Judges’ Comments BSSA 2020

Kate Johnson

This year our shortlist judge was Kate Johnson from MacKenzie Wolf Literary Agency and she made the following astute and helpful comments about the shortlist in general, the three winning stories and the two runners-up:

Comments on the Shortlist in general

What a delight it was to read what felt like 20 tiny magic tricks. I appreciated the variety here, be it in voice, form, mood, setting, or time period. Some stories had a literal magical twist; for others the magic was in conjuring a whole world of emotion and humanity in less than 2,200 words. Every single story exhibited a mastery of the written word, and it was tough to choose just five sorcerers among them:

First Prize: The Pencil Drawn Girl. I ached for the narrator of this intimate story, whose skin – once creamy and “soft like Leche Flan,” worthy of a pencil sketch by her mother – is badly burnt in an accident, narrowing her once vibrant life to a small, shrouded existence. The story is a perfectly contained vessel of the human experience, as well as an evocative, full-sensory read (the warm, misty air; the tight, seared skin; the salt of the milkfish – I felt I could touch, taste, inhale the atmosphere), and the writer so economically draws seven years of shared sorrow between mother and daughter that the light and forgiveness at the end hits us hard. It is quietly, tenderly soul-shattering.

Second Prize. Under a Whalebone Roof. Here, a protagonist who once led jovial tours of a lost civilization – who “knows how easily worlds disappear” – must now excavate the fragments of her own personal landscape. Each allusion is deployed with care, and each heart-breaking revelation managed to surprise even as the writer left clues that cleverly made archaeologists of her readers. I felt every note, from the sand stinging Maggie’s skin to the engulfing grief that swallows her like a whale. This elegant story will stick with me for some time.

Third Prize: Rice on a Banana Leaf. This ambitious story tackles a novel’s worth of plot and empathy in just a few pages, examining how poverty and relative wealth send the narrator and her servant’s son on divergent paths in 1980s Sri Lanka. The time span sweeps, but the narrative is successfully mapped out in life’s small, pivotal moments. The description of Luvina’s worn body setting off for her daily errands – sun pinning her down from above, tarmac burning from below – is an apt metaphor for how generations can be stuck in place: in the absence of opportunity, her son is forced to create his own.

Commended stories:

Exterior. Train Platform. Night.
This haunting, moody story crept up on me. Sparse as a poem, I admired its controlled experimentation and the way the story shifted seamlessly into the surreal, while tapping into something very real and universal: calcified love, conversations left unspoken, a proverbial cancelled train, and the mourning of those journeys not taken. Its final, poignant lines are stunning.

Another Man’s Smile This story seems simple on the surface, but to my mind it clinches exactly what a short-short story does best: one closely observed character, one moment in time. And yet it reaches beyond its tight framework with a final note of hope that could be interpreted as sweet or sorrowful. It is as careful as it is compassionate – there’s a guileless, open-hearted quality in Vangelis that was refreshing and necessary reading for me during this cynical moment in history.

The Acorn Award and the Local Prize, stories selected and commented on, by the BSSA team

The Acorn Award for An Unpublished Writer: The Quiet One
A story with a strong voice, the vivid details of place and character show the pressures and expectations on two young teenagers in a community where violence simmers under the surface. The BSSA team enjoyed the way sexual tension built between the boy and the girl and the turns in the story which led to an unexpected, yet satisfying end.

The Local Prize: Two Towns.
We very much liked how this author used the metaphor of a literal crack dividing a town, to show how differences can be overcome. One brave boy defies the rules, puts a plank across the space and despite opposition brings children, then adults together. The positive outcome felt entirely believable and it was good to read a story that showed the foolishness of such divisions and how people can drop their hostilities and cooperate if they want to.