The Open Grants Call 2023-24 is now accepting applications. Find out more

2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize Shortlist

Posted on 04/04/2017
By Commonwealth Foundation

Twenty-one outstanding stories have been selected by an international judging panel out of almost 6000 entries from 49 Commonwealth countries. This was a record number of submissions, an increase of almost 50% from 2016. Now in its sixth year the Prize is for the best piece of unpublished short fiction in English.

Chair of the judges, novelist Kamila Shamsie, said of this year’s shortlist:

“The extraordinary ability of the short story to plunge you into places, perspectives and emotions and inhabit them fully in the space of only a few pages is on dazzling display in this shortlist. The judges weren’t looking for particular themes or styles, but rather for stories that live and breathe. That they do so with such an impressive range of subject matter and tone has been a particular pleasure of re-reading the shortlisted stories. The geographic spread of the entries is, of course, in good part responsible for this range – all credit to Commonwealth Writers for structuring this prize so that its shortlists never seem parochial. ”

The Prize is judged by an international panel of writers, representing each of the five regions of the Commonwealth. The 2017 judges are Zukiswa Wanner (Africa), Mahesh Rao (Asia), Jacqueline Baker (Canada and Europe), Jacob Ross (Caribbean) and Vilsoni Hereniko (Pacific).

An Enquiry into Morality, Tom Vowler (United Kingdom)

She termed it ironic, though I suspect that wasn’t correct. How the one thing the human mind could not comprehend was itself. She didn’t mean the brain – that clod of moist beige tissue had apparently given up most of its secrets in the last few decades – but consciousness itself, which quite reasonably, she said, could be nothing more than a conjuring trick. And given our ignorance as to its origin, whether it even possessed a physical entity or not, it was entirely possible everything was sentient: cats, birds, insects.

Tom Vowler is an award-winning novelist and short story writer living in south west England. His debut story collection, The Method, won the Scott Prize in 2010 and the Edge Hill Readers’ Prize in 2011, while his novel What Lies Within received critical acclaim. He is editor of the literary journal Short Fiction and an associate lecturer in creative writing at Plymouth University. His second novel, That Dark Remembered Day, was published in 2014. Represented by the Ed Victor Literary Agency, Tom’s second collection of stories, Dazzling the Gods, is forthcoming in 2017. Find out more here.

By Way of a Life Plot, Kelechi Njoku (Nigeria)

Hyacinth Ike planned to die on a Friday, because it seemed apt that he complete his life on a day other human beings tidied up their office desks for the week and—resolute in the conclusion that whatever wasn’t attended to that week would have to wait until the following week—headed for nightclubs, Bachelor’s Eve parties, and preparations for quick weekend trips. But, as the Devil’s interference worked with these things, Hyacinth’s plan had a crease.

Kelechi Njoku is a former radio broadcaster, now an editor and ghost-writer. He was the West Africa Regional Prize winner of the 2014 Writivism Short Story Competition; he was shortlisted in Africa Book Club’s Short Reads (2014) and Naija Stories’ Best Short (2013), and he has also contributed fiction to the Kalahari Review, Nigerians Talk LitMag, Open Road Review, and Aerodrome. He lives in Lagos and Abuja.

Close to Home, Jinny Koh (Singapore)

The year my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, my father sent me to live with my neighbour Aunty Loh. He said he couldn’t drive his taxi, ferry my mother to the hospital, and take care of me. It was only temporary, until my mother finished her round of chemotherapy, until things “settled down.” It was 1998. I was ten and didn’t want to live in a stranger’s home, although to be fair, Aunty Loh and her family weren’t strangers.

Jinny Koh is the author of The Gods Will Hear Us Eventually (Ethos Books, forthcoming 2018), and her stories and essays have appeared in Kyoto Journal, Columbia Journal, Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume 2 (Epigram Books), Litro, and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, among others. She received her Master of Professional Writing from the University of Southern California, where she was the Fiction Editor for The Southern California Review.

Cursing Mrs. Murphy, Roland Watson-Grant (Jamaica)

Halfway across Flat Bridge, Rowena Murphy made a hard right and ran her pickup truck over into the river. Yes, we were with her in that truck and no, it was not an accident. One minute we were heading for Ocho Rios singing along with the radio and the next I was grabbing at water plants and wishing for solid ground. I remember her in the white spaghetti-strap dress disappearing downstream and whatever she was shouting had all come out in bubbles.

Roland Watson-Grant is a Jamaican advertising Creative Director who was a winner in the Lightship International Literary Prizes in Hull, England, in 2011. A London publisher from the audience thought his short story could become a full-length novel. Sketcher was published by Alma Books in 2013 to critical acclaim and was shortlisted for an Amazon Rising Star Award. The sequel: Skid, followed in 2014. Sketcher has been translated into Spanish and Turkish and reviewed by, or included on reading lists in The Times, GQ and others.

Drawing Lessons, Anushka Jasraj (India)

My husband has a mole on his left eyelid that looks like smudged kajal. Moles signify different things depending on the body part. I have one above my bellybutton, and I’m told it’s a sign of fertility, but this has proven untrue. A mole on or around the eyes could mean domestic trouble or bad luck with finances, Mr. Nayar the astrologer informs me. He wants a photograph of my husband’s mole, since my husband works all day, and could not accompany me for this consultation.

Anushka Jasraj is a fiction writer from Mumbai, India. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Women’s and Gender studies at the University of Texas-Austin, where she is writing a thesis project on Emily Dickinson. She was the Regional Winner for Asia, 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

Echolocation, Sarah Jackson (United Kingdom)

Standing in the shade of a lime tree on a hot dusty afternoon, the boy waited for the bell to toll. He heard the bailiff cough and shuffle his papers through the open window across the market square, before St Étienne’s rang, sending out waves like the ripples from a dead-weight dropped in the middle of the quarry lake. After the sixth chime, Victor gave a small nod and then kicked a pebble into the gutter. It rattled through the grille and toppled down the drain and he would surely have heard it clatter when it hit the bottom (it hadn’t rained for weeks) but there was another sound.

Sarah Jackson is a poet and academic living in Nottingham, UK. Her poetry collection Pelt (Bloodaxe, 2012) won the Seamus Heaney Prize and was the readers’ nomination for the Guardian First Book Award. She is a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker and Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University.

Gauloises Blue, Ruth Lacey (Australia)

Even now, Zoë can remember all the prices in the Melbourne milk bar that her parents owned. Paddle Pops were seven cents. Sunny Boys were three. Violet Crumbles and Smith’s Crinkle Cut chips both sold for five, the same price as the bus fare to her high school. In those days, two dollars a week could get you anything you wanted.

But Zoë didn’t want those things. She didn’t want suede patchwork hot pants like the other girls or white knee-high vinyl boots and boob tubes. At a very early age, she understood the words Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint-Laurent, and she only wanted things they made.

Ruth Lacey grew up in Sydney, earned her Arts-Law degree from the University of Melbourne, and an MPhil in Creative Writing from Glamorgan University, South Wales. Her stories appear or are forthcoming in Fish Anthology 2017, Litro Magazine, Carve and Overland, among others. Ruth currently lives in a small kibbutz in northern Israel. She is a volunteer editor with, and is working on a collection of her short fiction.

Gypsy in the Moonlight, Caroline Gill (Canada)

I wish I had amnesia so I could forget Sally Burry. We were at school together, Sally and I, in the coastal hamlet where we were born, Heart’s Pen, on the Caribbean island of Perseverance. The descendants of African slaves predominantly populated Perseverance, but being from Heart’s Pen, Sally and I were Poor White. My people, our people, were Cromwell’s hangover, the inbred aftermath of a centuries’ forgotten British penal colony.

Caroline Gill is a British-born aspiring author. The daughter of Vincentian emigrants, she and her family moved to Toronto in the 1970s. A love of words sparked a public relations career. She is currently working on her debut novel. Caroline holds Creative Writing Certificates from the University of Toronto and Humber School for Writers. She received the 2015 Marina Nemet Award and was published in the top three of the 2015 Penguin Random House Canada Student Award for Fiction.

Harbour, Chloe Wilson (Australia)

‘Listen to this, Nina,’ said Tilly. ‘The common death adder. Acanthophis antarcticus. Has the longest fangs of any snake in the country. Highly venomous, producing a neurotoxin which can paralyse and kill a human in six hours.’

‘Stop it, Tilly.’

She had bought a book called ‘What Snake Am I?’ and had been reading out excerpts for the entire journey. We needed books where we were going; no devices were allowed. The book showed, in loving glossy detail, the snakes which we might encounter: Taipan, Black Headed Python, King Brown.

Chloe Wilson is the author of two poetry collections, The Mermaid Problem and Not Fox Nor Axe, which was shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize and the Judith Wright Calanthe Award. She was joint winner of the 2016 Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize, and has been awarded the Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize, the Arts Queensland Val Vallis Award and the Fish Publishing Flash Fiction Prize. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Hot Pot, Jasmine Sealy (Canada)

Yesterday, before them find the body, I sat at the kitchen table and eat bakes and listen to the morning call-in program with Mummy. You ain’t come home and Mummy was real vex. This was before police come knocking and before men from The Nation and The Advocate come with big camera to take picture of Mummy crying on our veranda in her nightie, hair in rollers still. Before all of that, Mummy was smashing pots and pans around the kitchen, frying flying fish and cussin’ stink. Because the Devil take she first born child. And she should have known the day you were born with them light eyes and that clear skin that you was going to be force-ripe.

Jasmine Sealy is a Barbadian-Canadian writer of short fiction. In 2014 she was shortlisted for the CBC Quebec Writing Competition. She has been previously published in Salut King Kong: New English Writing from Quebec (2014) and the Emerge Anthology (2016). She lives in Vancouver and is a graduate of the The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University.

Immunity, Damon Chua (Singapore)

We once stood side by side, on top of a cliff.

We would never have met but for the recruit known to everyone as Measles Boy. The location was Tekong, that swampy mosquito-infested isle off the Singapore mainland, and we were undergoing our three-month Basic Military Training.

Measles Boy, according to reports that would come to light later, contracted the disease prior to enlistment. But he showed signs only on arrival at the camp. It was too late. Other recruits had been exposed during the critical incubation period.

Damon Chua is a writer, playwright and filmmaker. Born and raised in Singapore, he now calls New York home. His short story ‘Mango’ was included in Silverfish Book’s Twenty-Two New Asian Short Stories, published in 2016. ‘Saiful and the Pink Edward VII’ was part of the Singapore Noir anthology, published by Akashic Books. Other stories have been published by Nordland Publishing, Tall Tale Press, and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. Find out more about Damon here.

Nagmaal, Diane Awerbuck (South Africa)

Klaas stood at the wire gate, folding his hat into a sweaty concertina in the dying heat. The jasmine festered over the fence, and the chainlink ticked: his aging heart kept time in skips and starts. Even after all these years the Master made him dry-mouthed, at a loss for words though they had grown up in the same language, knew one another by their smells and pores and whorls of hair.

Diane Awerbuck is a writer, reviewer and teacher, based in Cape Town. Her short stories are collected in Cabin Fever, and her latest highbrow-horror novel is Home Remedies. She is currently co-writing a frontier-fiction series with Alex Latimer, under the pen name Frank Owen. South is out now and North is coming soon: Diane’s poetry and interviews can be found here.

Photo: Justin Youens 

Numb, Myfanwy McDonald (Australia)

I ride down to the shops on my father’s bicycle. A white Peugeot racer with rusty gears. He can’t balance on a bicycle anymore. He can barely balance on his own two feet.
At the counter, a woman wearing large, thick-lensed glasses flicks through a pile of envelopes packed tightly in a box. “Yes?” she says, without looking up.
“I need a passport photo,” I say.
“Well you’ll have to wait,” she sighs, nodding at a chair in the corner. I look at myself in the mirror behind her. That face is not mine.

Myfanwy McDonald writes fiction. She lives in Melbourne, on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people. Her stories have been published in The Big Issue, Going Down Swinging and the Boston-based zine Infinite Scroll. In 2015 she was a resident at the Arteles Creative Center in Finland. She is currently writing a novel about a series of unusual events on a ship travelling to Australia in the mid nineteenth-century.

Shopping, Jon Lewis-Katz (Trinidad and Tobago)

I am sitting outside the dressing rooms exactly where my mother has left me when, about ten or fifteen minutes after she has kissed me goodbye and dissolved into the Macy’s crowd, the white man who is my father appears. On the couch cushion to my left is what my mother would likely refer to as a whole heap of clothes, little kid shirts and little kid pants that have been discarded by shoppers before me and left in a state of complete and utter confusion. On the cushion to my right is a girl who, I have learned, has reached the fourth grade.

Jon Lewis-Katz lives in the Bronx, New York. His writing has appeared in publications such as Fiction, New Walk, and the Trinidad Guardian. He has received grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Bronx Council on the Arts, the Jerome Foundation, and the Charles Pick Fellowship from the University of East Anglia. He teaches writing at CUNY and is working on a collection of short stories about West Indians and West Indian-Americans in New York City.

Swimmer of Yangtze, Yiming Ma (Canada)

The boy had been born with four healthy limbs but by the end of his first year, he had already lost both his arms. Broad, toned shoulders gave him the triangular physique that so many young men craved, as if his upper body were perfectly-fitted for a Zhongshan tunic suit–although if he were actually to have worn one, his father would have needed to trim both sleeves off so as to draw less attention to his son’s missing limbs beneath blue and black cloth.

Yiming Ma is a Chinese-Canadian writer at Stanford University. Previously, he lived in London where he helped set up schools for low-income children throughout Africa and Southeast Asia. His writing has appeared in Stanford Social Innovation Review, Huffington Post and Ricepaper Magazine, and has been shortlisted by literary journals such as Glimmer Train and Geist.  His story ‘Love | Ramen’ was named a Finalist for the 2016 Penguin Random House Canada Student Award for Fiction.

The Brief, Insignificant History of Peter Abraham Stanhope, Mary Rokonadravu (Fiji)

At 11.42 pm on 1 November, 2016, Peter Abraham Stanhope sat at his family’s old mahogany dining table and slit his wrists. He had folded three clean bath towels to place his hands upon so as to not make a mess. He watched the news first; switched on to FijiOne Television crackling against the sudden rain, part of the storm approaching from the east. The islands of Wakaya and Makogai were already cloaked in rain well before nightfall. He showered first, of course. Ate his dinner of fried pork sausages, three sausages to be exact.

Mary Rokonadravu is based in Suva, Fiji. She has been writing since she was a child and believes in the transformative powers of stories and storytelling at personal, community, and national levels. Mary has run a seven-prison writing programme and edited the Pacific’s first anthology of writing from prisons. She won the 2015 Regional Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She has been published in Granta and has two short stories coming out in an anthology by Penguin Random House in 2017.

The Death of Margaret Roe, Nat Newman (Australia)

Havilah Brown lived on the outskirts of town, blessed with an abundance of land and a paucity of dependents. He came in only irregular, only to get his regular supplies from Evan Owens’ grocery store, and on each occasion he would cross my threshold, maybe once, maybe twice, cross my door with his thick-soled boots and darken my floor with his shadow that stretched across the whole room. A big man always was Havilah Brown.

Nat Newman is an Australian freelance writer, journalist and lover of beer. She enjoys writing about science, food security and public health. Her short fiction has appeared in several journals, and she has just completed her first full-length manuscript. Nat’s love of travel has seen her call numerous countries home, including China, New Zealand, the UK and, most recently, Croatia. She can often be found writing in a pub.

The Dying Wish, Caroline Mackenzie (Trinidad and Tobago)

Agripina’s body had been decomposing for nearly a month before she realised anything was the matter with her. When her physician told her those very same words – “Jeeeesus Christ! Is nearly a month now you decomposing, girl!” – as she sat in a polka-dotted robe on his examining table, she simply didn’t know how to respond. Even though she was thirty-nine, and the dark waterfall of her hair was now streaked with silver, she still felt that she was in her prime.

Caroline Mackenzie is a Trinidadian writer whose short stories have been published in literary journals and magazines around the world. A former national scholar, she speaks four languages and holds a Masters in technical translation from Imperial College London. She presently works as a freelance medical and legal translator in Trinidad, where she lives with her husband Stephen and their menagerie of pets.

The Naming of Moths, Tracy Fells (United Kingdom)

‘He is my son, I created him.’ Miss Bethan’s words fall softly, like a blessing.
Sofia leans closer to hear the old lady, her long black hair falling against Miss Bethan’s nightdress. A noise scratches from inside the pleated shade of the bedside lamp, where a moth has become trapped. She cups it quickly within her palms, ignoring the heat of the bulb.
‘Let me see,’ Adam calls out. He has been sitting at his mother’s bedside since midday, never once leaving her. His eyes shine. He wants to name the moth.

Tracy Fells lives close to the South Downs in England. After a career in Clinical Research she now writes full-time, embracing her love of magical realism and folk lore. Her short stories have been widely published and shortlisted for competitions such as Fish, Willesden Herald and the Brighton Prize. Having graduated from Chichester University with an MA in Creative Writing she is seeking publication of her debut novel and short story collection.

The Sweet Sop, Ingrid Persaud (Trinidad and Tobago)

If is chocolate you looking for, and I talking real cheap, then you can’t beat Golden MegaMart Variety & Wholesale Ltd in Marabella. Think of a Costco boil down small small but choke up with goods from top to bottom. When me and Moms had that holiday in Miami by her brother we were always in Costco. But until they open a Costco in Trinidad go by Golden MegaMart. They does treat people good. As soon as I reach they know I want at least thirty jars of Nutella chocolate spread. And don’t play like you giving me anything else.

Ingrid Persaud is a Trinidadian writer and artist who calls Barbados home. She came to writing and fine art having first pursued a successful legal career that included teaching and scholarship at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, in the United States and King’s College London. Her creative work has been widely exhibited and her writing featured in several magazines. Her debut novel, If I Never Went Home (2014) was highly praised.

Who Is Like God, Akwaeke Emezi (Nigeria)

My mother talked about God all the time, as if they were best friends, as if He was borrowing her mouth because maybe He trusted her that much or it was easier than burning bushes or He was just tired of thundering down from the skies and having no one listen to Him. I grew up thinking that He was folded into her body, very gently, like when she folded sifted icing sugar into beaten egg whites, those kinds of loving corners.

Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo and Tamil writer and video artist based in liminal spaces. She is a 2017 Global Arts Fund recipient, awarded by the Astraea Foundation for her video art, and her debut novel Freshwater is forthcoming from Grove Atlantic in Winter 2018.