their experimentation with form and voice’ that ‘demonstrates excellent technical execution and embodiment of the theme’. Where do you believe this confidence to experiment with form comes from? And did you write [faan uk kei] specifically with the theme in mind?
I cannot verbalise how flattered I am to receive this feedback. To have my writing be perceived as “confident” is the highest compliment I could possibly be given. Thank you.
Until I read this, it did not occur to me “[faan uk kei]” would be considered experimental in form or voice. When drafting, I was focused on finding the voice in this story, but form didn’t cross my mind. I consider short stories very generous and flexible with form; since your word count is limited, you have to do whatever it takes to tell your story in the most concise manner possible.
In terms of the theme, I initially hoped to fit the story around “revolt” as in to cause disgust. The double meaning of “revolt” as in to rebel only became apparent when I was halfway through writing.
The opening lines are quite powerful and evoke an almost visceral response. How do you go about crafting a memorable opening paragraph? Is it something you begin with when you start working on a new piece or is it something you return to later in the redrafting process?
Because it’s hard to know where a short story should begin, particularly in a first draft, it’s common for my first line to end up being unnecessary backstory or worldbuilding that is ultimately scrapped. My focus when writing a short story is finding the voice, which more often than not requires a messy first draft. Once I find the voice, I go back and rewrite from the beginning, ensuring my first few lines encapsulate the tone of the work so readers know what they’re in for.
What do you think makes a great short story?
As a reader, I appreciate any story that makes me feel something. All stories are subjective, and writers cannot control how readers will interpret their work — but to be able to evoke emotion in someone through words written on a page is a form of magic I will always treasure.
Tell us about your upcoming debut novel, The Spider and Her Demons (August 2023, Penguin). What surprised you most about the publishing process?
The Spider and Her Demons is a YA urban fantasy about a spider-demon living above her aunt’s dumpling shop in Chinatown, Sydney. Juggling school, work, and friends, she’s managed to successfully hide what she is from the world — until she’s caught eating a man by the most popular girl in school.
Having taken a Publishing course at university, and having worked at a major publishing house prior, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the publishing process would be like. I think what surprised me most was how differently publishing houses operate from one another.
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?
With short stories, I edit as I go because it doesn’t take too long to rewrite a whole draft multiple times. I have the time and stamina to fiddle until I find the story’s voice. With stories on the longer side, I am more concerned with plot and structure (and finishing!) so I don’t worry about editing until the very end.
The Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction calls for stories by women and non-binary writers. What’s your view on diverse representation in publishing?
The publishing industry has a long way to go in terms of diversity. We may be able to read more stories by writers from marginalised communities, but the structure needs to be changed from the inside. Publishing in Australia is still predominantly white, cisgender and heterosexual — from the agents, to the editors, to the marketing and publicity teams, to the booksellers, to the interviewers and hosts. It’s not enough for major publishing houses to have a small diversity board or token hires; if we want true diversity and representation, we need systematic change.
Why did you enter this year’s Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
After I sent in my final proofread for The Spider and Her Demons, I was hoping to write a short story anywhere between 1,500 to 5,000 words. At that point, I hadn’t worked on anything other than the book in well over a year and was admittedly anxious I’d forgotten how to write anything else. I can’t work without deadlines, so I searched for competitions and submissions, and came across a post Aniko Press had shared about the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction.
Let’s talk books. What’s the last book you read? What are you currently reading? And what’s on your TBR pile?
I’ve just finished reading Two Can Play That Game by Leanne Yong (which unexpectedly had me in tears). My next read will be A Real Piece of Work by Erin Riley. I have quite a few TBR piles around the house but the one on my desk has: Want by Cindy Pon, A Magic Stepped in Poison by Judy I. Lin, and Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao.
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 memory is of a small square pink picture book with a story in it about bears. My parents would take turns reading it to me, but I loved it so much I memorised the words so I could read it to myself whenever I wanted.
Growing up, I preferred fan fiction over books — and I still do. All the stories that changed the trajectory of my life are fan fictions posted online by writers who just want to share their stories with fellow fans.
Fan fiction is not restricted by the confines of capitalism, where marketability can dictate which stories are published and how openly those stories can be told. Writers are free to explore their ideas without worrying about appealing to a wider audience, which results in more diversity and representation than most readers will find in traditional publishing.
I still try to read traditionally published books when I can, more so than I did when I was younger, namely in the YA space or spec-fic space, but fan fiction will always come first for me.
Where do you hope to see yourself, and your writing, in 10 years’ time? What’s your ultimate writing/publishing goal?
I prefer not to think that far in the future. Most of the time I’m only thinking as far as three months ahead and setting writing goals for the next few weeks. I’d love to eventually explore all the ideas on my backlog, but I try not to put too much pressure on myself.
My ultimate writing goal was always to finish writing a book, so anything that comes after this is a bonus.
[faan uk kei]
You never thought to ask your mother what she would do with your body in the case of your death.
Once your soul was gone, what did it matter? Cut it open and donate the insides. Place it in a box and lower it into the dirt. Burn it to ash and store it in an urn.
It hadn’t occurred to you, in all thirty years you were alive, that your mother would keep your dead body in the basement of your childhood home, praying to the goddess of mercy for your soul to find its way back to her.
You’re not sure how long you’ve been dead for. There are no windows in the basement, and when you look at the clock on the wall, the numbers come in and out of focus, as though you’re on the edge of sleep, grasping uselessly at consciousness.
When you were a child, you’d glance at it regularly, struggling to focus, just like this, stuck down here, doing practice paper after practice paper. Every weekend, your mother would keep you studying, from wake until sleep, until your neck ached from being bent over the exam book, until your fingers ached from gripping the mechanical pencil so long, until your head ached from being alive.
The only reprieve you’d receive was when your mother stopped to check over your work, comparing the answers you’d chosen to the ones she’d ripped out the back of the exam book.
You could count how many mistakes you’d made without her saying a word. Each time your mother found an error, she would pause, the tip of her pen against the bubble you’d coloured in. Her jaw would clench, so hard you could see the muscles in her neck bulging.
“Do you know how to read?” she would ask.
You would lower your chin and nod, focusing your gaze on the swirling patterns in the old dining table’s wood, tears pricking at the back of your eyes.
“Then how do you get so many questions wrong?”
When the exam book would hit the back of your head, you would wince. When the exam book would hit the table, you would bite back a sob.
“No good. No good. Mo yong ga lei.”
It never mattered if you made ten mistakes or one. Your mother didn’t use a scale to measure your goodness — she worked only in binaries. You were either good or you weren’t. You were either a success or a failure. There was no in-between.
“Zoi zou gor,” she would snap, flipping to a new test. “One hour. Go.”
Back then, you would look at the clock, at the hands ticking away time that could’ve been spent watching cartoons in the lounge, or reading books at the library, or having McDonald’s with friends.
Right now, your mother could be doing anything else. She could be on Skype, gossiping with your aunties. She could be playing mahjong down at the club, with other Chinese seniors. She could be having yum cha with your sister, who would drop anything she’s doing for the chance to reconnect.
Instead, your mother stays down here, in this windowless room, running her fingers through your corpse’s hair.
The hair and nails of the dead do not continue to grow, despite what anyone claims.
Your hair grew fast when you were alive, much to your mother’s displeasure. Every few months, she would sit you down on the edge of the bathtub, the cold lip of ceramic digging into the back of your thighs. You’d look down at your knees as she took Kmart clippers with the number five guard to your head, short black inky strands sprinkling over your clothes and onto the floor.
In your last year of highschool, you asked your mother if you could grow your hair out.
“No,” your mother replied. “You’ll look like a girl.”
Her refusal was expected, but the response irked you in a way you didn’t understand at the time — like she had nicked you with the trimmers, not quite breaking skin, but stinging enough to cause irritation.
When you started uni, you looked at the girls who sat in front of you in your lectures, at the way their hair fell down to their shoulders, down to their waists, down to their hips. Some of them would tie their hair up into ponytails, braid them in an assortment of knots, or leave them loose, each strand dancing with every slight movement.
At your first job, you met a girl with hair as short as yours — possibly even shorter. You remember your disorientation, at the realisation she managed to wear it much better than you.
Perhaps it was that she was wearing make-up — a gradient of colours over her eyelids and a vibrant purple lining her mouth. Perhaps it was her jewellery — necklaces, wrapping long loops around her neck, and chandelier earrings, tinkling every time she moved her head.
Perhaps was it her nails — long and sharp and covered in jewels that sparkled in the light, every time she ran her palm over the short bristles on her scalp.
Back then, you looked down at your hands. Your mother always made you keep your nails short. If she caught sight of them growing too long, she’d threaten to come into your room at night while you slept and clip them for you.
Now, you look down at your mother, trying to grip the stiff hand of your dead body in her own, wailing when the discoloured nails of your corpse’s fingers fall off entirely.
Your body had always felt like a house your mother built — bricks made from her tissue, cemented together with her tears and her sweat, painted all over with her expectations. Your mother owned your body the way a landlord owned the home you lived in; you were only ever a tenant.
When you were alive, a small part of you had wondered if, maybe when your mother died, you’d inherit the deed and the keys, and your body would be yours at last.
When your sister painted your nails for the first time, you both sat down in this very room, a tiny glass bottle of Rimmel nail polish in Rapid Ruby between you. Unscrewing the top filled the stuffy space with the sharp smell of chemicals. You both peered curiously at the small brush, bristles longer and more difficult to manoeuvre than you either of you expected.
As careful as your sister tried to be, red would slip from your nail-beds onto your skin. She tried to wipe it off with the side of her thumb, but all that did was leave matching smudges on you both.
“It’s okay,” you assured her. “It’s your first time. You’ll get better with practice.”
Your sister had offered you a small smile — unsure but hopeful.
Then you both startled, the sound of a car door slamming shut above you. The jangling of keys, of the front door being unlocked had your sister panicking, the nail polish brush slipping from her fingers and clattering to the table.
She hurried to pick it up, screwing it back into the vial and hiding it in her pocket.
“The remover’s in your room,” she whispered. “Quickly. Go to the bathroom. Turn on the shower. Wipe it off before Ah Ma sees.”
You never managed to figure out what it was about that moment that changed everything — that broke something inside you that could not be repaired. Maybe you were tired — worn down from a lifetime of doing everything your mother told you to do, of being who your mother told you to be.
Or maybe you realised, staring at your sister, perpetually petrified, that eventually one of you needed to be brave.
The first time you ever spoke back to your mother, determined, the first time you raised your chin at her, defiant, the first time you resisted, rebelled, revolted, was the first time your mother noticed her —
For a split-second, your mother could see the light of her, a barely-concealed flicker behind your eyes.
Whenever your mother raised her voice to you, your sister flinched from the sound.
Whenever your mother raised a hand to you, your sister cried in your arms.
The two of you were entwined, inseparable, in a way that made your mother rage.
When your sister’s skin bloomed with flowers, yellow, purple and blue, your organs turned cold, and your bones hardened to stone.
When your mother wished your sister dead, you felt the life inside of you flicker out.
You stopped recognising your body as home, a long time ago — long before your death. It’s even less recognisable now, bloated with sulphur, the buttons of the old flannel shirt your mother has dressed you in straining. All the visible flesh has turned a mottled dark purple, pallid skin sagging away like peeling paint.
An abandoned house, falling apart.
The stench must be suffocating, but your mother doesn’t waver. She lights incense and candles, kneeling on the floor surrounded by ash and wax, praying, praying, praying.
She doesn’t hear the sound of tyres rolling over loose gravel, the sound of the car door slamming shut, or the sound of the keys jangling against the front door.
She doesn’t hear your sister, calling out.
“Ah Ma? Are you home?”
You noticed your sister’s existence long before anyone else did — long before she stepped out into the world. She was always there — a light at the edge of your periphery, ever-present, growing brighter every time you looked at her.
It wasn’t like you had to switch places. It wasn’t like you had to die for her to be born. There was enough space for the both of you to live at once.
Your sister stands here now, at the top of the basement stairs of your childhood home, hand over her mouth, wide brown eyes darting between your mother sobbing on the floor, and your corpse rotting on the old dining table.
“Ah Ma, what have you done?” she whispers.
“My son.” Your mother bawls. “Please, I want my son.”
If you could speak, if you could manipulate electricity, or throw books off shelves, or claw words into walls, you would do it. You would tell your sister to leave.
She is down the stairs in an instant, trying to drag your mother away, up the stairs, out of the basement, and out the house.
“Mo mor ngo,” your mother screams, thrashing. “I don’t want you. I want my son.”
“He’s gone, Ah Ma,” your sister pleads. “There’s nothing you can do. You can’t bring him back.”
“He’s just sick. I can make him better. If I pray —”
“He’s dead!” your sister shouts. She’s shaking all over, shoulders and chest wracked with horror. “How long have you been down here? Why did you — We have to call someone.”
Your mother looks up at her.
Your sister has one hand tangled in her hair, long in a way your mother never let you grow yours. She’s trying to unlock her phone with her other hand, nails sharp and Rapid Ruby red. She must have gotten better doing them, because each nail is painted perfectly.
She’s grown up so much. You can still see yourself in her — or at least, who you used to be. She has the same eyes you had, only brighter. She has the same mouth you had, only she’s not afraid to open it. She has your height, your weight, your shape, your light, your dark, your history, your future, your soul.
For the first time in her life, your mother sees it too.
Your mother shoves your sister’s warm organs into your deflated corpse, alongside the maggots, the pus and the rot. On the old dining table in the basement, the once-stark Rapid Ruby nail polish stain is now indistinguishable from the fresh blood splattered against the wood, dribbling dark strings onto the cement floor.
You’re grateful that you’re already dead — that your soul cannot feel anger, sorrow or grief. If you were still alive, it might just kill you to know, that your mother would be willing to sacrifice her living daughter for a chance of bringing her long-dead son back to life.
sydney khoo (they/them) is a nonbinary and aromantic asexual writer, born on Dharawal Country (South Western Sydney), to Malaysian Chinese parents. Though typically drinking bubble tea in Cabramatta, or reading fanfiction in a McDonald’s carpark, they can occasionally be found writing poetry and stories at cafés with their dog Gizmo. Follow them on Twitter @sydneykhoo or visit sydneykhoo.com.