In 2016, I wrote an essay and entered it in a competition. I second-guessed it for weeks: it was too personal, too revealing. I would make myself vulnerable, I would be exposed. But I entered it anyway and, to my profound surprise, it won.
I wrote the essay in 2016, but I wrote it at other times, too. I wrote it when I tried to explain a panic attack to my Grade 2 teacher. I wrote it when I visited my grandfather’s grave for the first and only time. I wrote it when I understood the fear my dad felt when I told him I didn’t know how to stay alive anymore.
I didn’t start at the beginning of that essay and I didn’t finish at the end of that essay. 2016 was the only time I put down those words in that order, but I had been writing the story my whole life.
When the Horne Prize winner was announced, I was at home. I’d made pizza for my family, kneaded the dough and let it rise. I had my around-the-house pants on. My kids were chewing with their mouths open. I was waiting by the phone and desperately pretending I wasn’t, heart racing like it was on a track.
Erik Jensen, a great writer himself, had called me weeks earlier to tell me I was shortlisted. My voice had got stuck in my throat. The floor had disappeared. My only thought had been, There must be a lot of shortlistees, then. Why would anyone want to read about the way I’d internalised my grandfather’s suicide? What did my story have to offer the people who lived outside of it?
There were five essays shortlisted, including mine. All from great writers with their own things to say. They went to a dinner at prize sponsor Aesop’s head office, with the judges and other people of note. There was a long white table and canapes—I saw them in pictures.
My sister accepted the award on my behalf. She rang me after they called my name and she said, ‘Um.’ and I said, ‘No!’ and she said, ‘You won!’ Then she got up and spoke to the room about why I couldn’t be there. About how the fact of my mental illness —the story I had been writing since I was barely a person at all—meant I wasn’t able to collect my own prize, and wasn’t that sort of the point of it?
I couldn’t eat the rest of my pizza. I stared at it for ages, watching the edges curl up. I thought about how people would know now, my origin story. I tried to remember what I’d written, too scared to read it again. I felt the compounded history of loss and fear like a diamond in my chest. By the time my appetite came back, the pizza was cold.
My experiences of marginalisation are not transferable. I am my life and not someone else’s. The now-deleted 2018 Horne Prize criteria have been called a threat to free speech, but they weren’t. They simply ruled out ‘purporting to represent’ marginalised people without lived experience. They didn’t say ‘no reportage’ or ‘down with journalism’, but discouraged writers from taking the life and inheritance of another and using it for their own gain. Literally: for fifteen thousand dollars. A continuation of generations spent benefiting from punching down.
Would a person without lived experience of mental illness been able to write a good essay about it? One that would win the prize? Maybe they would have scoured books and blogs and RUOK? stickers to find the story. Would a person who loves someone with mental illness written a better essay? A carer, a friend? They might have recognised the glass-eyed disorientation and known what to do with it.
I had taken all the parts of myself and made sentences out of them. I used the mornings I’d woken and not remembered my own name. I used the days I had waited for an ambulance to arrive. I picked off the berries of my intoxicating brain funk and wrote a version of the story I had always been writing.
Would someone else have started it with the beginning and finished with the end? Would they have added all the subsequent ends? Would they have known to include every day I have felt like ending? They could write the whole piece without a nod to a person in a dark corner, and never thought again about the bits that came after and before.
Did I write the best one? Yeah, actually. My sister brought home the letter and the big cheque and I put it on the fridge so I could remember that my story had actual, tangible, bankable value. I banked the money, of course, because treating brains is expensive, but the letter is still there. Every day it reminds me not to be reduced to the symptoms of my illness.
Why should they speak for me, when I am still here to speak for myself?
Anna Spargo-Ryan is the Melbourne-based author of The Gulf and The Paper House, and winner of the 2016 Horne Prize. Her work has appeared in The Big Issue, the Guardian, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, Overland, and many other places.