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  • Writer's pictureVijay Krishnarayan

The occasional hum of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize

Above: regional winners in Singapore from left to right: Inrid Persaud (for Caribbean region), Tracy Fells (For Canada and Europe region), Nat Newman (For Pacfic region), Short Story Prize judge Jabob Ross, Anushka Jasraj (For Asia region) and Akweke Emezi (for Africa region)

“And occasions being occasional, are a reason to hum…” It’s one of my favourite lines from this year’s group of regional Commonwealth Short Story Prize Winners and was crafted by Nat Newman in her short story “The Death of Margaret Roe,” which won the Pacific Prize. The line kept coming back to me as I watched people gather at The Arts House in Singapore to hear which of the five regional winners would be awarded the overall prize for 2017. There was definitely a hum in the air.

The Prize is a major feature of the Foundation’s work on creative expression and it’s delivered by our cultural initiative Commonwealth Writers, which inspires and connects writers and storytellers across the world. Well told stories can help us make sense of events, engage with others and take action to bring about change. The Prize itself was established in 2012 and built on the Foundation’s long tradition of awarding prizes for literature but offers something different to the array of other awards.

The Prize is awarded for the best peice of unpublished short fiction in English from the Commonwealth. As well as being open to entries translated into English from any language, it’s the only prize also open to entries in the original Bengali, Kiswahili, Portuguese and Samoan – to be joined by Chinese, Malay and Tamil in 2018. It’s free to enter and accessible to all writers – both published and unpublished. Speaking to winning writers in Singapore it’s clear that the key to the Prize’s growing popularity is that it provides an introduction to a global audience.

It’s judged by an international panel of respected writers, which represent each of the Commonwealth’s five regions (Africa, Asia, Canada and Europe, the Caribbean and the Pacific). This also sets the Prize apart as it’s truly international rather than judged in a geo-political centre. This year the judging panel was chaired by the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie. She captured the essence of the Prize when she said of this year’s process “The judges weren’t looking for particular themes or styles, but rather for stories that live and breathe.”

The Prize goes from strength to strength. In its first year we received 2,000 stories from 42 countries. This year there were 6,000 entries from 49 countries and the shortlist list reflected this diversity with 21 writers from 10 countries making the cut. The regional winners came through a large and competitve field and it was a privilege to get to meet and talk with them and see them interact with each other – the mutual respect is palpable.

I think that’s the reason for the hum in the hall. The knowlegeable audience realises that they are in the presence of some of the most talented new story tellers:

  • Africa: Akwaeke Emezi (Nigeria) for “Who is Like a God”

  • Asia: Anushka Jasraj (India) for “Drawing Lessons”

  • Canada and Europe: Tracy Fells (United Kingdom) for “The Naming of Moths”

  • Caribbean: Ingrid Persaud (Trinidad and Tobago) for “The Sweet Sop”

  • Pacific: Nat Newman (Australia) for “The Death of Magaret Roe”

It’s noted that all the winners are women. In introducing the overall winner Jacob Ross – a member of the judging panel – suggests this is because the short story provides an accessible format and perhaps this is a space that’s been overlooked or vacated by male writers. Catherine Lim, Singapore’s most prolific writer of English fiction, was our guest of honour. She opened the envelope and read out Ingrid Persaud’s name to loud applause. I’m delighted that a fellow Trinidadian wins. Her story evoked language and images that would resonate with any Trini but her main theme of the complexity of the relationship between father and child is universal. Afterwards all the writers gather around to offer warm and genuine congratulations – they’re joined by last year’s winner Parashar Kulkarni from India and you can feel the sense of community that the Prize engenders. I wonder how such a competitive prize can engender this kind of fellowship.

As we pack away I reflect on the enormous amount of work that my colleagues have put into making the awards evening such a success. They’ve also benefited from the help of several partners. The Arts House in Singapore provided a wonderful venue and the Holiday Inn Express Clarke Quay accommodated the writers and our staff. The National University of Singapore’s Centre for the Arts provided excellent musicians and dancers who helped interpret the readings of excerpts from the five stories by the authors. The National Arts Council of Singapore gave good advice and guidance. These in-kind contributions are priceless but we also need financial sponsorship to keep running the Prize and continue to improve it. This year we benefitted from the contributions from the Jan Michalski Foundation. The search for sponsors is underway and the hum for the 2018 Prize has started to build…

This article was originally posted by the Commonwealth Foundation during Vijay’s time as the Director-General.

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