Meet Prema Arasu who has a PhD in Creative Writing from UWA and is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Minderoo-UWA Deep-Sea Research Centre

Fogarty Literary Award shortlister Prema Arasu says Australia is on the cusp of developing its own speculative fiction tradition. In their absorbing fantasy novel, The Anatomy of Witchcraft, they take colonial history, gender politics and impressive world-building into the boarding school.

Read more from Prema below or, to find out more about how they made their world-building so consistent, subscribe to the Fremantle Press podcast on your favourite app and listen to the episode which will be released next week.

Describe your manuscript in your own words.

The Anatomy Witchcraft is about Lock, who, from a young age, develops an interest in witchcraft. As he grows up and is sent to a boarding school, he is told that witchcraft simply is not an option for boys. The book starts as he is forced to leave school and figure out who he is in the real world while struggling with an overwhelming sense of failure. As much as he tries to avoid taking responsibility for his actions, his friend Leo has other plans for him. It is a comic take on the novel of manners, a coming-of-age, and a high fantasy where everyone is a villain in their own way. It’s a satire of politics, education, academics, gender roles, and the fantasy genre, but above all, I hope, an enjoyable read that leaves a lot up to interpretation.

What inspired you to write it?

I began building the Morganverse—the book’s physical setting—as an experiment in worldbuilding as an undergrad at UWA. The story came much later, when I was thinking about how alternative worlds can get us to think about gender in different ways. Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels were a huge influence, as he uses high fantasy to disrupt and queer fixed notions of identity. His third novel, Equal Rites, which is about a girl who wants to be a wizard, was particularly influential. Sir Terry was always against the notion that fantasy is escapism and was clear about his writing being highly political. But he used comedy to achieve this, and I’ve also found that comedy can be powerfully subversive. As for worldbuilding, cultural influences can be hard to pin down. I was born in Perth, which has its own bloody colonial past. I grew up with a large extended family of mixed South Asian, Southeast Asian, and East Asian heritage. Morgancast is all of this; it’s messy and contradictory, struggling with its own cultural identity as a nation born of trading and exploitation. The Anatomy of Witchcraft was also mostly written during COVID lockdowns, and I’m sure that anyone who reads it will be able to spot the influences as plague creeps throughout the city-state of Morgancast.

What does it mean to you to make the shortlist of the 2023 Fogarty Literary Award?

It means so much to me that there is a future for SFF publishing in Australia. In the past, the Australian publishing and literary scene has suffered from genre elitism, with many litmags and publishers simply not accepting non-realist works. This is changing, and I’m glad to see that the Fogarty Literary Award is part of that change. Australia is at the very beginnings of developing its own speculative tradition, with fantasy works by Indigenous authors paving the way for a sub-genre of works that reflect upon the complexities of Australian identity and place-making through existing structures of genre, and I hope to be part of it.

To find out if Prema has won the award, join us at the Fogarty Literary Ceremony on Thursday 25 May at The Edith Spiegeltent at ECU. Tickets are free and available from Eventbrite:

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