By Meg Hill
The Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards returned in 2020 after a three-year hiatus. CBD News spoke with two prize winners – Yamiko Marama and Andrew Harris – about their stories.
Yamiko Marama won the overall prize for her narrative non-fiction piece Thirty-Six Hours – a personal essay exploring identity and culture.
“The story I wrote was about getting my hair braided and my relationship with my hair and hair salons in general – and being an Australian with African heritage,” she told CBD News.
“It’s about trying to navigate different spaces, having that relationship with culture and with yourself change as you get older, finding different environments and creating environments.”
In Thirty-Six Hours Yamiko wrote that she spends 36 hours a day at her salon – Emmie’s African hairdresser. A trip there – for an eight-hour long day of hair braiding – is encapsulated through the essay’s themes of identity.
“It has a route of which I know the landmarks of, the way I know myself; some aspects I know, and recognise clearly, while whole chunks are regularly un-observed, therefore non-existent,” Yamiko said.
She said the piece was meant to present an experience that would be new to many, but also with their own experiences.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of stories out there by African Australians, there’s lots of amazing African Australian writers, but whether they have access or that platform is a different question,” she said.
“Maybe it’s a unique story, I like to think there were elements that were new to people, but that narrative of trying to fit in and make sense of who you are resonates with a lot of people.”
Yamiko has only been writing professionally for a couple of years but has begun to make her mark on the Australian writing scene. She has completed a fellowship at the Wheeler Centre, and had her work published in Growing up Queer in Australia alongside Benjamin Law, Nayuka Gorrie, David Marr, Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen and Christos Tsoilkas – among others.
“I’ve always really loved writing, I used to fill up diaries with really embarrassing teen content growing up, but I’ve only started to see it as a career the past couple of years,” she said.
“A big part of that was winning the fellowship with the Wheeler Centre, it made me think about my writing a lot more.”
During her fellowship Yamiko was mentored by Sisonke Msimang – a South African writer and author of Always Anther Country: A memoir of exile and home and The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela.
“She [Msimang] was a phenomenal mentor. We were able to talk about writing, talk about how you write in a way that both represents yourself and your community as well,” Yamiko said.
“It was also just being supported by the Wheeler Centre staff and there were 10 people who won fellowships so having the opportunity to meet other writers and share the experience with them.”
Yamiko has continued to work in her profession as a therapist through her writing projects and also runs a food truck with her partner. She is mulling over what her next writing project will be.
“I’ve got a memoir that I’m slowly working on, that’s a really slow work in progress,” she said.
“Working in mental health I’m very interested in what’s going on in the system and how over-burdened it is at the moment.”
“I don’t want to solely focus on my cultural heritage, and I don’t want to focus too much on mental health – they’re not the only things I’m interested in, so we’ll see.”
Andrew Harris was the poetry category winner with Stalingrad, an attempt to capture the feeling of Melbourne’s first lockdown.
“It was difficult to capture the feeling of being under that first lockdown, which feels like a very long time ago now indeed,” he told CBD News.
“To me it was the small changes to the way we were living that were making the most difference and were the most stark and noticeable.”
“So, the piece refers to playgrounds and how they were not accessible to children, and it talks about that feeling of being under siege which it why it’s called Stalingrad.”
Andrew said he also tried to capture that perhaps there is solidarity in the experience, despite being apart from one another, but that is also essentially a very lonely kind of experience.
“I deliberately ended it with a moment of potential hope, but I can’t say I felt any hope at that time,” he said.
Andrew has been writing poetry since year seven and spoke of mentors he’d had over that time – principally his year seven English teacher David Thompson and his friend Alex Skovron, who are both published poets.
“I’ve been talking poetry with Alex for at least 15 years, maybe even closer to 20. He once said to me that it evolves slowly. He didn’t start publishing in earnest until his 40s,” Andrew said.
“So, I’ve never been in a rush with poetry.”
For Andrew, who is 36 years old, lockdown put an end to five years of working in the CBD doing business development for engineering firms. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Andrew has been working from his home in Caulfield South.
But lockdown is also what inspired his winning piece – and his second time winning the blind-judged Lord Mayor’s poetry prize.
“I won it last time it was run, in 2017, and that same year I also won the My Brother Jack Open Poetry competition,” Andrew said.
“I think the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards are really important to support the arts community in Melbourne, there’s not a lot of opportunity to motivate people to create a kind of profile in this work.”
“It was a wonderful surprise to win again.”