Magdalena McGuire - Women's Short Story Competition 2017 winner

Magdalena McGuire ‘Salt Madonna’

‘Winning the Mslexia short story competition has utterly floored me. I entered the competition in a sleep-deprived state (I have a young baby) and then, not wanting to chalk up a rejection from my favourite literary journal, put it out of my mind. Some months later, when the editor, Debbie Taylor, passed on a message that she wanted to speak to me, I was excited and terrified by turns. Was she wanting to tell me that my story placed in the competition? Or that there was a problem with my story? The mind does strange things when you’re nervous!
I still can’t believe that the judge, Deborah Levy – who, let’s face it, is a goddess – read my story and actually liked it. I’m such a huge fan of her work, so this means a lot to me.
The short stories I’ve read in Mslexia have really stayed with me and I’m honoured to be published alongside them.’

MAGDALENA MCGUIRE was born in Poland, grew up in Darwin, and now lives in Melbourne. Her short stories have been published in Australia and internationally by The Big Issue, the Bristol Prize, and Margaret River Press. She has published widely on human rights topics, including women’s rights and the rights of people with disabilities. She is an avid reader and particularly enjoys reading books about girls who like reading books. She won the Impress Prize for New Writers in 2016, and her début novel, Home is Nearby, which is set in communist Poland, will be published with Impress Books in late 2017.



What did the judge say?

‘In ‘Salt Madonna’, her winning story, Magdalena McGuire offers a breath of fresh air to that generic character known as Mother, a character present in many of the stories submitted. In it, the endearingly tough mother Ewa is spirited, unsentimental and unapologetic. When we get to the big reveal at the end of the story, she does not sob and apologise; she merely states the circumstances of her life, which has been torn apart by war. That is a good writerly decision.

Ewa’s son Wojtek is complicated, loving, vulnerable. He has a sense of fun and irony, a self-awareness that has been hard won. Growing up in Australia, he changes his name from Wojtek to Warren, in a sad bid to belong and not be mocked for being a refugee.

McGuire is non-judgmental and knowing about this kind of shame, and she shows how it shifts in adulthood for Wojtek. She also has the knack of giving the reader information about a turbulent personal and political history in a deceptively lighthearted manner.

Wojtek’s father is an absent character, yet McGuire knows she has to make him present in her story. In general, the rigour needed to create absent characters in fiction requires a whole masterclass of its own. An absent character often haunts a story.

McGuire is able to convey a total sense of place in a few well-chosen pared-down sentences. One of the main characters is the salt mine itself. How does the writer transport her reader into the salt mine? Simply by telling us that it is, ‘two hundred steps into darkness’. I was pleased to spend time in this magical mine, with its chandeliers carved from salt, its modern sassy female guide and, not least, to encounter a whole Madonna carved from salt, ‘her white eyes surveying them all’. McGuire hauls home her accomplished, complex and surreal story with tremendous confidence and flair.’

DEBORAH LEVY is a British novelist, short story writer and playwright who was born in South Africa. Her six novels include the Man Booker shortlisted Hot Milk (2016) and Booker shortlisted Swimming Home (2011). Black Vodka (2013) was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Award, and the titular story was shortlisted for the BBC International Short Story Award in 2012. Her non-fiction essay ‘Things I don’t want to know’ (2014), a response to George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay ‘Why I write’, is a must-read for writers.


Congratulations to the other finalists!

  • Olga Ponjee, Mama’s skin
  • Georgie Newson, Street view
  • Anna Whyatt, Flatlands
'I particularly enjoyed the quick creative exercises, the book suggestions and the job adverts'
Sophie Livall