Powerful words equal a writing prize for young maths scholar

Vivien Heng’s short story wins her the Ultimo Prize

The Ultimo Prize aims to discover the best emerging writers in Australia. The 2021 Ultimo Prize focused on fiction and poetry by authors under the age of 30, exploring the theme of identity.

Lady (Vivien Heng) in glasses looking direct at camera

Vivien’s story focussed on her father’s family, who she has never known apart from the stories he has passed down to her and her sister.

These stories include how her father survived and escaped the Khmer Rouge regime. His whole family died under the Khmer Rouge’s reign. She doesn’t know where their bones ended up, or their graves. There are no photos - they had to be burned for safety. Nor are there written names as her ancestral language doesn’t have written form. The only proof that they ever existed is through these stories.

Due to the regime, her father’s formal education stopped in year three of primary school. Articulating and giving his memories a concrete existence was challenging. But she has done this in her story “Now Only Colour Lives” which has been published in Everything, All At Once - a compilation of the winning entries of the 2021 Ultimo Prize.

Reviewer Elaine Mead described Heng’s story as a heart-wrenching narrative about cultural displacement and the deeply felt loss of ancestral histories.

For Heng, this story allows her family to exist in a more tangible way than a mere memory.

Click here to read the full review.

It is this power of words (and a deep love of stories) that drew a maths and science scholar to write in the first place. So much so, that in 2019 her and two friends set themselves a monthly writing challenge of a short story based on a theme or a few words. It took some convincing to submit one of these for strangers to read, especially one so personal, and she is amazed (and excited) that it won her a prize.

Sketch of three flowers in small vase, with words adjacent

When she’s not writing…

Vivien is studying a Bachelor of Mathematical and Computer Science. And believe it or not, her relationship with maths is fraught. A bit love-hate, you could say. But she turned down a PhD with a scholarship in Health and Medical Sciences to take on this new degree believing it was time to face her fears. One day, she hopes to combine the two degrees to advance medical research.

A lover of nature, she relishes the fact there is the river and the Botanic Gardens nearby the University. She’s equally effusive about the people she has met on campus (staff and students) and loves the spontaneous conversations that take place.

When asked if she had any advice for women who would like to study STEM at University level, she said that you don’t take have to take on every piece of advice that comes your way.

Everyone is different, and different advice works for different people. Feel free to try out a piece of advice, but at the end of the day, you must do what’s best for you.Vivien Heng

The achievements don’t end there…

Last week she took part in the Deloitte Climate Hackathon - and her team won!

The challenge was about reducing emissions in South Australia and her group considered turning the grape waste from winemaking into biofuel.

That same day she sat on the panel to launch the Ultimo anthology. She was asked to describe the future of Australian writing, and these are the words she chose: Honest. Raw. And Fearless.

It seems the same could be said about her.

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