By Karen Goodwin
Two days after Melbourne-based writer Tara Cartland was shortlisted in the flash fiction category of The Brighton Prize, she lost her job. That night, after a few wines, she made an impulse decision to attend the award ceremony at The Brunswick pub in Hove and booked her flights.
Prize-winner Tara said: “It worked out – I needed a holiday anyway, so it’s a good excuse to come to Brighton, I’ve never been before, it’s ridiculously beautiful.”
Such is the lure of The Brighton Awards, a short fiction competition with cash prizes, £1,000 for the winning short story and £500 for flash fiction.
Founded by Erinna Mettler in 2014, the awards grew from the success of Rattle Tales, a live literature night run by students on the MA in creative writing at University of Sussex.
Judging the competition, Man Booker nominee Alison MacLeod, said: “Short stories are the most incredibly testing form, the short story is a high wire act, toe in front of toe on that high wire, so easy to fall off.”
This year’s shortlist includes writers from as far afield as Canada, the US and Australia, after the organisers decided to open up the UK competition to international entries two years ago.
First prize in the short story category was awarded to Canadian writer Natalie Southworth for ‘Microburst’ – a powerful account of a mother’s relationship with her atypical son.
In a statement read out at the awards, Natalie said: “I’m sure we all have someone we can’t connect with – a parent, a child – despite a yearning to.”
Judges found the narrative: “Heartbreaking but very controlled as a piece.”
Runner-up, Benjamin Kling, with ‘The ant is me and that is the story’ is a first-time writer from the US.
His account of a depressed, Xanax-addicted teenager was: “A bold and daring depiction of desperate times” the judges said.
Also awarded runner-up was Tess O’ Hara’s confronting piece ‘Andy’s Bankside Display Case’, an unflinching and frank account of a rape victim’s artful revenge.
Detective-like in its suspense, we are given clues to her identity: “I’m not a stalker, I should want him to see me.”
The judges described the story as “gripping – very much a story for now, for 2018″.
There are ten shortlisted pieces in each category, and five entries from each were performed live at the awards on Sunday. Readers included Hannah Kelly with ‘Colourless Sound’, an exploration of the medical condition synesthesia, and Rob Nisbet with ‘Shooting Kenosi’.
Flash fiction winner, Tara was “thrilled” to win a prize for ‘An Empty Pool’.
She said: “One thing the UK does really well that Australia doesn’t do at all is flash fiction – I love the restraint of it, I love dense fiction that achieves a lot.”
‘An Empty Pool’ focuses on a birth story in which the mother is dehumanized by the process of labour. The narrative is overset with a refugee’s experience of border patrol crossing, where chances of survival are just “another dark bus ride”.
Speaking at the awards, Alison said: “’An Empty Pool’ is just remarkable, we were all knocked back by it. It’s timeless – a story of a woman giving birth – also – a story for our times – about migration and borders.”
Other commended flash fiction entrants were Daniel Allen for ‘Spin’ and Tanya Shadrick for ‘Courting’, along with Deborah Turnbull who read from her viscerally dark story ‘The Landlord’.
A Sussex Prize of a £100 Waterstones’ book token is awarded to the best local entry, with judges particularly looking for entries with a local theme.
This year, the Sussex Prize was won by Lucy Cage for her flash fiction piece ‘Spotting the Leopard’. Judges commended the “imaginative daring” of the story.
Alison said: “The sense of a leopard in Queen’s Park – I’m never going to look at it again in the same way.” Lucy’s story will be published in Viva Brighton.
Closing the 2018 awards, Erinna announced the judges will be taking a break next year to apply for funding because “we’ve been too successful.”
The Brighton Prize will be back in 2020.