2020 Judges: Alice Pung & Alan Vaarwerk
Winner — Termites by Neha De Alwis (Year 12, Nossal High School, VIC)
ALICE: I fell in love with the energy and voice of this story from the very first paragraph. I was hooked by the sheer poetry of this piece. It is not poetic in the sense that it is florid, but because it conveys a very steady heartbeat throughout, a mono-manic obsessive rhythm. It is one of the most original stories I have read, fresh, funny and with a completely convincing teenage protagonist. It does not resort to the usual clichés about the narrator’s condition, and it incorporates the narrator’s culture so seamlessly and organically, as the best stories should. Neha’s use of metaphor is excellent, and I found her use of very simple language to turn stunning somersaults without posturing or teetering overboard an incredible feat. Although this is a complete self-contained short story (a rare feat for an author of any age), I could have read a novel about this character. It is a great privilege to be privy to the beginning of a talented new writer’s journey!
ALAN: Termites is an inventive and engaging depiction of obsessive-compulsive disorder that not only provides a compelling description of the illness’s physical manifestation but engages with the important issue of cultural stigma and under-diagnosis of mental health conditions in young people of colour. The story has an assured voice, combining punchy, direct language with well-executed textual devices such as second-person narration and extended metaphor, both of which are hard to pull off effectively. Fictional depictions of obsessive-compulsive behaviours and mental health conditions are so often over-written or twisted into cliche, which makes Neha’s fresh and compelling work all the more commendable. Neha is a unique and vital new literary voice with a bright future in writing.
Runner-up — ‘Binary Blues’ by Isabel Ye (Year 12, Meriden, NSW)
ALICE: Isabel’s story, told with great nuance and restraint, is a portrait of a mother and child relationship written so well that the characters linger long after the last sentence. This story conveys a palpable sense of place and strong emotional arc, and Isabel has a wonderful grip on honest dialogue – the teenage character sounds exactly like a teenager, struggling to come out to a parent who they predict will react a certain way. What is left unsaid, the thoughts between the lines of speech, is conveyed with no melodrama, just raw feeling. The last sentence is searing, yet exactly in league with the character.
ALAN: This is an assured and sensitively told story of a teenager coming out as queer and nonbinary to their mother on a trip to Beijing. Isabel’s writing is subtle but powerful, particularly in the descriptions of setting and body language. This is a story which conveys a lot within a short space; its restrained style heightens the sense of heartbreak and its characters feel like they have lives beyond the narrative itself. Isabel is a very talented young writer whose work I cannot wait to read more of in future.
General Judging Comments from Alice Pung:
It was truly difficult to judge the School Writing Prize this year due to the very high standard of entries. I was heartened to read superb stories about bushfires, the protests in Hong Kong, the scourge of colourism, the agonies of anxiety, tokenism, the objectification of young women, among other pressing issues. These stories were insightful, empathetic and sophisticated. As Maxine Beneba Clarke wrote last year about the inaugural prize, the future is indeed in good hands.
Thank you to all the students who submitted their stories, and the teachers and mentors who supported them. My greatest admiration goes to every student who entered the prize this year – not only would you have had to write a story, but edit it, redraft it and then, most daunting of all, send it off into the world! All the very best with your writing, and we look forward to hearing from such original and wonderful voices again in the future.