In October 2020 I wrote about being short-listed for The Deborah Cass Prize for Writing. This moment floored me. It signified validation for a manuscript I have nurtured, abhorred and distrusted in various measure over the course of years, largely because of its underlying personal nature. A part of me believes that every writer’s first major work is a kind of exorcism, in some way or another it cannot be divorced from the personal, there is always some element of the psyche embedded within it, for better or worse.
I was (am) self-conscious about the biographical elements of “Birch”, even in their abstracted forms. The story touches upon a unsettled and troubling identity. At least this is easier (and perhaps more cowardly) to camouflage in a work of fiction, particularly speculative fiction.
I followed the Deborah Cass Prize for Writing with some longing since first hearing about it, but never entered because the gothic fiction style of “Birch” made it seem not migrant enough – as though work from a writer of a migrant background must fulfill a particular function and follow defined tropes.
The prize has a powerful background, established in 2015 by friends and family of Deborah Cass (1960-2013), a lawyer, academic and writer. Deborah Cass was the granddaughter of European refugees, and I can only imagine what this legacy meant to her as she reflected on her identity in her work. At the prize ceremony, it was genuinely touching to hear friends and family speak about her intelligence and generosity.
And so… the Zoom-facilitated prize ceremony, a format much familiar in 2020. The distance from screen to person seems both intimate – it is in your house, after all – and also distant, surreal. The winner of the 2020 Deborah Cass Prize was Anith Mukherjee (“I Am Full Of Love”). It is a stunning, sexy, sad-funny, and hugely original piece that defied what I would expect so-called migrant writing to be, in the best possible way.
On my end, I teared up when runners up were announced. I am genuine when I say it is an honour to be listed, to be acknowledged in any way, especially after all these years of tries and regrets and give-ups. I could not believe the announcement. In a fateful heart-twist it was made by a writer I admire profoundly: Lee Kofman.
The feedback about “Birch” made something inside me sing, never before had my work been described in this way:
Dasha takes the migrant experience into two relatively uncharted territories. She reinterprets it in the genre of contemporary gothic fiction and she creates a migrant’s journey that moves in the opposite direction to the literary norm. Dasha entices us into her story from the very first page through building great suspense, and through her assured, polished-to-a-shine prose that shows a fine attention to detail and a wonderful sense of place. The resulting read is unputdownable.– Judges on “Birch”
You can watch the ceremony, which includes a reading of Anith Mukherjee’s work, on Youtube and read more about the prize on the Writers Victoria website. I urge any writer with a migrant background to enter, even if they fear their work doesn’t fit the mould of what a “migrant experience” might be.
I am incredibly grateful to the judges of the prize: Melanie Cheng, Lee Kofman, and Sisonke Msimang, and also to the friends and family of Deborah Cass who established this prize and made it possible for unheard voices and stories to find a place.
Edit: I’ve just found that you can even support the prize through the Australian Cultural Fund portal.