Winners of the 'Asia in a Few Words' Writing Competition

by Yvette Gilfillan

As Asian legend has it, if you fold one thousand paper cranes, your wish will come true.

Fortunately, the winners of our ‘Asian Stories’ writing competition had an easier time fulfilling their literary wish list—but they still worked hard! We were delighted to reward them at our fifth annual ‘Asia in a Few Words’ event at the Wollongong Art Gallery, which was held last Saturday on the 7th of April.

The South Coast Writers Centre presented the event in conjunction with the exhibition “Ornamental”, celebrating fifteen years of the Mann-Tatlow Collection of Asian Art. The oriental plates and vases were a stunning backdrop for our guest speakers Linda Jaivin and Luise Guest, who discussed their experiences as Australian authors working and writing in China. Not to toot our own horn, but could there have been a more perfect venue? I think not.

Their hilarious anecdotes ranged from the cultural expression of sexuality—ah, the scandal—to Chinese feminism. They got down to the nitty-gritty of transcultural and narrative spaces in art and literature, spanning across China, the USA and Australia.

Luise is a self-proclaimed ‘bad student of Chinese’ (her words, I swear!) and a research manager of the White Rabbit collection of contemporary Chinese art. At the event, she gave new meaning to her book Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China. Linda, our other esteemed guest, introduced her novel The Empress Lover and talked about her time in Beijing. These ladies were not afraid to tackle some of the big questions from our audience, so hats off to their badassery.

Linda Jaivin (left) and Luise Guest (centre), with Rike, the director of the SCWC

Photographed by Mary Stanley

Linda and Luise left a lasting impression on our audience—just a little alliteration for you there, folks. The Chinese tea was a real highlight, kindly donated by Ziggy’s House of Nomms. The tea and sweet biscuits went down a treat, and I won’t sugarcoat it—they were absolutely delicious.

Poetry Winner: Hasitha Adhikariachchi

Our poetry winner was the lovely Hasitha Adhikariachchi, with her poem ‘Wesak and Christmas’. With vivid, sensory imagery, she drew upon the parallels between the paper lanterns of her former home in Sri Lanka, and the fairy lights of her current home in Sydney.

Because we’re just so nice, we’ve included her poem in full below. Nothing but the best for our members!

‘Wesak and Christmas’ by Hasitha Adhikariachchi:

Santa clause never visits our house;

Not because there’s no chimney,

But we are a family of Buddhists.

His absence is a gift in disguise

Because I get to be the Santa;

I’m making a list and checking it twice.

Santa clause never visits our house;

Not because we’ve been bad kids last year,

Younger ones in my family say there’s no snow in December,

So, Rudolph doesn’t like to take the route through New South Wales.

In my eyes falling Jacaranda flowers are purple snow.

In summer, in autumn, and in winter I totally forget that they exist

Because they’ve been hiding,

Until they come out in their silky purple dresses for Christmas.

When I looked through the window in my unit on the third floor,

I see dozens of purple spots;

If I’d ever meet Rudolph,

I’d ask him to take the route through Lavender bay and Kirribilli.

Back in Sri Lanka in May,

Red Tabebuia trees in full bloom.

Their crown all red with tiny red flowers;

A blood red velvet scarf around their heads.

We used to celebrate Wesak, the birth of Lord Buddha,

We make paper lanterns, we light them and hang on trees,

On fences, on balconies and everywhere we could think of,

We’d carry flowers to temples and lit oil lamps there.

Boys animated like Santa’s Elvis on every street,

Offering people something to munch and sip on the way for free,

It was so much like Christmas out there,

Only a Christmas tree is missing.

When I walk on streets sparkling with fairy lights in Sydney,

I miss the paper lanterns I used to make,

I miss my home, but Sydney is my home away from home.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must make a list and check it twice

Because I told kids that Santa would visit us this year.


Prose Winner: Anthea Fraser Gupta

Now who won the coveted prose category? Drumroll please … Anthea Fraser Gupta! Cue the overenthusiastic applause from introvert writers—yes, you in the back wearing pyjamas. Her intriguing story ‘Tattoos: Sarawak Stories’ is based on a real-life experience she had whilst travelling. There’s a plot twist at the end that made the whole room gasp, so you can live vicariously through your screen and hold on tight.

‘Tattoos: Sarawak Stories’ by Anthea Fraser Gupta:

Between each knuckle of every finger on both hands, the boatman had a blue circle. Sixteen tattoos.

He took me across the lake to the waterfall. Beneath the fish farms lay his old home. The gardens, the rivers, each loved and named place had been drowned. The new longhouse, provided by the government in compensation, had been built downriver from the dam. It was concrete, clean, and well-planned, convenient for the town and all it had to offer. And they had stayed together, still a village, even if they were in the wrong place. As a young man, he had never imagined that his children would go to university. Nevertheless, whenever he crossed the lake, he looked at the hills around him, and, from this bird’s eye view, tried to follow the old paths and rivers through his forest below. He had defended that land from two enemies, in former times.

He had learnt his English during Konfrontasi. Konfrontasi, when a young Indonesia confronted an infant Malaysia. And the only land borders between them were here in Borneo. He had trained the British commandoes in jungle warfare. A few years before that, he had lurked in the forest in wait for the Japanese. But in Konfrontasi, it was their own cousins from across the ridge that they ambushed. He did things then that he did not like to think about now. He was glad his sons did not have to do what he had done. The paths across the border were in peaceful use nowadays, to smuggle people and produce, and to visit friends across that trivial divide.

When we reached the waterfall, a yellow and black snake was swimming in the pool. We waited for it to climb the mossy bank next to the falling water, then I swam, and we ate lunch.

The second man lived in a wooden longhouse on another river, one that had not been dammed. We did not have a common language, so it was through a translator that he told me the stories of his tattoos.

He had been a sailor, and his tattoos were mostly memories of the ships he sailed in, the ports he visited, and the girls he left behind. Some tattoos told the story of his family, village and land, to which he had returned. I looked at the back of his hands – no tattoos there at all.

I said that I had met someone with tattoos on his hand, and asked what that might have meant. As I spoke, I used my right index finger to stab out the dots on my own left hand. Before he had understood my words, I saw him flinch at my gesture.

He looked down at his own undecorated hands and spoke seriously to my translator -- no longer the man who had cheerfully recalled his wild oats.

“In former times,” said my translator, hesitantly, “they tattooed a dot when they took a head.”


Okay, you can close your mouths now. There you go.

Photography by Anthea Fraser Gupta

A huge congratulations to all of our winners! Special mention to Christine Johnson—the runner up of the prose category, and Jack Baker, the runner up of the poetry category.

Thank you to everyone who submitted their awesome work or came to the event, and thanks to our sponsors Wollongong Art Gallery and Ziggy’s House of Nomms. Real talk, now: this blogger is off to eat some dumplings.

Written by SCWC

Posted on April 12, 2018