The Kavya Prize – The Highly Commended


‘Night is quieter. Night times in the hospital is like living inside a robot. All kinds of beeps and wires and the whole building buzzes with a kind of sad, frantic energy.’

Earlier in the issue, we published the joint winning pieces of the 2023 Kavya Prize. Here, we present extracts from two highly commended pieces.


Theresa Munoz
Extract taken from Hummingbird

I’m in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, northwest of the Canadian Rockies. We’re in the desert, with lime green cactai and signs of rattlesnake warnings.

There’s six of us: my partner, his sister, her husband, my sister and her husband. We’re at a winery in a picturesque town called Oliver. We line up for a selfie with the desert in the background; the sands are dark red and mud brown, like roadside pottery. The winery also has luxury rooms and an outdoor pool with teal-coloured water that ripples. It’s one of those places where every detail is minutely curated, down to the crispy sourdough toasts you eat in between wine tastings.

In a few days, my partner and I are getting married in front of my family and our friends. We had our first wedding in Edinburgh, Scotland, where we live and work. Tipsy from the tasting, I go into the gift shop. That’s where I see it, a small stuffed hummingbird. It’s shiny as a dragonfly, green like old velour tracksuits and with a barn red chest. His eyes are little apple seeds. I buy it for my Dad, because I know he loves hummingbirds and would imagine, in his way, this inanimate object having a kind of inner life. My only worry is a forecasted storm coming from the north, blowing though our lakeside wedding in a few days’ time. This day was almost exactly two years before my Dad dies. Now I miss having worries like that; simple and selfish.


The summer before lockdown my dad dies from complications of lung cancer, which he had been battling for over a year. One Thursday in August, in the ward at Surrey Memorial Hospital, he is given the news (falsely optimistic, in turns out) he may only have a few months left. His doctor is a kind Turkish man, and who holds his palm. Dad takes a minute to digest this. His eyes briefly go upwards, his black hair falls like a drifting leaf across his forehead. He grows thin, like a melted candle.  ‘I understand’, he says. ‘Oh boy, oh boy’, he says, in that gentle way he has.

It’s a very beautiful day outside, which is frustrating. The doctor leaves and it’s just my Dad and I. I stand over his bed and feel bad for crying. Dad smiles at me and says ‘ow’ as my tears fall on his snowflake-patterned gown. He says suddenly, ’When I go, I will always be with you’.

‘Dad, I think that’s from the Lion King’.

He pauses for a second. ‘Oh yeah’, he starts laughing. And we laugh some more.


During the time my dad is ill, I travel multiple times from Scotland to Canada, drinking coffees and eating pallid sushi in airports, looking hopefully at departure boards. That summer in Vancouver, I stay with my parents at home. I also stay some days in the hospital when he contracts an infection. Dad moves around the building like an envelope, from ICU where he was first admitted, to a private room, and then to a recovery ward, where he is expected to come home.  I ride the escalators up and down the hospital, waywardly following teams of serious-faced medical staff, like the rear of a parade.

I sit with him and chat, bending his straws to his sparkling water. I bring him outside food everyday. I try to bring things he’ll eat: soft shrimp dumplings, spicy fried rice, fluffy pancakes with maple syrup, pretzels slathered with cheese and tomato sauce. Like everything with my dad, the food is a mix from two continents; the polemical of sweet and fluffy, syrupy Canadian food; to tried & true ethnic delicacies. His favourite drink becomes a caramel iced coffee, which is probably feeding the cancer, but he smiles and says ‘ah’ after he drinks it.

Night is quieter. Night times in the hospital is like living inside a robot. All kinds of beeps and wires and the whole building buzzes with a kind of sad, frantic energy.


The next day, the Friday, he eats a tiny bit of soft taco. My mom is there as usual. Dad tells me to go home since I’ve been there all day. He says ‘Be safe, I love you’. He sometimes gets a bit stressed if there are too many people around, so I agree to leave. Okay, Okay, I say to no one in particular as I walk to my car in the corner of the parking lot. I sit for awhile, for no real reason.

I don’t know how I missed being there when he died. It seems like a cruel twist of fate, since I had been there all summer. On Saturday, I wake up get a phone call from one of my sister’s. She says that the doctor has changed his mind; Dad may only have a few days. ‘You should come today’, she says.

I drop my phone after we click off. It gets lost in the white bed sheets, which fold like an ice cave. I have this resistance to go to the hospital, unsure of what I will find. Finally we leave. My husband and I stop for gas, and he gets out the car to pay. My sister calls. I notice there are three missed calls while we were driving because the phone was on silent. She says, ‘I’ve just been to see Dad’. Me: how is he today? She pauses for a long time. She says, ‘You don’t know’.

And she tells me Dad passed away, maybe an hour ago. She says it really fast, or maybe I just hear it fast; there is lots of blood rushing in my ears. I’m still sitting in the car. And everything in my vision tilts sideways, the hoses of the pump, my view of the car wash windows; my entire sightline in fact goes into slow, gesticulating atoms, the whole world just hums.


The first six months of grief is what I want to talk about. That’s because the first six months are the worst. What people don’t tell you is that grief is an occupation, full of questions and trails. It’s akin to taking on a new hobby, or rather, a passion; you end up devoting a considerable  amount of time tending to your grief.

After the funeral, to which only his very loved ones came, I feel very numb. Afterwards, I watch seals play in the harbour of Horseshoe Bay, looking at their dark button eyes. I ask my partner when Dad will be back. I am fully convinced that this is a possibility. I imagine that Dad is just on a trip, maybe circling the globe on a cruise ship and will be back soon. Sometimes my partner kindly says ‘Christmas’, which is just a few months away. Most often he’d promise, ‘soon’.


When we get back to Edinburgh, I’m someone else. I like watching car chases and crashes on tv. I like the feeling of spinning. I like crossing the street at the wrong time, I liked going for runs in Holyrood Park in the dark, I like to drive fast down the motorway. I feel closer to the world in a way I haven’t for some time. Taking the train, I get wildly excited about seeing deer rush over a field, or a rabbit trampling over heather in the fields – this to me feels exciting, the evidence of blood rushing in one’s body.

I feel drunk all the time (though I’m not). I laugh harder, I find things funnier, at times I laugh at other’s jokes hysterically and friends smile at me nervously, like what is the matter with you. People tell me their grief stories too, after finding out I lost my dad. I don’t notice the tears until they drip off my chin. I feel the sun to be brighter when it creates bars over my window. I’m intrigued when I get blood taken; for the first time I don’t look away from the plunging syringe. I feel the seasons change – I begin to notice the leaves gathering at my doorstep and when the tap water tastes colder and buzzes in the mouth.

I’m not sure why I feel so emboldened. For the entire time my Dad was sick, I felt like I was living under a lid, trying to keep everything under control. Now that I knew the worst could happen, I no longer cared.


Tae Song
Extract from 1986


Cho Sanghoon & Park Youngho


February 2013: The Demilitarized Zone

Sanghoon Cho slowly yujacha from a tumbler as he peered through the lens of his camera. Before him was the stretch flat land that divided the peninsula, the south behind him and the north on the horizon. The air was cool and crisp.

Two red-crowned cranes and their adolescent chick descended from the sky and landed on a patch of snow. Grus japonensis. Graceful ballet dancers who always knew how to avoid landmines. Sanghoon smiled. The second crane family he had spotted since six a.m. that morning.

Sanghoon adjusted the focus of the lens. He heard the soft crunch of snow and he looked up to see a water deer staring curiously at him from about two metres away.

‘궨찮아, 궨찮아, I won’t hurt you,’ he told the deer. As he took another sip of his yujacha, the water deer seemed to scoff at the fact that Sanghoon was not sharing his citrusy tea. Sanghoon’s mobile phone began to buzz and the water deer scurried away.

‘Ah, 미안해,’ he called after the deer. Sanghoon hastily silenced his phone and returned his attention to the cranes.

Through the lens of his camera, the family of cranes came into sharp focus. He began to snap photos, one after the other. As Sanghoon watched the chick closely follow the steps of its mother and father, his mind wandered to Halmeoni. As a boy, he watched in amazement as her nimble fingers folded a crane from a single square of paper.

‘We were taught these in Japanese school,’ she told him. Halmeoni explained that in those days, everyone went to Japanese school where they called the teacher sensei, had Japanese names, and sang the anthem of the rising sun. Sanghoon still felt puzzled by Halmeoni’s memories. Although she taught Sanghoon how to fold paper cranes, the taste of barley and millet still made her cry and she broke out into a huge grin when presented with a can of Spam.

The chick began to squawk and Sanghoon zoomed out his lens to see that it was being approached by a large, grey, bouncy shape. Far too big to be a duck, too short-necked to be a goose, and the way it toddled along meant there was no it way it was hawk. The creature was about a meter tall, with a strong, round body and wings too fragile to take flight. It had a curved beak with a black tip.

No, impossible.

The creature that Sanghoon was watching looked exactly like a dodo. Raphus cucullatus.

 Completely forgetting the crane family, Sanghoon zoomed in as closely as possible and began to furiously take pictures of this mysterious grey creature. The creature waddled absentmindedly around the crane family until Sanghoon paused to rub his eyes in disbelief and confusion. When he peered through his camera lens once more, the creature was gone.

When Sanghoon would later show the photos to his professors, they would laugh in his face and tell him it was a poor attempt at a hoax.

‘Ah, that’s a good one! You almost got me, Cho Sanghoon!’

When Sanghoon would insist on the veracity of the photographs, he would become the laughing stock of Seoul National University. Sanghoon’s academic colleagues tsked and jabbed their fingers at the same detail in the photos over and over.

Come on, daehaksaeng. Even if it was a real dodo, it would never wink at the camera like that.’


May 2014: Bukchon Hanok Village

Every time Park Youngho checked the news, the situation became increasingly horrifying. Although the nation was initially told that the children had been rescued from the ferry, it was later revealed that nearly all the children were still trapped inside. Hundreds of parents gathered in a school gymnasium. Screaming, sobbing, fainting. Parents throwing punches at Coast Guard officers. The Vice Principal of Danwon High School found dead. Families screaming to the sea. The first bodies returned to shore covered in white sheets. Parents shrieking in the identification tents. He couldn’t get these images out of his head.

Youngho weaved through the narrow alleys of the hanok village, the roosters scuttling behind him. A flurry of cherry blossom petals and crimson leaves fell onto the cobbled path.

‘Park Youngho, wait for us!’ chirped the bejeweled rooster.

Cafes, sujebi restaurants, stationery shops, and displays crammed with earrings and phone charms whizzed past his peripheral vision. Youngho could not remember the exact location of the old wooden door engraved with a turtle, but today he had to find it.

The door he was searching for appeared recessed in a brick wall, with no other shops around it. Before he could knock, a voice said:

‘Please come in, Park Youngho.’

The door creaked open. Youngho looked down at the roosters. They shrugged.

Youngho entered a large room with pine floors and pine walls. Seated at a table on the floor was a woman in a blue robe.

‘Are you a mudang?’

The woman nodded.

‘Why do you seek my services?’ the mudang asked.

Youngho was unsure of how to respond. The mudang patted the cushion next to her, and the roosters scurried over to it and made themselves comfortable. The mudang stroked the feathers of the stone rooster, her eyes fixed on Youngho.

‘Please have a seat.’ The mudang motioned to the cushion on the opposite side of her table.

Youngho sat cross legged and gazed at the curls of incense surrounding the room.

You seem troubled by intrusive thoughts,’ the mudang observed.

Youngho nodded.

‘Here, have a refreshment.’

The mudang passed Youngho a Chocopie and a can of Chilsung cider. Although this wasn’t the type of snack he’d expect to get from a mudang, he bowed in thanks, opened the can, and took a sip.

‘He’s upset about the Sewol-ho,’ the stone rooster told the mudang.

‘Yes, I can see that,’ the mudang agreed. ‘Park Youngho, you are not alone in this feeling. 우리 나라 사람들이, we are all grieving. You know that, right?’

Youngho felt tears in his eyes.

‘For some of us, this is a new pain. For others, this may bring back painful memories,’ the mudang continued.

Youngho gulped hard and tried to avoid the eyes of the mudang.

‘Perhaps for you, Park Youngho, it is a tortuous combination of both.’

And for the first time since the ferry disappeared beneath the waves, Youngho began to sob. He cried because he didn’t understand how God or Joseph Smith or Instructor Jeon could allow a world to exist where three hundred kids could die in the blink of an eye. He cried because the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Everlasting Pastor’s manifesto lacked an explanation as to what the children did to deserve this. He cried because there was nothing he nor God nor Joseph Smith nor Instructor Jeon nor this shaman could do to bring those kids back. He cried because God, Joseph Smith, and the Everlasting Pastor had taken away his little brother and even though eight years had passed, it still hurt so much.

The mudang sat patiently as Youngho weeped, stroking the roosters with fingers covered in gold rings. Three hours would pass until Youngho felt too exhausted to cry any longer and when he emerged onto the streets of Seoul, the sun was beginning to set. The roosters pecked at Youngho’s shoes and began to lead him home.



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