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Tuesday 23 May 2023 3:15pm

Xiaole Zhan author photoXiaole Zhan has been announced the winner of the 2023 Charles Brasch Young Writers' Essay Competition with their vivid, lyrical essay, 'Muscle Memory'.

Currently living in Melbourne, Xiaole is studying towards a Bachelor of Music, majoring in composition, at the University of Melbourne and is the Creative Editor of the student magazine, Farrago. Their winning essay follows Xiaole's desire to explore how music can shape self-identity and the perception of one's body.

'I wanted to explore the ways in which I've come to understand my body through experiences with music. I remember realising a while back that music unfolds in the same medium that life does—that of time—so I suppose, in many ways, my experiences in music are very difficult to separate from life itself.'

'I'm also attracted to music as a way of describing the body because I often feel disembodied from myself—the body is not something that can always be controlled or known and sometimes the body remembers things that the mind doesn't. For me, music has this paradoxical quality of being both entirely rooted in physicality but also entirely disembodied—where does the music go once the hands leave the keys?'

'There doesn't seem to be one particular limb you can point to and say, here is where music lives. It makes sense to me to see the body similarly as a continuous unfolding in time that is rooted in physicality but also in those more ungraspable notions of lived experience and language and self-identity.'

Xiaole takes us through a journey of recollections, using the rhythm of the words to embody their memories and experiences.

'It began with the many correlations between music, language and the body inherent in the word “pluck”, which is both an anatomical term as well as reminiscent of the visceral histories of the gut strings of baroque instruments. I don't usually know where I'll end up when I begin writing—often one image unspools another and things that are usually mutually exclusive in reality make sense, somehow, when placed together through language.'

LF 245 cover websiteIn her judge's report, Landfall editor Lynley Edmeades commends Xiaole for their unflinching ability to present the body as something ever-changing, in tune with our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us.

'As a kind of instantiation of the leaky body, the shape of the essay itself refuses to fit into neat paragraphs; the writer lets each thought leak from one paragraph to the next, refusing punctuation and easy containment.'

'This refusal is also largely what the essay is about: being “misgendered and forcibly defined by the violence of a colonial language” and finding a language that is, like music, more fluid in its “learning and adapting and destroying and creating.” This essay, like the body, like language, is sprawling and leaky. Insightful, lyrical and incredibly sophisticated, 'Muscle Memory' is an essay to be much admired.'

Xiaole's winning essay 'Muscle Memory' is featured in Landfall 245, available now.
Landfall 245 edited by Lynley Edmeades
Cover art by Gavin Hipkins
Find out more here

For a review copy or to arrange an extract or interview, please email Meg Hamilton at

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