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For the Love of Flash: Interview with judge Eliot Li

In 7th grade, I started writing really depressing poetry as an outlet for adolescent angst, which I continued in high school (both the poetry and the angst). I was fortunate that my parents never discouraged me from writing. When I started college, I became a biology major instead. I didn’t return to a regular creative writing practice again until middle age.

10 years ago, the local chapter of my college alumni association organized a writing class taught by the novelist Mary Rakow. Mary’s writing insight and compassionate point of view blew me away, and I immediately approached her for mentorship and met regularly with her. I started out writing regular length short stories. But once, without even knowing about flash fiction, I wrote a piece for her that was only a few hundred words long. She loved it, and said I should consider writing flash, because the way I wrote was a great match for the form. 

Mary told me to seek out writing classes where I would be the worst writer in the room, some place that would make me feel both massively insecure and also super inspired by everyone else. I’d signed up for one of the SmokeLong flash workshops, and it was exactly as she said—I was the worst writer in the group! My early regular length short stories were very exposition heavy, and Mary would just take her pen and bracket a whole passage and write, “Condense.” My tendency to write boring exposition got so bad she set a rule that I could only use action, gesture, interiority, and dialog. I’ve been trying to write that way ever since.

That’s why I love flash – you just write these incredibly intense bursts of story, with all the connective tissue removed. I love a flash story that goes from point A to point B, that builds in intensity and urgency as it goes, perhaps moving back and forth in time or setting, that has elements from each section that resonate with each other or come back in a new and meaningful way, and that by the time we arrive at point B, something unexpected has happened, something that evokes strong emotion from the reader, or makes us feel a deep empathy for the main character.

That’s why I love flash – you just write these incredibly intense bursts of story, with all the connective tissue removed.

Eliot Li

Titles are hard. I don’t think I always get the titles right. In fact, there was one piece I just got back from a paid critique, and the first comment was, “Please change this title right away!” My feelings about what titles should do have evolved a lot. When I first started writing, I wanted a safe, short title that basically “fit” the story, often just one word, like “Barbarians.” Now, I use titles to convey information to ground or orient the reader to what’s happening in the story. It’s almost as if the title is the only introductory exposition I allow myself before jumping into the scene, so I cram as much succinct info as I can into them.

My story titles have gotten progressively longer. For instance, I have a story called “Mr. Ah Yup, Of The Mongolian Race, Applying For Naturalization.” I’m hoping it’s an attention-grabbing title, but it also does the work of telling the reader all the exposition they need so I can just go right into scene. Or there’s a 100 word story I wrote titled “It Took Courage For My Disowned Mother To RSVP Yes To My Uncle’s Wedding,” which again gives the reader everything I think they need to set up the scene that follows. At least that’s where I am with titles right now. 

My advice to writers is when submitting to a journal or competition, write something that stands out as unique from the other hundreds or thousands of submissions. A voice, a setting, a point of view that’s never been on the page before. A topic that nobody else is writing about. And then infuse the story with so much heart and guts that upon finishing, the reader has to just close their laptop and cry.

Eliot Li is a Chinese American writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work has appeared in CRAFT Literary, SmokeLong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, trampset, The Pinch, pidgeonholes, and elsewhere. He was a finalist for the 2021 Pinch Literary Awards, and runner up for the 2022 New Flash Fiction Prize.

He will soon be joining the editorial staff at SmokeLong Quarterly. You can find him on twitter @EliotLi2.


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The 2022 summer long-list

We are thrilled to announce our long-list for the summer Oxford Flash Fiction Prize 2022.

Congratulations to all of the authors who reached the list and for all those who entered this round. We saw a wonderful range of genres, topics and stories from all over the world and it was hugely competitive. Many wonderful stories just missed the final list and for those we have permission to email – we will be letting you know! 

If your story is listed, please do not identify which story belongs to you, as the judges are hard at work making their decisions. We will be contacting you soon regarding our end of year anthology.

LONGLISTED STORIES

  • 1974
  • A boy named blue
  • A Crossing
  • A Thin Line
  • Aching bones
  • Across the lake
  • All my faces
  • Amy
  • An Orange Wool Identity
  • Comparative advantage
  • Compost
  • Dance Out Your Grief
  • Darlin’ Nate
  • Dinosaur bones
  • Fortune’s Fool
  • Four people
  • Goose
  • Gorgo down under
  • How to spend more time with your father
  • Indian smile
  • Let’s say
  • Life in the Meta
  • Like Molly Ringwald in the Breakfast Club
  • My name is Alice
  • Our Unprecedented Tranquillity
  • Perfect Petersons
  • The Anatomy of Arriving
  • The Awakening
  • The Bower
  • The Kuklops
  • The Land Where Her Ancestors Live
  • The Letter
  • The Music Makers
  • The Other People
  • The Plan
  • The Poisoners Apprentice
  • The Rainbow Poncho
  • Timing
  • Too Soon, Too Late

In the next few weeks, we will be announcing our shortlist, who will be awarded publication in our next anthology and a four-week workshop called Dust Off Those Drafts with The Flash Cabin. They will get four weeks of feedback exchange and story revision (includes 20 revision exercises & 20 study stories) with Anika Carpenter.

So watch this space! 

Our next competition will be opening on the 1 November 2022. So if you don’t find yourself on this list, we hope you’ll try again in our next competition and keep crafting.

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When you believe: Interview with competition judge, Patricia Q. Bidar

Believe you are entitled to this writing life. Write what only you can write. Read like crazy. Do your best to ensure the emotions you feel as you write will be felt by your reader. Avail yourself of the many classes, workshops, readings, books, and groups available to you. Many are free. Celebrate and honor our differences. And always take the time to uplift other writers. That’s my advice.

Patricia Q. Bidar

Encouragement goes a long way. I was that shy kid who would scrawl my poems out during class and slip them on my teacher’s desk. My mom and grandmother agreed that I was “backward,” being a curious and silent observer. I made other moms on our block uncomfortable! But I always felt welcome at our town’s library, and returned weekly for a fresh stack of books. 

I began working full-time at an early age – giving the creative life lip service but with no belief it was possible for me. Some restless spark endured. In my thirties, I applied to a college writing program. Those two years to focus on writing is a gift, the magnitude of which I still cannot take in. After graduation, I submitted my short story collection to a couple of high-level publishers; it was the same with my short stories. I had no real understanding of how else to proceed. I began work on a novel — still unfinished, but which I still love!

Flash Fiction America: 73 Very Short Stories

It has been more than thirty years since the term “flash fiction” was first coined, perfectly describing the power in the brevity of these stories, each under 1,000 words. Since then, the form has taken hold in the American imagination. For this latest installment in the popular Flash Fiction series, James Thomas, Sherrie Flick, and John Dufresne have searched far and wide for the most distinctive American voices in short-short fiction.

The 73 stories collected here speak to the diversity of the American experience and range from the experimental to the narrative, from the whimsical to the gritty. Featuring fiction from writers both established and new. Flash Fiction America is a brilliant collection, radiating creativity and bringing together some of the most compelling and exciting contemporary writers in the United States.

Arising from trauma in my teens, risky compulsions and self-defeating behaviour ruled my 20s and 30s. Then there was marriage, work, kids, and a mortgage, which needn’t have stopped my writing—I’m told. Today, I see working parents of young kids publishing and thriving. But it sure stopped me. I never accept it as a given that anyone can manage the headspace to write. There are plenty of reasons not everyone can pull off a writing life while working and raising kids.

Ingrained in me was the belief that a person like me cannot choose a life in the arts. Factor in a lack of entitlement, self-worth, the availability of mentors and role models, the aforementioned headspace, and any functional knowledge about how the process works. Further, in some cases, decision-makers have welcomed only certain versions of the working-class tale. 

After our kids left home, I continued to work too much, in the low-paying human services field, as well as freelancing in the early mornings and weekends. Once I took on a more niche full-time job as a grant writer, I returned to my own writing — 23 years after graduation from my program. I learned that the miniature but complete narratives I wrote had a name, and that was flash fiction. I enrolled in workshops and began sending my work out and participating in the online flash community. One of my first acceptances was from Wigleaf! I’m pretty proud of that.

The international flash community does beautiful things around erasing boundaries between people. 

Patricia Q. Bidar

I love flash fiction. If you’re reading this, you probably do, too. The international flash community does beautiful things around erasing boundaries between people. I know that some flash writers attended private colleges. For others, not having an MFA is a point of pride. Some have the focus and drive to build a writing life while also paying the bills. Some struggle financially and still write. Otherstake fancy vacations from swank homes. Some feel strongly about doing anything but writing professionally so as not to taint their artistic voice. Some get by on very little; some do not need to earn money. (This is the life my mother hoped I’d marry into, I think!) Through our work, even we fiction writers learn and share so much about who we are. I like everything about flash fiction, but our community, online and off—and the effort to make it more democratic and welcoming—is what I love most.

My parents didn’t attend college, but both were lifelong readers. My mother recently passed away. A family friend called her the most well-read person she’s ever known, going on to marvel at the many worlds that lived within my mom. Isn’t that amazing? Something for us readers to think about and appreciate about ourselves. 

I’m excited to serve as one of the judges for this competition. I’ll be looking for those tales and observations that no one but YOU could have forged. The earned, inevitable last line that is somehow also a surprise. A bit of magic. I know it when I see it.

For now, take some time to be inspired. There are too many superb flash writers out there to list. I recommend my fellow judge Eliot Li. His is a singular perspective: that of a health professional, family man, and son of immigrants. He writes fiction with the soul of a poet, in my opinion. A thoughtful observer with a completely original eye! There is some great work out there in Flash Frog, New Flash Fiction Review, Trampset, Vol 1. Brooklyn, Island Mag, Reckon Review, Banshee, Fractured Lit, Into the Void, and Milk Candy Review, to name a few journals publishing flash.

Next for me is a collection of flash fiction that I’m shopping to publishers now. I’ve joined the staff of Quarterly West, a lit journal affiliated with the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. My story, Over There, is included in Flash Fiction America (W.W. Norton, 2023). The book is available for pre-order now. I’m also excited that one of my flash pieces will appear in Blue Bob—a Dylan tribute anthology—published by a press I’ve been admiring for years, Cowboy Jamboree. That book will be released in early December. 

Believe in yourself and believe you deserve to do the things you love. 

Patricia Quintana Bidar is a writer from the Port of Los Angeles area. Her work appears in Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Pinch, Pithead Chapel, and Atticus Review, among other journals, and in numerous anthologies.

Patricia’s collection of short fiction was a recent finalist in the Moon City Fiction Award and Gold Line Press Competition. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in filmmaking from San Francisco State University and a Master’s in English from University of California, Davis. For more, visit www.patriciaqbidar.com


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Lady luck: Interview with competition judge and author, Rachel Edwards on love, luck and literature

I always thought writing was for other people, not for second-generation Jamaican-Nigerian girls like me. My mother tells me, while as a keen gardener she always had a spade in her hand, I always had a book in mine. I read voraciously, and by the time I was seven, I felt that there must be nothing finer than to be an author. A few short years later, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison helped to open a door that encouraged me into a more ambitious space, in literary terms. 

I’ve always considered myself lucky in many ways – being born on Christmas Day; I’ve always loved that. I have been lucky in my wonderful mother, an NHS nurse for 50 years; lucky in love – having been with the most amazing man for 20 years – lucky in being able to raise my stepchildren. Lucky in winning £25,000 as the fourth-ever contestant on Deal or No Deal (bit random, I know) – that helped me to buy my first flat in Oxfordshire. When writing gets tough, I am buoyed by the constant thought that I am lucky to be doing what I absolutely love: creating and living life as a published author. When it came to my second novel, LUCKY absolutely had to be the title.

Are you feeling Lucky? Order your copy here

Lucky is the story of Etta, who is in her mid-thirties and keen to nudge her loving but commitment-phobic partner Ola towards marriage and children. Ola is worried about money and reluctant to get engaged before they have enough saved for a house deposit, so Etta quietly begins to make money on an online gambling site – until she begins losing. Soon she has secretly lost their entire savings. Luckily, Etta has made a friend on the site, a friend who has recently won big. Perhaps she can persuade him to give her a loan, just until she wins the money back. What could possibly go wrong?

Lucky explores issues of race, money, immigration, power and privilege through a fast-paced, suspenseful story that will keep readers as hooked as Darling did.

It examines societal factors that can turn lives upside down: from the increasingly popular online gambling to migration and the movement of people. Ultimately, Lucky is a book that examines the risks we all take to survive.

I had the idea for LUCKY years ago while still living in Oxfordshire as a freelance writer in my 20s. At one point, as a form of elaborate procrastination, and because I have something of a moth-to-the-flame personality, I gave in to a perverse urge to explore online bingo and then a few betting games. I thought I would be impervious. But I was appalled at how quickly online gambling could pull someone in and turn into trouble. Happily, I did not go down the same path as my character Etta. But that age-old author’s question of ‘What if?’ arose – what if I had been desperate for money? What if I had not stopped?

So much of story writing comes from that curiosity, where you let your imagination run. Not knowing where it’s going to go can be its own sort of gamble too. My novel is about some of the most significant gambles we can take, from crossing an ocean for a better life, to taking a chance on love: existential gambles and the risks we take. Even entering a writing competition! For my books, DARLING and LUCKY, I was fired up about Brexit and the rise of the Far Right, then about online gambling and migration issues. I write better when I have something powerful to say, something that matters to me. 

I write better when I have something powerful to say, something that matters to me. 

Rachel Edwards

I love short fiction that is powerfully evocative: it captures a moment or a theme perfectly and it works well with the brevity of the form. If it is a moving idea, beautifully written, and if the author writes with an original voice, then it is sure to be a strong contender for me. I love to be fully immersed in a story and its characters. My characters become so real to me that they could walk into my living room right now and I know exactly what they say and do. That’s a thrilling relationship. 

I am keen to encourage emerging writers. I have long embraced new voices in fiction: I talk regularly to students at the HarperCollins Author Academy and I also host bespoke solo writing retreats, with a Masterclass option for emerging writers. Take a look at racheledwards.com to find out more. 

It is essential to encourage new talent onto the literary scene and it is a privilege to be a judge for this prize. Good luck to everyone who has entered! I cannot wait to read your stories.

Rachel Edwards is an author with Fourth Estate, HarperCollins. Her second novel, Lucky – a tale about race, migration, betrayal, online gambling and the risks we all take to survive – was published on 24th June 2021. It follows on from the success of her acclaimed debut, Darling, published in 2018.

An alumna of King’s College London, she worked in publishing, won a national Arts Council award for her fiction and became a freelance writer for over 12 years until she chose to focus full-time on writing novels. Rachel has appeared at literary festivals and events around the UK. Her articles have featured across the national media including in The Guardian and The Sunday Times. During the summer of 2020, she featured as lead columnist for The Sunday
Times Magazine
. She is a regular guest on BBC Radio, featuring on Woman’s Hour in 2019 and 2020. She lives in Somerset.

Follow Rachel on social: @RachelDEdwards on Twitter or @racheledwardsauthor on Instagram. 


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Sticks and Stones: Oxford Flash Fiction Anthology launch – 23 April, 5 pm

Sticks and Stones: An Oxford Flash Fiction Anthology

Words are powerful. Despite what the saying tells us, words have the power to hurt us, but they also have the power to heal us, too.

Sticks and Stones is a collection of sixty powerful stories from all around the world. In under 1000 words, they have the power to transport you, to make you laugh, cry, and everything in between. They are the very greatest stories from a snapshot in time where people everywhere were looking to connect by returning to their words during a pandemic.

‘Sisters turn into tigers, babies are born as half-human, hybrid creatures. These authors seem conscious that the world is, simultaneously, stunned still and also becoming unrecognizable, and they attempt to capture it in the middle of that shape-shift.’

Kim Magowan, author of Undoing and The Light Source.

We are thrilled to launch the first Oxford Flash Fiction anthology 2021 this month, and you are invited! Celebrate with us for an evening of readings, prizes and more, with past judges, and the authors themselves.

23 April 2022

5 pm


Authors

Cornerlis Affre, Gayathiri Dhevi Appathurai, Holly Barratt, John Barron, Lydia Benson, Sharon Boyle, Benjamin Britworth, Lucas Cammack, Anthony Cartwright, Philip Charter, Kevin Cheeseman, Yvonne Clarke, Patrick Clarke, Marie Day, Michelle Donkin, Kim Donovan, Daniel Draper, Conor Duggan, Julie Evans, Richard Frost, Frances Gapper, Salah Golandami, Esther González, Brian Gully, Simon Harris, David Hartley, Paul Jackson, Talis Johnson, Holly Kybett Smith, David Lewis, Rosaleen Lynch, Niamh Mac Cabe, Clare Marsh, Sarah Martin, Lynsey May, Paddy McKenna, Sarah McPherson, David McVey, Louise Mills, Conor Montague, Thomas Moody, Linda Morse, Jenn Murray, Rose New, Audrey Niven, Ayemhenre Okosun, Hazel Osmond, Tracey-Anne Plater, E.E. Rhodes, Louis Rossi, Helen Rushworth, Elizabeth Smith, Brittany Terwilliger, Matthew Tucker, Kevin West, Susan Wigmore, Erik Wijkström, Helen Williams and G.A. Wolf.

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First place: The De Facto Mother by Yasmina Din Madden

Kiki learns that male alligators have permanent erections while she watches the Discovery Channel instead of grading five paragraph essays from her eighth graders who, among the boys, she also suspects have permanent erections. Over the many years she’s taught, she’s seen hundreds of boys adjust themselves, eyes darting around the room, checking to see if anyone noticed, or openly, without a hint of embarrassment. She has also on occasion watched a boy walk out of her classroom with a full-on tent and the mother in her has wanted to rush over and hand him a folder or a book to cover himself. Which, of course, she resists. Kiki should turn off the television and grade, but she just can’t bring herself to read another essay about The Hate You Give, a book she and her students love. Reading and discussing books with her students brings Kiki actual joy. Reading their writing is another beast altogether.  

During mating, two flatworms, which Kiki has never heard of, engage in “penis fencing” in which they each try to stab each other with their two-headed penises. Yes, this is alarming and surprising to Kiki, but what really gets her, is the way the Discovery Channel describes what comes next, which is that whoever manages to penetrate first and inseminate the other wins. And the loser, their words, not hers, becomes the de facto mother. Kiki considers the flatworm’s hermaphroditic nature, what it might be like to have a penis alongside her vagina. Not interested. While she’s had her share of penises inside of her, sleeps beside a human with a penis, and has a child with a penis, she will always find them strange, and somewhat ugly. She realizes that if a man described a vagina this way, it would be viewed as misogynistic. Maybe she’s biased, but vaginas just seem more organic to the human body. 

Kiki glances at the stack of essays beside her on the couch and feels slightly nauseated. She tells herself that it’s because there’s eighty of them, but also, her period is a couple of weeks late and she’s been putting off buying a pregnancy test. Kiki loves her son, but she is not interested in having another baby—she hated being pregnant, and she’s only ever wanted a single child. Lucas, her husband, is another story. “Two is perfect,” he keeps telling her. “Then they have each other.” Kiki won’t budge—even when they were dating, she made it clear that if she had children, it would only be one. Anders is four, a sweet, gentle little boy who loves animals and has the palate of an adult. She loves him more than anything in the world, which is why she only ever wanted one child. How could she possibly love another child as much as she loves Anders? 

On television, a hen squawks and does its strange head-bobbing run across a farmyard, a fat rooster in hot pursuit. Kiki watches as the rooster, who, just for the record, seems both predatory and peremptory, mounts the hen. She knows she’s anthropomorphizing, and the rooster is just following his biological urges, but watching him mount that hen makes her mad. Some of that anger dissipates when the Aussie host of the show shares that a hen can eject up to eighty percent of an offending (again, their words, not hers) male’s sperm. She silently cheers on the hen, eject, eject, eject! Once again, the Discovery Channel disappoints when it underscores that this ejection of sperm allows for the possibility that the hen might be impregnated by a rooster at the top of the pecking order. Is it so impossible that a hen just doesn’t want to get impregnated yet again? The TV host did, after all, describe hens who eject sperm as enraged or possibly disappointed. Why assume she’s disappointed the rooster isn’t distinguished enough—too low in the pecking order? Why not focus on the possibility that the hen is enraged at the rooster’s audacity, at the prospect of laying another bunch of eggs, with the idea of being, yet again, an incubator? 

Kiki clicks off the television and puts aside her stack of essays. She slings her purse over her shoulder and grabs her keys. At the pharmacy down the street, she selects two pregnancy tests. Sitting awkwardly on the toilet, trying to pee on the stick but not her hand—harder than it might sound—Kiki thinks about the flatworms, wonders if her husband would be so gung-ho about two kids if he lost their battle and became the de-facto mother. 


The best flash rage on the page, and that’s what’s happening here. A rage against silence and men. Done so with wit, grace, and searing language. What’s so stunning about this piece is how the contempt is palatable on the page, which, just like a flatworm, digs more and more into you as you read. Nothing short of a delight.

jj Peña

The story was very cleverly structured. There were so many layers to it, and so many underlying emotions to what seemed like a very simple observation of a particular situation. I loved the voice, the structure and how it evoked all kinds of emotions in me while I was reading it.

Susmita Bhattacharya

Yasmina Din Madden is a Vietnamese American writer who lives in Iowa. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in The Idaho Review, PANK, Carve, The Masters Review: New Voices, The Fairy Tale Review, Necessary Fiction, Hobart, Word Riot and other journals. Her short fiction has been a finalist for The Iowa Review Award in Fiction, The Masters Review Anthology, the Wigleaf Top 50, Fractured Journal’s micro-fiction contest, and nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. She is completing a collection of short fiction.

 

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Scar Tissue: Interview with competition judge Dr Clare Morgan

I was brought up in a passionate family, larger than life. There are positives and negatives in this, but passion and love in all its forms is something that has always fascinated me. My short story collection ‘An affair of the Heart’ looks to examine those topics in detail. My father was a talented musician, and a lover of poetry. My mother wrote short stories, and so I grew up surrounded by creativity. I was lucky to have had stories and poetry read to me, and songs sung to me, from an early age. 

I love to explore what motivates and drives another person. I was quite a shy child, so writing has always allowed me to explore other people’s narratives and uncover truths indirectly. I’ve travelled a lot and worked with poetry and people internationally, from UK to US to Tokyo and beyond, so have met a whole range of people who have inspired my writing and how I think about the world. 

Each story in An Affair of the Heart questions the apparently romantic title through its exploration of the enigmatic state of mind known as love. Desire and identity; displacement, emotional and geographical; the relationship between ambition, circumstances and emotion; the often difficult coexistence of passion and intellect; these are the subjects of the fifteen fascinating narratives.

Men and women reckon the worth of relationships past and present, from steamy New Orleans to urbane Paris, from metropolitan Chelsea to the industrial valleys and rural hinterlands of Wales. Frank and delicate, revelatory and secret Clare Morgan’s stories offer insights into human nature which are in turn punchily realistic and suggestively questioning.

Place is fundamental to who and what I am. It was a defining feature as I grew up in the Welsh countryside and remains so. Place to me is about belonging, or the absence of belonging. It has always been interlinked with history and time, and family in complex ways. This is an important part of my next collection ‘Scar Tissue’ coming out in September 2022. The book has five sections: Space; Home; Away; Nowhere; and Somewhere. Like scar tissue in the flesh, it looks at where things divided and where – and if – they have grown back together. It looks at what is and what might have been.

You can turn a story over, a bit like a diamond,

and it catches the light in different ways.

Dr Clare Morgan

I love short fiction and how you can turn a story over a bit like a diamond, and it catches the light in different ways. It reflects so many truths at once, endlessly revealing to us something about ourselves and humanity. You can see the light shine off it from a variety of angles, giving different perspectives. But it’s important not to spell out too much, and to ensure that you leave room for the reader to undertake their own exploration. You need to give readers room to bring their own experiences, and not tell them what to think. 

Flash fiction is a challenging form. It needs a narrative drive along with an emotional resonance, intensely compressed. Every word counts and must carry appropriate weight. What doesn’t happen, and what isn’t said, has incredible importance. That seems to me to be a kind of truth to life too. The spaces and gaps, the questions we are left with. It’s how I experience the world and how I write about it. It also provides that much-needed resonance, which is a vital ingredient in short fiction.

As a writer and academic, I’m passionate about developing writers to express their own unique voice. The Master of Studies in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford, which I founded 16 years ago, has a global constituency. The range of people and experiences it attracts provides an enriching environment in which to learn as a writer and a reader. It’s vital that we encourage writers to develop their individual writerly voice, instead of trying to enforce some kind of market-driven conformity, which risks everyone sounding the same. Voice is crucial in fiction, and is something I shall enjoy looking out for when judging the competition. 

Good luck to everyone who entered!

Clare Morgan is a fiction writer and literary critic. Her most recent novel, A Book for All and None was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and shortlisted for the Author’s Club best novel award. Her short story collection An Affair of the Heart was published by Seren, and her new collection, Scar Tissue, is forthcoming with Seren in 2022. 

Her stories have been widely anthologized and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Her book What Poetry Brings to Business was published by University of Michigan Press and her recent writing on the subject has featured in the Wall Street Journal, FastCompany, and Humanizing Business (Springer, 2021). She is founder and director of Oxford University’s creative writing programme and a Fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford.


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Primal Flash Fiction: Interview with competition judge Catherine McNamara

It’s very hard to write about happiness and much easier to write about loss (though I realise not everyone would agree). My collection ‘Love Stories for Hectic People’ started with the story ‘As Simple as Water’, which was probably the first true flash piece I ever wrote. I was facing a long difficult winter, so I decided that it would be the first note of a collection about all types of love – flawed, impulsive, enduring, jagged. The stories just tumbled out and I took inspiration from everywhere. 

For me, place is almost like a character, and can serve to bring the reader within the story, to give a sense of escape or enquiry. I’ve moved around a lot so location seeps into my work, but I’m very aware that use of place has to serve the story, not just be a colourful backdrop. It’s very hard to write anything original set in Venice, for example, so the story has to have legs; and though I lived for years in West Africa I am not from there, so place has to be used with awareness and respect – it has to be an authentic story and not just a telling. Displacement and movement are central to my work and have given me the slight remove that can help a writer observe and spin ideas.

For me, the excitement truly lies in the creation of characters I try to become, to enter their mindset and express their thoughts. I am forever listening to people and their stories, so watch out! 

The thirty-three flash fictions of Love Stories for Hectic People explore the alignment of beings that is love. There is love that is vulgar, love that knows no reason; there is love that cradles the act of living, love that springs through the cracks; love that is slaughtered.

These tales take place from Italy to Ghana to Greece and London and Tokyo, in grainy cities and muted hotel rooms; there is a Mafia murder, an ambulance rescue worker and a woman whose husband falls off a mountain. There is unchaste attraction and slippery, nuanced love; police violence and porn, and fishing too.

Winner of the Saboteur Awards for Best Short Story Collection 2021

I live in a hard-won and stimulating environment in the countryside in north-eastern Italy. The house was a neglected unheated farmer’s house when we bought it. The area is damp and foggy in winter, with almost tropical humidity in the summer, so my writing zone shifts around the house according to the temperature. I used to have an art galley in Ghana so the house is full of inspiring sculptures and fabrics and photography.

First sentences need to be primal.

Catherine Macnamara

Flash fiction has trained me in getting to the point. The beauty of flash is that it’s a constant training session because of the exactitude and compression of the form, so you learn to edit your ideas as cleanly as your words. I knew my collection would be a raw book about the body, about our need for love and about its shape in various lives. I wrote the stories one after the other so was conscious of each piece bouncing off the last and something larger taking shape.

It’s a challenge to write about sex because it is part of our intimate lives. But it’s always been prominent in my work as I feel it is so central to storytelling. I always have my eyes and ears open and therefore have a great reservoir of story material. I wanted it to be about adult lives, and how sex is folded through.

A great piece of flash fiction has to get under my skin and jar me slightly. I know from the first note if I am going to be intrigued – first sentences need to be primal. That doesn’t mean they have to be noisy or showy, but they have to strike a human chord within me. There are so many inspiring flash writers out there. I’m a great lover of language and restraint, so when someone gets this balance right, I’m a goner.

Good luck to everyone who has entered the competition and I can’t wait to read your stories!

Catherine McNamara is a short story and flash fiction writer, novelist, writing mentor and teacher, and UK Flash Fiction editor at Litro Magazine. Her flash/short fiction collection Love Stories for Hectic People won Best Short Story Collection the Saboteur Awards 2021 (UK). Her short story collection The Cartography of Others was praised by Hilary Mantel, finalist in the People’s Book Prize (UK), and won the Eyelands International Fiction Prize (Greece). Pelt and Other Stories was semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Award.

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris to write and ended up in West Africa co-running a bar, working in Mogadishu and Milan along the way. Catherine hikes, grows cherries and runs writing retreats at her farmhouse in north-eastern Italy.


Second place: The Salt Trick by Matt Kendrick

The day of the disappearance smells of citrus air freshener. Jimmy is nine. His younger sister, Clara, who likes to be the centre of attention, throws up on the way to the theatre and they are late taking their seats. The show is a magic show. The magician pulls a bunny from a hat, transforms an onion into a chocolate egg. When he asks for a volunteer, Jimmy’s mum pushes him to his feet.

At a dinner party when Jimmy is seven, the grown-ups are being loud as if the volume dial on their voices is turned up to a hundred. Jimmy is at the table being seen and not heard. He wishes he could be neither seen nor heard playing Tetris on his Amstrad computer. The grown-ups have acquired loud gestures to accompany their loud words. Uncle Tom, who is a friend-of-the-family uncle rather than a biological uncle, topples his red wine across the white tablecloth. Jimmy’s mum reacts in a heartbeat – ‘Smother it with salt.’

He is eighteen. It is happy hour at The Headless Hippo. Everyone from his corridor in halls is crowded around a small table and they are at the point of sharing secrets and showing off. A round has been bought – shots of Jägermeister. Jimmy upends his shot glass into a plant pot because he doesn’t need alcohol to make them stare like they stare at the guy who trips on a pool cue and smashes his head against the bar.

He has to draw his face in Year 8 art. Mr Ozaki takes Jimmy’s picture on a digital camera and Jimmy divides the print-out into 1cm squares, copies each square onto his sketchpad. His nose is two squares long. His forehead is five squares wide. His port-stain birthmark that sludges up from his neck across his cheek is three squares by six squares, even though he has angled his face to make it as small as possible. At the end of the lesson, Mr Ozaki insists everyone gather around to admire the quality of his work. They press in behind him and there is a snort, a sniggering. Jimmy feels a pulsing in his throat.

The day after he disappears, what he remembers most vividly is the pinch of salt the magician threw over his left shoulder and the swaying of his pocket watch. ‘Three, two, one – you’re under.’ He was inside a game of Tetris and he was broken into shapes. His left leg was an orange L. His stomach was a yellow square. It felt unusual to be broken up in this way, but not unfamiliar. His brain fizzed like 7Up at no longer being tethered to his face.

He is back from university for the Christmas holidays. Clara has a boyfriend with a Mazda MX-5. ‘Haven’t you got a girlfriend yet?’ asks Uncle Tom who is there because their dad says no one should be alone for Christmas. He has brought Châteauneuf du Pape. Over Christmas dinner, Clara asks, ‘Do you remember when you disappeared?’ Jimmy says he doesn’t, even though he thinks about that sensation of disappearing almost every day. Clara says, ‘We’ve got it on video.’ Uncle Tom says, ‘I have to see this.’ Jimmy excuses himself to his room because he has watched the video before and he has hated it, the way the audience gawps as he trudges past, the crackle of their laughter when the magician puts him under. He has hated it, hated it, hated it, right up until the point when he is no longer there, when the place where he was standing has become a perfect void.

On his tenth birthday, he steals a drum of Saxa salt from the local shop. Later that night, he stands in front of the bathroom mirror and mixes the salt with flour and water to make a paste. He dabs it on his cheek, around the edges of his birthmark, rubs a thin veil on top. He scoops it up. He smears it on. He pats it down until the salt paste covers everything. When he is done, he swivels his neck and, for a brief moment, he is satisfied. Then he peers deeper into the mirror, right into its depths, his face closer and closer to its shiny surface, and all of a sudden, his nose looks odd and his jaw is wrong, and he can still feel the birthmark, the whole burning lake of it, buried beneath the salt. 

For perhaps the seventeenth time, he tries to replicate the disappearance. He sprays his room with citrus air freshener before positioning himself in front of the mirror and closing his eyes. He has a pinch of salt in his right hand, which he throws over his left shoulder. He says ‘Abracadabra’ imploringly beneath his breath. There is a state of drifting he remembers from the day he disappeared and he tries to conjure it, hears the magician’s voice counting down from three. It is working – he tries to convince himself it is working. He will lean forward and fall through the mirror. He will be floating. He will be in that Tetris dimension again, all the parts of him untethered as brightly coloured shapes.

 


Very poignant and full of emotional resonance. I loved the imagery and how it evoked all the senses and made me really feel for the main character.

Susmita Bhattacharya

Perhaps the real magic of this piece is in how it leaves you feeling—waiting, wishing for enchantment. The language is so rich and vivid, constantly returning to the wound of being, of appearing. And just like a prayer or a spell, it repeats itself over and over again, until you also find yourself doing it. 

jj Peña

Matt Kendrick is a writer, editor and creative writing teacher based in the East Midlands, UK. His stories have been published in Bath Flash Fiction, Cheap Pop, Craft Literary, Fictive Dream, FlashBack Fiction, Reflex Fiction, and elsewhere.

Third place: Asshole Dolphin by Jeremy Glazer

I know you people think all dolphins are great, but believe me, Meg is a straight up asshole. I should know. I have to work with her every goddam day, swimming around this shitty lagoon in Key Largo, rickshawing tourists on our backs for two minutes a pop. Meg is a total fucking sell-out collaborator. It’s dolphins like her that keep the rest of us down.

See, I think most people wouldn’t keep this whole animals-as-servants system going if they knew how much we hated it. That’s exactly why I tried to organize a little wildcat strike last year. The plan was to get us all to stop mid-ride and take our passengers under for a few seconds—not enough to hurt anyone, but just to make it clear that we’re not down with this whole situation. We needed solidarity for the plan to work though, and of course Meg wasn’t on board. She’s a company girl. 

When she said she wouldn’t do it, I almost whacked my tail into that fucked-up snout of hers. Charles held me back. It’s her ace, that crooked mouth. It doesn’t quite close, so it makes her look like she’s always smiling. That’s why she’s the favorite. Our handlers always have her do the introductory lap when people come in the lagoon because she makes it seem like we’re all so goddam happy to be here. Total bullshit. 

And Meg takes advantage of her status. She gets first dibs on who she’ll carry because after that welcome lap, she’s allowed to go over and wait by whichever person she wants. Charles and I get stuck with the leftovers. Charles is a dumbass, so he doesn’t care, but it pisses me off every time because I understand how clever Meg is. She knows people. She can see into them. And it’s not just the embryos and the tumors and the broken bones she sees—we all can do that. Meg actually looks into their souls. She somehow can spot and avoid those super-clingy riders, the ones who pay to swim with a dolphin because they don’t have enough love in their life or something. It took me a long time to figure out that the hardest rides to give aren’t about the size or weight of the passenger—they’re about longing. And Meg always leaves those longing-ass motherfuckers for us. It’s like she’s got a seventh sense or something.

I thought I had finally gotten the best of her one day last month. Charles was getting examined by the veterinarians, so it was just me and Meg. They put two morons in the lagoon right at the edge, a man and a woman. I spotted the woman’s cancer before Meg did. The lady’s insides were completely full, and I know those sick ones are the absolute worst. They are needy-times-ten, living out their bucket list, gripping you heavily as they try to look deeply into your eyes. I always feel like they’re pulling me to the bottom with them, and I wanted no part of it with this woman. Before the trainer could whistle for Meg’s parade lap, I hightailed it over to the man, cutting in front of Meg.

The trainers got the guy latched on to me and then they got the woman on Meg and we started the ride. I laughed to myself for the whole two minutes, even though Meg didn’t seem to be having a particularly hard time. I figured maybe the woman was Buddhist or something and at peace with her own impending doom. 

When the ride was over, I dropped my guy and swam away, but Meg wouldn’t let the woman out of the water. The lady had let go of Meg’s dorsal and was hanging on to the edge, but instead of swimming away, Meg had turned around and just kept nuzzling the woman’s belly with her janky-ass snout. I thought Meg was just trying to be cute, angling for more fish, but when she gave me the side eye, I should have known she was playing three-dimensional chess while I was playing checkers. 

The trainer finally pulled Meg off and gave his usual spiel to the lady about how dolphins are like swimming MRIs. He told her about the time one of our colleagues kept poking at the wife of a newly married couple until the bride finally had to admit she was pregnant and hadn’t yet told her husband. 

The trainer told Meg’s passenger that she should go get an ultrasound, just in case, a line which usually gets a laugh from women in their fifties. This time he got crickets. The couple didn’t say a word, just looked at each other. I figured they were too polite to tell the trainer that the woman was dying because it would have made him feel like the shithead he actually is. But I was completely wrong. 

This morning, the couple came back with TV cameras and everything. Turned out, they hadn’t known about the tumors, but because of one terrific dolphin, it looks like they caught the cancer in time. Everyone’s making a huge deal about what a hero Meg is and about the special bond between our two species. 

Special bond, my ass. 

Meg is over by the side of the lagoon, and they’re filming her doing stupid tricks and letting Tumor Woman pet her and give her kisses. She’s getting a boatload of extra fish for it, and Charles is hanging around, hoping for some scraps. 

And me? I’m just swimming circles at the far end, trying to plot my fucking escape.


Devious. Refreshing. Snarky. And, above all else, FUN. Humor isn’t always nuanced but it is here, and you simply cannot wait to follow more devilish dolphin adventures. 

jj Peña

Loved the candid voice of the dolphin! It was surprising, funny and I found the point of view refreshing. It’s not easy to do ‘funny’ in flash and I thought this piece achieved it nicely!

Susmita Bhattacharya

Jeremy Glazer is a writer and educator. His fiction has appeared in Tablet, Bellevue Literary Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and on the public radio program WLRN Under the Sun. He lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Rowan University. He’s working on a collection of short stories in and around schools.

 

New Voice Award: The Egg by Sophie Kendall

As soon as my fuddled brain tasted the stale alcohol of the beer, the sirens began. They screamed one long note, which tore the silence of the night apart.

I sat still, head half-cocked, listening. As usual Dad’s pub was full to bursting with locals who had all been dancing and singing to high heavens, but somehow the air siren had broken through and silenced them.

They stood like statues before dashing out as fast as they could. Dad and I watched them go, before turning back to what we were doing, him cleaning the bar; me drinking my pint.

I had wanted to drown my sorrows and forget about death for tonight. But when I was still halfway through my pint, the door was unexpectedly wrenched open.

A woman came bursting in, breathless and red in the face, eyes searching wildly.

She was hunched over and under her robes I could make out a great lump on her back. ‘Please.’ She wheezed. ‘I need a midwife!’

Dad and I looked at each other. ‘Our Jen here is a midwife,’ he said, eventually.

‘Please.’ The old woman pulled at me with her claws, ‘You must come, my niece needs help.’

‘Now hang on Missus.’ Dad said raising his dirty paw. ‘Yeh can’t just take her out there.

‘No Dad, it’s fine.’

He still protested as we made it out of the pub. The old dear took me through the streets without so much as an upward glance at the sky, as if she isn’t aware of the approaching planes and their bombs.

It’s funny, I thought I knew these streets inside out, but as I followed her, we went through alleyways and side streets I didn’t recognise. Eventually, when I decided that I was completely lost when she stopped in front of a slum. Or at least I assumed it was a slum. The house was big enough to have once been owned by one of the swanks of the city. However, it looked so old now it was practically falling down. Boards were propping it up and when she pulled me inside, I could still hear even over the noise, the house creak deeply.

There were about a dozen of them in there. All women, all old and all hunched over with great lumps on their backs. They were all anxiously crowding around a woman lying in the middle of the room. Just one look at her and I knew she was in the advanced stages of labour, given how weakly she cried out and how red and sticky her face was. I paused in the doorway, marvelling how old she looked despite her condition.

One of the women yanked me over, and began to beg I help her. ‘It’s stuck!’ Another said, ‘we think it’s stuck!’

My brain was still muddled from the alcohol and the bazar situation. I started to slowly feel her swollen grey belly and then check her birth canal to see how much progress had been made.

While I was doing this, the mother began to groan and complain. ‘Another one! They’re coming again! I can’t lie here. Help, please unbound me! I need to be off my back!’

What happened next, I will never forget.

Two of the women pulled up the mother and began to unbind something on her back. At first, I heard only the gentlest of rustling, like a mouse nesting in straw. And then with a swoosh they were free. Two enormous pearl grey wings, which arched and swooped in the air before settling around the mother’s back. She groaned again, this time from relief.

I could only stare at the wings, completely dumb with wonder at them. I never knew, never thought, that something like this could ever exist.

One of the older women yelled at me to hurry. Another contraction was coming, and it was clear now the baby was indeed stuck. I began to search frantically for my pliers in my medical bag, however, when I tried to pull the baby out, I couldn’t get a purchase on the body. I had to use my hands. I pushed them inside her, searching blindly for a head. A slippery object met me, half in and half out of its mother. My fingers slipped twice but then, by some miracle, I got a hold of it and pulled it free.

The world was silent as I looked at the grey thing in my hands. An egg? One of the women snatched it from me and gave it to the mother, who laughed and cried as she held it. ‘Thank you, oh thank you.’ She breathed.

A cheer erupted in the room. The women laughed and danced and hugged me while I stood stunned, my eyes never leaving the egg.

We ought to have been listening. We should have heard the plane above us. We didn’t hear the bomb fall down on us, but I felt it when the ceiling fell in, only just realising what had happened as ancient bricks and plaster rained down on us.

I don’t know how I was able to wake up but somehow, I did. I blinked the dust away from my eyes as I sat up. The house was gone, flattened by the bomb. I sat up weakly, scattering bricks and, I realised sickeningly, body parts of the women too, including their beautiful wings.

I stood up and at once became aware of the noise. A gargled kind of shriek. I pulled myself over and found the egg. The shell had cracked from the impact so that I could see in the grey dawn light the baby within.

It wailed at me, like every other baby I had helped bring into the world. 

I reached over and held it in my arms. I picked a fragment of shell from its cheek before slowly looking up at the sky.


Not many stories have tenderness, heart—and you wouldn’t expect to see this in a flash about a winged woman giving birth to an egg, But it’s there—in the chaos of war. And the descriptions are dazzling, focusing on transforming the “other” into something beautiful and mythic, in something worth saving.

jj Peña

Great imagery and I loved the haunting atmosphere, a sense of unease. Loved how all the events unfolded to the unexpected ending.

Susmita Bhattacharya

Sophie Kendall loves to write stories but has never felt brave enough to try and get one of them published. Her parents instilled in her a love of reading, and she was able to study creative writing at university for three wonderful years.

 

The 2022 winter short-list

We are thrilled to announce our short-list for the winter Oxford Flash Fiction Prize 2022.

If your story is listed, please do not identify which story belongs to you, as the judges are hard at work making their decisions.

SHORT LISTED STORIES

A Summoning Spell

Am I Human?

Asshole Dolphin

Birthday gift

Daisy Bradley, Fake Santa and Ballerina Barbie

Evensong

He Doesn’t Know It Yet

How To Cultivate A Thankful And Happy Mindset

Mishap

Nurture

Portrait of the Dead

Ravine

The De Facto Mother

The Egg

The Elephant Who Came For Tea

The Salt Trick

Next week, we will be announcing our winners. So watch this space! 

Our next competition will be opening on the 1 June 2022. So if you don’t find yourself on this list, we hope you’ll try again in our next competition and keep crafting.