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  • Guest Writer

Judges Report: Short Fiction

Sue Orr 

Salient called the orators to the campfire, and to the campfire they came. Some told stories, others were there to listen—to their ancestors, to their lovers, to our peat fire planet, smouldering exhausted from the inside out. Some pyromaniacs turned up to burn shit such as grammar and narrative logic, just for the fun of it. I suspect they, of everyone, had the best time.

The winning story, Fire Engines, dropped its readers into a futuristic Wellington that some days feels as though it’s already arrived. A couple watches as Matairangi’s (Mount Victoria’s) old wooden homes burn to the ground below them, to be replaced by skyscrapers. The nearby Home for Decommissioned Public Servants goes up in flames. Was it empty? Officially, yes. But what of the black fire engines?

Fire Engines is a call to action against political and environmental indifference, etched in chilling, unforgettable prose. The assured voice snares us from the very first sentence and refuses to let us look the other way. It’s rare to sink into a story knowing, immediately, that the author has absolute command over every aspect of the telling—originality, tension, plot, character, structure and style. Virginia Woolf said style was all about rhythm in storytelling. She reckoned if you got the rhythm right, then it was impossible to choose the wrong words. The writer of Fire Engines never missed a rhythmic beat. Other stories came close, but faltering craft ultimately nudged them down the shortlist. Grammar matters. Spelling matters. Dangling and misplaced modifiers most definitely matter. Read your stories out loud, writers. Be like Virginia. Listen to the rhythm. 

Real took out second place and lit a different kind of flame. The unnamed protagonist meets up with an old childhood friend, Squid. Squid’s a user and has recently been exhibiting symptoms of a raging poetry addiction, including an exploded vocabulary and lyrical phrasing. The pair ingest from a buffet of poetic offerings before the protagonist finds the perfect high in her own work.

Real is sassy—effortlessly clever, riding drug tropes hard while never losing sight of its true intention, the celebration of poetry. It’s also very funny. I challenge you not to feel sorry for the hapless Squid. “I preferred what you gave us last week. Acrostic poetry just hits all the buttons in my brain” he says of their dealer’s newest tab. Poor Squid. He was destined not to get it.

Crushing, in third place, scales the highs and lows of a woman’s infatuation with the checkout operator at her local health food store. It too is delightfully funny, in a Fleabag kind of way. We empathise with her tolerant, sweet boyfriend, who endures the crush until it comes to an end that’s both inevitably organic and pathetically artificial. Again, craft elevated this story into a prizewinning position, ahead of other stories that were strong in originality but stumbling in execution in small ways.

I judged this competition without knowing who the authors are and I look forward very much to finding out their names. Congratulations, Salient, on a most excellent bonfire.


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