We are delighted to announce Xiaole Zhan as the winner of the KYD Creative Non-Fiction Essay Prize 2023 for their essay ‘Think an Empty Room, Moonly with Phone Glow’!

‘Think an Empty Room, Moonly with Phone Glow’ is a lyrical personal essay on digital spaces and family. The writer reflects on maintaining links with family overseas via the internet and the fine line between the private and the public.

Read Xiaole’s winning essay here.

Xiaole Zhan (they/them) is a Chinese New Zealander writer and composer currently based in Naarm where they are completing their third year of university studies. They are the winner of the 2023 Landfall Young Writers’ Essay Competition. Their name in Chinese, ‘小乐’, means ‘Little Happy’ but also be read as ‘Little Music’.

Judge Caitlin McGregor, winner of the inaugural 2022 prize, says:

‘Zhan deftly weaves collected moments and reflections into a beautifully executed, cleverly structured essay. Deceptively subtle and accessible, it’s ultimately a complex piece about the lines that connect and separate people—train lines, bloodlines, borders, online connections, lines of poetry—and distils its themes with a lyricism that feels both fresh and controlled.

This essay reminded me of how creative and essayistic memoir writing can be. Every time I returned to the piece, I found new connections, or another layer of meaning to the small moments it holds so skillfully. It’s a delight to read, and I’m thrilled to have been given the opportunity to select Xiaole Zhan’s essay as this year’s prize winner.’

We’re also delighted to announce two runner-up essays:

‘Revelation: On Trepanation’ by Ria Kealey

An essay on the writer’s ongoing fascination with the practice of trepanation—the ancient practice of drilling a hole in the skull. Moving through ancient sources, fragments of journal entries and recollections, this piece probes at obsession, and the blessings and limits of revelation.

Ria Kealey (they/them) is a trans poet and editor living and working on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri people. Their work can be found in Pure Nowhere and Soul Sighs, or experienced live at Saint Seb’s Salon, the monthly poetry event they run in Coburg. They hope you find yourself lovingly haunted by their words.

Caitlin McGregor says:

‘“Revelation” explores its topic with a poet’s eye and a researcher’s focus and rigour. It skillfully strikes a tricky balance between introspection, research and storytelling, and treats its potentially shocking subject with an intense interest that never tips into melodrama—the result is a delicate, adept and often surprising essay.’

‘Unholy Anorexia’ by Coco Stallman

A personal and historical exploration of the phenomenon of ‘holy anorexia’ and other spiritual manifestations of fasting, hunger and want. The writer draws upon scientific papers, historical journals, films and their own life to dispel ideas that glorify disordered eating.

Coco Stallman is a twenty-two-year-old woman from Eora (Sydney) living in Naarm (Melbourne). She studies creative writing at The University of Melbourne.

Caitlin McGregor says:

‘This essay wrestles with contradictions and does so carefully and bravely. While it draws from an impressive range of research, the thinking is original and alive on the page—the experience of reading ‘Unholy Anorexia’ is like witnessing the essayist think through complex ideas in real-time. The willingness of this essay to sit in ambiguity and uncertainty—to avoid the temptation of coming to any easy answers—allows a rich and layered exploration of its subject.’

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Xiaole receives $3,000 in prize money, donated by Kill Your Darlings; Ria and Coco both receive $1,000. All three winning essays will be published in KYD in 2023.

Designed to celebrate and showcase outstanding and illuminating non-fiction writing, the second year of the prize attracted almost 200 entries from around Australia, across a broad range of topics and styles. Catch up on our 8 brilliant shortlisted entries, and thanks to everyone who entered!