Winner of the 2020 Richell Prize and author of After the Rain, Aisling Smith, tells us about her debut novel and the impact of winning the prize.
1. What inspired you to write After the Rain?
I’d tried to write another novel before starting After the Rain and it had been a bit of a disaster. I was writing about things that were so far out of my experience that the story felt completely hollow and inauthentic. When I realised I needed to start on a new project, I learned from previous mistakes and decided to write about things I was a bit more emotionally invested in.
My mum was born in Fiji and came to Australia to study in the seventies. I’d always been fascinated by her experiences and decided to creatively re-imagine what that might’ve been like. In that sense, writing After the Rain was partly a way to connect to my heritage and the story kind of unfurled from there. I’m interested in folklore and the uncanny, and basing a story around Fiji-Indian characters gave me a way to explore this.
I also drew a lot of inspiration from the concept of language. As a writer and a reader, I obviously love words! But I’m also intrigued by the idea that language can be a barrier as much as a connecting force. I had an initial image of a family living together in a world of words, yet completely unable to communicate with each other in a meaningful way.
2. Congratulations on winning The Richell Prize in 2020 – how does it feel to have won this prize, and what’s the best thing that has come out of the prize?
Thank you! Winning The Richell Prize feels like living a dream come true. When I’m half asleep in the early hours of the morning, I still sometimes wonder if it actually happened! It was such an honour to be included on the longlist and the shortlist with so many other talented individuals. And being announced as the winner after that felt like the most empowering affirmation of the manuscript and where it was heading. The best tangible thing that came from the prize was being mentored by Vanessa Radnidge, but alongside that was the confidence that the whole experience gave me. Winning The Richell Prize was the turning point when I genuinely started to believe in myself as a writer in a way that I never had before.
3. How did you learn about The Richell Prize, and what made you decide to enter?
I think I learned about the prize from Writers Victoria. At the time I entered the competition, I was feeling very demoralised by After the Rain. By that point I’d been chipping away at the manuscript for years by myself and becoming increasingly frustrated. I was passionate about the themes that the novel was exploring, but I also knew that something about the story simply wasn’t working. When I realised that there was mentoring being offered to the prize winner, I knew I had to throw my hat in the ring. The possibility of working with a Hachette editor to refine the manuscript was everything that I’d wanted for a very long time.
4. After the Rain takes us through the perspectives of three women – Malti, Ellery and Verona – each of whom is confronted with changing perceptions and realities about themselves and their relationships with each other and with Benjamin, their husband and father respectively. The novel explores the nuances within marriage and family; what made you focus on these characters and themes?
The line between truth and perspective is such an interesting one. In many ways, Benjamin is at the core of all three women’s stories. The idea that one person could be perceived in radically different ways intrigued me. He is only ever seen through the eyes of the novel’s women (who are all biased in their own ways) and we never hear his point of view. But I intended to give the reader some freedom to decide who they think Benjamin is and which accounts of him they believe over the course of the novel.
5. The first protagonist, Malti, is an immigrant from Fiji, and her Fiji Indian culture is evident throughout the story. Did you always envision Malti having this cultural background?
Absolutely! It was always my intention for Malti’s cultural background to be a strong theme throughout the novel. Fiji-Indian customs and stories play a big role in shaping the identity of all three women in the novel, and the turmoil occurring in Fiji presents a parallel to the fractured dynamics of the Fortune family.
6. Fiji Indian stories are rare, and being able to explore such a unique diaspora and Pacific culture makes this novel stand out. Did you have any specific things you hoped readers could take away from learning more about this experience in After the Rain?
While every immigrant experience has its own complexities, I was keen to give voice to what this might look like for Fiji-Indians in Australia—the fact that birthplace and home aren’t necessarily the same thing; how inaccessible belonging can feel when you’re different; and what it means to have a cultural background that’s a mixture of so many things. I hope readers can peek into a vision of Australia at different times, through the eyes of three characters who don’t fit the norm. However, it’s ultimately the story of one family and their experiences, so I certainly don’t claim that it’s reflective of all Fiji-Indian immigrants, though it does draw on experiences from my own family.
While many Australians have enjoyed tropical holidays in Fiji and experienced the beauty of that country, there’s a complicated history underneath the touristic surface. I also wanted to depict some of that in the background of the novel, as another layer to the way we think about Fiji—just as the novel aims to give another perspective into Australia too.
7. The need for a sense of belonging and dealing with uncertainty were significant themes throughout the novel that most people, particularly immigrants, can empathise with. How do you feel about your novel bridging a gap on a topic not many books talk about in Australian literature?
I hope that I’ve done justice to those themes – the quest for identity and the fragility of belonging were issues I definitely wanted to give voice to. As a woman of colour, Malti doesn’t feel she fits in Australia when she arrives. Her children also experience a sense of difference in varying ways—both Ellery and Verona must grapple with what it means to be mixed-race. I think all three women have a sense of not really belonging anywhere, which is not an easy thing to contend with.
8. Can you provide tips for aspiring writers who want to enter the Richell prize?
No matter where your manuscript is at, take a chance and enter! When a piece of writing is very close to your heart, you’re not always the best judge of it, so don’t get bogged down in self-doubt – back yourself and your story by going for it. I can say from personal experience that The Richell Prize is one of the best opportunities out there for emerging writers and it’s worth giving your submission absolutely everything you’ve got.
9. Finally, what has been a highlight for you in writing After the Rain and working with Hachette to publish it?
The highlight has definitely been getting to work with an incredible team of editors and watching the narrative develop with their help and guidance. The novel has been smoothed out and refined so much through the editing process. I couldn’t get enough perspective by myself to see what needed to be changed, but the Hachette editors certainly did! It’s been such a privilege to have their eyes on my work.
After the Rain is out on 26 April, 2023.