Our big thanks to Emily Devane for all her work! We so appreciate her comments here and for working to our quick turnaround time.
First, I’d like to thank Jude for asking me to judge this round of the Bath Flash Fiction Award. It’s a competition that’s close to my heart – I’ll never forget the joy of having my story selected by Kathy Fish back in 2017. This award sets the gold standard for writing competitions in terms of organisation, engagement and quality. I love the buzz that surrounds deadline day, with entrants proudly sharing their Last Minute Club badges and cheering each other on. The reading team works incredibly hard to turn the stories around so fast. And goodness, what an amazing longlist of stories they picked.
The next stage – whittling down the fifty-strong longlist to just twenty stories – was quite a challenge. If you got to this point, seriously well done. It was such a pleasure reading your words. There was something to admire in every story on that longlist, and the selection was brilliantly varied – some made me laugh, some made me think in a different way, some took a piece of my heart, while others made me swoon at their boldness and originality. In a bid to ensure those stories were treated as if they were my own, I read them through then printed them out, shuffled them and read them again in a different order. It’s interesting how some stories grab you from the off, while others rise up the pile and demand more attention with each re-read. There were several stories I struggled to part with – stories which a different judge, or even me on a different day, might have put through. I’m excited to find out who wrote them all.
When it came to deciding the winners, I had a few sleepless nights, I can tell you. Every story on that shortlist was a potential winner. So, how to choose? Having read and re-read each one, I put them through a series of tests. Was there a sense of meaningful movement or shift? Was language used with precision? Was this story telling me something new or particular? Did this story resonate on an emotional level? There’s always that unknowable element, that magical alchemy that occurs between writer and reader. Ultimately, I had to be guided by instinct when making those tough final decisions. The stories I selected for my final five were those to which I kept returning. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
First Place: The Metamorphosis of Evaline Jackson
This bold and striking story got better with each re-read. There’s not a word out of place. The use of language is confident and playful, with brilliant flourishes and repetitions that mimic the ‘evolution’ of the titular character, Evaline Jackson. We have those ‘cling-cling shorts’, the ‘pop-pop’ of the boys and those dangerous rolling eyes. This is a writer absolutely in control of his/her craft. The theme is a resonant one, too. It tells us so much about teenage girls – how they long to be desired but they fear it, too. Here, the girls follow along behind Evaline Jackson, cutting and glinting and stealing and painting their way to Skittle Town Bowl, only to be appalled at what they’ve unleashed. I loved this so much.
Second Place: McDonald’s
This was one of the shortest stories on the longlist, but there is remarkable power behind it. McDonald’s is a gorgeous, unassuming story that sneaks up on you and leaves your heart in a puddle. The fast-food restaurant setting grounds us from the start. What I loved here was the elegant way in which the writer took us, in very few words, and with wonderfully specific details, into this mother’s experience, showing us how grief can ambush us in unexpected ways. We’re drawn in from the first line, which begins as if we’re already there: The boys again… I can’t read it without getting a lump in my throat. That last line is exquisite: it lands so gently, so beautifully.
Third Place: Fourth Grade Science Lesson, Chickasaw City, Alabama
I knew from my first read of this story that it would be among my top five. It’s a gorgeously written tale of hope. The clear, uncluttered prose brought to mind one of my favourite novellas, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. The central image of the papery, brown bulbs that seemed doomed to fail, becomes symbolic of our hope for Rylee’s future – that, contrary to Olivia Hewett’s assertion that ‘flowers are born looking beautiful’, they can be nurtured from very little, ‘those funny-shaped husks hiding something wonderful.’ I love what this story tells us about the transformative power of education.
What bowled me over with this piece was the grandmother’s voice, which feels so vivid and alive. It’s a story about loss, but this is also about the ongoing effects of trauma, how the stories we hold are passed on to those around us. And this grandmother is fiercely protective, with her warnings about lightning that ‘seeks out animals’ and ‘bursts through faucets and drowns you in electricity’. There’s a recognition here, too, about the importance of listening. This child’s simple act of sitting in the dark, while her grandmother sits in her rocking chair recalling the story of her sisters, is as moving as it is haunting.
Highly Commended: A Beachcomber’s Guide to Desert Grief
This is a dreamy piece of writing. I chose it because of how it made me feel. The joy of this piece is in the imaginative use of details and vivid sense of place: we have a character wishing to immerse themselves in grief – the exact nature of which we never find out – by pretending that the desert is a seascape. But the attempts at healing are thwarted by the presence of a boy whose breath ‘is root beer soda and barbecue sauce’. A boy who is ‘not dead’. The lines between what is real and what is imagined are blurred at the edges. This writer drew me into the dreamlike world of this character’s sadness with such quiddity, I kept returning to it, turning up more layers of meaning.