For lovers of literature, particularly impactful short stories, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize is one to watch on the annual writing calendar.
Awarded to the best piece of unpublished short fiction from writers in Commonwealth countries, this year the prestigious prize drew 6 642 entries.
The five regional winning stories were announced last month and published in the United Kingdom-based literary magazine and publisher, Granta.
Regional winners each receive £2 500 (around N$58 457), while the overall winner will receive £5 000 (around N$116 914).
The Pakistani writer, translator and chair of the judges’ panel, Bilal Tanweer, says the winning stories demonstrated “impressive ambition and a deep love for storytelling, combined with an intimate understanding of place”
“The judges were unanimous in their admiration of the ambition of these stories to tackle difficult metaphysical and historical questions while displaying a real mastery of craft, to deliver gripping stories for the readers,” says Tanweer.
He is joined on the international judging panel by judges representing each of the five Commonwealth regions, including Rémy Ngamije (Africa), the Namibian-based writer, founder of the arts organisation Doek, and co-founder and editor-in-chief of Doek! literary magazine, as well as Ameena Hussein (Asia), Katrina Best (Canada and Europe), MacDonald Dixon (Caribbean), and Selina Tusitala Marsh (Pacific).
The regional winners are:
Africa: ‘The Undertaker’s Apprentice’, by Hana Gammon from South Africa
The youngest-ever regional winner at 20, Gammon is from Cape Town, and says she’s had a love for writing ever since she could first pick up a pen.
Her short story follows a group of children from a small town over the years as they interact with a kind but mysterious undertaker, who has a strange power and carries a black casket-like box on his shoulders.
Covering themes of childlike innocence, as well as growth and disillusionment, ‘The Undertaker’s Apprentice’ is described as “a carefully observed, patiently narrated, and exquisitely written story about youth and the ways in which we come to adulthood through experiencing loss and death” by Ngamije.
“Through its strangely refreshing narrative and poignant ruminations, it shows the diversity of stories from the African continent . . . the richness of continental storytelling and the ability for stories to be both intensely personal and universal,” he says.
“Gammon’s command of language is gentle but powerful and provides each reader with their own way of coming to terms with the fruits of its reading.”
Gammon is currently studying towards a degree in language and culture at the University of Stellenbosch.
The previously unpublished writer says she was “surprised and absolutely ecstatic” that her story was selected as the regional winner.
Asia: ‘Oceans Away From My Homeland’, by Agnes Chew from Singapore
Detailing the often cold isolation of living away from home, Chew’s story is compounded in poignancy in its detailing of a woman’s very personal fears after discovering a lump in her breast.
In need of care and sensitivity, the protagonist is instead met with cold German precision and a distinct lack of empathy from medical personnel.
“Once in a while there’s a story you just can’t let go of,” says Asia region judge Hussein, who adds the story “gripped” him.
“It is unusual in its setting in that it is outside Asia, and yet very Asian. It is also beautifully told and possesses a vulnerability that deals with the balance of life and death. It is a very human story that tackles migration, language, displacement, fear, hope, and, most importantly of all, love.”
Born and raised in Singapore, the Germany-based Chew holds a master’s degree in international development from the London School of Economics.
She is the author of the forthcoming ‘Eternal Summer of My Homeland’ (Epigram Books) and ‘The Desire for Elsewhere’ (Math Paper Press, 2016).
Canada and Europe: ‘Lech, Prince, and the Nice Things’, by Rue Baldry from the United Kingdom
A cheeky and playful story that touches on the black experience in England through its depiction of the main character, a plasterer dubbed ‘Prince’ simply because all black people reportedly look the same to white people.
Prince and a middle-aged Polish chippy Lech stick the middle finger to their wealthy and arrogant employers during their lunch breaks when they strip away their plaster-covered clothes to shower in their sleek marble-tiled bathrooms, drying themselves off with the unsuspecting owners’ fluffy white towels before placing them neatly back again.
“A genuinely surprising and unexpectedly moving story that explores such weighty – and timely – topics as racism, classism and inequality in modern-day Britain, yet is never heavy-handed thanks to the writer’s comedic sensibility and talent for observing the minutiae of everyday life,” says Canada and Europe region judge Best.
“The writer’s considerable skill is evident in every element of this story, including deft observations, evocative descriptions, fully realised, complex and sympathetic characters, believable dialogue, and an expertly crafted narrative that is infused throughout with wry humour.”
British author Baldry holds a master’s degree in creative writing from Leeds University.
Her work has been published in Ambit, Mslexia, Fairlight Shorts and Litro, and has been entered previously for several competitions.
Her debut novel, ‘Dwell’, is currently on submission.
Caribbean: ‘Ocoee’, by Kwame McPherson from Jamaica
Interweaving African-American reality and history and Caribbean folklore, ‘Ocoee’ is described by Caribbean region judge Dixon as “a memorial to the enduring nature of the human spirit”.
“It is a simple tale retold in a surreal atmosphere of creative uneasiness. Images awake in the subconscious, and, without pointing fingers, remind us of man’s inhumanity to man.”
Named after a town in Orange Country, Florida, where in November 1920, a group of Black people were massacred in a brutal, racially aggravated attack, ‘Ocoee’ follows a Jamaican man who is stopped by police officers – a nerve-racking experience for black people in America at the best of times, let alone on a dark, isolated road in the dead of night.
McPherson, who had previously submitted to the prize numerous times before, says he opted to mix reality, history and folklore to give the story a supernatural, science fiction feel.
A past student of London Metropolitan University and the University of Westminster, McPherson is a prolific Jamaican writer.
Pacific: ‘Kilinochchi’, by Himali McInnes from New Zealand
Powerful and transportive, ‘Kilinochchi’ is set during Sri Lanka’s civil war, and covers themes of social inequality, indentured labour, and life in the diaspora.
“Nothing is ever simple, nothing is ever straightforward – except a mother’s unwavering desire to find her child. Crossing continents, moving through cultural collisions, and chaotic inner and outer journeys of human trauma and resilience, ‘Kilinochi’ moves between New Zealand and Sri Lanka, Tamil and Sinhala, the living who repel, and the dead who guide,” says Pacific region judge Marsh.
McInnes is a family doctor in a busy Auckland practice and in the prison system.
Her work has been published in various journals and anthologies, and her non-fiction book ‘The Unexpected Patient’ was published in 2021.
“’Kilinochchi’ is a story that just spilled out of me; once the person of Nisha appeared in my mind, the rest followed, and I couldn’t stop writing.
“The narrative of this story is influenced by my identity as a Sri Lankan New Zealander who doesn’t feel fully at home in either country,” says McInnes.
Find the regional prize-winning stories at granta.com, and make your predictions on the overall winner to be announced on 27 June.
– Additional information: commonwealthfoundation.com