30 November 2022
The 2022 Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers Nonfiction Winner – S.D Munawara
S.D Munawara’s story Mental Funerals has been awarded The 2022 Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers in the category of creative nonfiction. Munawara was presented with the award online at the National Young Writers Festival at a special event, and won a $500 cash prize, an exclusive book pack from Hachette Australia and acknowledgement of their winning entry in Express Media’s flagship publication Voiceworks.
Read Munawara’s winning piece below.
My father’s funeral unfolds on the stage, the women’s side of Fitzroy mosque. I sit against the wall furthest from everybody else, flanked by the faded green plastic armchairs some of the older women use to pray. Just a minute ago all the women were lined up in flawless horizontal lines, our movements perfectly synchronised as we bowed and straightened and bowed again, performing the unfamiliar and confusing prayer for the dead. Now the stage is alive with swishing scarves and waving hands, tight clusters of women around the leading lady.
The leading lady is my Mother. It doesn’t suit her. Mama isn’t accustomed to being the focus of anything. Middle child, never graduated, small wedding. She squints against the spotlight as if that would make less light illuminate her but it is relentless. A widow never goes unnoticed. Every time I glance over she is holding the hand of a woman I vaguely recall from childhood, and there is a disjointed, visible-if-you-squint queue of family friends waiting for their turn to jump in and offer kind platitudes.
Heaven and sinning are the only topics of conversation. May God forgive him for all his sins. May we all be reunited in heaven. With every sentence uttered I see my father’s record get a little cleaner, a little purer, until it tells nothing of what he’s done. It makes me sick rather than soothing me as intended. This, at least, I know how I feel about.
I wonder how Mama feels. I zoom in on her face, contemplate each pore of it, letting the crowd blur as she becomes my only focus. Her hands flit around, tucking and untucking her hijab. Is she feeling overwhelmed by the attention? I watch as she steals a deep breath in the brief space where one well-wisher replaces another. Weary? Is her heart-breaking, for the second time? Her blank eyes drift away from the woman she is speaking to, looking past her shoulder, past the mass of women, through the mosque walls, and I’m sure she is seeing the faded red brick exterior of our little apartment. She must be scared. Worried about what we are going to do for money, worried about sleeping in a house without a man to protect us, worried about my sister and I, who she feels still need a father and no longer have one. Her eyebrows smooth and furrow, her tears fall and dry, her chin tilts up and then swings down. She gives me with nothing imitable. Her face flickers from one emotion to the next before I can arrange my own features into a replica.
It’s his body I need to see, I think. Then I’ll know what to feel, how to be. The women begin to filter back outside through the entrance, ducking and jostling to get their shoes on and then pouring out onto the skinny, sunlit sidewalk. Somali funerals are gender segregated, just like everything else we do. From here the men will continue on to the graveyard and watch my father descend into the earth, seal him off from the busy world of the living and leave him still, taskless, harmless. There are 24-packs of water and boxes of dates in the trunk of every car, ready for drop off. The women will manage the journey to our house with the cars left behind, many with extra offerings, pots and Tupperware they plan to leave too so my mother doesn’t have to cook.
I stand in the middle of the chaos, letting the negotiations about who is travelling with whom float over my head. I’m conscious of the invisibility afforded to me as I walk by, crossing the road, sliding into the backseat of one of the many cars in the convoy of mourners. The man in the driver’s seat is barking into his phone, restating the directions to the graveyard he’s getting from his friend. A few people walk by and tap on the window to talk to him, a man who’s lost, a couple who missed the prayer, his wife grabbing a stray plate she forgot. I can’t buy time forever though, and then we’re off, the car joining the rest of the procession as we wade through Saturday afternoon traffic.
I get out of the car. I don’t blend in amongst the chequered shirts and grey suit pants but nobody pays any attention to me. All eyes are on the leading man.
The weather isn’t so bright anymore. The grey of the gravestones and gravel seems to touch everything and make it look duller than it had in the vibrancy of the mosque. The sun is dimmed, hidden in the sky behind wispy clouds. The air is still too, holding its breath just like me.
It’s a silent affair as they throw the dirt into his grave. At first the dirt skitters off the cloth around him, as if they weren’t up to the task of solidifying his death. Then the grave is white with brown. Then more brown than white. Then just brown, getting closer to me, until the ground is level again.
Time ticks by and still I’m waiting for something. There’s no sadness. No relief. No anger. No fear. Nothing.
My father walks would unfold in the evening. I would see him emerge from his room in his navy windbreaker, the wires of his headphones looped around his ears, and that was my cue.
He enters my field of vision from the left and exits on the right, and from there I have to rely on sound to know what he is doing. He zips up his jacket. Then shuffles into his shoes. The click of the doorknob. I think my role is almost over, but the door doesn’t swing open or fall shut. He is still standing there. I don’t dare look at him.
“You aren’t going to ask me?” he says, and this part was not in my script.
I would ask, usually. ‘What time are you coming home?’ is the line on normal days. I had always been an anxious child, desperate to keep everyone safe despite my limited capacity to do anything at all. My anxiety had always been a point of tension with my Dad. He thought it was ridiculous, though slightly amusing, and insisted that I had to grow out of it swiftly. Before his walks, however, my fretting was met with unusual warmth and affirmation. While my sister holed herself up in our shared bedroom, avoiding him, I would sit upright on the couch anticipating his arrival before he had even left; proof that at least one child cared about him.
I’m not allowed to ask today. The nights where my father yelled and threatened, a furious vow of silence was mandated to follow. My sister would put her arm around my shoulders, her grip as tight as her jaw, her anger so righteous I almost thought she might lift us both of the ground to someplace safe with the sheer power of it. My sister’s words would whirl around me, creating a haze so I saw his wrongs before his face.
I must stay silent. I must keep our sororal vow.
“What, so you don’t care if your father dies today, huh?”
I want to say it makes no difference to me. I want to say no, of course not, of course I care. My face reveals nothing, I’m sure. I keep my eyes on the television screen and my lips pressed together.
He leaves the apartment. I wait a few seconds to make sure he’s down the stairwell, and then stand to lock the door.
I know that my rage isn’t tethered like my sister’s. I know that I won’t be able to sleep until I hear a key in the lock and his footsteps past my bedroom. I know that eventually I’ll go back to asking.
My sister hates our dad. Her hatred has always been easy and unwavering for as long as I can remember. There is no second-guessing with her. Of that I am envious.
When my sister and I talk about our father, I regress to my five years old self again, following her lead like we’re in the living room we turned upside down on weekend mornings playing pretend. She is older, smarter, always right. She knows rules that I don’t, so I’d better copy her to be safe. Whenever I recite my lines, out of the corner of my eye I watch her expression, hoping for a smile that indicates approval.
Where my sister is a solid mass, a lighthouse that withstands glorious sunshine and storms with equal objectivity, my mother is the sea around her, forever in flux. I find both comfort and anger in my mother’s indecision. A part of me is tired of her phases. At times the waves crash over our heads, ripping the sand out from underneath us so we are flailing in ice-cold betrayal. She begs us to show my father respect and show him affection, to greet him at the door with a hug and enthusiasm. It isn’t long before she leaves his side, her surface serene and predictable, the water lapping against my legs playfully. On these days she rolls her eyes at us when he calls her phone, and sends us off to buy takeout with a smirk, leaving my father without dinner. I never know where her loyalties lie, whether she is our ally against the tyranny of our father, or his dutiful second.
My frustration is hypocritical though, because I see myself reflected in her uncertainty. Am I not also dutiful? I always answer his calls, though with a shaking hand. I pay attention during his grandiose speeches, give him the eye contact and head nods my sister denies him. I laugh at his jokes. I take his plate. I am his favourite and I don’t do anything to jeopardise my position. There are times I feel so bad for my father, and secretly, so ashamed of my sister’s behaviour, I try to be two daughters at once so he doesn’t notice.
Is it immoral, to be kind to a bad person? A sympathetic smile in the direction of my father feels like putting a knife through my mother’s back. Every text I send to make sure he’s okay is a betrayal to my sister, who wishes more than anything that he would leave and not come back, so that home is more than just the four yellow-white walls of our bedroom.
The worst part of my mother’s flickering but ever-present devotion is that it convicts me. I do not want to become her. I don’t want to be an adult, still accepting of my father’s cruelty, still incapable of summoning hatred or leaving him behind.
I have imagined my father’s death against the backdrop of every mosque in the city. I have made him die under sunny skies and thunderstorms, in dimly lit mornings and ink-dark nights. I have put him in caskets of oak and mahogany. In every funeral I have imagined I thought it was happiness I was waiting for. That was the natural conclusion, the right conclusion. I want to be able to face my father’s death and grieve nothing, mourn nothing. More alluring than that, perhaps, is having the problem eliminated entirely. For my anger and my confusion and my care to no longer matter. It is okay to have a complicated relationship with the deceased. There are no wrong or right ways to treat a dead man.
I still take a shovel to my mind sometimes, press dull end into the folds of my brain and dig a neat rectangular plot. It’s not my father I’m burying anymore, it’s my questions and my feelings and my memories I bury instead. I have killed my father many times, enough times. I have orchestrated dozens of funerals in my mind. Funerals where I cry, funerals where I shrug, funerals where I am possessed by regret, and I don’t know which of these is closest to the truth.