21 August 2017

Meet the 2017 John Marsden Prize Shortlist – Nonfiction

In 2017, over 630 secondary school students from across Australia entered The John Marsden & Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers. Fifteen talented young students made it on to the shortlist in categories of fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

In the lead-up to announcing the winners at the 2017 Melbourne Writers Festival, we’re introducing you to each and every young writer on our list. Meet our nonfiction writers.

Noa Abrahams, Embracing Scoliosis

Why do you write nonfiction?
I write non fiction because I am inspired by how much it empowers me to communicate my ideas to others. Written word is such a great platform to share ideas and learn from people both similar to me and coming from a completely different place conceptually. Being able to contribute to this medium helps me explore my identity as well as learn about how others view the world.

Who are your favourite writers? What are your favourite books?
I love pretty much every book I start reading, unless it’s scary! Right now I’m into Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and I have recently read Funny Girl by Nick Hornby. Both explore the challenges faced by women in patriarchal societies and the expectations that they are supposed to live up to, and while they are set in very different times, it’s interesting that both shed light on issues still relevant in our society today. Jane Austen’s writing is nothing new, but it’s new for me: her style is so beautiful and I feel very fancy when reading her novels. Hornby’s is similarly captivating- his ability to really get into his characters’ minds in such detail is very inspiring for me, as I”d love to develop my creative writing skills in the future.

Can you tell us a bit about Embracing Scoliosis? Why did you choose to write it?
My piece, ‘Embracing Scoliosis’ is about my ongoing treatment for a curvy spine, and the challenges and nuances I have come across from wearing a back brace for the last three years. It is intended partly to give insight into a fairly unknown treatment for a fairly common condition, but also to reach out to other teenagers who really struggle with their brace. I know I have been very fortunate to be in such a positive situation in terms of an early diagnosis, a supportive community and little concern about its impact on the rest of my life, but most people find it really hard, and I hope to inspire them to see it from a different perspective, in a more positive light. I also hope to show by example that a medical condition does not label who I am, and shouldn’t label who anyone else is. Everyone has issues that they have to overcome in one way or another, but these things don’t need to get in the way of enjoying life and having fun.

Keeley McCaffrey,  ADHD: My Unspoken Secret

Why do you write nonfiction?
I write nonfiction because I want to tell a story that needs to be told. I use this form of writing as a tool to teach people about something that they might not otherwise have experienced or thought about.

Who are your favourite writers? What are your favourite books?
This is a challenging question to answer as I read so much and have such diverse interests. Some of my favourite books and authors include The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer, My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier, The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini and The Divergent Series by Veronica Roth. I could go on but there would be too many to name!

Can you tell us a bit about My Unspoken Secret
When I was 11 years old I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In my piece I wanted to explain what ADHD is, what it is like being at school with this disorder and how my experience could be improved. However, this story is not just about me. Between 3 and 5 of every 100 children in Australia have ADHD. I wanted to become a voice for those who could not share their experiences. I wanted to tell the truth about this disorder and challenge the misinformed views that some people hold.

Why did you choose to write it?
I chose to write this piece because it addresses something that is important to me and is something that I feel strongly about. ADHD is a part of my past, present and future, but it is something that I won’t let define who I am.

Angela Chen, From, From?

Why do you write nonfiction?
Up until this year, I wrote fiction exclusively. I thought it was the only way to provide true entertainment, or enlightenment, through the written word. (Poetry is another matter.) When encouraged by my teachers and parents to write about something from my own life, I’d always echo the same, stale response: “But I’m too bo-ring.” It wasn’t until I read Alice Pung’s “Growing Up Asian in Australia” that I actually recognised autobiographical writing as a legitimate form of creative expression. The accounts in the collection were simple, pure and not distant from my everyday life — and that, to my surprise, was what actually appealed about them, to me. I’d never personally resonated with a piece of writing so much before. Finally, I felt, finally, this was me, little facets of me weaved into and reflected in the collection. By sharing pieces of myself in my biographical works, I want to help people uncover – and share – hidden pieces of themselves.

Who are your favourite writers? What are your favourite books?
I love reading other writers’ work, so it’s difficult for me to pin my response down to a single piece. Something incredible I’ve read recently is Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers For Algernon”. The novel follows the journey of Charlie, an intellectually disabled man who is suddenly given the opportunity to become a genius. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s by no means your predictable science-fiction intergalactic extravaganza. The science behind Charlie’s tale feels like it’s just lingering around the corner. As a result, the novel is more poignant and humanistic than you might expect from a science-fiction work. It plunged itself right into the extremities of my emotions — and pushed against the boundaries. The way in which his journey was mirrored, and foreshadowed by, that of the eponymous Algernon (a super-intelligent lab mouse) was heart-achingly beautiful. What does it really mean – “to be human” – after all? It’s not like I needed my heartstrings.

Can you tell us a bit about From, From?
My piece, “From, From?”, is – and I do hate to be cliché – a true story. I know it’s true; it’s my own. “From, From?” is a series of episodic events interlinked by a common theme: my ongoing struggle, as an Asian Australian, to identify exactly “where I’m from”. The title, and basis of the ‘story’, is inspired by that question every ethnic Australian has been asked — “But where are you from, from?”

Why did you choose to write it?
Australia is commonly known as a cultural melting pot and a land of thriving multiculturalism. Yet a pervading tone of anger and depression has been a common feature of the recent pieces to do with being ethnic in Australia (and Britain, and America) that I’ve read. Perhaps, it’s a telling impression of the cultural tension being parroted at as by the media and current political climate. While, admittedly, it might be down to just elevating a story’s dramatic appeal, I couldn’t help but feel that these narratives, these sensationalised news stories, didn’t reflect my own still-developing journey, growing up Asian in Australia. Racial tensions in Australia have by no means reached a resolution, but I think it’s important to reflect on, and take pride in, the progress we’ve made. Through “From, From?”, I wanted to put out my own more positive experience navigating, coming to terms with, and (eventually) embracing the cultural differences between myself and those around me. I wanted to inspire anyone, and everyone, to open up, and perhaps even more magnificently harmonise with those around them.

Leona Ngo,  Two Parts of a Whole

Why do you write nonfiction?
Ever since I was young, I had always had a tendency to write in a journal. Nonfiction I think, is a mature and developed continuation of this. As such, journaling/nonfiction provided me with a way to communicate the unfiltered, unadulterated truths about the events and occurrences happening around me. I also found that it was a good way to clear my head.

Who are your favourite writers? What are your favourite books?
I can’t quite decide on my favourite literature, so here are a few that I’ve read over the past few years.

Two years ago, I lugged my massive 928-page copy of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q94 to school every day for an entire week to read. My friend and I sat on the veranda at lunch reading our own individual copies until the bell rang. It was fun, I liked reading it, I read many other Murakami books after.

Last year I read the coming-of-age novel Funny Boy, by Shyam Selevadurai. It was a confronting novel, and I was able to learn about another life, in another culture, in another time.

This year I read Dog Years: A Memoir, by Mark Doty. It’s a poignant memoir about a period of Doty’s life in association with his dogs, and I think it’s a wonderfully intricate and eloquent piece of nonfiction.

But I think my all-time favourite novel is The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. No matter how many books I study at school or how many novels I read over the years, Salinger’s novel has always resonated with me.

Can you tell us a bit about Two Parts of a Whole?
“Two Parts of a Whole” is a sort of avalanche of my consciousness. I imagine my submission as a memory of rain, tears, my family, burning incense, and the feeling of adversity. It tries to communicate some of the tumultuous emotions I felt leading up to the passing of my grandparents in a car accident earlier this year. It tries to share what I could not tell. I think the take-home message of my submission is “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone”. It’s something I have taken in stride after my experiences and writing about them. I guess this is in a way, a preservation of what I can remember.

Why did you choose to write it?
I think nonfiction is a unique medium to explore truth and the fiction that inevitably coexists within it. My authorial intention was to (1) preserve my memories of my grandparents, and (2) to understand that life in writing, cannot be without its embellishments. I should clarify though, this is indeed a work of non-fiction, the events are real and they happened, but how can you ever really tell?

Paul Huynh, I Know

Why do you write nonfiction?
Actually, I don’t generally write non-fiction at all. I tend to write creative fiction, but this time round, since I had a good prompt for some non fiction (i.e, my life), I figured why not just take it and run.

Who are your favourite writers and your favourite books?
It’s gonna be a cliche but I have to choose Harry Potter and JK Rowling. Just the way she tells a story is unmatched. Apart from that, I’ve been getting into reading a lot of short stories, and I absolutely love every single one of Roald Dahl’s. Every time I read a story, it feels like I’m reading something fleeting and slippery, that it will be gone once you put it down. Sounds weird, but get back to me after you’ve picked up Kiss Kiss and we’ll talk then.

Can you tell us a little bit about I Know?
Growing up in an Asian family in Australia, my parents have really different values to me and to Australian society, and I wrote this at a time when I guess I was just really frustrated with them. It’s part memoir, part slice of life – it’s designed to almost be like reading a film montage.

Why did you choose to write it?
I think I’ve always wanted to explore a little bit into my parents’ background, and especially my dad’s. Everyone talks about the hardships that refugees experience, and I’ve never really taken much interest in that part of my parents’ life, which I feel really bad about. Honestly, the story of your parents and how they came to be where they are should be an integral part of your life. Every person has a story. Go ask them.