All-woman shortlist for Commonwealth Prize

Commonwealth Africa region winner Mbozi Haimbe.
Commonwealth Africa region winner Mbozi Haimbe.

THE FIVE regional winners of the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize have been announced, and they are all women.

Commonwealth Writers in a release said this year’s international judging panel selected the winners from 5,081 entries and a shortlist of 21.

This year’s regional winners are: Mbozi Haimbe (Zambia) for Madam’s Sister, Africa region; Saras Manickam (Malaysia) for My Mother Pattu, Asia region; Constantia Soteriou (Cyprus) for Death Customs, Canada and Europe region; Alexia Tolas (The Bahamas) for Granma's Porch, Caribbean region; and in the Pacific region Harley Hern (New Zealand) for Screaming.

The panel of judges comprises writers who represent each of the five regions of the Commonwealth. The 2019 judges are Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Africa), Mohammed Hanif (Asia), Chris Power (Canada and Europe), Karen Lord (Caribbean) and Courtney Sina Meredith (Pacific).

Chair of the judges Caryl Phillips said: “The regional winners of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize explore a remarkably diverse range of subject matter including stories about war, love, abuse and neglect. What unites the stories is a common thread of narrative excellence and dramatic intensity. The voices of a truly global cast of characters enable us to engage with, and recognise, universal emotions of pain and loss.”

Madam’s Sister tells the story of how the arrival of madam’s sister from London causes upheaval within the household, but has an unexpected bonus for the guard, Cephas.

Haimbe said: "I am absolutely thrilled to have been selected as the regional winner, and feel privileged to contribute to Africa's literary landscape. Although a social worker by profession, I have always considered myself a writer. Winning the regional prize validates my aspiration. I thank the judges, and give acknowledgement to Zambia, which remains deeply influential to my writing."

My Mother Pattu explores a mother’s violent jealousy and envy towards her daughter who finds no one can protect her from the abuse except herself.

Commonwealth Asia region winner Saras Manickam.

Manickam said: "I’m delighted, honoured and at the same time, petrified as darn it, the bar for my stories has now been raised higher among friends, teachers and the few readers. It is also very humbling that this story with its different voices set in a time long ago in Malaysia has found relevance and connectivity."

Death Customs is a story about the women of Cyprus, mothers or wives who were left to believe that their beloved people were missing after the 1974 war, while the state had clear evidence about their death. It is a story of death customs, memories, bitterness, and justice.

Commonwealth Canada and Europe winner Constantia Soteriou.

Soteriou said: "I feel so honoured and happy to be among the regional winners of this year’s Commonwealth Short Story competition! This prize can strengthen not only my own voice as a writer but also the voice of the strong and powerful women I am writing about. Worlds and stories can heal and comfort the souls of those who suffer. This is why we write; this is why we tell our stories. Thank you Commonwealth for making me be heard."

Granma's Porch tells the story of Helena who is abandoned by her father on her grandmother’s porch, and fumbles along the delicate border between adolescence and adulthood, guided by the past traumas of her friends and family and her troubled first love.

Caribbean region winner Alexia Tolas.

Tolas said: "Winning the regional prize for the Caribbean means everything to me. It means that I made the right choice. After my first semester in college, I had to make a difficult choice between doing what was expected of me and what I wanted. It seemed to be a selfish decision. I come from a struggling family and a struggling island, so as a girl with potential, I was expected to prepare myself for a lucrative career in the traditional professions: law, medicine, architecture. However, I chose to write. I got a lot of criticism for that choice. Many people asked me what I could do with a literature degree: write children’s books; teach? I could, and there is nothing wrong with either. I make my living using my degree, and I am happy, but I still felt as if the true purpose behind my decision had not been realised. It has now."

Screaming is about a visit to a New Zealand rest home and how a kapa haka performance (Māori performing arts) forces two friends to confront deceit, identity and endings.

Commonwealth Pacific region winner Harley Hern.

Hern said: "Winning the regional prize is a truly unexpected honour, both humbling and empowering. My small country has a giant short fiction tradition, and an increasingly diverse collection of voices. I’m thrilled the judges feel my own is good enough to add to our narrative and to that of the greater Commonwealth community. But I am also astounded. This was the only short story I wrote last year. I can’t stop screaming. Thank you, thank you Commonwealth Writers!"

The five winning stories will be published in partnership with Granta in the run-up to the overall prize announcement in Québec City, Canada, on July 9.

Last year Trinidadian Kevin Jared Hosein won the overall prize with his story Passages. This year Trinidad Rashad Hosein was shortlisted for the prize.


"All-woman shortlist for Commonwealth Prize"

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