There were a huge range of amazing submissions to last year's Student Writing Competition. This series celebrates the best of the lot. Read on for Jojo Hoban's short story Following the Dirt Road.
They argued under the melting sun. Faces turning strawberry either from the heat of the day, or the argument. I stood behind the webbing of Auntie-her flappy arms outstretched like wings. The bangles on her wrist, arguing uon themselves as they pushed each other back and forth and up and down. Auntie’s hands, like the roots on a tree, had bulging veins sticking out. Her stupid pearls hugged her neck like lotus leaves surrounding a pond. She doesn’t even like the ocean. Her outfit-pointy stilettos with like fake rhinestones and her toes were wrinkly prunes overlapping each other, trying to breathe. A frilly dress with layers of red and white, like a messy cake. At her shoulders, two clouds of fabric wobble from side to side. Red ribbons on her back entangle themselves like willow leaves. And a tall feather, sticking out of her multicoloured hair which is slicked in a hard bun, spectates disapprovingly.
She doesn’t like birds either. I could say a lot out loud; the way she walks with her head and points with her long nails, but I stick my teeth together like my knuckles when I join them. I don’t even want to look at her eyes, always squeezed to the size of apple seeds until her eyebrows meet. Judgy, disobedient, mad.
So I stand beneath her like a peasant and watch her speak for us.
“The children are happy.”
“It is time for you to leave, Mrs Porta.”
“You have no right to just kick me out!” Auntie shouted in the broken record of her voice.
“The neighbours are not satisfied you are the woman you say you are” came the earthy undertones.
“I am not moving.”
“You are not staying.”
“How dare you come into my house and act like the boss? I cannot believe-”
I drifted in and out of the conversation like ants between food and home. The argument was like fire and ice but as more words were exchanged the fire shrunk into only a glowing haze. Auntie, of course, was the fire. Her face still swelled and her ears were ripe, but her words were now only floating in her head. She sighed sharply, as her head shook in disbelief. The bangles chattered and rang like glass. She turned only her head, as flexible as an owl, tensed her jaw and walked down the terracotta steps as I counted them, “one, two, three…four”.
The lady cornered her on Auntie’s side of the car, a dirty SUV, as she hesitated to get in. Right leg up, in. Left leg up, in. She then curved around the car, putting up one youthful hand to us like the inside of a peach, and pulling up the two sides of her mouth as if she were a puppet. I watched the car disappear into the skyline.
On the deck, I moved my stinging feet and saw the clouds drift past. Finally, I felt free. As the others ran to the kitchen like dogs off of a leash, I saw a small object grow larger and larger. A car, but not the one I saw before.
This time, it pierced through the forest like a needle in my direction, glossing with newness and swallowing the grass. It had lights like electric eyes that stuck out as if it had hands, snatching me. The engine was mad as it thundered forwards. It was as if a magnifying glass was put on it. The car shrieked closer.
As it edged to our house, the nerves crept up on me like a spider. I felt my chest thump with energy nearly as if I could see it drill through my skin. My body screamed with rage. Sweat running in my hair. Panicked, my breaths were multiplying as if I was breathing fire. All I could think of was one word. Quick.
I ran and hid behind the table I set this morning, and I heard the engine of the car roar. Nothing like the tickle of the trees, the electricity of the bees, the folding of the sea. The sparrows sprung off the ground like my hands would on the sun.
“This is my chance,” My lips didn’t even unzip fully, my tongue was still on the top of my mouth. The dangerous red colour of the truck tore through the curtain of the oak trees, with only the transparent drape waving at me in between. I ran up the stairs two at a time and grabbed what was mine. What I wanted to be mine. The plum-coloured book: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I thought of the things I would leave behind. I’m never going to watch the birds decorate the sky. I’m never going to get rained on by layers of golden leaves. I’m never going to scoop seashells from muddy waters. I’m never going to chase the flies and hear the chickens and duck under the arms of trees. I’m never going to be here again.
I stuffed the book in the pocket of my apron and charged out of the house. Down the steps, on the ground. Pebbles of dirt like cookies crushed in fine particles, rolling under my dirty feet. As I flicked each foot up the different textures I crossed: dirt, concrete, wood and water, my feet burned.
I ran until I saw the moon replace the sun.
There were a huge range of amazing submissions to last year's Student Writing Competition. This series celebrates the best of the lot. Read on for Lilith Jennifer Liu's short story 莲 (The Lotus).
莲 (The Lotus)
The lotus flower has many different parts. The flower with pink petals and bright yellow stamens; the seedpod producing green lotus seeds; the wide pads laying flat on the surface; finally the rhizomes. Buried deep in the mud of a river bottom, the rhizomes of a lotus flower thrive and grow to as long as four feet. When mature, it supports the stalk in presenting a beautiful bloom to the world.
莲藕 (Lian Ou)
In the countryside of Chengdu on either side of the skinny, crumbly road were lotus fields covered with green pads and pink blooms. Treading in the middle, Chinese grandmas and grandpas reached into the thick mud. My parents would take me on road trips during the weekend down the middle of the never-ending fields. The car's wheels rolled on, crunching on the sand and pebbles in its path. As I held my hand out the window, gushes of wind would breeze through my fingers, tickling me.
Road trips were always a decision made by mom and dad in a moment of impulse, meaning we had to stop and eat at a diner during the drive. I was always intrigued by more “modern” restaurants, drooling over the vibrant food models on display made to catch the eyes of a child. No matter how much I begged, my parents never stopped at these restaurants. Instead, we went to the shabby roadside canteens where mom always ordered one dish: 藕炖排骨 (Lotus Root Pork Rib Soup).
The soup was always served steaming hot. Piles of lotus roots are still slightly connected by the silk, hiding the pieces of pork rib in between. Being the crazed carnivore I was, I always scavenged in the pile for the meat. To me, the flesh was tender, flavorful, and tasted much better than the mushy roots in the bowl. Mother nagged at me: You ignorant child. You’re throwing away the best part! She would then skillfully pick up the pinkish roots and bite in. The silk stretches as she pulls away from the soft vegetable. I watched her in fascination as the thin strands clung on, unbreakable by even the strongest force.
After a meal, Dad never forgot to buy some lotus roots from the farmers to take home either. He knew which roots were the freshest just by looking at the holes. Back home, he would cut the vegetable into dice and slices for mom to make different dishes from — stir-fried, stuffed with sticky rice, or stewed with meat. I hated how often we had lotus roots. Yet, every time my complaints would fade as I took my first bite of the soft root. The aftertaste it left was wholesome and sweet.
It’s been three years since I left Chengdu and flew here to Auckland. I don’t go on road trips anymore, nor have I seen any lotus fields. The lotus roots in grocery stores are frozen and bland. They don't turn soft after being stewed with meat and there is no silk that connects my mouth and the root. I wish I was still in China, with my parents driving down the dirt road surrounded by lotus fields. Because, in New Zealand, I can eat at all the fancy restaurants I want. But even with the juiciest cuts of meat, I cannot swallow more than a few bites before the grease covers my mouth, blinding my tastebuds.
Youjia (Jennifer) Liu 385781
Mother was right, I was ignorant. If I could go back to the shabby place to have their lotus root soup again, the ribs will be the ones left out this time.
莲花 (Lian Hua)
Under the blue sky dotted with woolly white clouds, by the lotus fields sat Mother in a chair made of bamboo with a fan in her hand. With every snap of her wrist, a breeze of refreshing cold air is blown. Meanwhile, in the corner, a child poked into the mud as she leaned dangerously close to the edge.
“出淤泥而不染，濯清涟而不妖。” Mother recited.
(growing out of murky mud yet untainted, rising through freshwater yet preens not) “What?”
“出淤泥而不染，濯清涟而不妖。” She quotes the famous poet, Zhou DunYi again.
There’s a moment of silence. Her wrist stops the movement and the summer heat starts to build up without the breaths of wind. A mosquito circles the duo, buzzing its frequency. Mother seemed unbothered.
“The lotus plant grows below the water surface with the roots buried in the deep ends of a lake, amongst the thick mud. Before it rises in the morning to present itself as an elegant bloom, it must travel through the filth. Yet, the flower always remains pristine. After washing itself in the clear water, it does not stand out brightly either.” She picks up the cup of tea sitting on the stool beside her. Despite the boiling heat, the hot steam could still be seen.
“Zhou DunYi praised the humble and graceful qualities of the lotus flower. The way it stays unbothered and unaffected by the environment around itself is something for us to learn from. The second part, however, is a wish for people to be honest and just.” Mother takes a sip from the glass, “Your grandmother taught me to live my life like a lotus flower. Now, I too, wish you to grow up like one. Be elegant and be humble, my daughter.”
There were a huge range of amazing submissions to last year's Student Writing Competition. This series celebrates the best of the lot. Read on for Lilith Tupuola Fa'alogo's short story A Family Affair.
A Family Affair
Asa and her Mum reached their final left. Four hours of pylons, mountains, pine and finally, something was looking back.
“We should be here. We need to be here,” Mum had said, firmly.
The car began to slow as a brown villa emerged from the concealed and well-kept driveway. A polished balustrade wrapped around the porch detracted from ill-fitted bricks slathered on each wall and a broken window on the home’s second storey. Bold letters greeted Asa as they entered through the gate. Welcome.
The car pulled in, and a damp lawn pushed back. Asa and her Mum climbed out of the car and joined hands at the hood. Mum smoothened out her puletasi - a black with gold printed small flowers at the ankle and a top that matched. Asa tugged at her own and adjusted her hair. Both wore frangipani at the left ear, fastened by a hair clip.
“We don’t know him,” Asa grunted.
“We pay our respects. This is your family.”
As Asa walked towards the house, cars gathered and parked around the porch and by the house. Each seemed to point to a special sort; a white car, elongated at the back with an open boot. Marshall Services, it read.
“The hearse is ready,” a distant voice shouted.
On the porch, an easel cradled a large portrait - a small boy with curly hair. His face, cheerful, occupied the piece. His cheeks, like Asa’s, were concentrated below the eye and like Asa’s, his eyes were small – dark, like her Dad’s and protected by glasses.
Asa and Mum reached the door.
“Oh, you came,” an older lady opened the door and smiled forcefully.
Her dress stood out amongst dark shadows inside the house. It was a white puletasi – no flowers, print or frangipani in her hair. She hovered by the portrait. “How old is your pepe, now?”
“Ioe. Asa’s ten.”
Mum slipped off her shoes and greeted the lady with a cheek kiss and hug. Asa did the same and the lady smiled - warmly this time, but still with force.
“The girls are in the first bedroom to the left. You can say hi. Introduce yourself.”
Asa walked towards the door. Her knees buckled as she edged closer. The floor was lined with linoleum, a foreign ground.
Under the bam bushes, under the tree. Clap. Clap. Clap. True love for you, my darl-
Asa poked her head inside. Four girls looked up. The room didn’t resemble a place of sleep. It was dimly lit with fairy lights, a sole source of light. Behind the girls, each wall and window was draped in siapo – tapa cloth stretched across the floor and walls with turtles, shapes and flowers decorated in each space. Asa walked inside. Of the four in the room, three played hand games. The last sat on an armchair next to the casket, upheld by a small bed frame covered in cloth. Out of the casket, white material poured out. “Hi, Asa. We’re your cousins,” the eldest said, sitting on the chair. “Your Dad’s gone out, but he’ll be back soon.”
“Hello,” Asa whispered.
Her voice faltered as she hovered by the door. The younger three continued to stare. Each wore a white dress that had creased from sitting. Chairs tempted Asa, but she stood longer, staring at the casket – smaller than her Mama’s, whom Asa had since outgrown.
“You can say hello to him. It’s okay.”
Asa took a breath. She remembered what to say.
“Tulou. Tulou... Tulou.”
She ducked as she walked past the girls who continued their game. She planned to greet them, but their hands were occupied and mouths full. When we get married... we’ll have a family...
Her fingers traced the white casket until she reached the seat and felt the casket’s tulle.
She peered inside the casket. His face was prettier in person. Younger in person. The boy’s cheeks were sunken and his complexion, cold. He wore a white shirt with a white tie that his glasses would have matched. His hair was gelled back and lips, pursed. Asa extended her arm toward his forehead. It looked like hers.
“Don’t touch him,” Asa’s youngest cousin said.
She stopped the game and frowned,
“It’s irreverent. My Mum told me. Don’t touch his face.”
Asa’s heart dropped. Ten minutes earlier, she was staring at a stranger’s house – attending a boy’s funeral. In Lai’s room, she was sitting with his sisters. Authority. Cousins that homed him, her Dad’s son. Her own brother.
Asa turned bright red. She clenched her stomach and held her cheek.
“O-oh, I won’t. I’ll just look,” her voice wavered.
The girl smiled triumphantly,
A tear fell from Asa’s eye. She caught it with two hands. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Another one followed. She clutched the casket and pinched her leg, embarrassed and feeling cornered. Out of place. Asa smiled at the boy anyway,
“I’ve come to visit you with my Mum, actually. You’re my brother.”
She stared at the casket and the eldest girl smiled.
“It was nice of your Mum to bring you, today,” she said to Asa,
“This is your family, too.”
Vera's View: The Wonder (Film Review)
Our film critic Vera Wang is taking on the latest and most buzzed-about movie titles to hit the big and small screens. Check out her take on The Wonder.
Known for his unique, female-centric films like A Fantastic Woman, Disobedience, and Gloria, writer-director Sebastián Lelio returns with The Wonder, a… lukewarm movie that, while neither exciting nor unpleasant, leaves more to be desired in terms of story and character range.
The Wonder is set in 1862, a decade or so after the Great Famine. English nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) is summoned to a small Irish town to observe a girl who has seemingly been surviving without food for four months. Both Lib and Sister Michael, a nun, have been employed by the town watch; for two weeks, they must take separate shifts throughout the day and record Anna O'Donnell’s wellbeing, reporting their separate findings at the end of which to either prove or disprove Anna’s miraculous survival.
The movie does well to deploy contextual exposition naturally, when Lib questions the town watch about her employment. Why her, why a nurse, especially one from England, and why a nun? The first act of the movie is straightforward enough, getting us acquainted with the major players and their alliance to the Catholic or scientific doctrine, which foreshadows the major theme of the movie- religion and Fate.
However, it’s through the second act where the movie loses steam. This becomes especially apparent with the repetitious sequence of Lib’s daily observation shifts. While far from being tedious, one can only assume that they’ve been made so slow-paced, whispery, and sedated to drip-feed information and draw out anticipation for the ‘reveal.’ To no success, however, because by the time the secret is unveiled, you’re bored out of your mind and couldn’t care less if Anna was really blessed by God, or if she was just secretly eating her bedsheets the entire time.
Three questionable and unexplained plot elements make prominent appearances. The first is Lib’s nightly routine of ingesting laudanum and playing with her dead infant’s baby booties. Lib, as a result of losing a child, sees the O'Donnell family’s refusal to feed Anna as child neglect, even going so far as to accuse them of “abandoning” Anna. You’d think the subtext of Lib viewing Anna, an abandoned child under her care, as a second chance at motherhood would be more widely explored, but it isn’t, and it’s frustrating.
The second element is the strange meta-narrative, whereby Niamh Algar, who plays Kitty O’Donnell, stands amongst the real-life set of The Wonder, introducing and concluding the story. Given a secondary acting credit as ‘The Narrator,’ she encourages us to “believe in [this] story… because we are nothing without stories.” The purpose of this fourth-wall break is unclear, and conveys an air of pretentiousness, rather than the provocativeness Lelio was likely intending on.
The third questionable element is the score, which, with its ethereal and otherworldly instrumentals, would have you believe that there’s something much more supernatural at stake here, but there isn’t, and it amounts to nothing.
The Wonder fails to live up to its name in any measurable capacity- at no point do the circumstances of Anna’s survival appear wondrous, and the execution of her story is consistently less than. Pugh’s acting is forced to bear much of the burden, though the required subtle performance can only do so much to maintain audience interest when almost everything else is wholly unassuming. Many elements of the story jump out as interesting subplot or potential sources of tension, but sadly, they’re left to collect dust and quash audience expectations. The haunting ambience is thoroughly misplaced, creating a sense of atmospheric horror for a story that’s really a period family drama. The Wonder is a movie that's neither here nor there, and, with its heavy-footed second act, would ultimately have benefitted from a tighter script and shorter runtime.
Want to try your hand at writing a review? Seen a movie, listened to an album or read a book that you just have to talk about? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about contributing!
Every week, Volumes will feature a new review from one of your St Cuthberts classmates. Want to write one of your own? It's easy! Email email@example.com with the subject line 'Book review request' to find out more.
This week, Ava Dilly (Year 10) reviews Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram.
“‘We have a saying in Farsi. It translates ‘your place was empty.’ We say it when we miss someone.’ I sniffed. ‘Your place was empty before. But this is your family. You belong here.’” To say I went in unprepared would be an understatement. Darius the Great is Not Okay is far from your typical young adult contemporary, with focus on familial connection and mental health hitting the reader in all the most painful places. Published in 2018, Adib Khorram’s beautiful story of figuring out one’s identity in a complex world has something for everyone to connect with.
Darius Kellner, a half-American, half-Persian teen with clinical depression, feels disconnected from his Persian family members and as though he is a disappointment to his hypercritical father. He travels to Iran for the first time to visit his terminally-ill Grandfather, where his life is changed when he befriends a boy named Sohrab, who helps him discover many things about himself he didn’t think were possible.
Darius the Great is Not Okay shares a lot of similarities with Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. The importance of connection and relationships is emphasised in both stories, with both main characters initially struggling to form meaningful bonds due to pulling themselves away from others. The two books also highlight how people struggle to feel connected to their culture and the isolation they can experience as a result of this. However, Aristotle and Dante is primarily a love story and Darius focuses more on personal growth. Romance is hinted at but not expanded in this book.
If you’re like me, and have seen this book around but never picked it up, make sure to grab it at the next chance you get. I’m disappointed in myself for waiting this long. Khorram does such an amazing job at portraying mental illness and how it affects an entire family. I loved that this book was written by a Persian author with clinical depression because it made Darius’ voice feel so authentic. Having not known much about Persian culture before reading, I spent half the book wondering where I could get all the food being so alluringly described, and the other half being amazed at how passionately Khorram was able to paint Iran for the reader. I’d say a highlight of the book for me was Darius’ relationship with his father because of the development they both went through. The only critique I have is that the lack of communication was frustrating at times, and I felt the ending was a bit rushed. Though– that could have just been me not wanting the book to end.
Darius the Great is Not Okay was a story of discovering identity and overcoming adversity that I can guarantee will warm any reader’s heart. I would recommend this book to anyone over the age of 11 who likes when romance is not a main focus, learning about different cultures, and who wishes young adult books would be more emotionally touching. I gave this book 4 ½ stars and can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel: Darius the Great Deserves Better.
Trigger Warnings: ableism, bullying, depression, fatphobia (challenged), homophobia, family member with terminal illness, islamophobia, racism (challenged), suicidal ideation
Keen to read? You can pick up a copy of Darius the Great is Not Okay at the Frances Compton Library!
Every week, Volumes will feature a new review from one of your St Cuthberts classmates. Want to write one of your own? It's easy! Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line 'Book review request' to find out more.
This week, Ava Dilly (Year 10) reviews Bunny by Mona Awad.
When you think of a bunny, what comes to mind? Soft and cuddly? Cute and playful? Bunny by Mona Awad is the antonyms of all those adjectives embodied. Published in 2019 and the winner of the Ladies of Horror Fiction Award for Best Novel, Bunny sucks readers down a dark hole of isolation, desperation, and the dangers of imagination.
Samantha Mackey, an antisocial college student part of an exclusive writing program at Warren University in New England, despises the other four women (nicknamed ‘Bunnies’) in her cohort. Yet, when they unexpectedly invite her to one of their weekly workshops outside of school, Samantha can’t find it in herself to refuse and gets caught up in a whirlwind of supernatural rituals and axe decapitations.
Awad’s novel is reminiscent of others such as The Secret History and Frankenstein, with common themes of isolation, alienation, ambition, and the pursuit of perfection in their respective crafts. Through seeing ourselves in Samantha, Bunny helps us explore the idea of our desperation to belong and just how far that desire will take us. ‘And that’s when I realise that whatever pain I have, whatever true want I have that lives under all this greasy, spineless needing to please isn’t something I want to give them.’
I would compare reading this book to a rollercoaster ride, but that would imply the weirdness declined at some point. It did not. From the first line, I knew I was in for a read of a lifetime. Awad’s way of crafting words is so gruesome and masterful that I often found myself stuck between grimacing at the gore and grinning at the impeccably timed dark humour. I would definitely recommend paying attention to all the details while reading, because you’ll be rewarded with an unforgettable experience as the story draws to a close.
Bunny was a disturbing and surprisingly sad novel that has hopped up to first place in my top books so far this year. I gave this book 5 stars and would recommend it to anyone over the age of 12 who loves psychological fiction and wishes life was a little more supernatural.
Trigger Warnings: animal abuse, bullying, death of a parent (past), drugging, gore, manipulation, mental illness, murder, parental abandonment, self-harm, sex
Keen to read? You can pick up a copy of Bunny at the Frances Compton Library!
Our new film critic Vera Wang is taking on the latest and most buzzed-about movie titles to hit the big and small screens. Check out her take on Decision to Leave.
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