16 November 2017

Meet the 2017 Scribe Nonfiction Prize Shortlist – Bastian Phelan Fox

In the lead up to announcing The 2017 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers, we’re introducing you to every name and face on the shortlist. These are some of the brightest nonfiction minds in the country and they’re all aged 30 and under. Read their profiles on the Express Media blog to learn more about their writing journeys, love of nonfiction and their tips and tricks to writing the best real-life stories.

Bastian Fox Phelan, 30, New South Wales
Still Fierce

How did you begin writing?

My mother encouraged me to enter a creative writing competition, the Nestlé Write Around Australia Competition, when I was 11 years old. I wrote what could be described as a “cli-fi” ecofeminist story about frogs, and was the Regional winner in my area. Part of the prize was a haul of YA fiction, which I gobbled up, and from there I was pretty much hooked on writing. I studied a Bachelor of Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, and after uni I channelled all my writing energy into making zines. It wasn’t until I did NaNoWriMo in 2013 that I started to think about writing a book. Since that first 50,000 word outpouring I’ve been working on my manuscript, honing my craft and learning much more about writing and being a writer than I ever anticipated. For the last two years I’ve been a Master of Arts (Research) student at the University of Sydney, under the supervision of Dr Beth Yahp. I also meet regularly with a very supportive group of writers who have nurtured me and my writing for several years now. I have grown so much through the process of writing this memoir that I’m not even sure whether my reasons for beginning it are the same as my reasons for finishing it, but if there’s one common factor it’s the desire to share something of myself, my process of figuring out how to be myself.

Why do you write nonfiction?

My background as a writer of personal zines taught me the value of drawing on your lived experience to tell unique stories. I wrote the zine ‘Ladybeard’ about deciding to grow out my facial hair as a female, and the positive response to that little offering made me realise that people were interested in what I had to say about being the kind of human that never quite fits in, and that the way I was saying this resonated with my readers. Pondering the meaning of my marginally sex variant body and the various ways people react to it has given me a rich source of material to use in my writing; it’s been the catalyst for my memoir writing, along with my stubborn streak that says, ‘I’m not going to change for you’ – and the sensitive part that asks to be accepted. Of course, I haven’t been alone on this journey – the story of the self is as much a story of others, which is part of why I love memoir. It’s never about an individual, it’s about relationships, connections, how we come into our identities in the context of those relationships, the constant negotiation between the private, inner world and the public, social world as we try to work out who we are and how to be. I don’t think that process ever ends. I write as a way to celebrate the beauty of difference and diversity, to process the frequent instances of stigma I experience, to honour love and loves lost, to document personal, social and political history, to draw attention to environmental and bodily changes, to question the medicalisation of non-normative bodies and identities. Mostly I write memoir to give myself a voice, and to give hope to anyone who feels in any way different, but still wishes to be loved for who they are.

Why did you choose to write on this subject?

The piece I’ve submitted is based on the time in my life when I was living in Newtown, NSW, and I’d recently come out as queer and trans*, and had joined a grassroots political collective for sex and/or gender diverse people. It was an incredibly formative time – meeting other people like me, who were interested in carving out a space in society for people like us, well, that was huge! I received a firm political education from the members of this collective, and started to think about sex, gender and sexuality in a whole new way. I also started to think about the way society is structured – with certain people better placed to access benefits, certain people’s experiences centralised in the media, or in law, or in public spaces, and other people prevented from accessing those benefits, and their issues being treated as somehow insignificant or not relevant to wider society. The way one forms a political identity is a major part of this piece of writing, as is the idea of family, belonging, the security a family provides (chosen or biological) and the way families can both encourage and stifle independence.

I wanted to write about this time period and my relationship with this group because it’s a part of my history, but I also think that it will provide an insight, especially for younger gender diverse people, of what it was like to be exploring gender identity at a time when there was very little public discussion of gender identity. This was less than a decade ago, in 2010, yet so much has already changed, and is rapidly changing every day. Obviously not enough, judging by the ‘son in a dress’ panic response to the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey (and judging by the decision to conduct a survey instead of just voting in Parliament, thanks Malcolm), but when you have A-list celebrities coming out as transgender and gender fluid, and you have a massive increase in (non-transphobic) representation of transgender and non-binary people in the media, that definitely changes things. What we haven’t heard much of are the voices of people who aren’t already privileged by their celebrity status, people who are ‘just’ members of a community, people communicating their understanding of gender in their own words. There’s a lot of opportunities for young people to express their gender identity on social media, but not enough representation of their experiences in print, not enough content that publishers are getting behind, in my opinion. What I’ve tried to capture in this piece is what it was like to be young person negotiating gender in the early 2010’s, in a world that didn’t feel ready for me yet.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Stop thinking.