Nod Ghosh’s Judge’s report October 2020

I would like to thank Jude Higgins and the team at BFFA for inviting me to judge this sixteenth award. I’d also like to acknowledge the hard work early readers do, presenting independent judges with fifty long listed stories within a tight timeframe.

It has been a pleasure reading these pieces. The quality indicates how well contributors craft their stories, producing shining gems of literature that show this genre is not only alive and well, but is thriving. The range of topics and styles on offer shows practitioners of this form can still find something fresh, or interpret ideas in a novel way.

As I stated in an earlier interview, I select primarily on quality of language. In my initial analysis, I note when writers begin without unnecessary preamble, make word choices that elevate the story, where there is successful use of patterning, with due consideration given to pace, rhythm or musicality within the writing. Even where meanings need to be ‘worked out’ the language should be clear. Titles must entice the reader, yet they should remain true to what follows. A satisfying story arc is important. Characters and their motivations must remain plausible. Endings should be tight and ‘finish’ only enough to leave the reader wanting a little more, without leaving the piece incomplete.

There were many on the long list that fulfilled these criteria. It wasn’t easy picking out the cream!

Topics covered included abuse, self-abuse, bad relationships, good relationships and dubious ones; parenting in its various forms, offspring interacting with older parents. There were stories incorporating word origins, burning musical instruments, ominous mountains, crabs and alligators. Some tales were set in the school playground, others in bars and on boats. There were intangible topics, and illicit love. There was danger, hardship and poverty, floods of blood; shared food, drug mules, astronomy and disturbing art. We had fire, water and photographs.

There were funny stories, sad stories and ones that made the reader think about important issues, others that didn’t.

In short, people in the flash community have healthy imaginations.

Some pieces on the short list cover commonly used themes, while others are highly original. Some use symbolism and innuendo. Most of all, people use language well, words are not wasted.

Comments on the five winners:

First prize‘Blessings (1849)’
Although the title indicates the story takes place during the Irish Potato Famine, there are themes and conflicts that have universal application.
This story is like a tapestry. The author repeats concepts in carefully constructed patterns. In describing the main character’s difficult life, and how her family leaves for a better place, threads are woven (or knitted?) through, making a mere 300 words read like a novel.
We have counting, which evokes the sense of a rosary in conjunction with the title. There are the steps, potatoes, eggs and babies repeated through the piece. There’s knitting stiches in clever interplay with the rope tethering the ship the characters depart on.
Though the story depicts hardship and suffering, it ends on a positive note, which is not easy to achieve.
The author uses figurative language well, and takes care to arrange the words on the page in an appealing way. This is an example where use of the second person helps create a perfect balance of proximity and distance between the reader and the main character’s internal thoughts.
‘Blessings (1849)’ is a stunning piece of writing.

Second Prize‘Mother, Before’

It’s not often a story jumps out on first reading as outstanding. And though there were still others to assess, ‘Mother, Before’ stayed afloat and won a place in the top three.
The narrator’s mother’s life is described in all its drudgery, the hardship and indignity she suffers in the workplace, and the destruction caused by being abandoned by the children’s father. Using the word ‘before’ as a motif the mother’s former glory is alluded to, and her decline reinforced.
The author makes exquisite word choices and descriptions such as ‘bone black hair’ and ‘dowager womb’ add emotional impact.
There are hyper-real details, for example in the workplace, that place the reader firmly at the scene.
The story evokes a strong emotional response without sinking into pathos.
‘Mother, Before’ is a breathtaking story.

Third Prize‘White Dwarf’

How do you write a compelling current affairs related story that will stand the test of time and have a wide appeal? The author of this piece succeeds by not being overt or didactic. After a ‘tame’ start, where a couple are adjusting a telescope, the story escalates into a breathless list, a universe of events that references the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, and leads to shocking contemporary images that implicate the Jacob Blake and George Floyd incidents without spelling them out.
The story could stop there, but it doesn’t. The narration returns to Clayton and Thelma in Tennessee, showing the nonchalance that typifies how people may react in real life to these situations.
The clever use of ‘White’ in the title refering to the star the couple are identifying through their telescope contrasts well with the ‘Black’ of the BLM movement.
‘White Dwarf’ should be read in schools.

Commended‘Our fathers, who we have strewn like seaweed behind us’

Brief and surreal with beautiful word choices, in this story the narrator and others bury their fathers up to their necks in the sand in various parts of the U.K. . . . and leave them there. What is the underlying story? Could the clue lie in this: For way too long we’ve held our fathers out of reach?
There is much emotion locked into these words. This is a story about loss, but do the fathers get what they deserve?
‘Our fathers . . .’ starts like a prayer and leaves ample space for the reader’s personal response.

Commended, ‘The reallocation of a child’s atoms’

The intriguing title of this story immediately attracts the reader’s attention. Delving further does not disappoint. Along with protagonist Fatima, we learn about the nature of the matter we are composed of. There is a poignant contrast between the mundane work Fatima does and the grandiose artworks in the Spanish museum where she is a cleaner.
This story’s strongest feature is what is left unsaid about Fatima’s life, something only hinted at in the title.
Fatima’s desperation and resignation are illustrated by her desire to save a dog depicted in one Goya’s paintings; a dog who follows her home.
There is beautiful language in this piece: ‘Her mop swishes past crucifixions and martyrdoms’ . . . ‘Even gentle still-lives are pregnant with loss’.
‘The reallocation of a child’s atoms’ is a story that could make you weep yet hunger for more.

Nod Ghosh, October, 2020

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